Aviation - Class of 2001
Anthony William "Tony" LeVier was one of the best airplane racers ever and the best experimental test pilot.
Take it from Clarence "Kelly" Johnson, legendary chief of the Lockheed's "Skunk Works," "I like LeVier to fly my aircraft because he always brings back the answers."
LeVier got his pilot's license at age 17 and two years later won the aerobatic competition and took second in a challenging cross-country event at the Junior Pilots Air Meet in Long Beach, CA.
His first race victory came at the Pacific International Air Races in 1938. The next year, he placed second in the 1939 Thompson Trophy Race, America's greatest test of flying skill.
Following World War II, he again placed second in the 1946 Thompson Trophy Race, but only after putting on a dazzling aerobatics show in a modified P-38 Lightening, which he helped develop at Lockheed four years earlier.
In 1947, he formed LeVier and Associates and built two midgets for that year's national meet. His "Little Toni," with a top speed of 200 mph, flipped in the first heat of the Goodyear Trophy Race, but he managed to recover and win the race. He also won the Sohio Trophy that year in his P-38. He finished fifth in the Thompson Trophy Race and retired from racing.
Even more impressive than his airplane racing record is his career as a test pilot. While working for General Motors and Lockheed, he made the first test flights of 20 different aircraft and has flown more than 240 different types of planes, more than any pilot in history.
At GM, he flew a new engine developed by Charles F. Kettering. At Lockheed he tested Hudson bombers and Venturas. He also tested the radically designed P-38. During World War II he helped the Eighth Air Force solve crucial P-38 operational problems and taught pilots how to land safely with one engine.
In 1944, he was the project test pilot for the Shooting Star, America's first operational jet fighter. While putting that plane through its paces, he set an unofficial world record of 565 mph.
He made the first flights of the XF-90 penetration fighter, the XF-94 Starfire interceptor and the XF-104, in which he became first man to exceed 1,000 mph. He also tested Lockheed's top-secret U-2 spy plane in 1955.
Tony LeVier retired from Lockheed in 1974 and passed away in 1998 at the age of 85.