Corky Meyer, test pilot

Corky Meyer at the controls for the first flight of Grumman’s XF9F-2 jet fighter over Long Island, N.Y., 1947 (Grumman Aircraft Engineering)

Corky Meyer got serious about building and flying model airplanes while a student at Springfield High School in 1936.

He had no way to guide his models, though, so he had to chase them by car until they ran out of gas and crashed – including, spectacularly, one that whizzed past the Statehouse dome and pancaked on the high school roof.

It was a preview of Meyer’s eventual career as one of the U.S.’s top test pilots. Beginning at age 22, Corwin Henry Meyer (1920-2011) spent 35 years as a test pilot and top executive with the Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation (later Grumman Aerospace).  Among the World War II/Korean War prototype fighter aircraft Meyer put through their paces were the F6F Hellcat, F8F Bearcat and F7F Tigercat, along with Grumman’s TBF Avenger torpedo bomber.

Meyer with one of his models, May 1936 (Courtesy State Journal-Register)

Some of those planes met the same fate as the balsa-wood models Meyer built at home in Springfield: Meyer’s test-pilot record included 11 crashes. However, he was never injured, Meyer told State Journal-Register reporter Elizabeth Bettendorf in 1995:

Fortunately, I did it gently. … I’ve lucked out, and the good Lord has been very kind to me. But if I had constantly worried about the danger, I would never have done it. My only fear has been the thought of never getting into a cockpit again.

Meyer got his pilot’s license at age 17, via the federal Civilian Pilot Training Program. Craig Isbell, one of the fathers of aviation in Springfield, taught Meyer and other fledgling pilots at Southwest Airport.

“This guy is the reason I made aviation a career,” Meyer told Bettendorf. “In those days, a lot of flight instructors were bombastic or they drank. But Isbell wasn’t like that. He always wore a suit and tie, and he spoke softly. He was really persnickety about flying safely.”

After his SHS graduation, Meyer attended the University of Illinois and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Still without a college degree, he spent a brief period as a pilot trainee with Pan American Airways, then joined Grumman. Over the next 36 years with the company, Meyer evaluated more than 125 military and civilian aircraft.

Meyer took on supervisory roles with Grumman after World War II, but he remained one of the company’s top test pilots even as Grumman evolved to build jet aircraft. He flew one of the first swing-wing carrier jets, the XF10F-1 Jaguar (it never went into production), and made the first flight in a prototype of Grumman’s eventual F11F Cougar Tiger.

Meyer’s signal achievement as a test pilot may have been in 1954, when he was the first civilian pilot ever qualified to fly on and off a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier.

Grumman executive, undated (Grumman)

Meyer retired from Grumman in 1978, having served as vice president in charge of manufacturing, flight test, and quality control and on Grumman’s board of directors. He also was president of a Grumman subsidiary that manufactured light civilian aircraft and Gulfstream corporate jets. Meyer went on to become CEO of Enstrom Helicopter Corp. and Falcon Jet Corp.

Meyer’s zest for flying also came through in his writing – aside from articles for aviation publications, he wrote an autobiography, Corky Meyer’s Flight Journal: A Test Pilot’s Tales of Dodging Disasters – Just in Time, published in 2005; as of this writing in April 2024, a few copies were available on Amazon, starting at $45.

Here’s an excerpt from an article Meyer wrote for the magazine Flight Journal in 2002.

It involves the airshow put on at the opening of New York City’s Idlewild Airport (today’s JFK Airport) on Aug. 1, 1948. Among the half-million people in attendance was President Harry Truman. Meyer’s memory:

The Navy was given only half an hour for its complete revue … Mine was the last act, and I was to make a single, low-altitude pass in front of the President’s stand. The new (F9F) Panther jet was to be the crème de la crème of the Navy’s segment.

With the unknown help of heat and humidity from ocean-fed water areas around Idlewild, a massive white, visible shockwave completely enveloped the rear of the Panther during my 625 mph (0.82 Mach) very low pass over the President’s stand. It continued until I had disappeared in a steep climb-out. I wasn’t aware of it until I was told about it after landing.

I still have a copy of the following day’s issue of The New York Times. The front-page headlines declared: “Truman Dedicates Idlewild Airport; Hails it as the ‘Front Door’ for the UN.” Right under that was, “Navy Steals Show. Navy Experimental Jet in Spectacular Run. Eyes Can Scarcely Follow it” – and much, much more. I ate it up – humbly, of course.

Early the next day, Grumman received an urgent message from Washington that the Navy’s premier test pilot, Capt. Fred Trapnell, would fly the remaining airshows instead of a “civilian” pilot. I was un-delighted. A few hours later, the Navy relented because Trapnell told them that he had no Panther flight experience. He recommended that I continue to perform the remaining four shows, and this I did with great pleasure. What an ego trip!

Meyer and his wife Dorothy (who inevitably, and unfortunately, got the nickname “Dorky”) lived in Florida in retirement. Even then, Meyer bought an old TBM Avenger, a variation of the TBF that had been his first test aircraft, and with a mechanic friend, Art Miller, spent 3½ years restoring it. Meyer took the retired warbird to the air for the first time in 1994.

“The very second I felt the landing gear hit the lock-up after takeoff I felt like I had test flown another Avenger only a few hours before,” he told HistoryNet. “The smells, noises, vibrations, and the picture view from the cockpit all came back to me, and it was spellbinding.”

Meyer was named an Honorary Naval Aviator in 1997. He is in the Carrier Aviation Test Pilot Hall of Fame and was named to the Aerospace Walk of Honor in 1999. Meyer also was a fellow and founder of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots.

At his death, Corky Meyer’s ashes were spread, as he requested,  over Leeward Air Ranch in Florida.

More information: Corky Meyer discusses his career at Grumman in a YouTube video recorded in 1997 (audio is imperfect).

Hat tip: Peter C. Meyer, son of Corwin and Dorothy Meyer, for responding to a SangamonLink question.

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society. Learn how to support the Society. 


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