Robert L. Scott, 97, an American flying ace who was once described as the "one-man air force" over China during World War II and whose exploits were turned into a best-selling book and then a film, died Feb. 27 at an assisted living facility in Warner Robins, Ga., after a stroke.
A mischievous, sometimes impolitic daredevil, he eventually rose to the Air Force rank of brigadier general. The book, "God Is My Co-Pilot" (1943), and the 1945 film version made him a national name, and he later rounded out his career with several more acclaimed volumes about flying and elephant hunting.
However, Gen. Scott was ultimately encouraged to retire in 1957 after his superiors frowned on his blunt remarks about the United States' need to compete better against the Soviets during the space race.
"The only time I've ever been moderately successful is in combat," he said during his prolific lecturing career in retirement. He added that he "was in the bottom of my class at West Point" because of "a goat mind. And a goat is the bottom of the bottom."
The son of a traveling clothing salesman, Robert Lee Scott Jr. was born in Waynesboro, Ga., on April 12, 1908, and raised in Macon. He first expressed interest in air travel when he created a flying contraption using his grandfather's wagon umbrella.
At 12, he built a makeshift glider from a canvas tent and knotty pine wood. "I cleared the first magnolia, but then the main wing strut broke, and I came down in Mrs. Napier's rose bushes," he once said. "It's the only plane I ever crashed."
The next year, he bought a ruin of a World War I Curtiss "Jenny" biplane at a public auction, sheltering it from his panicked parents in a friend's garage. He made a deal with a mechanic to help him reassemble the craft in return for the mechanic's shared use of the plane for barnstorming.
The man later died in a flying accident, but this did not seem to affect the future general's ambitions. His head literally in the clouds, he had to repeat much of high school and could not get into the U.S. Military Academy at West Point through a congressional appointment. Instead, he enlisted in the Army and won a spot at West Point through a competitive examination.
After graduation in 1932, he flew the airmail "hell stretch" between New York and Chicago -- known as a foggy, hilly and windy route that became more dangerous in rickety biplanes. He also built airfields in South America and was a flight instructor.
Desperate for new duty after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he managed to insert himself in combat operations despite being overage at 33. To do so, he lied about his experience flying four-engine bombers, claiming 1,100 hours when he had none. If he was going to invent facts, he said, he figured there was no use in being humble about it.
Luckily, a friend trained him in time for his mission, and then-Col. Scott found his ticket to the Far East.
Initially scheduled to participate in a secret bombing raid over Japan, this was scuttled as the Japanese advanced over much of the Pacific. Instead, he settled in India as part of the Assam-Burma-China Ferry Command, flying food-and-supply transport missions over the Himalayas.
Through that work, he met Gen. Claire L. Chennault, commander of the air defense group known as the "Flying Tigers." He persuaded Chennault to lend him a P-40 combat plane to escort the supply missions.
From the start, he was masterful at knocking out the enemy, and in fall 1943 alone he was credited with at least 13 planes shot down and six more probable downings. He bombed strategic bridges and killed countless Japanese during hundreds of missions. Life magazine dubbed Gen. Scott the "greatest of all the pursuit men."
Although never shot down, he did suffer injuries. On one mission, bullets from a Japanese plane pierced his plane's armor and drove metal into his back. Recuperating in a cave hideout, he was tended to by a medical missionary whose comments about someone looking out for the ailing flier gave meaning to the title of "God Is My Co-Pilot."
Warner Bros. bought the film rights to the book, releasing a feature with Dennis Morgan as the nervy flier and Raymond Massey as Chennault. Critics were not kind, and neither was Gen. Scott, who once said: "It was a bad movie. They had me talking by radio to the Japanese pilot and telling him, 'Don't call me Yank. I'm from Georgia.' "
He quietly returned to duty flying airplanes with experimental rockets aimed at destroying Japanese supply trains in eastern China and on Okinawa. After the war, he commanded the jet fighter school at Williams Air Force Base, in Arizona; was the Air Force director of information; and was commanding officer at Luke Air Force Base, also in Arizona, before retiring in 1957.
His military decorations included two awards each of the Silver Star and the Distinguished Flying Cross.
He briefly sold life insurance and devoted his time to lecturing and writing books. They included "Between the Elephant's Eyes!" (1954), about his hunting expeditions in Africa; "Flying Tiger: Chennault of China" (1959); and "The Day I Owned the Sky" (1988).
He spent his final years fundraising for the Museum of Aviation at Robins Air Force Base, Ga. He also, at age 72, walked much of the Great Wall of China, fueled by 1,400 homemade oatmeal cookies. He also brought along a golf club to help him walk and to use for protection, once telling a reporter, "I can kill anybody with a sand wedge, you know."
His wife, Catharine Green Scott, whom he married in 1934, died in 1972.
Survivors include a daughter, Robin Fraser of Bakersfield, Calif.; a sister; four grandchildren; eight great-grandchildren; and two great-great-grandchildren.