Ohio-born Rear Adm. Edward L. “Whitey” Feightner earned his private pilot license in 1940 just before his 21st birthday and moved to join the Army Air Corps but was told the wait would be upwards of eight months before he could get into a flight program. However, the Navy had no such backlog and an incident gave him some second thoughts about his planned wings of lead.
“I had already signed up for the Army Air Corps, and they had a little wait before we could go in,” Feightner recalled in a VMI interview 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.”
Joining the Navy’s Air Cadet program, from which he earned his wings of gold and a butter bar to go along with it, the young F4F Wildcat pilot received orders for his first squadron– the Screaming Eagles of VF-5 aboard USS Yorktown (CV-5)— only to arrive at Pearl just after she had been sent to the bottom at Midway.
Nonetheless, the homeless nugget was soon absorbed into Butch O’Hare’s VF-3, with the famous ace saddling Feightner with his “Whitey” call sign due to the young ensign’s seemingly impervious ability to not tan in the Pacific sun.
Chopping to the Grim Reapers of VF-10 aboard USS Enterprise, Feightner splashed his first confirmed aerial victory, a Val that was attacking Big E at the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands in August 1942. He would go on to finish the war as an ace, with nine Japanese aircraft to his credit as well as numerous unconfirmed possibles. Most of his kills came in 1944 with Fighting Eight (VF-8) while flying Hellcats from USS Intrepid and USS Bunker Hill.
By 1945, he was an instructor and test pilot, giving a hand in helping to develop just about every classic carrier-borne fighter aircraft for the two next decades to include the Grumman F8F Bearcat, Grumman F7F Tigercat, Vought F7U Cutlass, McDonnell F2H Banshee, Vought F-8 Crusader, North American FJ-4 Fury, McDonald Douglas F4H-1 Phantom II, and others.
In the meantime, he took breaks from that otherwise boring job to fly with the Blue Angels back when the Blues were in Cutlasses, command the Red Rippers of VF-11 as well as Carrier Air Group 10, and skipper the oiler USS Chikaskia (?!) and the helicopter carrier USS Okinawa (LPH-3).
Finishing his career as Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) for Air, he retired in 1974 after 33 years of active duty, contributing his knowledge to the development of the F-14 and F-18 programs.
In short, if a six-foot stack of Tailhook and Proceedings magazines suddenly became sentient, it would be Feightner.
Whitey flew away this week on his final flight to join the assembling legions of the Greatest Generation, aged a ripe 100. Call the ball, sir.