“I Am Not A Very Timid Type …”


My feeling then and now is that Mitchell was right about the basic principles involved. He was ahead of his time in that. His concept of the 1921 bombing maneuvers and their execution was absolutely brilliant. But when he defied authority to the extent of bringing a court-martial on himself, I think he possibly went too far. I feel the same way about that [1951] altercation between President Truman and General MacArthur. MacArthur was absolutely right, but he defied the President, and Truman was absolutely right in kicking him out, because you cahnot have a lack of discipline in the high echelons of command and expect to maintain discipline in the lower echelons.

Wasn’t MacArthur one of the officers on Mitchell’s court-martial board?

Yes, and I remember visiting MacArthur in his Tokyo headquarters just before Truman relieved him. I had a very pleasant couple of hours with him—he was a fascinating talker, a very knowledgeable man, a great leader, a great American—and somehow our discussion got around to Billy Mitchell. And MacArthur said, “Did you know that there was one member of that board and one member only who voted to acquit Billy Mitchell?” MacArthur said, “I was that one member.” The voting, of course, on the court- martial board was never announced, although in the inner circle we had heard that MacArthur had voted for acquittal. But I did not know for sure until I heard it from his mouth.

In September, 1922, you made the first one-stop cross-country flight in less than twenty-jour hours. How did this come about?

Well, all of us in aviation were interested in advancing two things. One was aviation, and the other was ourselves. A chap named Alex Pierson came up with this idea, but he was forced down in Mexico and abandoned the flight. So I took a DH -4, had additional tankage installed, and then borrowed a brand new instrument, a bank and turn indicator, which was still undergoing testing at Dayton, Ohio. I was all set to take off one night from Pablo Beach, outside Jacksonville, Florida, but after I gave it the gun, my left wheel hit a soft spot in the sand. The next thing I knew, I was upside down in the water. I unbuttoned my safety belt, but as I fell out my helmet and goggles went down over my eyes and shut off my nose. I thought I was under water. So I began climbing up the fuselage. I got clean on top of it before I realized I was in knee-deep water, and it was my goggles that were shutting off my breathing. The crowd that had gathered to see me take off thought my desperate antics were pretty funny. I was very embarrassed. I immediately requested permission to have the airplane repaired, and then I flew to San Diego, with a refuelling stop at Kelly Field in Texas, in twenty-one hours and nineteen minutes. Kelly and Macready made the same flight, this time nonstop, the following year; and that flight, of course, was a much more difficult and justifiably more heralded flight.

You were awarded your first Distinguished Flying Cross for your flight. And then the Army sent you to M.I.T. to study aeronautical engineering. Would you tell me about that?

There were six pilots selected for that training, and basically the idea was to get more rapport between the aeronautical engineer and the pilot. In those days there was a general feeling among pilots that the aeronautical engineers were not quite as competent as they should be. The engineers, on the other hand, felt that the pilots were all a little touched in the head or they wouldn’t be pilots in the first place. So we were the first group really to try to bridge that gap.

Do you think you were successful?

Well, the thesis I wrote for my master’s degree—which became known as “ N.A.C.A. Report No. 203: Accelerations in Flight"—was published in every technical language in the world. The report was a rather unique thing at the time, because I took an airplane up to failure. The last pullout I made went up, I think, to 7.8 G’s , and the wing failed but did not come off. This gave us a chance for the first time to check the strength calculations against the actual loads imposed in flight. I was also able to supply some scientific information- about the actual effects of prolonged acceleration on the human body. Not too much was known then about G [gravity] forces. A lot of pilots were under the impression that when they blacked out, the only faculty they lost was their sight. My experiments indicated that sight was the last faculty to be lost under those conditions. It was a very useful piece of work.

What was the subject of your doctoral dissertation?