Letter From Aviation History – November 2011

9/16/2011 • AVH Issues, Letters and Issues

Legends of Aviation

It’s not often you get to see a living legend in person, never mind three of them in the span of a few short days. But if you were lucky enough to be one of the 541,000 aviation fans in attendance at this year’s June 25-31 EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisc. (see “Postcards From Oshkosh,” P. 54), that’s just what you were treated to.

When radical airplane designer Burt Rutan (profiled in “Top Pencil,” November 2009 issue) announced his retirement earlier this year, it seemed only natural that the Experimental Aircraft Association would pay tribute to him at Oshkosh. More than 100 Rutan homebuilts and one-offs flew in for the celebration. Rutan—along with brother Dick, longtime chief pilot Mike Melvill and Scaled Composites president Doug Shane—spent a couple of hours recounting the highlights of his illustrious career, from his phenomenally successful VariEze canard homebuilt to the X Prize–winning SpaceShipOne. Asked how long it takes to finish one of his airplanes, Rutan didn’t miss a beat: “About a wife and a half.” At Oshkosh he unveiled his latest design, the BiPod flying car, an indication that his “retirement” will likely involve more than playing golf.

Is there a more famous pilot on the planet than Chuck Yeager? Seems unlikely. Brigadier General Yeager, interviewed by Aviation History on the 50th anniversary of his supersonic flight in the Bell XS-1 (May and July 1998 issues), never fails to impress audiences, and yes, stir up a bit of controversy. At 88 as sharp as ever, he retold for the umpteenth time stories from his early flying days (“I went to flying school and puked all over my airplane on the first flight”); World War II combat missions, which included five victories in a single day (“I found five dumb Germans”); and test pilot career at Edwards Air Force Base (yep, he really did fall off his horse and crack some ribs before the first supersonic flight, requiring a sawed-off broom handle to latch the XS-1 door).

Legendary aerial showman Bob Hoover, who flew chase for Yeager during the XS-1 flights, was also on hand for a special tribute. Few would argue with his introduction as “the greatest stick-and-rudder pilot…ever.” (Well, maybe Yeager would.) In a talk given in front of a restored Supermarine Spitfire and replica Focke-Wulf Fw-190, the soft-spoken Hoover, 89, recalled how, after being shot down in a Spitfire over southern France during WWII and taken prisoner, he escaped from the German POW camp following 16 months of captivity, then stole an Fw-190 and flew it to safety in Holland. After crash-landing and seeing Dutch farmers who assumed he was German advancing on him with pitchforks, Hoover said, “I sat there thinking how dumb I was.”

Of course all three of these larger-than-life figures have their share of detractors—it comes with the territory. As with most legends, it’s easy to forget that all three men are human beings, with human foibles. But the fact remains that they’ve accomplished things most of us don’t even dream of doing.

In this November 2011 issue we pay tribute to two other legends of aviation, Air Force icon Johnny Alison (“American Eagle,” P. 36) and Grumman test pilot Corky Meyer (“Restored,” P. 16), who died within days of each other this past June. Their passing underscores an immutable truth: Legends live on, but men like these don’t. See them while you can.

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