Rear Adm. Edward L. 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 on Wednesday in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. He was 100.
His death, at a senior living facility, was confirmed by his nephew Jim McBride, with whom he had been living in Coeur d’Alene.
In his 34 years of Navy service, as a combat pilot in the Pacific, an instructor and a test pilot, Admiral 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 test pilots at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland. He flew or analyzed the systems for fighters, transports, helicopters and just about any other type of aircraft envisioned by the Navy.
He became the 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, Admiral 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 of Amos Feightner, a tool and die maker for a steam locomotive company, and Mary (Roth) Feightner, a homemaker.
Edward grew up in nearby Elida, where his extended family had dairy farms. While he was attending Findlay College (now the University of Findlay) in Ohio in the late 1930s, a pilot for an Ohio oil company who ran a nearby airport gave him a ride in a Ford Tri-Motor, a popular passenger and transport plane of the time, and let him take the controls for a few hours.
Fascinated by flight, he joined the civilian pilot training program, which was creating a pool of prospective military pilots as war loomed. He received his private pilot’s license in 1940.
One day in April 1941, he was at the airport near the Findlay campus with a fellow flight student 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,” Admiral Feightner recalled in an interview for the Virginia Military Institute 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 young men’s 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,’” Admiral 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 based in Hawaii and commanded by the fighter pilot Butch O’Hare, a Medal of Honor recipient and one of America’s early war heroes. Lieutenant Commander 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.
(Butch O’Hare was killed in action in 1943. Chicago’s international airport is named for him.)
Admiral 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 in April 1944 and downed three Zeros off Formosa (now Taiwan) on Oct. 12, 1944.
He was promoted to rear admiral in 1970 and retired four years later, becoming a corporate consultant to the Navy.
His wife, Violet (Volz) Feightner, died in 2015. They had no children. His three sisters died before him.
Admiral Feightner 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.
“It sounded like someone had taken a board and slapped it down vertically on the wing,” he was quoted as saying by Peter B. Mersky in “Whitey: The Story of Rear Admiral E.L. Feightner, a Navy Fighter Ace” (2014). “The crack was wide enough so that you could see through it.”
“If you can’t stay calm and focused in a crisis, you have no business being a fighter pilot,” Admiral Feightner told Investor’s Business Daily in 2015. “It’s a matter of life and death, not only for you but those you’re defending.”