April 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 3
I suppose the most obvious question to ask a pilot is how did you become interested in aviation?
In the winter of 1909-1910 I saw the first air show that took place on the West Coast at old Dominguez Flying Field, near my home in Los Angeles. I was very impressed with the airplanes of that day, even though they were quite frail and of very little performance. Well, I was at that time an avid reader of Popular Mechanics, which about two years later published an article about how to make a glider with sticks and wire and unbleached muslin. So I made a small biplane glider and took it to a small nearby cliff and jumped. Unfortunately the cruciform tail hit the edge of the cliff, and the glider came down rather abruptly. I wasn’t badly hurt, but the glider was pretty badly broken up. I rebuilt it. Then I tied it to the rear of a friend’s automobile. Using my legs as the landing gear, I ran behind the car as fast as I could and leaped into the air.
This time the glider came down on its nose and was completely washed out. But about this time Popular Mechanics came out with a picture of Alberto Santos-Dumont’s monoplane, the Demoiselle. So I gathered up the pieces of my glider and built a monoplane. I saved up my money and bought a secondhand motorcycle engine to power it. Probably the luckiest thing that happened was that a storm came along and blew my airplane a block away and completely wrecked it. It would have been a very dangerous craft to fly, I am quite sure.
Did that put an end to your early career as an aviator?
Until I got into World War I, in 1917, yes. You know, there is an organization called the Early Birds, which is made up of people who before that war built their own planes and learned to fly them. Recently they invited me to join, but I had to decline their invitation, because by no stretch of the human imagination can I claim that I ever achieved controlled flight in my boyhood experiments.
Did you have any other boyhood hobbies?
That same year I built the monoplane—I was fifteen—I was the amateur flyweight boxing champion of the Pacific coast. My mother was very, very opposed to my boxing, so I boxed under the name Jimmy Pierce so she wouldn’t be distressed. Later, when I was a student at the University of California, I was practicing tumbling in the gymnasium one day. These two middleweights were boxing, and they didn’t seem to be doing very good. Well, I made some remark to the instructor, Marcus Freed, and he said, do you think you can do better, and I said, I know I can. So—even though I only weighed 135 and the middleweight class was 168—I put on the gloves and knocked them both out. The next day I knocked out the school’s third middleweight, and the following week I was the university’s middleweight contender against Stanford in the West Coast intercollegiate championships. My opponent was a chap named Eric Pedley, who later became a great polo player. Pedley was a fine boxer, but when he came out against me in the ring, he must have wondered what in the world to do with this little bitty fellow. I guess he was afraid to slug me for fear he’d kill me. So he just put his left hand out tentatively, and I slipped under it and knocked him out with one punch.
Did you continue with your boxing?
Marcus Freed, my instructor, encouraged me to box professionally in San Francisco under the name Jimmy Pierce. Freed thought he might have a potential champion, and I was interested primarily in making a few bucks to augment my skimpy income. I won a series of preliminaries against poor opposition, and then Freed got me a bout with a chap named Spider Kelly, an old pro who couldn’t hit but was a fine boxer. Spider was too adroit. He made a monkey out of me, and that was the end of my professional boxing career.
Were the things that attracted you to boxing—the risks and skills and personal courage involved—at all similar to the attraction of aviation?
Well, I have always been highly competitive, and that is useful no matter what sport you go into. And in those days flying was to a considerable degree a sport, yes. But what really helped me in aviation was to have fast reactions and a good sense of balance. I think I got those from my tumbling, not my boxing.
Actually you started out to become an engineer, didn’t you?
From the time I was a very young fellow, I knew I wanted to do two things. I wanted to build things, and I wanted to see the world. It seemed to me that the best way to build things was to be an engineer, and the best way to see the world was to be the kind of engineer that went to different parts of the world. In those days that meant either a civil or a mining engineer. I decided to become a mining engineer.
Were you influenced in this by your father, Frank H. Doolittle?
My father was a carpenter by trade and an adventurer by inclination. He was even more foot-free than I. Before the turn of the century he sailed around the Horn from Massachusetts to California. There he met my mother. They were married, and when I was six months old, the first gold rush broke out in Alaska, and he was off. My mother and I joined him in Nome in the spring of 1900. I lived there for eight years, until my mother decided that there were severe limitations on a boy’s education in Alaska, and she brought me back to Los Angeles.
