Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, September 3, 2013

10 Best Pilots

The ability to make an airplane do the impossible is what separates the best from the rest

John Mohr in his stock 220 hp Stearman.
Who's the best pilot in history? Good question. And who's the best pilot today? That's an even better question. We thought we'd try to answer those questions, but as we started kicking around the concept of picking aviation's top 10 best pilots, it took about five seconds to realize we may have waded into a pretty deep swamp on this one: First, how you define "best?" Then, how do you categorize the pilots? By airplane type? By type of flying being done? By time period? And how can we expect any level of agreement from readers, because everyone will have their own ideas of the best pilots? Then we came up with a solution: We'll just put together our list, and then open the floor to readers to give us their own nominees by posting to our Facebook page, or sending a note to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

First, there's the definition of "best." When talking about the best pilots, do we measure that in terms of how well they handle the airplane? Or, do we measure it based on what they accomplished as aviators? Do we look at some of the feats they performed, e.g., acts of heroism? It got very complicated, so we wound up using a vague definition of "best" that will become obvious as we talk about each of the 10 pilots we put on our list. And, no, we really don't expect you to agree. That's why we gave you our email address and not our home phone numbers. Feel free to disagree. Also, let us know what additional categories you think we should have investigated.

Best Airline Pilots
When talking about a system based on seniority and not performance, how do you measure "best" pilot? In this case, given the type of aircraft being flown, we selected a crew as opposed to a single pilot: the crew of United 232, which includes Capt. Alfred C. Haynes, Dennis E. Fitch (an off-duty DC-10 UAL flight instructor who was a passenger), first officer William Records and second officer Dudley Dvorak.

You probably don't know Capt. Haynes' name. Nor that of Dennis Fitch. Now picture the image of a DC-10 slamming onto Sioux City's runway and breaking up into a flaming ball. Aha! You recognize that, right? That was July 1989, and this was the crew "flying" the airplane that accomplished truly amazing feats of airmanship.

Their problems were caused when a turbine wheel in the center engine (mounted in the tail) exploded in a circular cloud of shrapnel. Besides turning the tail into Swiss cheese, the control system hydraulic lines were severed, removing any form of aerodynamic control. The pilots had no elevators, rudder, ailerons or flaps. The only major system that was working was the remaining two engines mounted under each wing.

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