A 95-year-old, 29 1/2-year veteran famous for being the single-known ace to achieve victories against both German and Japanese aircraft during WWII and later becoming a stunt pilot for 20th Century Fox film “Tora Tora Tora” in 1969, flew his 100th aircraft above “the birthplace of naval aviation,” July 9.
Retired Cmdr. Dean “Diz” Laird served in WWII, Korea and Vietnam, operated in 175 combat and training missions, served on 12 different carriers, flew in the Navy’s first jet squadron, was the first person to land a jet-powered aircraft aboard USS Midway and has the most arrested landings on a straight-deck carrier.
“I want to thank everyone who took part in making this happen,” said Laird. “When I found out that I was going to be able to do this, I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it.”
Laird added that flying his 100th plane wasn’t for an achievement, medal or trophy. He wanted to set this milestone for himself.
Laird flew in the rear seat of a T-34C Turbomentor with Lt. Cmdr. Nicole Johnson, a fleet replacement squadron instructor pilot with the “Flying Eagles” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 122.
“I was so excited and honored to fly with a true legend, how many people can say they flew with ‘Diz’ Laird,” said Johnson. “Then he had to make me look bad by being a better pilot at 95 [years old]. It is men like this that paved the way for the rest of us.”
She continued to say that “aviation is a lot different now from what it was, especially when you think about how he is an ace. We train for air-to-air combat our whole career, but very rarely, in this day and age, does that actually happen. It’s phenomenal to have just had a conversation and fly with him. It’s fantastic and an honor.”
She added that flying 100 different aircraft is a tremendous achievement for any pilot. In comparison, Johnson has flown only 15 aircraft in her 12-year career as a pilot.
The 95-year-old legend had some words of advice for younger naval aviators. He said that his “policy has always been that every fighter pilot has two main assets once they’re airborne. One is altitude and the other is speed. Never give up one, without gaining something on the other.”
During the flight Laird and Johnson flew off the coast of San Diego for a little bit of sightseeing followed by conducting a few aileron rolls in a training area before coming in for a landing.
Laird has been recognized on Coronado’s Avenue of Heroes and continues to actively participate in Naval Aviation organizations.