The top five most heroic flights of all time…

Aviators often know the risks they face with their chosen occupation. But these pilots took on that risk, while bravely ensuring the safety of their dependants…

5. Pressing on                                                                                                      

On the night of November 3, 1943, 21-year-old acting Flt Lt William ‘Bill’ Reid was hurtling through the night skies towards Germany’s Düsseldorf in an Avro Lancaster B.III LM360/QR-O, when the aircraft was battered by fire from a Luftwaffe Messerschmitt Bf 110. Despite the ‘Lanc’ being severely damaged in the onslaught and the rear turret out of action, he continued towards his objective – although he said nothing of the injuries to his head, shoulders, and hands. Soon afterwards, the bomber was pounced on by a Focke-Wulf Fw 190 – pummelling the aeroplane, Reid’s navigator was killed, while the wireless operator was fatally wounded; the flight engineer was also hurt. Despite being hit again and the Lancaster becoming harder to fly, Reid decided to push on yet again. Tasked with attacking the Mannesman Steelworks, the crew released their bombs, then set course for home. Despite being wounded and suffering from a severe loss of blood, Reid managed to crash land at RAF Shipdham, a USAAF-operated base in Norfolk – the Lancaster’s undercarriage collapsing, resulting in the aircraft sliding along the runway. Although the wireless operator later died, the rest of the crew survived due to Reid’s heroic flying. For his actions, William Reid was awarded the Victoria Cross on December 14, 1943, in recognition of his most conspicuous bravery.

William Reid VC
William Reid, VC. Source: WikiMedia Commons

4. The Windsor incident

In 1972, American Airlines Flight 96 from Los Angeles to New York (served by a McDonnell Douglas DC-10 N103AA) was climbing through 11,700ft shortly after taking off when a loud ‘thud’ was heard throughout the aeroplane. Almost immediately all hell broke loose as the cabin depressurised – causing part of the floor to be ripped away. In the cockpit was Capt Bryce McCormick, First Officer Peter ‘Page’ Whitney and Flight Engineer Clayton Burke. At 52 years old, Bryce had ammassed some 24,000 flying hours. Realising there was a major issue, McCormick immediately took control of the aircraft, while flight attendants took oxygen to passengers – the masks having not deployed due to the fact that the aeroplane was below 14,000ft. Despite being forced to land at a dangerously high speed, McCormick remained levelheaded and touched down safely at Detroit’s Metropolitan Wayne County Airport. The cause of the incident was attributed to the rear cargo door breaking off in-flight, which resulted in significant damage to the aeroplane – including the loss of hydraulic systems. Although 11 were injured, the incident incurred zero fatalities and McCormick was branded a hero.

McDonnell Douglas DC-10
An American Airlines McDonnell Douglas DC-10, similar to that involved in the Windsor Incident. Source: WikiMedia Commons

3. Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler Incident

On December 20, 1943, USAAF 2nd Lt Charles ‘Charlie’ Brown was conducting his first mission – a daylight raid on Germany’s Bremen – as an aircraft commander with 8th Air Force’s 379th Bombing Group. Assigned to the 527th Bombardment Squadron, the crew were flying their usual aeroplane – B-17F Flying Fortress 42-3167 Ye Olde Pub. As the bomber growled through the skies, it was quickly jumped by eight Luftwaffe fighters. Bullets tore through the machine, killing the tail gunner, critically injuring most of the other crewmen and heavily damaging the aeroplane. Brown, wounded in the shoulder, blacked out – deprived of oxygen, the B-17 dropped toward the trees below. Assuming that the aircraft was ‘finished’, the German fighters left. Regaining consciousness, Brown struggled to gain altitude. It was at this moment that Luftwaffe pilot Franz Stigler of Jagdgeschwader 27 (JG 27) saw the battered Flying Fortress from the cockpit of his Messerschmitt Bf 109. Flying towards the B-17, he noticed the rear guns hanging limply, and the bullet hole riddled fuselage. Edging closer to Ye Olde Pub, Stigler acknowledged Brown with a wave – unable to verbally communicate with Brown, he signalled for him to turn 180°… towards home! Deciding to escort the battered bomber, he flew with it towards England – despite the chances of running into roaming Allied fighters. As the B-17 approached the North Sea, Stigler turned back, knowing that Brown had a chance of making it home safely. Just before he did though… he threw Brown a salute. 

Franz Stigler and Charlie Brown
Franz Stigler and Charlie Brown. Source: WikiMedia Commons

2. James Howell Howard

On January 11, 1944 Col James Howell Howard of the 356th Fighter Squadron was flying his regular P-51B Mustang – 43-6315 Ding Hao - on his way to provide support for a bomber formation of B-17s. Spotting a hoard of more than two dozen Luftwaffe fighters pouncing on the Flying Fortresses, he immediately turned to the aid of his comrades and launched himself at the enemy – even though he was alone. In the resulting skirmish, Howard destroyed six of them as the B-17 crews watched on in disbelief – some even cheering him on from inside their aircraft! Despite running out of ammunition and being dangerously low on fuel, he persistently continued to fly at the enemy – doing everything he could to distract them while the B-17’s flew towards safety.

James Howell Howard
Col. James Howell Howard in his aircraft, Ding Hao! Source: WikiMedia Commons

1.Wing-walking to live

On March 27, 1918, 18-year-old 2nd Royal Flying Corps pilot Lt Alan Arnett McLeod and his observer Lt Arthur Hammond were flying in an Armstrong Whitworth F.K.8 over Albert, Northern France, when they downed an enemy triplane. In doing so, they were immediately attacked by eight more – three of which they shot down in quick succession. During the fight however, both men were wounded. With a burst of enemy fire puncturing the F.K.8’s fuel tank, the aircraft was soon ablaze. McLeod instantly threw the machine into a violent sideslip as the flames started to scorch him. In an effort to save himself and Hammond, he jumped out of his cockpit on to the left wing and crouched low while keeping the control stick in his right hand. Smashing a hole through the fuselage, he was able to reach the rudder-cable with his left hand. By doing so he managed to manoeuvre the aeroplane in a way to keep the flames away from his wounded observer. When the machine finally crashed, the young pilot – ignoring his own injuries – dragged his crew mate from the burning wreck and, under heavy fire, carried him to comparative safety, before collapsing from exhaustion and loss of blood. McLeod had been wounded three times in the side, while Hammond was hit six times. As a result of his wounds, Hammond lost a leg, but was awarded a Bar to his Military Cross. McLeod received the Victoria Cross for his heroic efforts. Returning home to recuperate, he died after contracting Spanish Influenza. He was just 19 years old.

Alan Arnett McLeod
Lt. Alan Arnett McLeod. Source: WikiMedia Commons