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Six of the best pilots in the world throughout history

From modern aviation founders the Wright brothers to Charles Yeager, the first person to break the sound barrier, some pilots have left their mark on the history of aviation. Join ACS as we take a look back at some of the greatest pilots in history, from the dawn of flight to the modern day.

1. Wilbur and Orville Wright: The founders of modern aviation

A memorial depicting the Wright brothers’ achievement of the first fixed-wing airplane flight
A memorial depicting the Wright brothers’ achievement of the first fixed-wing airplane flight

The Wright brothers cemented their name in aviation history when they performed the inaugural successful flight of the world’s very first airplane. Inventors and engineers, the brothers designed and built the pioneering machine that took to the Californian skies on December 17, 1903. Four years in the making, this historic day ushered in modern aviation as we know it.

The brothers went on to improve the model, essentially inventing the world’s first fixed-wing aircraft. Their most notable invention, however, was the three-axis control: a contraption that allows pilots to effectively steer an aircraft while maintaining equilibrium. The three-axis control is still used in fixed-wing aircraft today, more than a century after the Wrights first introduced the game-changing design.

2. Amelia Earhart: The first female pilot to traverse the Atlantic Ocean

Amelia Earhart standing in front of the Lockheed Model 10 Electra on a runway
Amelia Earhart standing in front of the Lockheed Model 10 Electra on a runway

Arguably the most famous female pilot of all time, Amelia Earhart’s story is one of triumph shrouded in mystery. While Earhart’s crossing of the Atlantic was a first for women, it was the penultimate flight of her career that cemented her name in aviation history.

Earhart set out to circumnavigate the globe aboard a Lockheed Model 10 Electra, but her mission ended tragically when the plane disappeared over the Atlantic. Earhart’s last known contact with ground control was to signal that she was low on fuel and was experiencing inclement weather. Speculation as to what really happened to one of the world’s best pilots on that fateful day in 1937 was seemingly put to rest when a recent study confirmed that human bones found on a Pacific island are Earhart’s remains – however, some experts remain cynical.

3. Florence ‘Pancho’ Barnes: The first female stunt pilot

Fearless and determined, Barnes famously undertook a mere six hours of instruction before her first solo flight. After earning her wings in a self-bought Travelair biplane, American-born Barnes quickly became an expert pilot. While she had an extensive flying career, she’s best known for two impressive aeronautical accomplishments in particular.

Her first claim to fame was setting a new world speed record for female pilots at the 1930 Women’s Air Derby, where she clocked in at 196.19 mph and knocked long-time rival Amelia Earhart off the top spot. Barnes’ most famous achievement, however, was as the world’s first female stunt pilot in Howard Hughes movie Hell’s Angels.

4. Charles Lindbergh: Performed the first solo transatlantic flight

Lindbergh’s first foray into flying was as a pilot for the United States Air Mail Service, but it was his infamous solo-transatlantic flight that catapulted him to aviation stardom. With a duration of 33-and-a-half hours and spanning 3,600 miles, Lindbergh touched down in Paris on May 21, 1927 in single-engine monoplane The Spirit of St Louis. Lindbergh's foray into solo aviation was inspired by the Orteig Prize, a reward offered to the first person to complete a solo crossing of the Atlantic. In addition to the prize money, “Lucky Lindy” was awarded a Medal of Honor by the U.S. Army for his historic feat.

Besides his aviation achievements, Lindbergh enjoyed a diverse – and storied – career. His passion and talents took many forms, most notably as a vocal conservationist, daredevil stunt pilot, early proponent of space travel and co-inventor of an artificial heart. Tragically, Lindbergh's name is also synonymous with what was known as the ‘Crime of the Century’ – the kidnap and murder of his infant son, Charles Lindbergh Jr.

5. Charles ‘Chuck’ E. Yeager: The first pilot to break the sound barrier

Charles ‘Chuck’ E. Yeager
Charles ‘Chuck’ E. Yeager

At the age of 19, Yeager registered as an aircraft mechanic with the U.S. Army Corps. Just two years later, thanks to his excellent eyesight and uncanny ease in the cockpit, Yeager earned his wings as a Flight Officer, a role which saw him take on the infamous Nazi Luftwaffe. Known for his skilled maneuvering, Yaeger single-handedly shot down 14 German planes while piloting a propeller-operated P-15 Mustang – one of which was a brand new German jet, the vastly more capable Messerschmitt-262. He went on to work as a sought-after test pilot, becoming the first pilot to break the sound barrier when he reached speeds of 670 mph in a Bell X-1 rocket during a level flight on October 14, 1947.

Yaeger enjoyed an illustrious career spanning four decades, up until his well-deserved retirement in 1975. His aviation prowess also inspired Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff, catapulting Yeager to international stardom as an Air Force icon. Now in his nineties, today Yeager continues to impress, taking to the skies and appearing as a sought-after guest at numerous local and international events.

6. Muhammad Mahmood Alam: The quickest ace in history

Pakistani Air Force fighter pilot Alam is known as one of the best pilots in the world due to his awe-inspiring aeronautical combat skills during the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965. His incredible speed and agility saw him receive the title of “ace”, a moniker given to jet fighter pilots who down a minimum of five enemy craft. In less than a minute, Alam shot down five Indian Hawker Hunter jets – four of them within 30 seconds. A beloved Pakistani hero, Alam’s legacy remains revered by fighter pilots for his incredible agility, speed and accuracy.

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