Famous aviators and pilots from Wisconsin



OSHKOSH – During the summer, the conversation in Oshkosh turns to aviation with EAA AirVenture landing at Wittman Regional Airport, bringing crowds to the city for the weeklong airshow.

Wisconsin has a proud history in flight, from the visionary who helped make Oshkosh synonymous with aviation and World War II aces to astronauts who paved the path to the moon.

We consulted Rose and John Dorsey, curators of the Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame, as well as Michael Goc, who’s written and edited more than 100 books on Wisconsin history, including “Forward in Flight: The History of Aviation in Wisconsin.”

The following is a summary of information from the hall of fame, as well as their research and knowledge of prominent aviators from the state.

James Arthur Lovell Jr.

Jim Lovell is an astronaut from Milwaukee who logged more than 715 hours in space on various missions. He’s best known for his role as the commander of the troubled Apollo 13 mission in 1970 and serving on the crew of Apollo 8, the first to orbit the moon in 1968.

He was born in Cleveland, Ohio and grew up in Milwaukee. He graduated from high school in 1946 and enrolled at the University of Wisconsin where he joined the Navy ROTC program.

Dig Deeper:Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame

EAA 2021: Oshkosh ready for return of AirVenture, attendees

Lovell went on to the Naval Air Training Station at Pensacola, Florida for flight training and graduated from the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland in 1952.

He studied at the Aviation Safety School at the University of South Carolina, where he served as a test pilot for the Navy and was flight and safety instructor for a navy air station in Ocean, Virginia. He logged more than 6,000 hours of flight, more than half of which came in jet aircraft.

NASA selected Lovel to be an astronaut in 1962, and his achievements have been recorded in history books, magazines and movies. most notably when Tom Hanks played Lovell in the movie “Apollo 13.”

“He was not only a Gemini pilot but also the Apollo pilot,” said John Dorsey, a pilot of more than 50 years.

Jean Hauser and her instructor Ed Emanuel

Jean Hauser

Jean Hauser became Wisconsin’s first deaf pilot in 1965.

She grew up in Hartford and West Bend and graduated from the Wisconsin School for the Deaf in 1948. After, she worked at Briggs and Stratton in Milwaukee.

Hauser was born deaf but developed a passion for flying as a young girl and was determined to become a pilot. She started training in 1943 at the Hartford Airport, where her flight instructor, Ed Emanuel, learned American sign language to teach her. He said she was one of the easiest students to teach that he had ever instructed.

Hauser purchased a Cessna 172 in 1965 and flew across Wisconsin and the country. She retired in 1985 after spending 1,400 hours in the pilot’s seat.

“She was not only Wisconsin’s first deaf pilot – there weren’t many deaf pilots period, but to be a woman pilot at that time also was quite a feat,” Dorsey said. “She was a trailblazer.”

Alfred Gorham

Alfred Gorham

Alfred Gorham was the only Tuskegee Airman from Wisconsin and was a prisoner of war after his plane went down over Munich, Germany during World War II.

Gorham grew up in Waukesha and joined the Army Air Force in 1942 where he became a pilot with the Tuskegee Airmen. The Tuskegee Airmen were a group of African American pilots who fought in World War II.

While escorting bombers over Germany in 1944, he crash-landed in Lake Lesina but survived. He also saw action over Budapest, Hungary and shot down two German fighter planes.

In 1945, his plane had engine trouble over Munich, Germany, forcing him to bail out. He was captured and held by the Germans until the end of the war.

Goc said Gorham experienced racism overseas and in the United States.  

“He experienced Jim Crow daily in Alabama, and that was difficult for him,” Goc said. “Being in the German camp wasn’t that much different than being in Tuskegee in the 1940s.”

Janis Sierra

Janis Sierra

Janis Sierra became the first female EMS helicopter pilot in the United States in 1978.

She was born in Milwaukee and raised in Brookfield. While a senior at Brookfield East High School, she came across a pamphlet that outlined joining the Army to earn college money.

Sierra joined the Army and learned to fly helicopters at Fort Rucker, Alabama, where she was the only woman in her flight school class. She became the seventh woman warrant officer helicopter pilot.

Following the Army, Sierra became a charter pilot in Florida and returned to Fort Rucker to teach new Army pilots. She also joined the Army National Guard as a helicopter pilot.

Sierra joined Flight for Life – Emergency Medical Transport and became a Line Pilot in McHenry, Illinois. She transferred to Milwaukee in 1987. Sierra became lead pilot in 2007 and helped move the base to the Waukesha County Airport.

She retired with more than 7,000 flight hours and is currently a commander of her local American Legion Post.

Joshua Sanford

Joshua Sanford

Joshua Sanford was the only Native American combat pilot to serve with the Flying Tigers during World War II. 

He was born near Friendship and graduated from Viroqua High School. He went on to the University of Wisconsin and enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps after the war began.

Sanford was sent to the China-Burma-India theatre, where he became a combat pilot. He served with the famous Flying Tigers, who were officially known as the 68th Composite Wing.

“He was shot down in combat more than once, and he came back and became an airport manager in central Wisconsin,” Goc said. “He is the only Native American that we know of who was a military aviator.”

He was shot down or ditched 12 times. Sanford earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, two Air Medals, the  Purple Heart, five campaign ribbons and presidential and unit citations for his work, which included 102 combat flights.

After the war, Sanford became an electronics engineer for Hallicrafters Corporation in Chicago. He later returned to Hillsboro and started the Sanford Radio and  Electronics Shop.

Sanford was also a manager for the  Reedsburg Municipal Airport, a factory rep for Radio Corporation of America and civil defense director for southwest Wisconsin.

The city of Hillsboro named its airport Joshua Sanford Field in 1993 in his memory.

