We’ve all seen lists of the greatest pilots ever. These compilations can be problematic. Not that I disagree with the pilots they tend to point to as great; far from it. It’s just that the very question—”What makes a pilot great?”— is a hard (perhaps impossible) one to answer. Is it flying skill, and if so, how is that measured? Or is it achievement, and how is that tabulated? Hours in the air? Kills? Grace under pressure? There’s no easy answer, and even if one sprang to mind, there’d be no way to test it.
Truth is, there have been many thousands of great pilots. But famous pilots? That’s a whole different conversation. As I pondered the subject of just how a pilot translates greatness into fame, the answer came to me. The process is different for each one, and that process reveals important details about that pilot’s character… and about ours, too.
Here are the stories of five important aviators and how those stories became known.