Pioneering Jet Test Pilot Dies Top Gun At Skunk Works Flew More Than 260 Different Planes
Anthony W. LeVier, the man who tested the first jet aircraft and went on to pilot 53 different experimental planes at the dawn of the jet age, has died. He was 84.
LeVier succumbed Friday to complications of cancer and kidney failure.
LeVier first climbed into the cockpit when he was 15, and went on to chalk up more than 10,000 flying hours in more than 24,000 flights. In a 1990 interview with the Los Angeles Times, LeVier said Charles Lindbergh’s flight from New York to Paris in 1927 inspired him to become a pilot, and the Balboa Theater financed his training a year later.
“We were barefooted and going down the aisle - I noticed what appeared to be a dollar bill and I picked up with my toes, palmed it and went to the seat. It turned out to be a $10 bill,” he said in 1990. “And the first thought came to mind, ‘Tomorrow morning I’m going to go take my first flying lesson.”’
With that lesson began a decadeslong passion that catapulted LeVier, sometimes at Mach 2 and occasionally 70,000 feet above ground, to the top of the Top Guns at Lockheed’s supersecret Skunk Works unit in Palmdale.
Among the planes LeVier christened were the P-38 Lightning in 1942, which saw combat in World War II over England and the Pacific Ocean, the TF-80C Shooting Star trainer, then one of the world’s fastest airplanes, and the high-flying U-2 reconnaissance airplane in 1955. LeVier flew more than 260 different airplanes in his career as a test pilot.
LeVier has also been credited with several aviation innovations, including the first afterburner ignition system for jet fighters and intercoms for military aircraft. He also conceived the idea to turn the pilot’s stick grip counterclockwise in fighter aircraft to allow better handling of the aircraft.
In his later years he was an outspoken advocate for air safety and lobbied the Federal Aviation Administration for stricter training guidelines for commercial pilots.
Last November a fellow Top Gun, Sen. John Glenn, presented LeVier with a Lifetime Achievement Award for Aviation and Air Safety from the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
Surviving LeVier are his wife, Neva Jean LeVier, 72, his two daughters, Marylynn LeVier, 50, and Toniann LeVier, 53, and five grandchildren.