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“I Am Not A Very Timid Type …”
April 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 3
I studied the wind-velocity gradient and its effect on flying characteristics. I was very interested to find that among the most experienced test pilots there was a great difference of opinion on this subject. They all insisted, for instance, that they could always “feel” the wind direction. Some of them also claimed that they could always tell the attitude of their ship, whether they could see the horizon or not. And it was true then that most of the airplanes were so stable that if you just let them go, they would level off. Because of that inherent stability in the airplane, many pilots felt that they could sense their ship’s attitude through something real lucky in their butts. My experiments, however, proved that they were quite wrong. My tests showed that when you got far enough from the ground in a steady wind, it made no difference whether you turned into or out of the wind, your reactions were the same as if you were in a dead calm.
Was your work with wind-velocity gradients useful in the instrument-flying experiments you later conducted?
It was very helpful to me. Very helpful. I’m not sure that anyone else benefited from it. My first draft, outlining all the important test results, was rejected by my professors at M.I.T. They said it wasn’t abstract enough for a doctoral dissertation. So I had to come up with a complicated mathematical derivation—which, by the way, I am not sure was correct—to fit the actual flight results before they would give me my degree. So as far as I know, instead of it being translated and widely circulated as my master’s thesis was, I rather doubt whether anybody has ever read it.
Your second M.I.T. degree entitled you to be called Doctor Doolittle. Did anyone ever kid you about this?
Well, as a matter of fact, I did read the Doctor Doolittle stories when I was a youngster. I thought they were pretty good. However, I have never been able to talk to the animals, with the possible exception of a few ducks who mis-takenly thought they heard a feeding call from my blind.
Would you say that your theoretical studies at M.I.T. gave you greater confidence as a flier?
It is true that, particularly after my work on acceleration, I had a much better idea of the stresses that an airplane could be expected to stand up under. But I believe it is equally true that within my personal limitations as a pilot I have always carefully calculated every risk I ever took. I constantly practiced, and I only did those things that I could do relatively safely.
Even though from the ground such things as the formation stuntflying you did just after World War I looked extremely dangerous. Incidentally, were you the first to stunt in formation?
I don’t think so. I was certainly among the first, but I don’t think I conceived the idea. It’s sort of an evolutionary thing. Two folks get together and do some stunting, then three, and then, my goodness, five would be dandy. So you end up with five planes. I did later pioneer something that was called the apron-string event. At McCook Field five of us tied our airplanes together with fifteen-foot ribbons, took off, went through some maneuvers, stunted, and landed with the planes still tied together. We did it at several air shows, and as far as I know, that had never been done before.
In a stunt like that you have to have a great deal of confidence in the lead pilot, don’t you?
You have to have a great deal of confidence in the people who are behind you, too!
“Behind you” was where all the other American, British, and Italian pilots finished in the 1925 Jacques Schneider Maritime Cup Race. Would you tell me about it?
I consider this a very important event in my life, and I’d like to explain something about these early airplane races. A lot of good came out of them, especially in aircraft design, just as car racing, for instance, led to the tremendous improvement in automobile tires. But it was quite expensive, and neither the Army nor the Navy could afford to build these new planes and engines. So what happened was the Army and the Navy got together, and each put up $250,000 for the Curtiss Company to build four new planes, which were the most modern in the world in 1925. One of these air frames was statically tested. That left three airplanes and one spare engine. As was customary, the Navy got two and the Army one. I never quite understood that, but that was the way it always worked out. At any rate, I had the benefit of some aeronautical engineering training, and I was able to change to a propeller with a slightly different pitch and thus pull optimum speed out of the engine.
You didn’t have adjustable props in those days?