Did you ever see your father again?
I visited him in Alaska the summer of 1914. He did some prospecting, and he did a great deal of grubstaking. In those days many people wanted to prospect, but they didn’t have the finances necessary to buy an outfit and food and so forth. So my father would grubstake these fellows. It was then the common practice for the grubstaker and the grubstakee to share whatever the chap found. My father grubstaked a great number of people, and although some of them were successful, none of them returned even what he had given them. He died in 1917, rather a frustrated individual.
That was the year you first got into aviation.
I was working in the mines that summer, at the Comstock Lode in Virginia City, Nevada. Oddly enough, although it was only a couple of hundred miles, I guess, from San Francisco, we were practically isolated from the outside world. It wasn’t until I returned to college that I first learned we were really at war. And immediately I came to the realization that I wanted to participate. I looked around at the various military services one could get into, and the thought reawakened my desire to fly. You see, I have always been, to some degree, a loner. I enjoy being with a few intimate friends, but I have always been able to enjoy life even if I am alone. So I naturally went into fighter-pilot aviation, because there is a basic difference between the fighter pilot and the bomber pilot. The fighter pilot is almost always a rugged individualist, whereas the bomber pilot is more inclined to be a team player. For much the same reasons you will notice that a fighter pilot usually does a superb job in wartime and does not adapt to peacetime activities as well as the bomber pilot.
Well, at the beginning of World War I did you have much of an option between fighters and bombers?
You had an option in that you were permitted to express a preference. Only the pilots who seemed to be the most apt were normally taken into fighter training. There was a great deal more latitude then, of course, because there weren’t as many bombers. At that time the Army Air Service was considered a defensive arm, to be used mainly for observation and reconnaissance purposes. Both the Army and the Navy were greatly opposed to building long-range bombers, and this made it very difficult to procure the necessary funds for research and development. We did have the twin-engine Martin bombers, and then around 1923 or 1924 the Barling bomber was built. It was a very large airplane, flown at Wright Field by Harold Harris, but it was so heavy and so underpowered that its poor performance made the concept of long-range heavy bombers look bad. If my memory is correct, in the late twenties Boeing built a much larger bomber which they called the B-15, but it had certain problems, and the Army wouldn’t buy it, so Boeing was permitted to sell it, as I recall, to the Japanese.
What did the Japanese do with it?
I would imagine that it was very useful to them for two reasons. First, to get some experience on how to build a big airplane, and second, to find out what made it unsatisfactory for American use. You learn as much from your failures, if you study them, as you learn from your successes.
Since you were trained as a fighter pilot, do you find it paradoxical that your best-known exploit in World War II was at the controls of a big bomber?
No. During the war I flew both bombers and fighters in North Africa and Italy. I did it for two reasons. First, I wanted to know as much and hopefully more about the equipment than the men who were flying it. Second, when I visited one of the bases in my command, I would arrive in one of their aircraft as a courtesy to my men.
By any chance did you join the Army Air Service because you hoped the uniform might impress a young lady named Josephine Daniels?
I don’t think so. I had been courting Jo since high school. In fact, I’ve known her now for sixty-four years. I certainly hoped that I would be able to impress her with the thought that I was serving my country, but exactly what uniform I was in would have been academic as far as she was concerned.
Where did you receive your flight training?
At Rockwell Field in San Diego. Jo and I were married the day before Christmas in 1917, and she went with me to San Diego. The training was much different in those days. We were in a terrible hurry to get pilots trained, and, of course, the airplanes were very simple. We flew the old Curtiss JN-4 or Jenny, and we practiced things like grass cutting, which meant holding the plane about three feet off the ground. After seven hours of flying with my instructor, good old Mr. [Charles] Todd, I soloed. It lasted thirty-nine minutes.
Would you tell me about the Jenny?
It was a very fine training plane, a two-seater, in which you could do almost anything that your skill permitted you to do. It was also quite a safe airplane to fly, although, with the ox-5 engine we had at that time, somewhat underpowered. I remember on one occasion landing in the Imperial Valley with an ox-5 Jenny. When I tried to take off, I found that I could not get the plane airborne. Each time it would just settle back down to the ground. I had to wait until early the next morning, when the cool morning air was heavier, in order to take off and come home.
