Storied Test Pilot Was 72
He flew more than 250
types of airplanes, and chalked up over 15,000 hours in the air
over a career spanning close to 50 years. He flew dozens of
experimental aircraft... but is best known for his crash-landing in
one of them. His name was known even among the ranks of the Soviet
Union's best pilots... but as a child, he planned to become a
To say Neil R. Anderson was an accomplished pilot would be a
profound understatement... and Aero-News was saddened to learn of
his passing Monday morning, after a bout with cancer. He was
Born December 2, 1933 in Omaha, NE, Anderson was the son of a
career Army soldier. Growing up in Omaha, he planned to one day
enter the priesthood -- even enrolling in Creighton University, a
Jesuit school in the city. But those plans ended when he met a Navy
pilot on campus.
"That was the end of priesthood and Creighton University," he
told the Fort Worth (TX) Star-Telegram in a 1996 interview. "I
said, 'I'm flying.'"
And fly he did... as an active duty Marine Corps pilot until
1958. He then joined the reserves... before retiring in 1974 as a
lieutenant colonel. By 1961, he had earned a degree in aeronautical
engineering... which made him a perfect choice to join General
Dynamics as a test pilot in 1967.
Upon graduation from the test pilot school at Edwards Air Force
Base, Anderson flew versions of the F-111 Aardvark
fighter/bomber... but it was a 1975 flight in the then-new F-16
that earned Anderson's place among the most-storied pilots in a
Anderson was flying the General Dynamics (now Lockheed-Martin)
YF-16 prototype at Carswell AFB, as the plane was competing for the
Defense Department's lightweight fighter contract. Anderson was
returning from a practice run when he discovered one of the main
landing gear wheels wouldn't extend.
It would have been perfectly understandable if Anderson had
chosen to eject from the stricken plane. Knowing how such an event
would likely doom the upstart program, however, Anderson instead
flew around to burn off fuel... before bringing the fighter in for
a belly landing on grass alongside the runway. Not only did
Anderson walk away from the incident... but the plane survived to
fly another day, as well.
"He probably saved the F-16 program by doing that," said John
Fergione, past president of the Society of Experimental Test
Pilots, to the Star-Telegram. "He saved the airplane because he did
not eject out of it. I'd never heard of [a belly landing] in a jet
before. I've seen the video several times. It was spectacular."
The F-16, of course, went on to become the best-selling fighter
plane in history -- and Anderson its best salesman. He later
demonstrated the plane at air shows around the world... where his
name was a legend, even among pilots within the Soviet Union.
Anderson later went on to win in the Unlimited category at Reno
in 1983, flying a modified Sea Fury at 426 mph. Upon his retirement
from Lockheed in 1996, Anderson pursued several endeavors --
including the founding of a DFW-area T-28 Trojan pilots club, and a
group seeking to restore a B-36 Peacemaker bomber.
And now, Neil R. Anderson has gone west... where the skies are
clear, the runways are just the right length... and they have the
greenest grass alongside. Aero-News salutes this legendary aviator,
and passes along on regards to his friends and family.