On the surface, the question seems simple. But deeper down it is as subjective as it is unanswerable. Nevertheless, we can try: after all, there is quite a lot of serious research that attempts to define and measure fame.
There are many ways to do that though. The simplest and the most widely used one is to check the search results on your favorite search engine.
Google book Ngram viewer is another great tool, allowing to check how often a pilot is mentioned in digitalized books within the last half of the millennium. Yet another way to check their fame is by comparing mentions on Wikipedia, for which there are dedicated tools and databases.
But to use all those statistics we have to know what to look for. Fortunately, the aviation community is quite obsessed with pilots already, therefore there are all kinds of lists compiled: from most important aviation pioneers to most revered flying aces to most bellowed celebrity pilots. The Wright brothers, Louis Bleriot, Charles “Chuck” Yeager, Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh are a constant presence amongst the lists, as are Erich Hartmann, Manfred Von Richthofen, James Doolittle and most recently – Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger.
What we have to remember is that some pilots are famous for reasons other than piloting. All the space pioneers were pilots – including Yuri Gagarin, John Glenn, Alan Shepard and Neil Armstrong. Quite a few of political leaders, including former US presidents and European monarchs, can fly too. Yet the fame of George VI or George H. W. Bush is a bit different, therefore, they have to be judged separately. As do, well, other famous people who happen to have a pilot’s license.
With the basics explained, let’s do some measuring.
Pilots as pilots
Punching in a full name into Google and looking at the number of results the engine found is a great thing. Amongst those thousands and millions of entries the engine’s algorithm has visited pretty much everything can be found: from encyclopedia entries to social media posts and from fan pages to public databases. The scope of all of that shows how deeply the name was entrenched in the collective human memory, and as a proxy – how famous the bearer of that name is.
And, according to Google, the most famous pilot is none other but Amelia Earhart. The world’s largest search engine found approximately 5.7 million pages where she was mentioned, a far cry from most of her colleagues. The closest rival to Earhart was the Red Baron with just a bit over 5 million pages. No doubt, a result of some great marketing, as the real name of the world’s most famous flying ace – Manfred Von Richthofen – returned less than 700,000 pages. The Wright brothers (3.3 million) took third place.
Case solved, right? Not really.
Both Bing, Microsoft’s search engine, and Baidu, the Chinese rival to Google (and, in turn, third-largest search engine) beg to differ. According to Bing, Red Baron lead the race with 2.79 million results, while the Wright brothers were second (2.44 million) and Amelia Earhart was a close third (2.41 million).
Results on Baidu were similar. Wright brothers took the lead there, followed by the Red Baron, in both English and Chinese language searches. Strikingly, WW2 German flying ace Erich Hartmann came third in Chinese searches, while James Doolittle, the mastermind behind the daring Doolittle raid, took the third place if you search in English.
In general, the Wright brothers were seemingly much better known as brothers, as their individual names showed very low results. Wilbur Wright (1 million results on Google, 0.5 million results on Bing) and Orville Wright (0.9 million results on Google, 0.4 million results on Bing) certainly work better as a team. Charles “Chuck” Yeager, the first person to break the sound barrier in level flight, was much better known as simply Chuck Yeager (1.57 million vs 0.4 million) too.
Also, there is a question of Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. His full name showed very low results, while the call sign “Sully” just went through the roof with 28.7 million search results. Sure, it is both a movie and a word with its own meaning, and separating those three things is near impossible. Nevertheless, we can count this situation as yet another case of great marketing, this time on Sullenberger’s part.
But what about other tools, besides search engines? There is the Pantheon project, which aims to rank people according to their prominence on Wikipedia. According to its Memorable Pilots list, Charles Lindbergh – the first man to cross the Atlantic Ocean by plane – was the most famous. Pantheon judges people based on a complex rating which includes references, page views and other things, but if we go by references alone, Amelia Earhart emerged again – her name was mentioned 91 times across Wikipedia, versus Lindbergh’s 73. Sabiha Gökçen, the world’s first female fighter pilot, came third in both cases.
