Anthony “Tony” LeVier
Test Pilot/Dare Devil
When Charles Lindbergh made his famous solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927 an excited 14-year-old Tony LeVier announced to his family, “I’m going to become an airplane pilot!” His mother, who always encouraged her son to reach as high as possible, replied, “That’s wonderful, Tony, just remember to be a good one.” The Huckleberry Finn of aviation did just that. He became one of the best.
- In the 1930s he won the junior pilot aerobatic meet, barnstormed the country, operated two flying schools and competed in air races.
- In 1941 he joined the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation and tested the P-38 Lighting, XP-80A jet fighter and the XP-80 Shooting Star.
- Authored “Pilots Report on Supersonic Flight.”
- Flight tested the XF-104 Starfighter, the T-33B trainer, and the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft and made several safety improvements to supersonic fighters.
Anthony William “Tony” LeVier was born in Duluth, Minnesota, on February 14th, 1913, the younger of two children of Anthony W. Puck and Aloysia “Loy” Evans. Their other child was a daughter, Nancy. His father, an architect in Duluth, had immigrated to the U.S. from Norway while still a boy. His mother was the daughter of a ship engineer serving on the Great Lakes. She had lived in Wilson, New York. Later Tony would say, “I got the encouragement and inspiration to follow my ambition to be a pilot from my mother. My father passed on to me an athlete’s reflexes and a love for sports.”
In 1919, Tony’s mother, concerned for the children’s health, moved them to California, leaving their father behind. He was too ill from tuberculosis to make the journey. He passed away before he could join them.
One of aviation’s outstanding pioneers, Anthony William “Tony” LeVier began his brilliant career in 1930 by taking flying lessons. After officially soloing in a Waco, he spent most of his hard-earned money on advanced lessons, and soon earned his private pilot license.
In the Junior Pilots Air Meet of 1932 at Long Beach, LeVier took second place in the challenging cross-country event and won the difficult acrobatic competition. Then, after earning his Transport Pilot License, he barnstormed the East with the crew of a Trimotor named Mac’s Air Palace. While there, LeVier also first flight tested a farmer’s homemade biplane.
Upon returning to California in 1935, LeVier helped form the E-Z Flying School. Soon he opened his own Coast Flying Academy. But when he found it to be unprofitable, he turned to air racing, winning free-for-all events in Arizona and California. Later he first flight-tested the unusual gull-winged Mendenhall racer. LeVier’s first big chance came when he entered the Pobjoy Special in the 1937 National Air Races. But his plane unexpectedly rolled upside down in the air at takeoff. Fortunately, he righted it before it crashed, a near total washout.
LeVier entered the speedy Firecracker in the Pacific International Air Races and captured the Championship Pilot Trophy 1938. Next he took part in the grueling National Air Races. Pitted against top racing pilots, he surged ahead on the final lap to capture the coveted Greve Trophy Race.
LeVier again flew the Firecracker in the Greve in 1939, and has a commanding lead, but his engine failed. The following day LeVier placed second in the premier Thompson Trophy Race, America’s greatest test of flying skill. Soon afterwards, LeVier became a Flight Officer with Mid-Continent Airlines. It was a dream come true. But when LeVier later failed to pass his physical, he reluctantly resigned.
General Motors later hired LeVier to flight test a new engine that the famous Charles F. Kettering developed in 1940. Next he obtained a job with Lockheed, ferrying Hudson bombers destined for the embattled Royal Air Force of Britain. Soon he was production flight testing Hudsons and Venturas built for the Army Air Forces. While LeVier was flight testing a new Ventura, its landing gear failed to extend and LeVier made an unbelievable landing in a field stacked with wood boxes.
Assigned to Lockheed’s Flight Test Department in 1942, LeVier began unrelenting tests of the radical new P-38 Lightning. He sought basic knowledge about control problems in dives at near sonic speeds to reduce needless combat losses. He perfected its hydraulic boosted control system, tested dive flaps that enable a pilot to maintain control in full power dives, learned to fly on one engine, performing acrobatics at low altitudes.