Were there a lot of crashes during flight training?
Not a great deal, no. There was a periodic crash. Quite frequently a crash occurred because a pilot got in a spin. In those days the spin was referred to as the deadly spin, and it wasn’t until I was fairly well along in my instruction that the spin became part of our training. You learned that as the plane begins to spin you push the nose over, pick up speed, and come out. I can remember discussing the pros and cons of this, wondering why this was. Before this the tendency was to pull the nose up, which caused the plane to stall, and with a single-engine plane that could be fatal.
Isn’t it sort of astounding, in retrospect, that so many people took off with so little technical knowledge of what they were doing?
It was a good and a bad thing. It separated the sheep from the goats real quickly, but it seriously penalized the chap who might be a superb pilot but was a slow learner. Quite a large percentage of cadets were washed out in those days. Some quit of their own volition; others left because the instructor felt they were not sufficiently apt. It was pretty much of an instinctive thing.
After you were commissioned as a lieutenant in March, 1918, and became an instructor yourself, what did you look for in your students?
You look for a chap who has good eyesight, who has fast reactions, who has a good sense of balance, but most important, you look for someone who really loves to fly. It would be very difficult to make a good pilot out of a chap who hated it. We always incline to do best those things that we enjoy doing. Another thing you look for is a pilot who can learn his limitations. A poor pilot is not necessarily a dangerous pilot as long as he remains within his limitations. And you find your limits in the air, by getting closer and closer and closer and sometimes going beyond them and still getting out of it. If you go beyond and don’t get out of it, you haven’t learned your limitations, because you are dead.
I understand that you got into trouble with one of your early commanding officers.
Ah, Colonel [Harvey] Burwell, at Ream Field, near San Diego. We later became great friends, but at that time I’m afraid I was a bit of a problem to him. His friend Cecil B. De Mille came down to Ream Field one day and took some movies, one of which showed a Jenny landing with me sitting underneath on the spreader bar between the wheels. When De Mille showed the film to Burwell, the colonel was furious and grounded me for a month and made me the permanent officer of the day for the base. This made me a bit perturbed, to say the least, so I conceived the idea of luring the colonel into an exhibition boxing match with me for the entertainment of the troops. I talked our physical director, [Charles] “Doc” Barrett, into suggesting such a match to the colonel. But Burwell correctly guessed what I was up to. The colonel had boxed at West Point, so he told Barrett that he would box both of us, one at a time. Doc, who wasn’t much of a boxer, decided it wasn’t such a good idea after all.
Wasn’t it dangerous riding on the landing gear?
No. The Jenny was a very slow airplane, and I was an acrobat, a tumbler, so it was no problem at all riding on the spreader bar or even climbing out on the wing. You see, everything I ever did in aviation I practiced and practiced and practiced. As a result I was able to do things that appeared rather hazardous to someone who hadn’t done them. Let me give you a better example of this. When I was the Army’s chief test pilot at old McCook Field [at Dayton, Ohio] in 1927, I practiced flying the route from Dayton to Moundsville, time after time, until I had memorized every windmill, every telephone pole, every silo, and every farmhouse, so that I could fly under weather conditions where other pilots, much better pilots than I, could not fly. Yet when my commanding officer heard about it, he grounded me for being in his opinion too irresponsible, and I lost the job I enjoyed more than any job I ever had. A few years later I was flying from Cleveland to New York in bad weather. In those days they had revolving beacons every ten miles. Well, I missed a beacon, and finally I saw a light in the window of a farmhouse on a hill, so I retraced my course to the previous beacon and made an emergency landing. Soon a farmer came along and informed me that the next beacon was out of order, which explained why I had missed it. Then the farmer said, by the way, the mail just went over. It was a matter of pride to me then not to let anyone fly when I couldn’t, but I realized that the reason the mail had gone through was that the pilot knew that terrain so well, just as I had known the area around McCook Field. So I stayed on the ground, and I have always thought that perhaps that was the day I became a good flier, because that day I learned my limitations.
In your opinion what effect did World War I have on aviation?
