Famously, the late Chuck Yeager said that Bud Anderson was “the best fighter pilot I ever saw.” And coming from General Yeager, that’s saying a lot. But it hardly comes close to capturing the whole picture. Anderson, the sole surviving triple fighter ace, has done it all and then some.
Anderson was born on Jan. 13, 1922, in Oakland, California. He grew up on a farm and, at the age of 7, got his first look at aviation when his father took him out to a small dirt airfield, where the youngster got a ride in a Stearman open-cockpit biplane. Anderson later described the flight as “intoxicating, exciting and a little frightening.” He was hooked, and at the age of 19, he learned to fly in a Piper J-3 Cub through the Civilian Pilot Training Program.
After enlisting as an aviation cadet at 21, the minimum age, Anderson progressed from flying Stearman open-cockpit biplanes up to the AT-6 Texan. From there it was, as every new pilot knew, off to war, and Anderson soon got his orders to Europe, where he quickly proved his mettle and joined the 357th Fighter Group, whose pilots were flying the new North American P-51 Mustang. Anderson gave his Mustang the nickname Old Crow, after the famous bourbon. The mission was to escort B-17s to targets deep inside Germany. The risk was enormous. More than half of the original 28 pilots didn’t return from their missions.
But Old Crow carried him through two combat tours, 116 combat missions and 480 hours of flying without ever being hit by Luftwaffe aircraft or turning back for any reason. And he completed those two tours in less than a year, racking up 16 victories in the air and destroying another aircraft on the ground. He returned to the States as an ace and a major at the age of 23.
Even though Anderson wouldn’t fly against the Luftwaffe again, he jumped at the chance to do test flying, and early on, he spent time in Alaska testing the then-new North American F-82 Twin Mustang. But far faster planes were in his future as an Air Force test pilot.
The new job was in many ways just as risky as combat, and Anderson lost more friends in flying tests, some of which he also flew, including flying a jet fighter that was launched and retrieved from the mammoth B-36. Anderson acted as a fighter test pilot from 1948 to 1953. He later became chief of the Fighter Flight Test Section at Wright-Patterson and later at Edwards Air Force Base, during some of the headiest years in Edwards’ history.
In 1970, after commands in Korea and Japan, the 48-year-old flew combat strikes in Vietnam against Viet Cong supply lines as a wing commander. He named every plane Old Crow, after his beloved Mustang.
In 1972, after 30 years of service, Anderson retired as a colonel and move back to Edwards, at McDonnell Aircraft Company’s Flight Test Facility there. He retired in 1998.
Anderson’s long and illustrious career included over 7,000 flight hours in more than 100 types of aircraft. He was decorated 25 times for his service to his country, including five Distinguished Flying Crosses. He has been inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame, the International Air & Space Hall of Fame and the EAA Warbirds Hall of Fame, among numerous others.
Anderson, 99, is also one of the best public speakers on the planet. His stories put you in the cockpit with him as he recalls some of the most harrowing experiences any pilot could imaginably have been through, though few would have had the skill and guts and talent to emerge unscathed on the other side.
Read about another Incredible Pilot: Bessie Coleman