Aviation history is filled with fantastic stories of the pioneering pilots who pushed the boundaries of human flight. Figures like Orville and Wilbur Wright, Charles Lindbergh, Bob Hoover, Chuck Yeager, and Amelia Earhart are household names that are widely recognized for their contributions to the aviation industry. However, there are many lesser-known pilots who also left their mark on aviation history. Here’s a closer look at five aviators you might not know.
If you haven’t heard of Jacqueline Cochran, you’re probably still familiar with one of her greatest achievements: contributing to the formation of the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs) during World War II. The WASPs were composed of over 1,000 civilian female pilots, who would fly almost every type of military aircraft. They were responsible for ferrying trainer aircraft to flight schools around the country, delivering equipment, and flight-testing aircraft that had been repaired. After the war, Cochran began flying jet aircraft and made history when she became the first woman to break the sound barrier in 1953.
In 1931, Wiley Post became the first pilot to fly around the world in a fixed wing aircraft, completing his record-setting voyage in seven days, 18 hours and 49 minutes. Post also made significant advances in high-altitude long-distance flight, inventing a pressurized suit and helmet and discovering the jet stream in a flight at 50,000 ft. His Lockheed Vega aircraft, the Winnie Mae, is on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
Recognized as “the father of Alaska bush flying,” Noel Wien was the first to introduce aircraft to the Alaskan skies in the 1920s and was responsible for inventing unique aviation techniques well suited for Alaska’s challenging flying terrain. Wien became the first pilot to fly beyond the Arctic Circle and Bering Strait, a feat that also made him the first pilot to make the round-trip flight from Alaska to Asia. Wien eventually founded Alaska’s first airline, Wien Air Alaska. You can read more about Wien here.
Eric “Winkle” Brown
British aviator Eric “Winkle” Brown was a major asset to the Allied forces in World War II, due to his flying skills and fluency in the German language. During the war, he led a mission to Germany called Operation Enemy Flight, where he helped liberate the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. After the war, Brown became a daring experimental test pilot, flying an impressive 487 different types of aircraft. Brown was also the first pilot to land on an aircraft carrier, eventually becoming the world record holder for the most takeoffs and landings on aircraft carriers – 2,407 and 2,271, respectively.
French pilot Jacqueline Auriol started her flying career in 1946, and soon earned fame status as the record-setting competitor against Jacqueline Cochran. Auriol and Cochran swapped speed records throughout the 1950s and 60s, with each pilot setting the women’s world speed record five times. Auriol became one of the first female military test pilots in the world, testing the Mystere IV and supersonic Concorde. In 1953, she became the second woman to break the sound barrier, just after Jacqueline Cochran.