“I Am Not A Very Timid Type …”


You couldn’t feather wooden propellers. It wasn’t until much later that metal came in, and it wasn’t for years after that that they became adjustable. Incidentally, the first adjustable prop was not made to pull different power from the engine but rather as a reversible prop, so that you could stop more quickly upon landing. I believe it was in 1922 that Sandy Fairchild, who later became vice chief of the air staff, tested the first reversible-pitch propeller. But it reversed on takeoff and dropped Sandy into the river, and that set back the development of the controllable-pitch propeller about two decades. There was a great lack of interest in something that took control of the plane when you didn’t want it to.

In the 1925 Schneider Cup your winning speed of 232.57 miles an hour around the pylons on Chesapeake Bay shattered the old record of 177 miles an hour. You didn’t accomplish this just by changing the propeller pitch, did you?

First of all, I was the Army pilot selected to test the new Curtiss racing plane, so I became quite familiar with the aircraft. Then the Navy was most cooperative about letting me practice in various seaplanes before the race. I was able to develop a useful system, which was to come in a little above the pylon and lose some altitude as I whipped around it. You see, if you tended to climb in a turn, you lost speed rapidly. So my stock-in-trade in racing was to come out of the pylon turn losing a little altitude but not much speed. Then on the next leg I could gain that fifty feet more or less, without having to lose any speed en route.

Was the Navy embarrassed about an Army pilot winning a seaplane race?

They weren’t exactly elated about my victory, and after I got back to McCook Field, my colleagues gave me a parade through Dayton and made me ride in a rowboat and called me Admiral Doolittle. But let me tell you something interesting about the Schneider Cup. This was an international competition, and it was agreed that whichever nation won the race three times in a row would permanently retire the cup. Now, I won in 1925. Two years before, [Lt. David] Rittenhouse of the Navy won it. But there was no race in 1924 because the British airplane had been wrecked loading it onto a ship. All the Americans would have had to do in 1924 was to fly around the pylons at any speed to win the race, and with my victory the following year the United States would have retired the cup. But because the British were unable to compete, the Americans, out of good sportsmanship, did not choose to race in 1924. So what happened was that the Italians won the race in 1926, and the English got tremendously interested, and I believe a considerable amount of money was put up by an English woman for research. The result was that the British came back and won the race three times and captured the Schneider Cup. But also out of that same research came the engines and air frames and concepts that went into the Hurricanes and Spitfires, without which the whole Second World War might have had a very different conclusion.

Are you saying that because the Americans were good sports and didn’t fly the 1924 race, this country actually contributed to the development of British aviation?

I feel strongly that the British Schneider Cup racing planes had a profound effect on World War II. And curiously enough, the year the British won their third race and took the cup, there was no other competition!

What was your next assignment after the Schneider Cup?

Curtiss requested that the Army give me a leave of absence so that I could demonstrate the P-I fighter that the company was trying to sell to certain South American governments. In Chile, the night before we were to demonstrate the airplanes—Germany, England, and Italy were also represented—I was at a party in an officers’ club in Santiago, and the talk got around to the movies and Douglas Fairbanks. Well, one of the Chileans, who of course didn’t know that I was a tumbler, asked me what I thought about Fairbanks’ acrobatics, and I told him that all American kids were trained to do those stunts. I did a few elemental gymnastic stunts for them, and then I went into a handstand on the window sill. But as I lowered my legs out parallel the sill collapsed, and I fell about twenty feet to the ground, breaking both my ankles. I didn’t feel that I could let down the Army or Curtiss, so after the doctor put casts on my legs, I had special clips attached to the P-1‘s rudder bars to hold my feet on the controls. I think what really sealed the sales contract with Chile was a little performance of mock aerial combat I put on the next day with Ernest von Schonabeck, who had been an ace in the Richthofen Squadron.

Did you go into the hospital after the flight demonstration?

Eventually I did. I spent six months in Walter Reed General Hospital when I got back to the States, but that was after we had demonstrated the P-1 in Bolivia and Argentina. When I took the airplane to Buenos Aires, I became the first American to fly across the Andes. The flight was made without a parachute, because with my feet strapped to the controls I couldn’t have jumped anyway.

When did parachutes come into general use?