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

World War II and Vietnam war pilot Robin Olds.
Best Modern Fighter Leader
If you ask a bunch of jet jockeys who they rate as the best all-around fighter leader of the modern age, one name almost always pops to the top: Col., then Gen., Robin Olds. A P-38/P-51 ace during World War II (12 victories), it was during Vietnam that his near-mythical status as a wing commander was solidified. He was the fighter pilot's fighter pilot. He didn't "send" his men on missions, instead he would "lead" them every single time. He bagged four MiGs during Vietnam, and the loyalty of his men to him and his style of leadership was, and still is, legendary. And they loved his maverick, screw-the-brass nature.

His status amongst fighter pilots was best seen after his death: They flew the missing-man formation over the U.S. Air Force Academy as part of his memorial service, but when it came time for the wingman to pull up, signifying that one of their own was out of the formation and gone, he didn't. The lead pulled up instead, signifying that Olds was the leader.

One of the comments circulating after his death was that he should have been cryogenically frozen and put in a glass case in the lobby of the Pentagon. A sign on the case was to read, "In case of war, break glass." He was the quintessential warrior. His autobiography, Fighter Pilot, finished by his daughter, is a must-read.

Maj. Bruce Crandall (U.S. Army).
Best At Conquering Fear: Bravest Pilot
"Brave" is easier to define than "best." Unfortunately, however, much aerial bravery goes unnoticed. Some however, jump right out and hit you in the nose. There are many examples of that in war, but two that are well-known are the separate acts of Maj. Bruce Crandall (U.S. Army) and Maj. Bernie Fisher, USAF.

When DustOff (MedeVac) helos refused to drop into a super-hot landing zone (LZ) to pick up wounded during the Battle of Ia Drang because the ground fire was almost certain to get them, Crandall landed, anyway. His unarmed Huey collected a lot of bullet holes, but he wasn't going to let wounded die or troops run out of ammo because someone didn't want to take a chance going in to help them. And he and his wingman, Maj. Ed Freeman, did it more than 12 times! Both of their Medals of Honor were well-deserved.

One of Bernie Fisher's fellow Skyraider pilots was hit and crash-landed on an abandoned runway in the A Shau Valley that was totally in the control of the Viet Cong. Fisher saw his friend jump out of his airplane and dive under the edge of a bank where enemy bullets couldn't find him. But, he was certain to be captured and probably killed.

So, while the rest of the Skyraiders (some of them were out of ammo) continued to make strafing passes over the enemy, Fisher brazenly landed right in front of the VC in his Fat Face Spad (multiplace Skyraider), bullets hitting all around him. He dragged his friend over the side of the cockpit, and the Skyraider barely staggered off the too-short runway, saving both of their lives. He, too, deserved his Medal of Honor. And to this day, he's a little embarrassed by the furor surrounding his actions.

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