In the short time that human beings have been flying, many have become well-known to the general public for their exploits in the sky. Not all the aviators listed here were necessarily the best pilots, and some were known for but a single flight, but all played a role in shaping the history of aviation. Here are the ten aviators whose accomplishments made them, even if only for a short time, household names.
10. Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier (1754-1785) and the Montgolfier Brothers
It’s difficult to determine who was truly the first man to fly. Some maintain it was a Spanish Muslim named Abbas Ibn Firnas, who—very briefly—may have flown a glider from a tower in Cordoba, Spain sometime in the mid-ninth century. Others credit a Benedictine monk named Eilmer of Malmesbury, who also supposedly flew a glider from a church tower in the eleventh century. None of these claims have been verified, however, leaving the question of who was the first open to debate.
Most historians are pretty clear, though, that the first aviator in modern times was a little known Frenchman by the name of Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier, who is credited with being the first man to ascend in a free-flying hot air balloon over Paris, in November of 1783. It’s still a little murky, though, as he wasn’t actually the first to ascend in the balloon, but the second man to do so. It seems that another Frenchman, Jacques Étienne Montgolfier — one of two brothers who actually designed and built the balloon de Rozier was to eventually ascend in—had a few hours earlier, only his flight was tethered while de Rozier’s was not, leaving the question of who was the first, well, up in the air.
Regardless, both flights made the balloon’s builders, the Montgolfier brothers, household names throughout France, and the first men credited with being the first to fly. de Rozier though, is generally considered to have been the first true balloonist and aviator. Unfortunately, his daring cost him his life a couple of years later, when his balloon crashed in an attempt to cross the English Channel, making him the first aviation fatality.
9. Louis Bleriot (1872-1936)
Bleriot was to France what the Wright Brothers were to America, except he was more than a pilot with a number of impressive firsts on his résumé, but a top-notch designer and engineer as well. Known for designing the first practical headlamp for cars, he used the profits from that venture to finance his attempts to build the first manned aircraft and, while he didn’t fly in time to beat the Wright Brothers, he was the first man to fly in Europe.
Even more impressive was that, in 1909, he became the first to fly across the English Channel, a feat considered at to be every bit as dangerous as was Lindbergh’s crossing of the Atlantic 18 years later, due to the primitive state of technology, and the Channel’s infamously fickle weather. Blériot went on to design and build aircraft for France right up to the time of his death in 1936, making him one of the premier European aircraft designers. He also has the distinction of being on hand to greet Lindbergh upon his arrival in Paris in 1927, bringing two aviation greats together for the first time.
8. Baron Manfred Von Richthoven (1892-1918)
Better known as the Red Baron, because of the bright red color he painted his Fokker tri-plane, few aviators are as famous as Germany’s top fighter ace of World War I. Credited with shooting down an astonishing 80 aircraft over France before being killed, he remains almost as famous today as he was a nearly a century ago. What made him so formidable a foe was not his flying skills — which were considered merely average — but his marksmanship which, by all accounts, was pretty darned impressive.
Mystery still surrounds his death to this day, as historians debate whether he was shot down by a Canadian pilot named Brown (who was officially credited with the kill) or whether he was mortally wounded by ground fire (which seems more likely,) while strafing allied positions. In either case, the only thing that’s known for sure, is that Snoopy didn’t bring the legendary ace down, despite his many attempts.
7. John Glenn (1921-)
With the exception of Neil Armstrong, perhaps no astronaut has achieved as much fame as has the native Ohioan and Marine Corp fighter pilot turned astronaut/senator, John Glenn. What’s curious about this is why. He wasn’t the first man in space (that would be Yuri Gagarin of the USSR,) nor was he even the first American in space (which would be Alan Shepherd,) and he never flew in space again until he caught a ride as a passenger on the space shuttle Discovery in 1998 (making him, at age 77, the oldest man to fly in space.)
What he did do, however, is still noteworthy: he was the first American to orbit the Earth, doing so three times in 5 hours on February 20, 1962. While a fairly unimpressive feat by today’s standards, it was quite an accomplishment in 1962—especially when one couldn’t be sure that the entire rocket wouldn’t just explode on the launch pad during liftoff! Glenn later retired from NASA, and eventually became a U.S. Senator and perennial Presidential contender, though he never achieved the degree of fame in twenty years of politics that he did in just a few hours onboard Freedom 7.
6. Chuck Yeager (1923-)
Few men exemplified the daring-do attitude of test pilots of the forties and fifties as well as Chuck Yeager, the man who achieved fame for being the first to fly faster than sound in 1947. While we tend to take supersonic flight for granted today, it must be remembered that several men had died trying to accomplish the feat before him — and he even made the flight with two broken ribs, as a result of being thrown from his horse the day before! Talk about spunk!
