10 All-Time Air Force Legends

“Although the Air Force is only officially 68 years old, its roots go back well over 100 years.  In honor of the Air Force Memorial’s 10th Anniversary, here’s a highlight of 10 Air Force Veterans that have risen to legendary status.”


Eddie Rickenbacker

Capt Eddie Rickenbacker, a race car driver turned self-taught pilot, racked up 26 aerial victories, earning him the nickname “Ace.”  He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross with six oak leaf clusters, the Croix de Guerre with two palms, the French Legion d’Honneur, and the Medal of Honor.

Billy Mitchell

Gen William “Billy” Mitchell is known as the “Father of the Air Force.” This turn-of-the-20th-century pilot was a strong advocate for a separate and independent Air Force. Despite his heroics leading more than 1,400 planes against the Germans during World War I, Mitchell was dismissed for his “radical ideas.”

Hap Arnold

It’s hard to believe General of the Air Force Henry “Hap” Arnold once had a fear of flying.  Arnold oversaw the expansion of the Army Air Corps in the years between World Wars I and II to its status as the world’s largest Air Force. He oversaw the development of intercontinental bombers, radar, airlift capabilities, and the use of nuclear weapons in modern air combat. He is the only person to ever hold the rank of General of the Air Force.

Chappie James

Gen Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr. was one of the original Tuskegee Airmen and trained pilots in the Army Air Corps 99th Pursuit Squadron – the famous “Red Tails.” He flew 101 combat missions in Korea and another 78 as vice-commander of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing during the Vietnam War. James was the first African-American to reach the rank of four-star General.

Robin Olds

Brig Gen Robin Olds joined the military through the US Military Academy at West Point as an all-star linebacker for the football team. He was anxious to get into the fight during World War II. He was a triple ace fighter pilot in WWII, married a Hollywood actress, and then commanded a fighter wing during the Vietnam War.

Curtis LeMay

Gen Curtis LeMay was the youngest four-star general in American military history at just 44 years old. He served with four stars longer than anyone else in history. He was known for being stubborn and a bit short-tempered and led the military through some of its most trying times – through World War II, the Berlin Airlift, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Chuck Yeager

Brig Gen Charles Elwood Yeager began his Air Force career as a private in the US Army Air Forces. He spent time as an aircraft mechanic getting a feel for what planes could handle – information that served him well as a USAF test pilot. He famously broke the sound barrier in 1947 – with two broken ribs.

William “Pits” Pitsenbarger

Sergeant William “Pits” Pitsenbarger was a US Air Force pararescue jumper during the Vietnam War. He joined the Air Force straight out of high school and shortly after received orders to Vietnam. While serving, his job was to drop into trees, tend to wounded soldiers and load them into rescue helicopters. During one of his missions his chopper came under fire and had to leave. He stayed behind tending to the wounded then joined the firefight. He was killed by a sniper.

John L. Levitow

Sergeant John L. Levitow was a Loadmaster on board an AC-47 “Spooky” Gunship during the Vietnam War. In an engagement with Viet Cong guerillas in February 1969, the gunship was hit by VC mortar fire. The entire crew was wounded by shrapnel and the gunner dropped a flare inside the gunship next to 19,000 rounds of ammunition which would have exploded the ship. A severely injured Levitow crawled over to the flare and risked his life to remove it from the ship. He received the Medal of Honor.

Bud Day

Col George Everett “Bud” Day started his military career as an enlisted Marine, joining in 1942 at age 17. He flew combat sorties as an Air Force fighter pilot in Korea and later flew combat missions over North Vietnam. He was shot down, captured, tortured, and sent to the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” and “The Zoo” POW punishment camps. He was released in 1973 and returned to the Air Force. He received the Medal of Honor and is one of the most decorated officers in Air Force history.