The war had a dual effect. It did greatly develop our capability to conceive and manufacture airplanes, although as far as I knew, our American aircraft never saw any combat in Europe. Our pilots all flew foreign aircraft. However, by the end of the war we had a huge inventory of DH’S and Jennies that lasted over a decade, and this actually stifled the manufacture of better aircraft. I can remember when we flew on the Mexican border patrol, we didn’t feel the least bit badly when we would crack up an airplane. As a matter of fact, we were rather elated, because we felt we could never get better airplanes until we got rid of what we had.
By the way, how did you and your fellow pilots manage to walk away from so many crashes?
Much of it was because the airplanes were so much slower. Another part was because we crashed enough to learn how to crash. For instance, one night in 1929 I got into some very bad weather flying from Buffalo to New York. It became necessary to crash, so I found an opening in the clouds over a park in New Jersey and then picked a strong tree to hook my wing on. I did that deliberately. It’s one of the things pilots learned. If you had to crash, the best thing was to get the outer part of your wing on something that would absorb the energy gradually instead of suddenly. They should be thinking about this same thing today for automobiles.
Why did you decide to stay in the Army after 1918?
I had found a great deal of pleasure in flying, and I enjoyed the military life. Had there been commercial airlines at that time … no, I still would have enjoyed the military life. The boys who got out of the service and became barnstormers, they had a rather precarious existence, both from the point of view of eating and living.
What was it like in the Army Air Service after the war?
We were constantly trying to think of something to do to keep busy and, hopefully, to enhance the public’s interest in aviation. The senior people, particularly Billy Mitchell, understood this very clearly. We junior people didn’t understand it as well, but we were anxious to participate. Any time we could get an airplane to fly someplace, well, we were for that. I remember right after the war I convinced Colonel Burwell to let three of us fly from San Diego to Washington. We didn’t get very far before two of the planes cracked up. When I reported this to Burwell by telephone, he called me a Chinese Ace—in those days Chinese Aces were pilots who cracked up their own airplanes—and told me to come back immediately. On the way I had to make an emergency landing and flipped my plane over in a soft field. I undid my safety belt and, as I fell out, ripped off the seat of my pants. I got the plane fixed and flew back. When I landed, a mechanic told me to report at once to the colonel. I went to his office, covered with oil, and he gave me the bawling out I was eminently entitled to. When he finished, I saluted briskly and did an about-face, exposing considerable bare posterior, which caused him to think that this was my indirect way of expressing my opinion. So he bawled me out again, with flourishes. I recall he said something to the effect that I couldn’t even keep my ass in my pants.
Weren’t you involved in Billy Mitchell’s historic sinking of the captured German battleships?
You mean the Frankfurt and the Ostfriesland? Those were attacked by the Martin bombers. I was part of a squadron of DH-4’s that Mitchell also assembled at Langley Field [Virginia] in 1921, and our target consisted of some smaller ships and, I think, a submarine. The mission was all part of Mitchell’s belief that aviation should be a separate branch of the service. There was some merit in this concept, because the traditionalists in the Army and the Navy were opposed to the idea of airplanes becoming an offensive weapon. So when Mitchell finally got permission to conduct his experiment against those surplus ships, he set out to carefully train the pilots who would fly the mission. Mitchell even had special bombs made by the ordnance department, an important part of the whole operation that is sometimes overlooked.
Did you sink the targets that were assigned to your flight?
It’s difficult to say. You went out and dropped your bombs and went on your way. Somebody else was scoring the results. I do have a very clear recollection of bombing an Italian battleship, the Roma , during World War n, and that was a very distressing mission. The Roma and two cruisers were anchored in the harbor at Spezia—this was before Italy came over to our side—and it was with considerable difficulty that I got permission to attack her. I put a group of B-25's on each of these ships, just to be sure, and we missed. We attacked with a hundred forty-seven bombers, and none of the three ships was sunk. It was very embarrassing. Il was the only completely unsuccessful mission I led in the entire war. A little later, after Italy had switched sides, a single German light bomber with one controlled bomb came over and sank the Roma . I’m just glad General Mitchell wasn’t around.
Billy Mitchell was an unusual man, wasn’t he?
