Kick the tires and light the fires: American air superiority depends on a whole lot more than just the planes we build—It takes a special pilot to wage this kind of war. Here are six terrors of the skies you probably haven’t heard of.
George Preddy - P-51 MUSTANG
You’ve probably heard of the P-51 Mustang. One of the most successful American aircrafts ever, this World War II warbird was credited with nearly 5,000 enemy kills. One name you may not have heard of is George Preddy, a man who scored 26 of those kills. Flying in both the Pacific theater and the European theater, Preddy was so good behind the stick of the Mustang, he once shot down six German fighters in a single day … while totally hungover. I have a hard time typing with proper punctuation while hungover.
Despite his prowess at aerial combat, Preddy was known as a loyal, humble man who merely committed himself to his job. He once said, "I'm sure as hell not a killer, but combat flying is like a game, and a guy likes to come out on top." A dangerous game, as it turns out. Preddy was sadly the victim of a friendly fire incident when his plane was accidentally shot down by a US Army anti-aircraft battery over Belgium. He survived the initial crash but his wounds were too severe and he succumbed later that day. George Preddy was 25 at the time of his death.
Kim Campbell - A-10 Warthog
While the 3rd Infantry Division were storming to Baghdad in 2003, the Republican Guard was giving everything they had to resist the Marines’ advance. To get the edge over the enemy, the 3rd called in air support. They called in the Hog. They called in a giant machine gun with wings. They called in Captain Kim “Killer Chick” Campbell.
Flying through a dust storm, Campbell pointed her Warthog directly at the enemy. In the face of RPG, anti-aircraft, and small arms fire, Campbell spun up the GAU-8 Avenger and unleashed a few thousand 30mm rounds at the Iraqi lines. On her second pass, she fired a volley of 2.75-inch HE rockets as AA flak exploded all around her.
Her mission accomplished, and the Marines free to advance, her entire jet was rocked by a sudden explosion. She’d taken a surface-to-air missile to the tail and had lost control. Her hydraulics and horizontal stabilizers totally blown, the A-10 started spiraling toward Baghdad in an unresponsive dive. Thinking quickly, Campbell cut the doomed hydraulics which would’ve surely caused her plane to crash in a city of 11 million people, and switched over to manual piloting mode. I can’t even drive a stick shift.
She regained control of the crippled aircraft and flew out of the danger zone, the whole time taking sporadic AA fire from the Baghdad defenders. For eliminating an entrenched enemy position on a “danger close” mission in the face of a hellish barrage of defensive fire, and saving possibly hundreds of Marines, Campbell received the Distinguished Flying Cross.
She’s frequently asked about something pretty basic: Her gender. On that subject, she says, "Honestly, I never think about it. The important thing is to work really hard and be good at it, and then nobody cares what gender you are. I’m not a female fighter pilot. I’m just a fighter pilot, and I love it."
Well said, Capt. Campbell.
Joseph C. McConnell - F-86 Sabre
Air-to-air combat speed in WW2 was on average about 300 mph, so try to imagine how challenging that can be. Now imagine doing it twice as fast. In the Korean War, the F-86 Sabre was the American’s air superiority workhorse, with a top speed of 685 mph.
Captain Joseph McConnell was the first American jet-on-jet fighter ace, and remains to this day the top-scoring American jet ace of all time.
Before finding his groove in the F-86, McConnell flew 60 combat missions in a B-24 Liberator during World War II. Wanting to make a bigger difference, he decided serving on a crew wasn’t putting his talents to good use. He wanted to be in the cockpit.
Three years after the war ended, he earned his USAF pilot wings. Four years after that, he shot down six enemy MiGs in a four-month period in Korea. After one bout of furious air-fighting, McConnell’s jet was shot down and he was forced to eject over the Yellow Sea. A helicopter rescued him from the frigid water shortly after and brought him back to base. Instead of hanging up his flight jacket as one might be expected to do after nearly dying, McConnell showed up the next day, got into a new jet, and shot down another MiG.
Shortly after becoming an ace, McConnell met President Eisenhower and received the Distinguished Service Cross. He would go on to claim a total of 16 air-to-air victories during his time with the 39th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron.
After his last combat tour, McConnell went on to test experimental aircraft for the Air Force. Unfortunately, he died at the age of 32 testing what was intended to be a nuclear-capable fighter-bomber.
Vermont Garrison - P-51 Mustang
Besides having one hell of an American name, Vermont Garrison was an all-around terror in the skies.
On his first try, he washed out of advanced flight training with the US Army. He really wanted his flight wings, so he decided to get them from a completely different country, promptly enlisting in the Royal Air Force. He earned his wings, and went to work training British pilots. He did such a great job that when he returned to the US Army and applied again, they promptly assigned him to the 4th Fighter Group, where he recorded his first combat victory behind the barrel of a B-17’s machine gun.
