Everyone will have varying opinions on who they believe to be the greatest pilots of all time. This list of famous aviators is Private Jet Charter’s choice of some of the most notable pilots in history, from the Wright brothers to “Pancho” Barnes.
Wilbur And Orville Wright – Fathers of Flight
When it comes to the most famous pilots we have to mention the brothers that made all other famous aviators possible, the Wright brothers. Orville and Wilbur Wright are credited with inventing, building and then successfully flying the first motorised aircraft. The Wright Flyer’s maiden voyage took off on December 17, 1903, in North Carolina.
Whereas numerous other inventors and experimenters of aviation tended to focus on building more advanced engines, the Wright brothers set their sights on aircraft controls as well as wing and propeller developments.
It is said Wilbur took an interest in the anatomy of birds and animal locomotion in his late 20s, and the rest is history.
Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger – An Aviation Hero
From the inception of aircraft flight to the expert control of its modern masters, no list of the best pilots in the world would be complete without this modern aviation hero.
On the 15th of January, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 lost all engine power due to being hit by a flock of birds shortly after takeoff. This meant that they had not yet gained enough altitude to execute a traditional emergency landing at an airport.
Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and his co-pilot made a command decision to engage in a water landing on the Hudson River. A decision that ultimately saved the lives of all the 150 passengers and crew onboard US Airways Flight 1549. Three minutes after take-off, they had landed safely on the Hudson.
In 2021, President Joe Biden nominated him as his choice for ambassador to the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization. They even made a movie about him starring Tom Hanks called Sully: Miracle on the Hudson (2016).
“There’s simply no substitute for experience in terms of aviation safety.” – Chesley Sullenberger
Amelia Earhart – The First Female Pilot to Cross the Atlantic
When it comes to the greatest pilots of all time, Amelia Earhart will always make the list. She is arguably the most famous female aviator due to her being the first female aviator to cross the Atlantic and the mystery surrounding her disappearance in 1937.
She set off to circumnavigate the globe but disappeared near Howland Island in the Pacific. She radioed that she was running out of fuel and the flight conditions were becoming increasingly cloudy. That was the last that control heard from her aircraft.
She was only 40 years old when she was declared “lost at sea.” The rest of the details concerning her disappearance remain a mystery. She undoubtedly continues to inspire female pilots all around the world.
Bessie Coleman – The First African-American Woman and First Native American to Hold a Pilot’s License
Nicknamed “Queen Bess” or “Brave Bessie”, she was particularly well known for her role in infamously dangerous air shows in the USA. Her aerial stunts were known all around the USA and people came from all walks of life to watch her perform these aviation marvels ranging from figure eights and loops to near-ground dips.
Flight schools and other aviation opportunities were not open to people of colour at this point in the history of the USA. She didn’t let this stop her. She received her international pilot’s license in 1921 from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. This made her the first person of colour to ever receive an international pilot’s license. She still stands strong as an inspiration, especially to those who witnessed her achieving her goals while people of colour continued to battle against segregation in her home country.
Coleman set her sights on starting an aviation school for people of colour. She had nearly saved enough money to do so before her untimely death on April 30, 1926. She was rehearsing for an airshow scheduled for May 1st when her Nieuport Type 82 dived and spun out of control. She was only 34 years old when she died.
Her legacy lives on in a number of ways: her name is on a Library in Chicago, a school in her hometown in Texas and multiple street names, just to name a few. She has also been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
Noel Wien – Alaska’s Trailblazing Aviator
He may not be the best-known pilot in the world, but he is definitely the most famous aviator to Alaskans. Noel Wien is credited with introducing the use of aircraft in Alaska, a region largely unreachable via means other than airplanes.
Noel Wien started his piloting career as a “barnstormer” or a stunt flyer in an aviation circus. Once he was 25, he purchased his first aircraft, a J-1 biplane. He used his J-1 to continue to perform stunts as well as give passengers lifts in the immediate area. At this point, Alaskans were introduced to a method of traveling throughout Alaska as they had never done before.
Wien restarted Wien Alaska Airways in 1932 after the death of his brother, co-pilot and vice president of the company, Ralph Wien, in 1930. His name adorns the Ralph Wien Memorial Airport in northern Alaska. Noel went on to pioneer an inland route through Alaska rather than the coastal route used up until that point in Alaskan history.
Noel Wien was an avid flyer and even after contracting polio in 1935, he continued to fly. Not even after a botched eye operation to remove a piece of metal which resulted in him losing his eye (and with it his depth perception) he continued to fly. He eventually landed a plane for the last time in 1956.
Wien can be regarded as the reason why Alaska has the highest number of pilots to residents in the USA.
Florence Lowe “Pancho” Barnes – Hollywood’s Dude Ranch Daredevil
Barnes was the granddaughter of Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, pioneer of America’s first military air unit, the Army of the Potomac’s balloon corps. He took Florence to her first airshow when she was 10, sparking her interest in the aviation industry.
At the age of 18, she was married off to a clergyman, with whom she had a son. Feeling trapped by this new life, she spent 4 months in Mexico, donning men’s clothes and going by “Poncho”. She kept this nickname and went on to continue her aviation fame.
She is most well known for her work as a Hollywood stunt pilot and aerial advisor, barnstormer, Bendix air race pilot and Lockheed test pilot. She also toured the countryside along with her parachutist “Slim” performing as the “Pancho Barnes Flying Mystery School.”
After many years of stunts and building a reputation as the ultimate stunt and daredevil pilot she stopped flying as frequently. Instead, she bought a huge plot of land which she opened as a Dude Ranch (or “fly-in” resort) called the Happy Bottom Riders Club and later functioned as a safe house and virtual airport for WWII planes.
The Happy Bottom Riders Club hosted the Hollywood elite along with some of the other greatest pilots of all time: Chuck Yeager, General Jimmy Doolittle, Robert Anderson “Bob” Hoover, Walt Williams, Jack Ridley and Buzz Aldrin.
After purchasing more land she extended her land to include an airstrip which evolved into Civilian Pilot Training Program. Her firm belief that women should participate in military aviation led to her founding the Women’s Air Reserve too!
She may not be the most famous of the aviators but there is no denying that her role in aviation and mastery of multiple aircraft has left a mark on the industry forever.
Let’s Take to The Skies!
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