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Tony LeVier - Test Pilot


Tony LeVier posed with helmet resting on his knee, dressed in flight gear in the cockpit of a plane.
Tony LeVier wearing his flight gear.

One of the nation’s leading test pilots, Anthony W. “Tony” LeVier was born “Anthony Puck” in Duluth, Minnesota on February 14, 1913. His father was architect Anthony W. Puck, and his mother, Aloysia Evans was the daughter of a Great Lakes ship engineer. It is perhaps unsurprising then that Tony LeVier found himself drawn to innovation and technology.


When Tony was only 6 years old, his mother moved him and his sister Nancy to California, believing that the warm climate would be beneficial for the family’s health. Tony’s father was unable to make the trip due to tuberculosis, to which he succumbed shortly after the family had moved. Aloysia later remarried to Oscar LeVier, who gave Tony and Nancy his name.


Tony LeVier sits on top of the cockpit of a stationary F-104.
Tony LeVier sitting on an F-104.

By the early age of fifteen, LeVier was touched with the desire to fly. In the late 1920s in Whittier, California he began flying World War I Jennies and De Havillands. Uninspired by his school studies, LeVier dropped out of high school in order to pursue a full-time career in aviation. At seventeen, he had already built and flown his own glider. When he was nineteen, he was on his way to fame as a racing pilot, an acrobatics specialist and a barnstormer.


In 1935, he helped form the E-Z Flying School, and later the Coast Flying Academy. LeVier ultimately abandoned these projects though. Racing planes was a lot more profitable than teaching others to fly. His trophies include first places for the national 1938 Greve Trophy Race, the 1938 Pacific International Air Races and the 1947 Sohio Trophy Race.


LeVier’s racing career was interrupted in 1939 as war loomed in Europe. With Britain in desperate need of aircraft, and later when America entered World War II, industries across the United States turned to developing new war machines and weapons. After obtaining his instrument rating, LeVier went to work as a test pilot, first for Douglas Aircraft’s B-19 project, and then later for General Motors to test a new engine developed by Charles F. Kettering.


In 1941, LeVier was offered a job with Lockheed in Burbank, California. LeVier had previously worked in association with Lockheed to ferry Hudson bombers to the Royal Air Force. He began test flying Hudsons and Venturas, at one time managing to safely land a Ventura in a field crowded with boxes after its landing gear failed to extend.


LeVier was given the role of Project Test Pilot for the P-80 Shooting Star in 1944. Lockheed’s P-80 Shooting Star was America’s first jet-propelled tactical aircraft, and one of the most important aircraft developments at the time. After working on the P-38 dive tests, this was LeVier’s first major project with Lockheed.


XP-80A aircraft sitting on the ground. Pilot Tony LeVier sitting in the cockpit shaking hands with Kelly Johnson who stands outside of the plane.
Tony Levier in the XP-80A shaking hands with engineer Kelly Johnson.

In those days before widespread use of computers, test pilots were critical to the development of aircraft. LeVier and other pilots were the main method for gathering data on the planes. As the Shooting Star was a brand new plane with a brand new engine design that had never been tested, LeVier understood the enormity of his responsibility as test pilot.


He began with the XP-80, which was equipped with the well established Halford engine. The first flight with the XP-80 was brief and uneventful, but LeVier would later describe it as the most pleasurable flight of his career. He was impressed by the craft’s speed, over 500 mph, and how easily it handled. However, the XP-80A had the never-before-tested I-40 engine, and as LeVier discovered, needed significant work.


The XP-80A was much heavier than the XP-80, and required testing to move off of Rogers Dry Lake. Unlike the gentle XP-80, the XP-80A was prone to over-rotate, and poured a lot of heat into the cockpit. A faulty pressurization valve was pumping 325 degree fahrenheit air into the cockpit, but this wasn’t discovered until several flights later. LeVier recalled later that on the third flight, he was unable to grasp either the throttle or control stick, because the cockpit was too scorching. He came back from the tests, soaked in sweat, and once with blisters down his left arm.


