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Before the Famous Tokyo Raid, Jimmy Doolittle Was an Adventurer

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Before the Famous Tokyo Raid, Jimmy Doolittle Was an Adventurer

Before the famed “Doolittle Raid,” Jimmy Doolittle broke several flying records, and helped create the artificial horizon used by airplane pilots today.

Before the famed “Doolittle Raid,” Jimmy Doolittle broke several flying records, and helped create the artificial horizon used by airplane pilots today.

by John Wukovits

Born in Alameda County, California, in 1896, Jimmy Doolittle joined the Aviation Section of the Army Signal Corps in 1917 and spent the war years as a combat and gunnery instructor. As a test pilot in the 1920s, he established a reputation as a fearless flier who loved races and as a man undaunted by new challenges. He established several air records during his aviation days in that decade. In 1922, he became the first pilot to fly coast to coast from east to west in less than 24 hours. Taking off from Pablo Beach, Florida, on September 4, in a U.S. Army Air Service de Havilland DH-4B, Doolittle continued in the air beyond San Antonio and El Paso, Texas, on his way to Rockwell Field in San Diego, California. Along the way, he battled one of the most dangerous hazards of early long-distance flying — exhaustion.

As he wrote in his memoirs, “I could never be so lucky again. The desolate appearance of the country and the constant throb of the Liberty engine began to lull me to sleep. Despite the fact that sleep meant death, my head began to nod. But good fortune perched on the cowl. A light rain began falling. The raindrops, whipped back by the propeller, began eddying over the windshield and running in a tiny stream down my back. This made me angry, but was the stimulant I needed. The rain refreshed me, woke me up, and I settled back feeling safe.”

Breaking More Records

Doolittle landed at Rockwell Field 21 hours and 30 minutes after leaving Florida.  For completing the 2,163-mile flight, he received the Distinguished Flying Cross. The groundbreaking flight was one of many undertaken in the early 1920s by pilots under Brig. Gen. William (“Billy”) Mitchell to demonstrate the practical uses of airplanes to Congress and the military.

Three years later, Jimmy Doolittle was the first to fly the Curtiss R3C-1 racer at Garden City, NY. The plane could be fitted with either landing gear or floats. He added another accomplishment when he defeated naval aviators at their own game by winning the Schneider Marine Cup flying the Curtiss R3C-2 floatplane racer. His average speed was 232.57 mph. It was the first time the Army had competed in a seaplane race. The next day, Doolittle set a world seaplane speed record of 245.713 mph over a three-kilometer course.

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In September 1929, Doolittle made the first blind, instrument-only flight at Mitchell Field, NY, in a covered cockpit (with a check pilot along for the ride). He took off, flew a short distance, and then landed back on the field.

In 1931, Doolittle, flying the Laird Super Solution, flew from Los Angeles to Cleveland to win the first Bendix Trophy transcontinental race. The flight took 9 hours and 10 minutes at an average speed of 223.058 mph. He continued on to New York to complete the full flight.

In 1932, he topped his racing career by capturing the Thompson Trophy, the prize for what was considered to be the most prestigious race in flying. Following that effort, Doolittle retired from air racing to devote more of his time to engineering and family.

Brains As Well As Brawn

Jimmy Doolittle also had plenty of brains to go along with his brawn. In 1925, he earned a doctorate in aeronautical sciences from the esteemed Massachusetts Institute of Technology, then helped create the artificial horizon used in airplanes and directional gyros to assist in blind, instrument-controlled flying. He resigned his army commission in 1930 to join Shell Oil’s aviation department, where his work to develop high-octane fuel helped WW II bombers attain the long ranges needed to hit targets in Germany and the Pacific.

After the Tokyo raid, Doolittle headed to Europe to command the 12th Air Force during its operations in North Africa and the 15th Air Force in its bombing offensive against southern Germany. In 1944, he received his largest command, the huge 8th Air Force operating out of England, and was given the task of reducing German factories and military installations to rubble. He so thoroughly organized the air assault that by the spring of 1945 the 8th Air Force ran out of targets to bomb.

Jimmy Doolittle returned to Shell Oil following the war, retired in 1959, then served on boards of directors until his death in 1993.

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