But we need something to seal the deal, right? So, let’s find an even more authoritative source. Books. Google Ngram viewer, as discussed, shows the prominence of certain keywords in books through the ages. And according to that tool, the results were as such:
Image: Google Ngram Viewer
So, the Wright brothers have been leading the race at least since the 1960s – that is, when people started forgetting their individual names. Through the same period, Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart were engaged in a constant dogfight for second place, Charles came out on top in the last two decades.
So, the winners are clear. Overall, the Wright brothers are the world’s most famous pilots, yet Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh are the most famous as individuals. The fight between those two was tense, with Amelia trashing everybody else on the world’s largest search engine, while Charles is still holding his own in books, albeit barely.
Case solved, right? Not really. These may be the pilots most famous for their piloting, but there is another group of people famous for their aerial achievements.
Those who fly a bit higher
Dear aviation enthusiasts, we are deeply sorry: spacemen are, quite definitively, more famous than airmen.
Google found 7 million pages where Neil Armstrong is mentioned, 2 million more than Amelia Earhart. Bing found 3.2 million pages with the name of the first moonwalker, while his pal John Glenn came second (2.6 million pages). On Baidu, Neil Armstrong was tied with the Wright brothers at 14 million pages, while John Glenn was the second, and Yuri Gagarin was the third – each one of them had more mentions than Earhart, Lindbergh, Hartmann, Red Baron and Sully combined.
Wikipedia was similarly biased towards outer space. Yuri Gagarin had the highest rating amongst Pantheon’s Memorable astronauts, tied with Neil Armstrong for the amount of references. Both of them were referenced roughly twice more than Earhart or Lindbergh.
To drive the point home, Neil Armstrong also had a significantly higher rating on Google Ngrams, especially after his mentions skyrocketed in recent years.
Image: Google Ngram Viewer
But why are we talking about them? Well, because all three most famous spacemen in the world – Neil Armstrong, John Glenn and Yuri Gagarin – were successful aviators, a profession which no doubt helped them to be chosen for their fame-bringing spaceflights.
So, we can definitively say that Neil Armstrong is the most famous pilot who gained his fame from aviation-related causes. He is also World’s most famous aeronautical engineer, and World’s most famous test pilot.
Case solved, right? Once again, not really. While many aforementioned people were celebrities in their own right, in comparison with some others, they were not celebrities enough.
Those who also fly
Any person who was granted a pilot’s license by an aviation authority is, in fact, a pilot. Not every person follows in Amelia Earhart’s or Neil Armstrong’s steps and becomes famous that way though. Some simply enjoy it, while gaining popularity by other means – performing, ruling a country, or simply having a royal background.
We know that quite a lot of presidents have a license to fly, with the US’ George W. Bush, the most Google-famous of them, having five times more search results for his name than Amelia Earhart. Even more affinity, especially in the aviation community, could be found for celebrities who hold pilot’s licenses – Harrison Ford, Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood among them. They are even more popular than presidents, yet there is one whose fame exceeds all of them by a lot.
According to Google, Angelina Jolie – an actress and a pilot license holder – is one of the most mentioned celebrities on the internet. The search engine found over 55 million search results for her name. Brad Pitt was second with 46.5 million, followed by Prince Harry and Tom Cruise. Bing has its own way, with American TV personality Dr. Phil raking in 41 million search results, followed by Prince Harry (11.4 million) and Angelina Jolie (9.2 million). On Baidu, Angelina Jolie made a comeback, with almost 20 million results in Chinese. However, if we searched in English, Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and Harrison Ford had more mentions.
Neil Armstrong, Amelia Earhart or the Wright brothers are no match for those tens of millions of search results. Fortunately, professional pilots still hold their own in the written word, although if Google Ngrams search included gossip magazines, the result might have been different.
In the end, we have to conclude that actress Angelina Jolie is the world’s most famous person who also holds a pilot’s license.