A very colorful man. I got to know him quite well. One of the busiest days I ever spent was acting as his aide on one of his missions. I was a youngster in my twenties, and I found it difficult to keep up with him. He was a man of prodigious energy. He was a good flier, too. He flew practically everything. But in the end I think that the methods he used to advance the cause of aviation probably delayed the development of air power, as well as destroyed him. I’m reminded of the two Chinese woodcuts that depict the wind blowing over a bamboo and an oak. When the wind stops, the bamboo comes back up; the oak doesn’t. I’m inclined to think that if there had been a little more bamboo in Billy Mitchell, he might have achieved more than he did.
Do you agree with the outcome of Mitchell’s court-martial?
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  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?
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?
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?
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?
Basically there are two things in aviation—safety and reliability. We all understand safety. Reliability means primarily the ability to adhere to schedule, to go where you want to go, when you want to go, with what you want to take. So the basic concept behind the Full-Flight Laboratory was how to make aviation more reliable, more able to go regardless of weather conditions. And the two great deterrents were fog and icing.
We approached the matter of fog two ways: how could you disperse fog, and if you couldn’t disperse it, how could you cope with it? There was a chap in Cleveland named Harry Raeder. He had a unique way of breaking rock in his quarry. He used a huge blowtorch, with a nozzle perhaps eighteen inches in diameter, and he would heat the side of the quarry, and the uneven expansion and contraction of the heated and unheated rock would cause the rock to break and fall. Over the years Raeder had noticed that the heat of his blowtorch dispersed fog for a considerable distance. We hired him and brought him and his torch to Mitchel Field to test his concept. After a period of months we finally got a zero-zero fog one morning. Well, it was true that in the vicinity of the huge torch the fog was dispersed. Unfortunately the fog was not stationary, and as quick as the torch dispersed the fog, a new fog moved in. So we came to the conclusion that it was probably impossible to disperse a moving fog.
I think, however, that I should point out that during World War n, in England, where the fog was quite stationary, a similar system called FIDO —Fog Intense Dispersal Of—was practiced very successfully. They had great burners on the sides of the runways, and we saved thousands of men and aircraft that would have been lost, by bringing them into the tunnels created by FIDO .
Since you couldn’t disperse fog, how did you go about coping with it?
To begin with, I developed through trial and error a method of literally flying an airplane into the ground. At the far end of the field I had a radio beacon toward which I flew. At the other end I had a fan beacon of lights that marked my approach. On passing the fan beacon at a prescribed altitude, there was a mark on the throttle segment to which I put the throttle. That mark gave me just enough throttle to come down in a very flat glide, and I would just fly right into the ground, and the airplane would scarcely bounce. This technique, along with the new instruments we were able to acquire, allowed me to practice blind landings with a canvas hood over the cockpit.
What sort of instruments?
It was immediately obvious that the instruments then available—the altimeter, rate-of-climb, air-speed, and bank and turn indicators—were not adequate, particularly in bumpy weather. I heard about a chap named [Paul] Kollsman who had developed a very sensitive barometric altimeter, and I went to see him at his home in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. He had built an altimeter that would show the altitude down to about ten feet, whereas the instruments we had been using were only accurate down to about one hundred feet. I took Kollsman—he was holding his altimeter on his lap—up on the first flight test of his device, which was the father of all altimeters used today. Another group that was extremely helpful was the Radio Frequency Laboratory in Boonton, New Jersey, which installed a lot of equipment in our test planes for following beams and beacons and so forth. In those days they didn’t yet have an instrument that pointed whether you were left or right of the radio beacon. What we had were two vibrating reeds. If you were to the right of the beacon, one reed would vibrate more. If you were to the left, the other reed would. To keep on course you had to visually maintain an equal vibration of the two reeds, which stopped vibrating altogether when you passed directly over the beacon. These were the primitive devices out of which today’s fine system finally evolved.
Were any new instruments developed by the Full-Flight Lab?
