By Portfolio Editor Roz Hamlett
While more famous aviators such as Charles Lindbergh were capturing America’s imagination in the 1920s and ‘30s, General James “Jimmy” Doolittle was flying a little below the radar.
But he was a thoroughly accomplished and pioneering aviator in his own right, accumulating a long and impressive list of aeronautical achievements as a flight instructor and test pilot until his exploits as a combat flight leader over Tokyo during World War II made him a national hero.
Doolittle was the first test pilot to “fly blind,” as instrument flying was called in the early days of aviation, recognizing that a pilot could be trained to fly through clouds, fog, weather and darkness relying on navigational instruments and not senses. He also helped develop and test the now universally used artificial horizon and directional gyroscope. These accomplishments made all-weather airline operations practical.
Newark Airport, which opened in 1928 and was acquired by the Port Authority two decades later, served as an important East Coast terminus for Doolittle’s many coast-to-coast record flights. From its beginning, Newark Airport was associated closely with celebrated flyers, its history intertwined with the most famous of American aviators: Lindbergh, Wiley Post, Amelia Earhart, Howard Hughes – and Doolittle.
Doolittle spent much of the 1930s developing and testing high octane fuels as manager of the aviation department at Shell Petroleum, also founded in 1928. In 1931, he set the coast-to-coast record in just over 11 hours from Los Angeles to Newark, averaging 217 miles per hour, with his apparently unflinching wife, Josephine, by his side in the cockpit.
In 1935, during a cross-country test flight from California to Newark, ice began to form at 15,000 feet, striking Doolittle’s airplane like gunshots, but he held that altitude for most of the journey. Afterwards, his wife described a pitch black and harrowing night as pieces of ice the size of her fingernails came through the plane’s ventilators and pelted her throughout the flight.
Once back on the ground, Doolittle admitted that it was perhaps the toughest flight of his career as a test pilot.
In addition to his many record-breaking flights, and his best-known role as leader of the bombing raid on Tokyo during World War II for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor, Doolittle invented a funnel and tube-based “pilot dehydrator,” the earliest airplane toilet. Doolittle also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, two Distinguished Service Medals, the Silver Star, three Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Bronze Star, four Air medals and decorations from five countries during his career.
Additionally, he was one on the first men in the country to earn a doctorate in aeronautics. As part of his doctoral thesis, Doolittle determined there was no accurate way for a pilot to know how the wind was blowing or the altitude of the plane unless he had visual aids or instruments. His studies are believed to be the first to directly combine data from the lab with data from the flights of test pilots.
Married to Josephine for more than 70 years, Doolittle died in September 1993 at the age of 96, five years after his wife’s death. He is buried next to her at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C.