A few months later, Garrison was where he found his rhythm: Under the bulbous, beautiful cockpit of a P-51 Mustang. At one point in his career, he flew alongside nine P-51s when more than sixty German fighters attacked the bombers he was escorting. Nine versus sixty.
The Americans gave it their all, and Garrison shot down one enemy plane and crippled another, but he was forced to bug out when his squadron took heavy losses. Limping back to base, his plane was hit by AA fire and Garrison bailed out. He was captured by the Germans and endured two brutal weeks of interrogation before being sent to a POW camp.
Liberated in 1945, Garrison enjoyed eight years of peacetime before being called upon once again to fight. Like Joseph McConnell, Garrison’s skills behind the stick of the P-51 served him well in the cockpit of the new F-86 Sabre jet fighter. He took down nine enemy MiGs during his Korean War service. At one point, he led four aircraft on a ludicrous Mach 1 dive and each member of his team claimed a victory that day.
Dan Hampton - F-16 Fighting Falcon
The motto of the Wild Weasels, the aviation community in which Col. Dan Hampton made his mark, is “You’ve Gotta Be Shitting Me,” and for good reason: Their jobs are borderline suicidal. A Wild Weasel is a fighter pilot who attacks surface-to-air missile sites. Imagine trying to attack something specifically designed to destroy you. Sure, an F-16 has enough armament on board to give you a fighting chance, but you’re still heading straight for something that has the sole purpose of killing you.
Col. Dan Hampton had the guts to fly that F-16. Described by many as “America’s most experienced F-16 pilot,” Hampton’s call sign was Two Dogs during his tenure in the US Air Force.
In 2003, when US Marines were pinned down by enemy fire in Nasiriya, Hampton risked an approaching sandstorm to provide support. Just a few hundred feet off the ground, he spun up the jet’s 6-barrel M61A1 Vulcan gatling gun and unleashed a devastating volley of 20mm rounds at the Iraqi lines. Vehicles exploded, Iraqi fighters died, or dodged for cover. On his second pass, Hampton destroyed the rest of them, arguably saving the lives of the pinned-down Marines. This sortie won him the Distinguished Flying Cross, a commendation he would go on to earn three more times during his career.
Hampton flew 151 combat missions between the Gulf War and Operation: Iraqi Freedom. He scored 21 Wild Weasel kills on enemy SAM sites. He was also one of a small number of pilots entrusted to patrol US airspace in the days after 9/11. “Never in a million years had I thought I’d be flying combat air-patrol missions in my own county,” he wrote in his memoir.
When asked about the Department of Defense’s current push toward unmanned drone combat, Dan “Two Dogs” Hampton replied, “If and when we go to war against someone who fights back, drones aren’t going to cut it. You’re going to need guys like me.”
Cesar Rodriguez - F-15 Eagle
Air-to-air combat became a thing of the past after the war in Vietnam. Even during that conflict, planes meeting each other in battle was a relatively rare occurrence. So for an F-15 pilot to be credited with three air-to-air kill in the 90s, that’s quite a feat. Cesar “Rico” Rodriguez is that pilot.
On the third morning of the Gulf War, Rodriguez and his wingman Craig “Mole” Underhill were flying to a target when they encountered several Iraqi MiG 29s. Mole managed to take out the first MiG with a Sidewinder missile. Knowing his wingman was dead, the second Iraqi pilot attempted a Split-S maneuver to prevent Rico from getting a lock on him. But Rico had positioned his plane perfectly, to put pressure on the pilot, and scared the Iraqi into a costly mistake: The pilot was only 600 feet above the desert, and in his fright, flew his plane directly into the ground. Rodriguez was credited with a maneuver kill.
His second kill during the Gulf War occurred when he flew with a formation of four F-15s that got the jump on several fleeing MiGs. Imagine being an Iraqi pilot, and looking up through a hole in the clouds and seeing a hellish rain of four Sidewinder missiles like lightning bolts from God. Each missile did their job, and Rodriguez’s was one of them, the enemy MiG blowing to pieces over the desert.
Rodriguez’s third and final kill came eight years later during the Kosovo campaign. In pitch black darkness over a war-plagued region, Rodriguez and his squadron flew out to attack a Serbian SAM site. Picking up an enemy fighter on AWACS, Rodriguez launched a state-of-the-art AMRAAM missile, a “fire and forget” weapon. But Rodriguez flew alongside the free-floating missile as long as he could. And then, like a wolf picking up the scent of blood, the missile engine engaged and bolted toward its target. Seconds later, a massive fireball lit up the night sky. Tally up air-to-air kill number three for Cesar “Rico” Rodriguez, widely considered to be America’s “Last Ace.”