Kenneth Chilstrom was born in Zumbrota, Minn., in 1921. He developed an interest in aviation at the age of eight when he watched an aviator fly a Boeing P-26. His father soon began buying him model airplanes. Eventually, the boy began building these planes himself. In high school, he and his friends decided to become pilots after graduating, and in 1939 they enlisted in the Army Air Corps.
Chilstrom attended night school for two years prior to completing and passing the exam for flying cadets. He flew the Boeing-Stearman model 75 in primary training, the Vultee BT-13 Valiant in basic training and the North American T-6 Texan in advanced training. After flight training, he was assigned to the 58th Fighter Group in Bolling Field in Washington, D.C.
After deploying to Europe, he flew two different types of planes. At the Battle of North Africa, he flew a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk after flying it off a carrier near Casablanca, Morocco. In that battle and in subsequent ones in Italy, he flew the North American A-36 in a total of 80 missions with the 27th Fighter Bomber Group. In those missions, he targeted installations and railroad yards and enemy forces to support allied ground forces.
Chilstrom returned to the U.S. in November 1943. He was subsequently assigned to Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio. There, he attended a newly established test pilot school, graduating in 1945. He then served as a test pilot, one of fewer than 200 in the Army Air Corps at the time.
In his role, he tested 147 different airplanes including:
- P-51 Mustang,
- P-47 Thunderbolt,
- P-38 Lightning,
- P-75 Eagle,
- P-59 Airacomet.
He also evaluated several foreign airplanes and was the project test pilot for the North American F-86 Sabre, which was one of his favorite airplanes.
Chilstrom had an exchange tour with the Navy a few years afterward. He moved to Pensacola, Fla., where he trained as a Navy pilot and was assigned to Carrier Air Wing Seven. In that role, he was one of six Air Force fighter pilots to fly the Grumman F8F Bearcat. He later took part in an exchange program with the Royal Air Force, where he flew 25 aircraft in two months.
During the Korean War, Chilstrom served in Tokyo, Japan, where he helped improve the American fighter force and regularly traveled with his four-star commander. Afterward, he returned to the U.S., where he served in a fighter development program in the Pentagon. He then returned to Wright Field to serve as program manager for the North American XF-108 Rapier. He also took part in the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird and the Lockheed YF-12 programs. Throughout his military career, Chilstrom was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross as well as an Air Medal with eight oak leaf clusters.
Chilstrom died in December 2022. He was 101 years old.
We honor his service.