Here's my list of the great people in aviation history.
Jack Northrop--an aviation pioneer that had a great knack for aerodynamic design, it was he who championed the flying wing idea--and modern technology has finally caught up with his ideals in the B-2 bomber and the proposed Boeing Blended Wing Body (BWB) airliner.
Andrei Tupolev--in my opinion the greatest Russian aircraft designer, he designed amazingly large monoplanes before the Great Patriotic War (World War II to the rest of us), and after the War his design bureau became a master designer of large aircraft for both the Soviet military and Soviet commercial aviation. The Tu-95 bomber is the Soviet "B-52," an amazing plane that is still operational even today; the Tu-114 was the zenith of turboprop airliner development; the Tu-16 "Badger" was the first Soviet large jet bomber; the Tu-154 became the Soviet "727"; the Tu-22/22M were pretty amazing supersonic large jet bombers, and finally the Tu-160 is one amazing supersonic jet bomber.
Clarence "Kelly" Johnson--perhaps the greatest airplane designer of ALL time. His encyclopedic knowledge of airplane design is completely unmatched, and the way he ran Lockheed's famous "Skunk Works" produced absolutely amazing airplanes at a fraction of what a normal airplane procurement would cost. Can you imagine Johnson trying to build the A-12/SR-71 Mach 3 reconnaissance plane through normal Pentagon channels? I don't think so.
Sir Sydney Camm--the master designer of Hawker Aircraft, he helped design aviation masterpieces for Hawker such as the Hurricane, Typhoon, Tempest, Hunter and Harrier.
For today's commercial aviation, I would tip my hat to:
Gordon Bethune--his arrival at Continental is truly one of the GREATEST turnaround stories in American economic history. When he arrived at CO, the airline was slowly emerging out of bankruptcy, their fleet was old and decrepit, passenger satisfaction was horrible, their reservation systems was a major joke, and employee morale was horrid. His incentives to clean up the fleet, buy new planes, target premium passengers, and update the reservations system turned CO in two years into an overnight success story. Today, CO is getting more and more new planes, turned their hubs at IAH and EWR into HUGE positive assets, and it was CO that did the extremely daring move to negotiate and finally get the right to become the first airline in the world to fly between the New York City area and Hong Kong on a non-stop direct flight.
Herb Kelleher--his very non-conventional style of management (but extremely smart at that!
) has turned Southwest Airlines into perhaps the most important airline for shorter flights in the USA. Because WN has such extremely low seat-mile costs, they can fly into many airports that the major airlines wouldn't touch and make a big profit at it. It was WN that literally saved low cost flights between northern and southern California when Western and PSA disappeared; and WN's success is one reason why the Boeing 737-300 and Next-Generation 737 programs are so successful (WN was launch customer for both models), because WN could buy a large number of these 737's and make its cost back pretty quickly. The founders of EasyJet and Jet Blue obviously have taken clues from Kelleher success and is the reason why these two airlines are also profitable.
Richard Branson--everyone called him crazy to use the profits from the Virgin music empire he built to start up an airline, but Branson proved them all wrong. The fact that VS has flat-out SUPERB service on their planes (and they're always full) is proof he could take on British Airways and be pretty profitable at that. Branson knows that VS must always have an edge over BA in order to attract customers, and it won't be surprising that VS will easily make back their investments in the A340-600 and A380-800 fleet.