Yeager also went on to break many other speed and altitude records, as well as becoming the first American pilot to fly a Soviet-built MiG-15, that had been acquired in South Korea when its North Korean pilot defected. It’s interesting that he wasn’t among the seven men chosen to be the first astronauts, but maybe he just was a little too busy at the time for such pedestrian pursuits.
5. Jimmy Doolittle (1896-1993)
An innovator and speed plane racer who set many speed records in the 1930’s, he was probably best known for his spectacular and daring raid on Tokyo in April of 1942, when he led a flight of sixteen army bombers off the rolling deck of an aircraft carrier on a one-way mission to Japan. While the attack did little in terms of material damage to the Japanese, it gave Americans a much-needed morale boost during the darkest days of the war. It also earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor.
While the “Doolittle Raid” was his most famous accomplishment, perhaps his most important contribution to aviation came in the 1920’s, when he contributed to the development of instrument flying which, while taken for granted today, was a vital innovation in terms of flying safety. How daring was he? Consider that he was not only the first man to take-off and land in an airplane using instruments only (the canopy was even covered,) but he also performed the first successful outside loop-the-loop in history—a maneuver considered to be fatal by aviators at the time.
4. Steve Fossett (1944-2007)
Though he made his fortune in the financial services industry, Fossett was best known for setting many world records (116 in five different sports, 60 of which still stood by 2007,) including five nonstop circumnavigations of the Earth. He was also the first to compete a nonstop circumnavigation in a helium-filled balloon, which was difficult even by modern standards, having been attempted numerous times before without success. Fossett finally accomplished the feat in 2002. He was also famous for making the first circumnavigation of the globe in an airplane without refueling, which he accomplished in 2005.
His Earhartesque disappearance, while flying over the Nevada desert in 2007, remained one of the last great aviation mysteries for a time, at least until his remains were discovered a year later.
3. The Wright Brothers (Wilbur, 1867-1912, and Orville, 1871-1948)
What the Montgolfier Brothers were to lighter-than-air aviation, the Wright Brothers were to heavier-than-air. The possibility that others may have actually been the first to achieve controlled, manned flight is still hotly debated today, but no one can deny the impact the two bicycle makers from Dayton, Ohio had on the world of aviation. In fact, few photos are as famous as the one with Wilbur Wright managing to fly a short distance in what looked like a kite on steroids attached to a lawnmower engine. That short flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 3, 1903 kick-started the modern era of aviation.
While they were not regarded as particularly top-notch pilots—their forte being more in the areas of design and marketing—they certainly laid the foundation upon which others would build, eventually making the world a much smaller place. Way to go, Orville and Wilbur!
2. Amelia Earhart (1897-1937)
No female aviator (or “aviatrix” as they were then known) was as famous as “Lady Lindy” (called so because of her similar exploits and physical resemblance to the famed aviator, Charles Lindbergh.) Earhart certainly wasn’t the first female aviator, nor was she even the best female pilot of her time, but her exploits in being the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic (1932,) and the first to fly nonstop from Honolulu to Oakland (1935,) made her a household name.
It was her final flight, however, that made her a legend; while attempting to circumnavigate the globe in 1937, she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared somewhere over the Pacific near Howland Island, never to be seen again. Recent evidence has come to light suggesting she may have crash-landed on a small island near Howland — believed by some to be the island known today as Nikumaroro — where she perished from exposure, but this has not been confirmed. Unfortunately, she became far more famous in death than she ever did in life, but such is the fickleness of fate.
1. Charles Lindbergh (1902-1974)
Obviously, no aviator in history is as famous as “Lucky Lindy,” the first man to cross the Atlantic Ocean solo, flying from New York to Paris in May of 1927 in a special-built monoplane. As a result of his exhausting quest, he became the 1920’s equivalent of a rock star, though some of that luster wore off in later years when he opposed American entry in World War II. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, however, he became an ardent supporter of the war effort, and even flew more than 50 combat missions in the Pacific theater, thereby restoring his reputation and fame. He was even credited with shooting down a Japanese aircraft near Ceram, in July of 1944.
In later years, he became an ardent environmentalist who, paradoxically, also maintained a love for technology. Writing in a 1967 Life Magazine article, he summed up his philosophy by saying, “The human future depends on our ability to combine the knowledge of science with the wisdom of wildness.” He lived out his life quietly in Hawaii, until his death in 1974.