A celebration of the life of legendary American hero Steve “Spiro” Pisanos, who recently passed away at the age of 96, will be held June 30 at 2 p.m. at the San Diego Air & Space Museum.
Pisanos was a World War II fighter double ace who served with the United States Army Air Corps, United States Air Force and as a volunteer member of the famed Eagle Squadrons of Great Britain’s Royal Air Force.
Born in Athens, Greece, Nov. 10, 1919, Pisanos arrived in America April 1938, as a crew member on a Greek merchant ship. Unable to speak English, he found his way to New York City, where he worked in bakeries and restaurants.
As he earned money he started flying lessons at Floyd Bennett Field. In August 1940, he settled in Plainfield, New Jersey, his adopted home town, and continued flying lessons at Westfield Airport. He earned a private pilot’s license and, though still a Greek national, in October 1941 he joined the British Royal Air Force sponsored by the Clayton Knight Committee in New York City.
Pisanos began his military flight training at Polaris Flight Academy in Glendale, California. Upon graduation, Pilot Officer Pisanos was transferred to England where he completed RAF Officers Training School at Cosford, England and OTU (Operational Training Unit) at Old Sarum Aerodrome in Salisbury. He was posted to the 268 Fighter Squadron at Snailwell Aerodrome in Newmarket flying P-51As. He later transferred to the 71 Eagle Squadron, one of three Eagle squadrons in the RAF, comprised of just 244 American volunteers flying Spitfires at Debden RAF Aerodrome.
When the USAAF 4th Fighter Group absorbed the American members of the Eagle Squadrons in September and October 1942, Pisanos was commissioned a lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Forces. On May 3, 1943, he was naturalized as an American citizen in London, England, becoming the first individual in American history to be naturalized outside the Continental United States. Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite attended his citizenship ceremony, the first ever to be held off of American soil. He remained life-long friends with them both.
Flying his first mission in his P-47 “Miss Plainfield” out of Debden Aerodrome with the 334th Fighter Squadron, 4th Fighter Group, Pisanos, “The Flying Greek,” scored his first victory on May 21, 1943, when he downed a German FW-190 over Ghent, Belgium. By January 1, 1944 he had become an ace with five confirmed victories.
On March 5, 1944, he obtained his 10th victory and while returning from that B-17 escort mission to Limoges and Bordeaux, France, he experienced engine failure in his P-51B and crash-landed south of Le Havre.
For six months he evaded the Germans and fought with the French Resistance and the American OSS sabotaging the German war machine in occupied France.
Pisanos returned to England on Sept. 2, 1944, following the liberation of Paris. Because of his exposure and knowledge of the French Resistance operations, Pisanos was prohibited from flying additional combat missions because the Air Force could not risk him being captured.
Upon returning to the United States, Pisanos was assigned to the Flight Test Division at Wright Field, Ohio. He attended the USAF Test Pilot School and subsequently served as a test pilot at Wright Field and Muroc Lake, California, testing the YP-80 jet aircraft, America’s first operational jet.
During his career in the USAF, Pisanos graduated from the University of Maryland, attended the Air Command and Staff College and the Air War College. He also served tours of duty in Vietnam (1967-68) and with NORAD before retiring from the USAF with the rank of Colonel in in December 1973.
In all, Pisanos served America for more than 30 years and was the recipient of numerous U.S., British, French (Legion of Honor), and Republic of Vietnam awards and decorations, including three Legions of Merit, five U.S. Distinguished Flying Crosses, and the Purple Heart.
Pisanos spent his retirement years in San Diego and was a regular guest at — and contributor to — the San Diego Air & Space Museum. In 2006, he was inducted to the International Air & Space Hall of Fame.
In 2010, Pisanos was awarded the French Legion of Honor, the French Republic’s highest decoration, in a ceremony at the San Diego Air & Space Museum. The award, presented by the Consul General of France in Los Angeles, recognized Pisanos’ outstanding achievements in World War II as a fighter pilot and in support of the French Resistance, he was awarded their Legion of Honor.
Steve and his wife of 66 years, Sophie, had two children, son Jeff and daughter Diane. Steve is survived by Jeff, Diane, his grandchildren Brandon Pisanos and Nicole (Pisanos) Wells, and great grandchildren Baron and MacKenzie Wells.
Pisanos’ autobiography “The Flying Greek: An Immigrant Fighter Ace’s WWII Odyssey with the RAF, USAAF, and French Resistance” can be found on Amazon.com