Son of the chief radio operator for Pan American World Airways, Capt. Manuel “Pete” Fernandez grew up immersed in aviation and earned his private pilot’s license at 15. He joined the Army Air Corps fresh out of high school in 1943 as a private, and through sheer determination and talent, quickly became one of the best instructor pilots at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.
Although Fernandez joined the military at the height of WWII, it wasn’t until the Korean War about a decade later that he finally saw combat. From September 1952 to May 1953, Fernandez flew 124 combat missions in Korea.
In only nine months, he downed 14.5 MiG-15 fighter jets, 15 aircraft and became the No. 3 Ace of the Korean War. Although he was the No. 1 Ace when he left Korea, Fernandez’s former student, Capt. Joseph McConnell, surpassed him and reached 16 kills within 5 days of his departure from Korea.
In 1956 Fernandez earned the Bendix Trophy for setting a record with an average speed of 666.661 mph flying an F-100C Super Sabre from George AFB, Calif., to Tinker AFB, Okla. During this race, Fernandez had to fly 1,118 miles with no refueling. He accomplished this feat in two hours, with less than 2 minutes of gas to spare when he crossed the finish line.
When he retired from the Air Force, Fernandez continued to serve by flying dangerous missions for the Central Intelligence Agency and later for the South Florida Drug Interdiction Task Force. With his aerial skills and bravery, as well as the help of his Hispanic origins and language skills, Fernandez pulled off top secret missions in Latin America and provided critical intelligence on the Colombian drug trade.
On October 18, 1980, Fernandez died in a plane crash while executing a drug mission. Fernandez’s fearlessness, enthusiasm and aerial prowess set him apart from his peers throughout his aeronautical career making him a great Hispanic-American hero.