Aviation has generated some of the most remarkable figures that ever lived throughout its history, including those brave men and women pilots who made the first flights into the air and who courageously pushed the bounds of their wings in ways previously unimaginable. At the same time, aviation has produced a number of people whose heroism rises above the job description of pilot, if that’s even a main or a side job. These influential people touched those in aviation and, in many cases, people far beyond the flying world by their extraordinary deeds, talents or accomplishments.
Here’s a look at the men and women who altered the aviation landscape and, in many cases, the course of human history through their remarkable achievements.
Bessie soared across the sky as the first African American, and the first Native American woman pilot. Known for performing flying tricks, Bessie’s nicknames were; “Brave Bessie,” “Queen Bess,” and “The Only Race Aviatrix in the World.” Her goal was to encourage women and African Americans to reach their dreams. Unfortunately, her career ended with a tragic plane crash, but her life continues to inspire people around the world.
Amelia Earhart, fondly known as “Lady Lindy,” was an American aviator who mysteriously disappeared in 1937 while trying to circumnavigate the globe from the equator. Amelia was the 16th woman to be issued a pilot’s license. She had several notable flights, including becoming the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean in 1928, as well as the first person to fly over both the Atlantic and Pacific. Amelia Earhart was legally declared dead in 1939.
U.S. Air Force Captain Chuck Yeager became the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound. Yeager was a combat fighter during World War II and flew 64 missions over Europe. He shot down 13 German planes and was himself shot down over France, but he escaped capture with the assistance of the French Underground. After the war, he was among several volunteers chosen to test-fly the experimental X-1 rocket plane, built by the Bell Aircraft Company to explore the possibility of supersonic flight. For years, many aviators believed that man was not meant to fly faster than the speed of sound, theorizing that transonic drag rise would tear any aircraft apart. All that changed on October 14, 1947, when Yeager flew the X-1 over Rogers Dry Lake in Southern California and sealed his fate in the annals of history.
Neil Armstrong first served as a naval aviator from 1949 to 1952, before joining the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in 1955. Over the next 17 years, he was an engineer, test pilot, astronaut and administrator for NACA and its successor agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). He has flown over 200 different models of aircraft, including jets, rockets, helicopters and gliders. After transferring to astronaut status in 1962, he was assigned as command pilot for the Gemini 8 mission that launched in 1966, and Armstrong performed the first successful docking of two vehicles in space. As spacecraft commander for Apollo 11, the first manned lunar landing mission, Armstrong gained the distinction of being the first man to land a craft on the moon and first to step on its surface.
Sally Ride was the first American woman in space. She made her journey into history in 1983 when she became the youngest American woman in space. Throughout her life, Dr. Ride broke barriers and worked to ensure that girls and women were encouraged to do the same. During the mission, Sally was the flight engineer, and she launched two communication satellites and operated the shuttle’s mechanical arm as well as conducted experiments.
While he’s known more as Hans Solo or Star Wars fame, or Indiana Jones on the adventurous celebrity circuit, Harrison Ford advocacy for the aviation community has been nothing short of extraordinary. This Hollywood A-lister has lent his star power to nearly every facet of the industry, making regular trips to Washington to fight for pilots’ rights, encouraging tomorrow’s generation of aviators through his involvement with Young Eagles, and taking an active part in a number of charitable organizations like the Citation Special Olympics.
Wilbur and Orville Wright were American inventors and pioneers of aviation. In 1903 the Wright brothers achieved the first powered, sustained and controlled airplane flight; they surpassed their own milestone two years later when they built and flew the first fully practical airplane. Determined to develop their own successful design, Wilbur and Orville headed to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and got to work trying to figure out how to design wings for flight. They observed that birds angled their wings for balance and control, and tried to emulate this, developing a concept called “wing warping.” When they added a moveable rudder, the Wright brothers found they had the magic formula in 1903, as they succeeded in flying the first free, controlled flight of a power-driven, heavier than air plane. They flew their plane for 59 seconds, over a distance of 852 feet, which was an extraordinary achievement.
Under William Boeing’s guidance, a tiny airplane manufacturing company grew into a huge corporation of related industries. When post-Depression legislation in 1934 mandated the dispersion of the corporation, Boeing sold his interests in the Boeing Airplane Co. but continued to work on other business ventures, as he became one of America’s most successful breeders of thoroughbred horses. Boeing never lost his interest in aviation, and during World War II he volunteered as a consultant to the company, living just long enough to see the company he started enter the jet age.
While the aviation pioneer list goes on and on, beyond the scope of pages in chapters, it’s important to understand that each one of the world’s most significant pilots began with a dream and ended with innovation in action. Some are still alive today, while others have been placed in history books alongside some of the greatest people in ancient or modern history. The aviation industry lives on through these brave and courageous men and women, and our discoveries and explorations are all the better for it.
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