In developing new engine technology, Lockheed had fixed many of the problems with old engines, but created many new ones. The XP-80A continued to pose problems throughout the development process, and the United States government was pushing for the planes to go into production. Pilot Milo Burcham crashed while testing the P-80 and Major Richard Bong died during a low-altitude bailout after engine failure during launch. The planes often lost their propulsive power mid-flight, a situation colloquially known as a “flameout.” Concerning his trouble with the planes, LeVier wrote, “I had so many flameouts on the P-80 that I became an expert at making dead stick landings.”


And though the XP-80 was one of the most enjoyable test flights of LeVier’s career, the P-80 gave him one of the most horrifying experiences. 10,000 feet in the air, while flight testing the duct redesign, “the aircraft suddenly began to shake and pitch downward. [...] The nose yawed to the left violently and the earth and sky became a blur as the plane tumbled out of control towards the ground.” LeVier thought that he was about to hit the ground as a flaming wreck, but as suddenly as the issue occured, the plane slowed enough for LeVier to escape in a parachute. He landed heavily, breaking his back--an injury that would prevent him from flying again until after the war ended.


When a crew came out to clear LeVier’s wreckage, it was discovered that the tail was missing from the plane. The issue was in the turbine wheels, and despite additional failures, the P-80A eventually made it to production. Though not quite ready for combat service in WWII, the planes were used extensively in the Korean War after some redesigns as the F-80.


F-104 on a field with cockpit open. Pilot Tony LeVier sits on the outside of the plane, wearing his flight gear.
Tony LeVier seated on an F-104.

After recovering from his injury, LeVier returned to test flying at Lockheed. He was responsible for special research, flying, and development programs on almost every Lockheed built military-type aircraft from the XP-80 onwards. He performed first flights with many other Lockheed aircraft, including the prototype Saturn, P-80R, prototype Constitution, TF-80C, XF-90C, F-94-A, prototype F-94C, twin-tail T-33-1, XF-104, T-33-B, T2V-1, and the U-2, many of them taking place at Edwards Air Force Base.


As Lockheed’s chief engineering pilot, LeVier was involved in stall and spin programs, dive tests and envelope extensions, supersonic dives, and vertical dives. He has flown more than 240 different types of planes including flights on fifty-three experimental aircraft. LeVier has broken the sound barrier in many different airplanes; he first exceeded Mach one in April 1950 in the Mojave Desert in a F-90.


An F-90 jet flying over farmland. Pilot Tony LeVier can be seen in the cockpit.
Aerial view of an F-90 in flight, Tony LeVier in the cockpit.

In addition to being a test pilot, LeVier has also written books and publications pertaining to flying techniques and flying safety. As an inventor, he was responsible for placing aircraft trim switches on top of control stick grips in jet aircraft, inventing the hot microphone intercom, conceived the first practical afterburner ignition system “Hot Streak” for jet fighters, invented the automatic wing stores releases for military planes, and devised the universal master caution warning light system.


A founding member and Fellow of the prestigious Lancaster-based Society of Experimental Test Pilots, LeVier was the 1969 Pilot of the Year (International Order of Characters), became an honorary member of the American Fighter Aces Association and received its Professional Excellence Award, and was inducted into the Pioneer Aviators Hall of Fame in 1973. After retiring from Lockheed in 1974, LeVier continued to lecture on his experiences. He died on February 6th 1998, from illness just days before his 85th birthday. He survived eight crash landings and an air collision over the course of his career.


Pilot Tony LeVier and his daughter Toni wearing flight gear stand in the cockpit of a stationary F-104.
Tony and his daughter Toni in an F-104.

In honor of his contributions to flight safety, the Society of Experimental Test Pilots presents the Tony LeVier Flight Test Safety Award each. The award honors individuals who have made notable contributions in aerospace that save human lives and improve the safety of aircrafts.


The City of Lancaster honors Tony LeVier with a monument in the Aerospace Walk of Honor. The monument dedicated to LeVier is located on the Southwest corner of Lancaster Boulevard and Ehrlich Avenue. Additionally, the new Residence Inn by Marriott on Lancaster Boulevard, in collaboration with MOAH, has photographs and murals on display of Tony LeVier and many other important figures of the Antelope Valley’s aerospace history.


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Sources:


MOAH Permanent Collections

LeVier, A. W. “Development of the P-80 Shooting Star.” No Date.

The National Aviation Hall of Fame. “Anthony ‘Tony’ LeVier.” https://www.nationalaviation.org/our-enshrinees/levier-anthony/


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