Two things I knew I needed were a directional gyroscope, which could be periodically set with a compass to give you always your true north, and an instrument that showed the nose and wings of the airplane in relation to the horizon. Various attempts had been made to build such instruments, but they had never been successful. So I went to Elmer Sperry, Sr., who was then the world’s outstanding gyro-scope man, and I drew him a picture of what I wanted. It was a combination instrument in which a simulated airplane would be fixed on the face of the dial and the artificial horizon would be a bar that moved up and down and rolled sideways. And below the horizon bar would be a dial that showed the degrees of north, east, south, and west. Mr. Sperry said he could make that instrument but that it would be very complex and take a long time. He recommended two instruments, a directional gyroscope and an artificial horizon. I said fine, and he assigned the work to his son, Elmer junior. From then on, Elmer junior was an integral part of the blind-flying team. He and his wife became friends of ours and still were when they both passed on. I couldn’t possibly give too much credit to the Sperry people for what they did. Incidentally, about two years ago I climbed into a transport plane, and to my amazement, there on the instrument board was almost an exact replica of the original combination instrument I drew for Elmer Sperry, Sr., in 1928.
Who were the members of the blind-flying team?
Well, besides myself and Elmer junior, there was my back-up pilot, Lt. Ben Kelsey, and Prof. Bill Brown, who taught me aeronautics at M.I.T. , and my old chief mechanic from the Army, Sgt. Jack Dalton. Jack took care of the airplanes Ben and I flew, and the professor ran the instrumentation of all our radio equipment. We were a closely integrated team from start to finish. Our big day came on September 24, 1929. About four that morning Jack Dalton called me—actually it was the same day we tested Raeder’s fog-dispersing technique. As I said, I had been doing blind landings under the hood for a considerable period of time, and this particular day I realized that here was an opportunity to try a flight in actual zero-zero conditions. So we immediately pushed the airplane out. I climbed in, took off, flew up through the fog, and came back and landed. This was, as far as I know, the first takeoff and landing ever made under zero-zero conditions of fog. About that time Harry Guggenheim arrived from his home. He suggested we make an official flight under a hood. I said fine. About that time the fog began to disperse slightly. I tried my best to get Harry to permit me to take off and make the hooded flight alone. But he wouldn’t permit it. He was concerned that there might be other airplanes flying above the fog. Harry insisted that Ben Kelsey go with me. So Ben got in the front seat, and I taxied out and made the flight completely under the hood, with Kelsey holding his hands up at all times—to show he wasn’t touching the controls.
Did Guggenheim know that you had flown solo before he arrived?
I am positive he did, but that time I was not flying under the hood. I was flying looking out. Harry wanted the official flight to be completely blind, completely under the hood, by instruments alone. And so, for maximum safety, Harry wanted another pilot in the plane with me. After the FullFlight Laboratory was disbanded in 1929, all our equipment was turned over to the Army at Wright Field, where Captain Hegenberger modified and improved it, and then he made the first solo flight under a hood. Hegenberger received the Collier Trophy for that flight.
Did you ever receive any award for your blind flights?
Not as far as I know.
In 1930, the year after the Guggenheim experiments concluded, you resigned from the Army and went to work for the Shell Oil Company. Why?
My mother and my wife’s mother were ill, and we could not take care of them on the rather meager pay of a first lieutenant. So I got out of the service and went with Shell, where we had the money to do whatever we could for our mothers until they passed on shortly thereafter.
This period of your career—1917 to 1930—encompasses the frontier days of aviation. Do you consider these years the most exciting in the history of aviation?
That’s a hard question to answer. I will say that in those days the pilot was very important, and his skill in manipulating the airplanes, which were not as reliable as they are today, was very important indeed. The airplanes today are mechanized to such a degree that the pilot no longer depends on the seat of his pants to the extent that he did in the early days. What has happened to aviation has happened to almost everything else. The day of the rugged individualist, the day of the inventor, is almost over. The Ben Franklins and Henry Fords are pretty much a thing of the past. It has just become too complicated. Everything now is a team operation, and if a truly new concept is developed, it means that there will be a large number of people knowledgeable in various scientific disciplines involved. And this requires a different philosophical outlook. I cannot see, for instance, how we could ever have another Lindbergh. Things have changed too much for that sort of competence to be rewarded the way it justifiably was. Still, I think that aviation will continue to develop, and each era will be interesting. But interesting in different ways.
Looking back to those early days, does it ever amaze you that so many of the pioneer aviators, yourself included, are still alive?
It amazes me that so many of them are gone.