Rear Adm. Edward Feightner, a Navy air ace of World War II who shot down nine Japanese planes while flying propeller-driven fighters, then played a prominent role in the testing and development of postwar Navy jets, died Wednesday at a senior living facility in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. He was 100.
In his 34 years of Navy service as a combat pilot in the Pacific, an instructor and a test pilot, Feightner flew more than 100 types of planes.
While he was a junior Navy officer, he twice shot down three Japanese planes on a single day and took part in battles in the Solomon Islands, the Caroline Islands, the Marianas and the Philippines.
In the late 1940s, he became one of the early Navy test pilots, flying or analyzing the systems for fighters, transports, helicopters and just about any other type of aircraft envisioned by the Navy.
He became head of the Navy's fighter design program and was twice awarded the Legion of Merit for his testing and administrative activities. He received four Distinguished Flying Crosses for his combat exploits.
In the early 1950s, Feightner was a member of the Navy's Blue Angels, whose close-formation flying and acrobatics thrilled crowds at air shows.
Edward Lewis Feightner was born in Lima, Ohio, on Oct. 14, 1919, one of four children. He grew up in nearby Elida, where his extended family had dairy farms. While he was attending Findlay College in Ohio in the late 1930s, a pilot for an Ohio oil company gave him a ride in a Ford TriMotor, a popular passenger and transport plane, and let him take the controls for a few hours.
Fascinated by flight, Feightner joined the civilian pilot training program, which was creating a pool of prospective military pilots as war loomed.
One day in April 1941, he was with a fellow flight student at the airport near the Findlay campus when he was impressed by a scene that sold him on naval aviation.
"I had already signed up for the Army Air Corps, and they had a little wait before we could go in," Feightner recalled in 2005. "One day an airplane landed at the airport and a guy walked into the hangar wearing Navy whites, and a yellow convertible comes screeching around the hangar and a blonde jumps out and gives him a big smooch, and off they went."
The flight instructor, seeing how captivated they were, suggested that they check out a Navy air training center in Michigan. "We went up there and found out what the Navy stuff was all about and they said, 'Hey, we'll take you this afternoon,' " Feightner said. "So we signed up."
He entered active duty after graduating from Findlay in 1941, received his wings in April 1942 and was assigned to a squadron in Hawaii and commanded by fighter pilot Butch O'Hare, a Medal of Honor recipient and one of America's early war heroes. Lt. Cmdr. O'Hare nicknamed him Whitey as a little joke, since he turned deep red instead of tanning in the Hawaiian sun. He was known as Whitey Feightner thereafter.
(Chicago's airport is named after O'Hare, who was killed in action in 1943.)
Feightner was credited with his first "kill" when he shot down a Japanese dive bomber off the Santa Cruz Islands in October 1942. He downed three torpedo bombers off Rennell Island on Jan. 30, 1943, and became an ace (a pilot with at least five kills) when he shot down a Zero fighter off the Palau island chain in March 1944.
He shot down another Zero off Truk Lagoon in April 1944 and downed three Zeros off Formosa (now Taiwan) on Oct. 12, 1944.
He had many close calls (though never a crash) both in combat and as a test pilot. In one, he came under fire on a reconnaissance fight over the Mariana Islands in June 1944, returning to his carrier with more than 170 shrapnel holes in his Hellcat fighter. In another, in 1951, while testing a Cutlass fighter, he made a hard landing on the deck of the carrier Midway off the Virginia coast, causing the fuselage to crack just behind the cockpit.
"If you can't stay calm and focused in a crisis, you have no business being a fighter pilot," he told Investor's Business Daily in 2015. "It's a matter of life and death, not only for you but those you're defending."