“I Am Not A Very Timid Type …”


We did not begin to use parachutes until the early twenties. We didn’t have them during the first war. The helmet and goggles were the insignia of our profession, and, you know, a parachute just didn’t feel like part of our uniform. But one day at McCook Field a group of us were watching Harold Harris when his airplane disintegrated in the air. Harris became the first man to save his life with a parachute, and it made instant believers out of those of us on the ground. I’m not sure, but I think that after the Harris episode I wore one all the time.

Did you ever have occasion to use a parachute?

The parachute saved my life three times. Once in 1929, once in 1932, and the last time was after the Tokyo raid and I had to bail out over China.

What happened in 1929?

At the time I was stationed at Mitchel Field on Long Island, carrying out the Guggenheim blind-flying experiments, and General Patrick called and asked me to perform some acrobatics at an air show in Cleveland. I went out ahead of time to practice with a little Curtiss Hawk, a fine little biplane that I was well acquainted with. This particular plane had been modified—the nose had been streamlined by moving the radiator to the upper wing—and as a result it probably dove faster than the conventional Hawk. I had recently flown the first outside loop, and General Patrick had issued a directive saying that nobody was to do any more outside loops. But the general had not said that you couldn’t push a plane under and turn it out. I thought this would be a rather spectacular stunt, but when I tried it in practice, the wings folded up. I just unbuckled the safety belt and was thrown out. I parachuted down and immediately got another airplane, finished my practicing, and did the air show that afternoon.

Is it important after an experience like that to get right back into the air, sort of like remounting a horse that’s thrown you?

I am not a very timid type. It’s very important to some people, but not to me. I have a simple philosophy: worry about those things you can fix. If you can’t fix it, don’t worry about it; accept it and do the best you can. But some folks worry about things they can’t do anything about until they lose their effectiveness.

How did you get involved with the Guggenheim blind-flying experiments?

In 1928, when the Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics decided to establish its Full-Flight Laboratory at Mitchel Field, I was recommended by [Emory] “Jerry” Land, who was on leave from the Navy to the Guggenheim Fund and who had been impressed with my performance in the Schneider Cup. He had been asked by Harry Guggenheim to find the best chap he could to run the laboratory, and Jerry, a confirmed Navy man, told Harry that the best man was Jimmy Doolittle. As Jerry told me afterward, he said, “This was my sincere conviction, and you can realize that it did not make me popular with my Navy associates.”

Harry Guggenheim was quite instrumental in the development of aviation, wasn’t he?

Very much so. Harry was a naval aviator in World War I and in World War II. He was a man of very substantial means. He was a chap who loved horses and flying. And it was through Harry that his father, Daniel Guggenheim, established the Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics. Harry flew with me occasionally while I was doing these experiments, and I came to know him as a fine, public-spirited citizen, a man anxious to spend his money to improve conditions for everyone. The Full-Flight Laboratory, of course, was only one of the seed projects financed by Guggenheim to stimulate interest in aviation training and construction. For example, the fund sponsored a “safe airplane” competition that had a profound effect on increasing the safety of small commercial aircraft. Guggenheim also bought and installed the first good air-to-groundto-air receiving and transmitting equipment in a Western Air Express airplane. This equipment enabled the pilot for the first time to get accurate weather reports en route to his destination. There were a lot of these little projects.

Later Harry Guggenheim conceived the idea that if we could just find out more about man’s primary motivations, perhaps we could have a more peaceful world. Harry felt that the approach of the “one-worlders” was entirely unrealistic, because it did not take these motivating influences into consideration. He set up a small committee, on which both [Gharles] “Slim” Lindbergh and I served, to study this problem. Well, after a great deal of work and study it was decided to concentrate on the subject of dominance. Harry brought people from all over the world to work on this—he called it the Man’s Relationship to Man program—and that work is still going on.

Harry took an active interest in this work right up to his death. You know, a group of us military folks used to go turkey and quail shooting with Harry every year at his great plantation near Charleston, South Carolina. And Harry wrote in his will that his military friends would be invited to hunt on the plantation in perpetuity, regardless of what disposition might be made of the property. We still go down there every year. We miss Harry terribly, of course, but we’re grateful for his thoughtfulness.

What was the purpose of the Full-Flight Laboratory?