Tony LeVier

Text by Divan Muller
“Every pilot should carefully assess his limitations, then never operate outside them.” – Tony LeVier
Tony LeVier with an XF-104
Early life and career

Anthony William ‘Tony’ LeVier was born on 14 February 1913 in Minnesota. When he was thirteen years old, Tony LeVier read about Charles Lindbergh’s epic flight across the Atlantic Ocean. This event inspired LeVier to pursue a career in aviation. During the following year, he quit high school and worked odd jobs to pay for flying lessons. By the time he was seventeen, he had his pilot’s licence. During the 1930s, LeVier competed in races and aerobatic competitions, whilst earning money from barnstorming and training other pilots. In 1938, he flew a Keith Rider R-4 Firecracker racing aircraft and won the Pacific International Air Races. Then in 1939, he placed second in the national Thompson Trophy Race.

Later that year, LeVier was hired by an airline, but was soon forced to resign after failing a medical exam. He was then briefly employed by General Motors to flight-test the company’s engines. Then, in 1941, Lockheed employed LeVier to fly its Hudsons, Venturas and Lodestars to Canada, from which they were delivered to Britain’s Royal Air Force for use in World War II. LeVier was then used to train military pilots to fly Lockheed aircraft, before being transferred to Lockheed’s flight test division.
Lockheed test pilot

As a wartime test pilot, LeVier’s first assignment was to test the P-38 Lightning fighter’s high-speed flight characteristics. He ended up playing a vital role in the P-38 programme. LeVier was then sent to England to demonstrate the P-38’s performance and to lecture pilots who would fly the aircraft into combat over Europe. LeVier then returned to the USA where he was tasked with completing the maiden flight of the XP-80 prototype of the P-80 Shooting Star, the USA’s first operational fighter jet. By 1945, he had become Lockheed’s chief engineering test pilot.

Later that year, shortly before the end of the Second World War, LeVier was test-flying a Shooting Star when its engine disintegrated and broke the aircraft’s tail section off. He bailed out but broke his back whilst landing. A few months later, he had recovered and was back in the air.

After the war had ended in 1945, LeVier test-flew the Saturn transport aircraft, the T33 trainer variant of the Shooting Star, as well as its all-weather interceptor development, the F-94 Starfire. By then, he had also flown the R6V Constitution double-decker transport aircraft, as well as the XF-90 long range fighter, neither of which entered production. Meanwhile, he participated in races with a P-38 he had purchased when the war came to an end.

In 1954, LeVier test-flew the most powerful aircraft of his career, the XF-104 Starfighter. Often described as a ‘missile with a man in it,’ the F-104 had significantly better performance than contemporary fighters, simultaneously holding speed and altitude records. In fact, whilst flying an F-104, LeVier became the first pilot to exceed 1 000 mph (869 kts) in a turbine-powered aircraft.

About a year later, he test-flew Lockheed’s U-2 Dragon Lady, an all-weather intelligence gathering aircraft, designed to operate at altitudes of about 70 000 ft. The aircraft type remains in service today.

When testing aircraft, LeVier was a definite problem solver, developing solutions for any problems experienced during test flights, or even recommending safety improvements for production aircraft. Lockheed’s well-known aircraft designer, Kelly Johnson, once remarked, “I like LeVier to fly my aircraft first because he always brings back the answers.” Johnson was responsible for the design of all the aforementioned aircraft types, in addition to many other notable aircraft, such as Lockheed’s Constellation airliner, F-117 Nighthawk stealth attack aircraft, as well as the famous SR-71 Blackbird Mach 3 reconnaissance aircraft.

In 1955, LeVier was appointed director of flying operations. He retired from Lockheed in 1974. By then he had flown more than 240 different aircraft types. According to a ‘Flying’ magazine from 1965, LeVier had survived 94 accidents and incidents, eight crashes, 59 near-crashes, five spins to ground level, 26 forced landings, 31 engine failures, five canopies lost in flight, 37 material failures, one mid-air collision, nine near-mid-air collisions, not to mention many other near-death experiences. According to the ‘Flying’ article, “Equally intriguing is that this supremely experienced aviator rates himself only an average pilot. He does not consider himself infallible or anywhere near it. Every pilot, he says, should carefully assess his limitations, then never operate outside them.” LeVier always emphasized the importance of self-discipline.

Four years later, in 1978 LeVier was inducted into the USA’s National Aviation Hall of Fame for the advancement of aircraft design. During the following years, he was recognized by several organizations and institutions, receiving numerous awards.
LaVier died on 6 February 1998, at the age of 84, after a long illness.