LeVier later went to England to help the Eighth Air Force solve crucial P-38 operational problems. There, he taught green combat pilots how to make it home and land safely on one engine, then demonstrated the use of dive flaps. He also flew the first PB-38 on bomb tests, using the secret Norden bombsight.
LeVier became Project Test Pilot on Lockheed’s Shooting Star, America’s first operational jet fighter, in 1944. On its maiden flight, a wing flap failed to retract. Fortunately, LeVier brought the plane down safely. Later he sought an unofficial world record of 565 miles per hour and put the first production Shooting Star through its paces. Meanwhile, to aid pilots, LeVier conceived of placing trim switches on top of the control stick. Near the end of the war, LeVier first flight-tested Lockheed’s experimental Little Dipper sportsplane, but it never went into production.
Shortly after LeVier became Lockheed’s Chief Test Pilot in 1945, tragedy nearly struck when a Shooting Star’s turbine disintegrated and cut the tail off. LeVier bailed out successfully, but broke his back when he landed. The war ended before he resumed flying.
Among the postwar aircraft LeVier tested were the Saturn transport, the F-80R Racey used to recapture the world’s speed record, and the giant Constitution transport. For a hobby, he purchased a P-38 Lightning and modified it for acrobatics and racing. He put on a dazzling show at the 1946 National Air Races, before taking second place in the grueling Thompson Trophy Race.
Next, he formed LeVier and Associates and built two midgets for the 1947 Nationals. His Little Ton” had a top speed of 200 miles per hour. In the first heat of the Goodyear Trophy Race, it flipped upside down. But he managed to right it and go on to win. After winning the Sohio Trophy Race in his P-38, he entered the Thompson “R” Trophy Race. It turned out to be one of the bloodiest racesever staged. At the finish, LeVier placed fifth and was so exhausted he had to be lifted from the cockpit. He vowed this was his last race.
LeVier took America’s first jet trainer up for its maiden flight in 1948. A subsequent flight in the T-Bird nearly cost him his life when the canopy tore off and the air blast ripped his helmet from his head. Fortunately, he managed to regain control. Later, the military used this trainer to teach a half-generation of pilots to fly jets.
After inventing the Hot Microphone system for multi-place aircraft in 1949, LeVier made the first flight of the supersonic XF-90 penetration fighter. Once airborne, serious control problems developed. Fortunately, he set the swept-wing plane down safely. Later, LeVier broke the sound barrier for the first time while diving the XF-90. The resulting, unforgettable sonic booms were the first ever heard at Muroc.
Meanwhile, LeVier also made the first flight of the XF-94 Starfire all-weather, radar-guided interceptor. The Air Force was very impressed, and the first production model flew in only a few months. Later he flight tested the improved F-93B, followed by the F-94C armed with 24 Mighty Mouse missiles.
LeVier invented the Automatic Wing Stores Release System in 1951, and the Master Caution Warning Light System, both universally adopted. He also authored “A Pilot’s Report on Supersonic Flight,” a much sought after document.
In 1954, the XF-104 Starfighter roared aloft on its maiden flight. Called “The Missile With a Man In It,” LeVier used it to become the first man to exceed 1000 miles per hour. The F-104 became the standard bearer of the Free World, and 15 countries adopted it as their superiority fighter. For the next ten years, LeVier managed Lockheed’s Starfighter Utilization Reliability Effort with NATO countries, contributing immeasurably to saving lives. He also assisted famed aviatrix Jackie Cochran when she set a new world’s speed record for women.
LeVier flight tested Lockheed’s top secret U-2 in 1955, which later earned banner headlines when one was downed while making reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union. LeVier’s active test pilot career ended when he became Lockheed-California’s Director of Flight Operations. Of him, Lockheed’s famed “Kelly” Johnson stated: “I like LeVier to fly my aircraft first because he always brings back the answers.” Years later, LeVier piloted a Lockheed “Tristar” from California to Washington, D.C. on the first completely automatic flight of a commercial plane.
LeVier retired from Lockheed in 1974. During his career he distinguished himself as the world’s foremost experimental test pilot. He made the first test flight of 20 different aircraft and flew over 240 different types, more than any pilot in history.
Tony LeVier died after a lengthy illness at his home in California on February 6th, 1998.
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