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

With Fitch kneeling on the floor between the two pilots, a throttle in each hand between himself and Capt. Haynes, they were able to play the power to more or less control the airplane in a wallowing fashion. They somehow managed to make it to the airport and line up, but couldn't get the speed below 240 knots and the rate of descent under 1,800 fpm. Tragically, 111 people died, but another 185 survived what should have been certain death.

We judge these to be the best airline pilots because they thought totally outside of the box and used their basic understanding of aerodynamics to cobble together a form of rudimentary control. To quote the NTSB findings, "…flight crew performance was highly commendable and greatly exceeded reasonable expectations."

Yeah, we agree with that. And, the entire crew were among the survivors. Look it up. It's an amazing story!

Best Air Show Pilot
This is a highly contested category—especially when you have the likes of Sean Tucker and Patty Wagstaff ripping up the skies and images of Bob Hoover drifting through our memories. Still, we picked what on the surface would appear to be nonsensical, because of the relatively subdued nature of his performance. We're referring to John Mohr and his dead stock 220 hp Stearman.

To sum it up: John Mohr is the air show act all other air show performers stop what they're doing to watch. This is because the 220 hp Stearman is grossly underpowered for any kind of aerobatics and isn't even in the ballpark for low- level aerobatics. Still, there's Mohr, right down in the weeds, pulling vertical to a miniscule vertical line, hesitating, then at the last moment, just when it looks as if the airplane is about to slide backward to a very public death, he deftly pivots on his rudder post and hammerheads around with zero speed, hanging there, only a few hundred feet off the ground. Any knowledgeable spectator is positive that they're about to see a fireball. But, he finesses the airplane around the corner into some other gravity-defying maneuver every time.

John Mohr is the uncontested king of energy management, and his act is the most obvious display of piloting skill anywhere on the air show circuit. He scares the hell out of air show pilots and educated spectators alike. That's the mark of a terrifically skilled pilot.

World War II Luftwaffe "Experten" Erich Hartmann.
Best World War II Fighter Pilot
How do we define "best" in the combat arena? The pilot with the most aerial victories? That would be Luftwaffe "Experten" Erich Hartmann at 352 confirmed kills. The most victories in a single mission? For the United States, that would be David McCampbell (nine, flying a USN F6F). Most in a day? (Maj. Emil Lang, Luftwaffe, JG 54 18 downed in three sorties). The highest U.S. score? Dick Bong, USAF (40 kills in P-38s). A pilot who made ace in both the Pacific and over Europe? There were several, but John Landers comes to mind first. (His checkerboard-nosed Mustang, Big Beautiful Doll, is well-known). Jim Howard did the same in P-40s and Mustangs.

The truth is that "best" can't really be applied to combat pilots because many careers were cut short by ground fire (some of it friendly, as in the case of the leading Mustang ace George Preddy). The Triple-A (anti-aircraft artillery) doesn't recognize a pilot's skill. So, we'll have to admit that there was no single fighter pilot on either side that achieved a lofty status purely on skill. Luck plays a big part.

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