The guy in the white flight suit is Bill Dana—a true American hero. Bill Dana was a legendary test pilot, a historic pioneer, a man whose fearless work made the airplanes and spaceships we fly today possible—one of those very few guys made of the right stuff from an era that is now completely gone. He died at age 83 this Wednesday.
I believe that there's no men like Bill Dana anymore. Yes, there are test pilots and many people who risk their lives all around the world every day, just like he did. Soldiers, firefighters, policemen, doctors and nurses in conflict areas working in extreme conditions… all those people who put their lives on the line so others could live. Heroes. All of them.
Dana and some of his colleagues. From left to right: Einar Enevoldson, John Manke, Francis R. Scobee, Tom McMurtry, Bill Dana, and Mike Love.
Bill started to make history from the very first day he started to work at NASA, on October 1, 1958, the day the space agency became operational. He worked there for 40 years, flying anything they would tell him to fly. He flew the most beautiful and the most awesome and the most horrible and the most useless machines. He gathered information and gave engineers crucial data that shaped the way all our airplanes and spacecraft are today.
He was the right man at the right place and at the right time, an era of experimentation on the edge of disaster like no other in the history of humankind. And then, when that era finished, he retired and kept working for NASA with no salary. They couldn't pay him due to "budget reductions" but he thought it was his duty to keep working till the end:
His long and illustrious career at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center did not end when he retired. He returned to Armstrong seven months later as a contractor with Analytical Services and Materials, Inc., to write histories of various programs and to evaluate lessons learned. During a period of budget reductions, this man of integrity and accomplishment gave up his salary and continued to work as a volunteer with the History Office. Over the course of his career, Dana logged more than 8,000 hours in over 60 different aircraft from helicopters and sailplanes to the hypersonic X-15. Several of the airplanes he flew are displayed at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
Here you can see him with some of the aircraft he tested:
North American X-15
The X-15 rocket airplane—here you can see him with his ride—flying "to the edge of space in the X-15, attaining a maximum speed of Mach 5.53 (3,897 mph) and a maximum altitude of 306,900 feet (nearly 59 miles)."
Martin Marietta X-24B
NASA/McDonnell Douglas F-18 High Alpha Research Vehicle
This was "the first aircraft to use multi-axis thrust vectoring for vehicle control." What a trip that must have been for him.
In addition to all this, "he flew hundreds of research flights in advanced jet fighters, including the F-14, F-15, and the F-16" and he evaluated the legendary X-29.
Godspeed, Bill Dana. You were one hell of a guy.