Jimmy Doolittle excelled at every aspect of aviation. A daredevil pilot, aeronautical engineer, combat leader, and record-holder, Doolittle was a multi-talented pioneer. He, Eddie Rickenbacker, and Charles Lindbergh were the three best-known aviators of the interwar period. World War II only served to increase Doolittle’s fame.
Doolittle was an amateur boxer studying mining in college when he quit to join the Air Service during World War I. He was taught to fly and spent the war as an instructor. When the war ended and Doolittle was faced with deciding whether to return to college or stay in the military, he made what he considered the easy choice and decided to continue flying. And his career quickly took off. He taught himself aerobatics–performing the first outside loop–and became a regular on the air service air show circuit. In 1921, he flew with the First Provisional Air Brigade when, under the direction of General Billy Mitchell, they performed bombing demonstrations to show the effectiveness of air power against battleships.
The next year, Doolittle made the first cross-country flight in less than 24 hours. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross for this feat, and the citation credited Doolittle with demonstrating “the possibility of moving Air Corps units to any portion of the United States in less than 24 hours.” In 1925, he won the Schneider Marine Trophy while flying a Curtiss seaplane. The next day he set a world speed record of 245 miles per hour (394 kilometers per hour) with the same plane. In 1929, he received the Mackay Trophy for his achievements during 1925.
Doolittle still found time to study. In 1922, he received a degree in engineering and, in 1925, he received one of the first doctorates in aeronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, writing his dissertation on the effect of the wind velocity gradient on flying. Because of his education, Doolittle spent the 1920s serving as an engineering test pilot at McCook Field in Dayton, the army’s aviation test facility, and at the navy’s facility at Mitchell Field, New York. He was one of the first scientific test pilots. He worked on aircraft acceleration tests and the development of instruments that would enable pilots to fly when they were unable to see the ground called “blind flying.” On September 24, 1929, Doolittle made the first “blind” flight, taking off, flying a set course, and landing while flying under a fabric hood so he could not see outside the plane. He received the Harmon Trophy for the feat.
The demands of taking care of his family compelled him to accept an offer from the Shell Oil Company to become manager of their Aviation Department for three times his military salary. In 1930, he resigned his active commission and became a major in the Air Corps Reserve, frequently returning to active duty for test flights and to serve on special committees concerning Air Corps matters. At Shell, Doolittle pushed for the development of 100-octane aviation fuel. In 1931, he won the Bendix Trophy Race in a Laird biplane. The next year, he became the only pilot, with the exception of Wiley Post, to win both the Bendix and the Thompson trophies. He won the latter while flying the Granville Gee Bee, a strangely shaped airplane that was known as a flying death trap. Doolittle might have been able to fly anything that had wings, but he was happy to walk away from the Gee Bee, calling it the most dangerous plane he had ever flown.
In 1940, as the United States mobilized for World War II, Air Corps Chief of Staff Hap Arnold recalled Doolittle to active duty, assigning him to work with auto manufacturers on the conversion of their plants to airplane production. But after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Doolittle requested to be moved to flight duty, not wanting to miss combat during another war. But his request was denied and he was transferred to Army Air Force Headquarters in Washington, although he did also get promoted to lieutenant colonel. He worked on special assignments until he was called into Arnold’s office one day in late January to be briefed on a proposed raid of Tokyo. Arnold asked Doolittle to investigate aircraft to be used in the raid. Doolittle agreed to do the research and also volunteered to lead the mission himself. The offer was accepted.
On April 18, 1942, 16 Mitchell B-25 medium bombers took off from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, positioned 750 miles off the coast of Japan. They dropped bombs on Tokyo, then flew on to China, where most of the crews had to bail out. The raid caused little damage to Tokyo, since the bomb load had to be decreased to accommodate the extra fuel weight. But the boost to morale was great. It gave Americans something to cheer about in the bleak early days of the war. Doolittle was advanced two grades to brigadier general the day after the raid and also received the Medal of Honor.
Doolittle spent the rest of the war as commander of various air force units. He led the 12th Air Force during the invasion of North Africa, the Strategic Air Force during the invasion of Italy, and in late 1944 he was promoted to lieutenant general and assigned to the 8th Air Force in England and the Pacific. He became known as a good commander of bombing groups, frequently inspiring his men by flying with them. He was always a proponent of daytime, precision bombing, feeling it was a “basic American principle” to harm as few civilians as possible.
While the 8th Air Force was still stationed in England, Doolittle was excited about the opportunity to be the first commander to lead air raids on the capital cities of all three of the enemies. He had led the first bombing raids on both Tokyo and Rome. When the 8th began to organize the first raid on Berlin, which would occur on March 4, 1944, Doolittle thought he had a chance to make history. But because he had been briefed on several top-secret operations, it was decided that his capture was too great a risk and he was not allowed to fly over enemy territory. Though Doolittle understood the reason, he was far from happy.
After the war, Doolittle retired from the air force and returned to Shell Oil as a vice president. He continued to serve the air force as well, serving on special committees concerning space and ballistic missiles issues. He chaired the board of Space Technology Laboratories and served as the first president of the Air Force Association. During the late 1950s, as the last chairman of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), he laid the foundation for its successful transformation into the new National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
On April 4, 1985, at a ceremony at the White House, Jimmy Doolittle was promoted to the position of general and given his four stars. Eight years later, Doolittle died at age 97 and was buried at Arlington Cemetery next to Josephine, his wife of 71 years. Many pioneers of flight died young, often through accidents. But Doolittle survived to live a full and illustrious life. When asked the secret of his longevity in such a high-risk profession, he replied that he never took an uncalculated risk but that he also had a lot of luck. He added that he wouldn’t want to live his life again because “I could never be so lucky again.”
References and further reading:
Doolittle, James H, with Glines, Carroll V. I Could Never Be So Lucky Again. New York: Bantam, 1991
Glines, Carroll V. Jimmy Doolittle. Master of the Calculated Risk New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1980.
Perret, Geoffrey. Winged Victory: The Army Air Forces in World War II. New York: Random House Reprint, 1997.
Nelson, Craig. The First Heroes: The Extraordinary Story of the Doolittle Raid – America’s First World War II Victory. New York: Viking Press, 2002.
Reynolds, Quentin. Amazing Mr. Doolittle: A Biography of Lieutenant General James H. Doolittle. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1953.
Thomas, Lowell Jackson and Jablonski, Edward. Doolittle: A Biography. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976.
“James H. Doolittle.” National Aviation Hall of Fame Enshrinee Page: http://www.nationalaviation.org/enshrinee/doolittle.html
“James H. Doolittle.” Official US Air Force Biography: http://www.af.mil/news/biographies/doolittle_jh.html
James H. Doolittle Library: www.utdallas.edu/library/special/jdlttl.html.
“Jimmy Doolittle and the Altimeter.” http://planemath.com/activities/pioneerplane/pta.html.