Aviation Hall of Fame enshrinees reflect a cross section of our flight heritage.
We all have our favorite aircraft —and spacecraft—and we all have at least a few heroes and heroines among the people who developed and flew them. They reflect our aviation and space heritage as much as the vehicles, and one organization that recognizes these role models is the National Aviation Hall of Fame. The NAHF is dedicated to preserving and promoting the legacies of America’s outstanding air and space pioneers. The NAHF’s Learning Center, which opened in 2003, is located adjacent to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
Members of the enshrinee class of 2006, due to receive recognition at the 45th Annual Enshrinement Ceremony in Dayton, Ohio, this July 15, join 186 predecessors. Being recognized this year are:
Robert M.White, who flew bomber escort missions in the North American P-51 Mustang. In 1945 he was shot down over Germany and spent two months in a prison camp. In 1954 he became a jet test pilot. As the lead pilot in the X-15 research program, White flew the rocket-powered aircraft to a speed of 2,275 mph in February 1961, setting an unofficial world speed record. He became the first human to fly an aircraft at Mach 4, Mach 5 and then Mach 6. He set an altitude record of 314,750 feet (more than 59 miles above the earth’s surface) in 1962, qualifying him for astronaut wings, one of few who achieved that status without a conventional spacecraft.
David Lee “Tex” Hill (interviewed in the November 2002 Aviation History) resigned a naval commission while flying dive bombers off carriers, then joined the newly formed American Volunteer Group (AVG) “Flying Tigers” in 1941. He served as flight leader and later squadron leader for the 2nd Squadron “Panda Bears” until it was disbanded in July 1942. He was the second-ranking air ace of the AVG, with 121⁄4 victories. Hill left China at the end of 1942 but later returned at the request of General Claire Chennault to command the 23rd Fighter Group and gained six more victories. Hill returned to the United States to command the 412th Fighter Group, the first jet aircraft group in the U.S. Army Air Forces. He left active duty in July 1946 and was appointed a brigadier general in the Texas Air National Guard.
Bessie Coleman (featured in the November 1998 Aviation History) was the first American of color, male or female, to earn a civilian pilot’s license. The Atlanta, Texas, native was turned away from several American aviation schools because of her race, so she went to France, where she earned her pilot rating in June 1921. When she returned to America, she was the only black female pilot in the world and the first licensed black pilot in the States. Postponing her dream to start a flying school for African Americans, she earned a living performing precision flight demonstrations. In Florida in 1926, she was killed while preparing for an airshow. Within a few years of her death, Bessie Coleman Aero Clubs became a reality.
Cliff Robertson, an award-winning actor, grew up as an “airport rat” in La Jolla, Calif., washing planes in exchange for flight lessons. In 1969 he organized an effort to fly food and medical supplies into civil war–torn Biafra, Nigeria, and in 1978 made another such flight to Ethiopia. Robertson is a strong advocate for general aviation who has earned a variety of awards, including the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) Freedom of Flight Award, the Soaring Society of America Award and the AOPA William Sharples Award for Rescue Flying in Africa. He has also served as inaugural chairman of the EAA Young Eagles program, and the Cliff Robertson/EAA Work Program annually selects four teenagers to clean hangars and wash airplanes in exchange for free ground and flight lessons. By the end of the program, they solo.
So the next time you visit the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force remember to check out not only the hardware there but the “software”—the people who designed, built and flew that hardware—at the National Aviation Hall of Fame, right next door. To see a complete list of the enshrinees, visit the Web site at: www. nationalaviation.org.
Originally published in the May 2006 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.