Test pilot extraordinaire, Merced landowner John Myers dead at age 96

LOS ANGELES -- John W. Myers, a Merced County landowner, business executive and renowned test pilot during World War II whose extraordinary flying skills earned him the nickname "Maestro," has died. He was 96.

Myers died in his sleep Thursday at his home in Beverly Hills, said Janice Merriweather, his longtime assistant.

Myers owned Flying M Ranch, a sprawling cattle operation along the eastern side of Merced County.

In 2001, Myers sold some of the ranch land, 1,240 acres, to the Virginia Smith Trust Fund. The land is south of Lake Yosemite and the former Merced Hills Golf Club, now the site of the University of California at Merced campus.

Known as a passionate outdoorsman and an environmentalist, he donated 5,000 acres of land in the Merced area to the Nature Conservancy, meaning that the land use cannot be changed from pasture land.

The land Myers sold is planned for a residential and commercial community with profits flowing into the Smith scholarship fund, which will provide money to valley students to attend the university.

Myers had a close relationship with the university, serving as a trustee on the UC Merced Foundation. He also donated $500,000 to UC Merced for an endowed chair at the Sierra Nevada Research Institute, and $500,000 to establish the Lucia Myers Endowed Scholarship Fund for outstanding young women who have excelled in academics and leadership in honor of his late wife.

Gave up flying his jet at age 90

His impact was far-reaching.

"For us, he was a legend of legends," Barron Hilton, hotel magnate and aviation enthusiast, said in a statement Friday. "He was truly a pioneer and inspired many test pilots who looked up to him as their idol."

Gen. Chuck Yeager, the legendary test pilot who met Myers in 1945 as a young test pilot, agreed.

"He was about 10 years older and a role model for all of us pilots," Yeager said in a statement. "We always looked up to him."

As chief engineering test pilot for Northrop Corp. during WWII, Myers most notably performed experimental test flights on the P-61 Black Widow, America's first successful night fighter, and on the first flying wing.

"John Myers was a true pioneer and legend of aviation who throughout his entire career demonstrated his exceptional flying abilities in all types of aircraft," Gen. Jack Dailey, director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, said Friday.

During the war, Myers nearly died test-flying one prototype aircraft that never made it to production because of its performance.

"In fact," Dailey said, "he told Jack Northrop it wouldn't fly."

But as chief test pilot, "he said, 'If anybody's going to fly it, it's going to be me.' He did it, and he was lucky to survive the crash."

Back then, Dailey said, "They didn't really know if those airplanes would fly or not. They didn't have the computer simulations and sophisticated wind-tunnel data we have today."

Dailey said Myers' philosophy "was that you have to go for it, and you always have to have your head a little bit out the window, meaning you're hanging it out there a bit."

Myers' exceptional skills as a pilot were evident after going to the South Pacific in 1944 to demonstrate the P-61 Black Widow to fighter pilots.

While there, Myers invited Charles Lindbergh to fly in his P-61 to an airstrip in the interior of New Guinea.

They had no trouble landing on the sod strip, but the P-61 that accompanied them came in so fast behind them that it nearly overshot the field, Lindbergh wrote in "The Wartime Journals of Charles A. Lindbergh." The other plane landed before he and Myers were clear of the runway, Lindbergh wrote, and it was moving "so fast and so badly that except for Myers' quick thinking, a serious accident would undoubtedly have taken place."

"Myers kept our plane rolling rapidly along the strip until he had a chance to swing off to the side. ... He kept our plane rolling until the Army crew passed by."

Long after retiring from the business world, Myers continued to fly.

He was 90 when he gave up flying his Cessna Citation II SP jet.

A year before that, Myers took his friend Bill Tilley up in his jet for a flight over Yosemite, with Tilley sitting in the co-pilot's seat that normally was occupied by Myers' black Labrador retriever, Gus, who this time sat in the rear passenger seat.

They were on their way back over the Sierra when the 89-year-old Myers turned to Tilley and said, "I'd like to give you something to talk about."

And that, Tilley recalled Friday, "is when he barrel-rolled his airplane. I said, 'That's a great thrill, John, but please don't do it again. Once is enough.' "

It wasn't until Myers was 93 that he retired from flying his jet helicopter.

John Wescott Myers was born June 13, 1911, in Los Angeles. His father, Louis W. Myers, became chief justice of the California Supreme Court and co-founder of the Los Angeles law firm O'Melveny & Myers.

Myers, who was educated at the Thacher School in Ojai, graduated from Stanford University with a bachelor's degree in political science in 1933.

After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1936, he joined O'Melveny & Myers and initiated the firm's entertainment law practice, whose early clients included Bing Crosby, Gene Autry, Edgar Bergen, CBS and Paramount Pictures.

His passion for flying began in 1930 while he was still an undergraduate at Stanford.

Myers left O'Melveny & Myers in 1940 to become assistant general counsel at Lockheed, where he began occasionally ferrying planes to New York and New Orleans for overseas delivery.

In 1941, he became chief engineering test pilot at Northrop, for which he became senior vice president and director after the war.