John W. Myers, a 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.
“For us, he was a legend of legends,” hotel magnate and aviation enthusiast Barron Hilton 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 the war, 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, told The Times on Friday.
Dailey, a friend of Myers, described him as “a pilot’s pilot. We talked about flying for hours, and his experiences were so unbelievable because of the risks he took.”
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.
“He was such a gifted pilot,” Tilley said, “that he would rather fly than do anything, frankly.”
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.
He learned quickly: After a flying instructor gave him a ground course, he made what was both his first flight and first solo flight in a two-cylinder, single-engine airplane.
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.
In 1954, he became chairman and principal stockholder of Pacific Airmotive Corp., which adapted conventional aircraft to turbine power and which he later sold to Purex.
In 1970, he formed Airflite, a fixed-base aviation services facility at Long Beach Airport, which he sold to Toyota in the late 1980s.
Myers, who owned an 18,000-acre cattle ranch outside Merced in Central California, was known as a passionate outdoorsman and an environmentalist who donated 5,000 acres of land in the Merced area to the Nature Conservancy.
He also provided a portion of his Flying M Ranch for the development of UC Merced and made the campus’ first $1 million contribution.
“John Myers cared enormously for the Central Valley and gave generously to assist in its development,” founding Chancellor Carol Tomlinson-Keasey said in a statement. “His early gifts helped others see the potential for this wonderful university.”
Myers’ philanthropy extended to numerous organizations, including Pomona College, Thacher School, St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica and the National Air and Space Museum, for which he was a board member.
Myers’ wife, Lucia, died in 1999. His son, Louis W. Myers II, died in 1993.
He is survived by his daughter, Lucia “Lissa” Myers Wolff, and three grandsons.
No services have been planned.