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Aviator Howard Clifton “Tick” Lilly was born in Crow, Raleigh County, on August 27, 1916, to Ova Ashton and Amanda Bragg Lilly. As a boy, he could transform bits and pieces of junk cars into hot rods and motorcycles, which he would race in Sunday afternoon “junkyard derbies.” In a Goldenseal article, Jack Clark described going to one of these derbies as a boy. The track, cut into a vacant cow pasture, had “no level straightaways, no barricades, no fences, just a wide-open track running over hill and dale and even, at one point, through a small creek.” These boisterous events sometimes involved carousing, fistfights, and the occasional wheel flying off in mid-race. Attracting big crowds to these races meant higher payouts to the winners.

Lilly won these races frequently because he often had the only car capable of finishing. He once had to make a nail-biting escape from other racers’ wives who were pelting him with rocks after he won a contest. Another time, he pranked the crowd by crossing the finish line (in first, of course) and, keeping the accelerator floored, drove the car over a hill. When worried spectators chased after him, they found Lilly sitting behind the driver’s wheel and laughing. He told the concerned onlookers the race had been so boring he wanted to give them a little excitement.

Lilly’s experience as a daredevil prepared him for his more traditional professional aviation career. After working briefly for Beckley Newspapers and the Charleston Gazette, Lilly taught mechanics at a Civilian Conservation Corps camp. In July 1941, he joined the U.S. Naval Air Corps and went on active duty after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of that year. His assignment in World War II was to fly seaplanes, which bored him. He obtained an honorable discharge in September 1942 and became a test pilot for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), a precursor of NASA, at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia. The next year, he was transferred to the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory in Cleveland (later the Glenn Research Center) and then, in 1947, became the first engineering pilot assigned to the Muroc Flight Test Unit in California. Along with Chuck Yeager and others, Lilly became a pioneer of supersonic flight at Muroc, test-piloting the Douglas D-558-1 transonic research aircraft and the Bell X-1.

On March 21, 1948, Lilly became the fourth person to break the speed of sound; five months earlier, Yeager had become the first to do so (soon followed by James Thomas Fitzgerald Jr. and Herb Hoover). Six weeks after Lilly’s historic flight, on May 3, 1948, he was taking off from Muroc in his D-558-1 Skystreak. His plane crashed when the engine compressor failed and severed the control cables. Lilly became the first of many NACA/NASA test pilots to die in the line of duty.

Lilly is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. A street at Edwards Air Force Base (which includes NASA Armstrong, the former Muroc) in California is named Lilly Avenue in his honor. On October 19, 2009, a monument was dedicated to him at Raleigh County Memorial Airport.

Last Revised on April 03, 2023


Gelzer, Christian. Armstrong Remembers Pilots Who Lost Their Lives Doing What They Love. NASA History, February 7, 2019.

Clark, Jack. Tick Lilly & the Junkyard Derby. Goldenseal, 40, 3, Fall 2014.

Lilly, John. From the Editor--Recalling "Tick" Lilly. Goldenseal, 40, 3, Fall 2014.

Cite This Article

e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia "Howard "Tick" Lilly." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 03 April 2023. Web. 18 June 2024.


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