In 20 years with the Air Force, “Russ” Schleeh flew and tested virtually every bomber from America’s war-winning B-17 Flying Fortress to today’s strategic workhorse, the B-52 Stratofortress. A born competitor and gifted athlete, he earned a football scholarship to Washington State College. But, in 1940, when the Civilian Pilot Training Program offered him a chance to fly, he jumped at it. As an apprentice aircraft and engine mechanic, he earned room and board and 15 minutes of flight time per day. As an aviation cadet in 1941, Schleeh requested fighters at every opportunity, but the Army had other plans.
Reporting to his first commander, Lieutenant Colonel Curtis LeMay of the 305th Bombardment Group, he quickly reconsidered his request for a transfer to fighters. LeMay flew frequently with Schleeh’s crew in the B-17 Wham Bam. On a mission to St. Nazaire, France, while other bomber groups used evasive tactics and achieved poor bombing results, LeMay led their formation straight and level through heavy flak. The 305th inflicted heavy damage without losing an airplane, and their “precision” tactics soon became the standard for Eighth Air Force. Before leaving England, Schleeh got a rare opportunity to fly many RAF fighters and bombers, and a captured German FW 190.
That’s all it took to spark his interest in flight test! After graduating from the Flight Performance School in 1947, he soon became the Chief of Bomber Flight Test and later Chief of Fighter Test at Wright Field, Ohio. As he put it, “I felt I had finally arrived….” A year later, a shortage of qualified pilots required his return to bombers. When a YB-49 Flying Wing crashed, killing Captain Glen Edwards, Schleeh took over the program. Later, during a high-speed taxi test, the YB-49’s nose gear collapsed and the unorthodox bomber broke apart and burst into flames. His own back broken, Schleeh, in disgust, suggested to the fire chief that he “let it burn.”
After 8 years of flight test, Schleeh went to the Strategic Air Command, first as General LeMay’s aide and later as Commander of the 4017th Combat Crew Training Squadron at Castle AFB, California. There he began racing unlimited hydroplanes and, in 1956, won the National High Point Championship. Retiring in 1962, he joined Douglas Aircraft and played a key role in winning several Air Force contracts, including the KC-10 Extender. An avid outdoorsman, he “lives for today” and enjoys hunting, fishing, tennis, and offroad motorcycling.