Paul Poberezny Founder of the Experimental Aircraft Association

Paul Poberezny

Paul Poberezny was a distinguished military pilot and the founder of the Experimental Aircraft Association.

The organization’s fly-in convention, EAA AirVenture, brings more than 700,000 people and 12,000 planes to Oshkosh each year.

Poberezny started the event in 1953 when he founded the organization.

He toured the country and other nations for EAA, spreading a “grass roots” aviation message. Poberezny made trips to Washington, D.C. to speak to congress to advocate for the rights of amateur aircraft builders and sport aviation enthusiasts.

He earned his living as a military pilot and aircraft maintenance officer.

He logged more than 30,000 hours of flight time and piloted nearly 400 different aircraft, including more than 170 amateur-built airplanes. He also designed and built more than 15 airplanes. 

Poberezny’s career includes almost 30 years of military service as a pilot, test pilot and a veteran of both World War II and the Korean War. Before retiring as Lieutenant Colonel, Paul became the only man in the armed forces to earn all seven aviation wings. 

Richard Bong

Richard Bong

Richard Bong was the country’s top fighter ace during WWII, shooting down 40 enemy aircraft in less than two years.

He grew up in Poplar and joined the Army Air Corps in 1941 with a private pilot’s license already in his possession. He earned his second lieutenant’s wings a year later at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona.

Bong experienced combat in 1943 and qualified as an ace in a little more than two weeks. He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and was promoted to captain. He became more famous in 1944 when he earned his 27th victory and a promotion to major.

Goc said Bong was the consummate aviator – he had “the stuff.”

“In order to fly, to be a successful fighter pilot in that era, flying that plane, that P-38 – it required all the skills that a superb pilot had to have,” he said. “He showed his abilities as an aviator through combat. There are other ways to show your abilities, but the hand eye coordination, the ability to turn on a dime – he just had it all.”

Bong was sent home after more than 500 combat hours and 40 confirmed kills. He earned the  Congressional Medal of Honor and the  Australian Distinguished Flying Cross.

He became a test pilot for the Army Technical Service Command. He died in 1945 after his plane crashed during takeoff. He was just 24 years old.

“It was a shame he died,” Goc said. “Had he not been in that crash, he could have been Chuck Yeager.”

Don "Deke" Slayton

‘Deke’ Slayton

Don “Deke” Slayton was a distinguished combat pilot in World War II and the first chief astronaut officer for NASA.

Slayton graduated from Sparta High School and the University of Minnesota. He joined the U.S. Army Air Corps in 142 and flew 56 combat missions as a B-25 pilot over Europe. In 1945, he was sent to Okinawa and completed seven combat missions over Japan.

He studied aeronautical engineering after the war while serving as a member of the Minnesota Air National Guard. He was hired by Boeing in 1949 but left in 1951 when he was recalled to service in the National Guard. 

While a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base in 1955, Slayton got his nickname because two other pilots were named Don. He went by his initials D.K., which got shortened to “Deke.”

Slayton was ordered to Washington D.C. in 1959 for a classified briefing, where he and six others were named NASA Mercury astronauts.

He logged 217 hours in his first space flight. He was also part of a team that took part in the first meeting between American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts in space.

Slayton has been awarded four NASA Distinguished Service Medals, two NASA Outstanding Leadership Medals and the Collier Trophy.

Sylvester “Steve” Wittman is being inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2014. The former Oshkosh man spent 38 years as manager of the Winnebago County airport, which now carries his name.

Steve Wittman

Sylvester “Steve” Wittman was a manager of the Oshkosh Airport and an avid air racer, despite having limited vision in one eye.

Wittman grew up in Byron and graduated from Fond du Lac High in 1924. He wanted to be an aeronautical engineer or designer because he thought his vision would prevent him from being a pilot.

Despite the disability, Wittman learned to fly the same year and even built a plane from a Harley Davidson engine, but it vibrated so much, he had to scrap the design. 

He operated a flying service in Fond du Lac, giving rides at celebrations and county fairs. He was also a test pilot for the Pheasant Aircraft Company in Fond du Lac and the Dayton Aircraft Company in Ohio.

Wittman competed in his first air race in 1926 in Milwaukee, the beginning of a racing career that would span 60 years. He competed in more closed course races than anyone in air racing history.

Wittman became manager of the Oshkosh Airport in 1931 while running Wittman Flying Service. He also designed, built and raced several air planes throughout his career.

During World War II, Wittman Air Service put 103 pilot candidates through training. It also provided an Army indoctrination course for 699 pilots during 1943 and 1944.

In the 1950s, Wittman convinced Paul Poberezny to hold EAA’s annual convention at the Oshkosh Airport.

The airport was named in honor of Wittman, and in 1975 the state put up a historical marker at the Wittman Regional Airport to honor his accomplishments.

William Mitchell

Billy Mitchell

William “Billy” Mitchell was a general, combat pilot and controversial leader who advocated for a stronger air force.

He grew up in West Allis, enlisted in the Army during the Spanish-American War and rose through the ranks. Mitchell got interested in military aviation and learned to fly, serving with American Expeditionary Force in France in World War I.

He participated in 14 air campaigns. After the war, he was made director of military aviation for the Army.

Mitchell was convinced the Army needed a stronger bombing force, while other officers thought the Navy’s ships were most important to national defense. He spoke across the country and challenged the Navy to put one of its ships against one of his smaller bomber forces.

In 1921, the Navy made several captured German vessels available for target practice, which led Mitchell to convince the Army to develop a 2,000-pound bomb. His bombers used them to successfully sink one of the ships in 25 minutes.

Mitchell recriminated his superiors after the successful demonstration, and he was convicted of insubordination by a court martial. He resigned from the Army and continued his criticisms.

Resistance to Mitchell’s ideas slowed the advance of military aviation. General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee is named after him.



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