Doolittle's Accomplishments Took Much More than 30 Seconds

October 03, 1993|By MYRON BECKENSTEIN

When he died last week after 96 years of life, Jimmy Doolittle was most remembered for the 30 seconds of it he spent over Tokyo early in World War II. But that was just 30 seconds in a long, full life. It is hard to think of anyone who contributed so much to aviation in so many different areas as Doolittle did.

The Wright Brothers invented flying; Doolittle added greatly to its dimensions. Lindbergh captured the public imagination, crossed the Atlantic and secretly perfected the Lockheed P-38 during World War II; Doolittle was a military flier, a scientist, an innovator, a racer, a test pilot and a stunt pilot.

Combining skill, daring and intellect, he was in some of these roles, as President George Bush later put it, "the master of the calculated risk." As Doolittle put it, "I have been luckier than the law of averages should allow. I could never be so lucky again."

Doolittle was born Dec. 14, 1896. Flying was born Dec. 3 seven years later. In 1910, the 13-year-old Doolittle met the 6-year-old flying at an air meet in which Glenn Curtiss broke the world's speed record by going 55 miles an hour.

In the 1920s and '30s, Doolittle was setting various speed records himself: 232.5 miles an hour, 258, 294.

He also was winning major air races and trophies. In 1925 he was in Baltimore to win the Schneider Trophy race with a Curtiss seaplane. In 1932 he proved he was one of the few pilots who could handle the difficult Gee Bee racer and won the Thompson Trophy at the National Air Races in Cleveland.

He also was the first pilot to successfully complete an outside loop, that is, a loop with the pilot facing away from the center of the circle. Tht maneuver was much more difficult than the inside loop because of the stress it put on the pilot and on those early planes.

He was a flight pioneer, too. In September 1922, he broke an early flying equivalent of the four-minute mile when he became the first person to fly across the country in less than a day. Including one brief stop, he made it in 22 hours and 35 minutes.

Seven years later, he broke a far more restrictive barrier and lifted flying beyond the visual by conducting history's first all-instrument flight.

In a covered-canopy biplane, he took off, flew a set course and landed without being able to see anything other than the instruments in his cockpit. Today's round-the-clock, all-weather flying was born.

But there were other sides to Doolittle. While setting these records, he was continuing an Army career he had begun in 1917.

He also was charging ahead with his formal education, getting a bachelor's degree from the University of California at Berkeley in 1922, a master's from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1924 and a doctor ate from MIT in 1925, one of the first doctorates ever presented in aeronautics.

In 1930, because of "advanced age," he retired from the Army and went to work for Shell Oil, where he became a leader in developing better aviation fuels, which led to better engines and better airplanes.

The 100-octane aviation gasoline he helped develop increased the combat capabilities of U.S. planes when World War II came along.

A year before Pearl Harbor, Doolittle returned to the military as a major. And it was as a lowly lieutenant colonel that he was chosen to direct the famous April 18, 1942, raid on Tokyo. Doolittle was only supposed to train the fliers, but he managed to talk his way into becoming the airborne commander, too.

JTC When the raid -- despite its story being told as "30 Seconds Over Tokyo," it took more than 30 seconds -- was over, Doolittle was convinced the effort had been a failure. Damage to Tokyo was minimal, and because the pilots had been forced to take off early, all 16 planes were lost and some of the fliers killed or captured by the Japanese. There is a picture of a dejected Doolittle sitting next to the wreckage of his plane in China.

But nobody else though the mission was a failure. The next day Colonel Doolittle was skip-promoted to Brig. Gen. Doolittle, and he was soon awarded the Medal of Honor for jump-starting American morale in those bleak early-war days.

"The raid had three advantages, really," Doolittle later wrote. "The first advantage was to give the people at home a little fillip. The news had been all bad until then.

"The second advantage of the raid was to cause the Japanese to worry and feel that they were vulnerable.

The third and most useful part of the raid was that it caused a diversion of enemy aircraft and equipment to the defenses of the home islands which the Japanese badly needed in the theaters where the war was actually going on."

The war didn't end for Doolittle with the raid. He moved across the world to take command of the 12th Air Force in North Africa that same year.

At the end of 1943 he took over the 8th Air Force in England for the final year and a half of the war. The 5-foot-6-inch pilot who once struggled to keep the Gee Bee racer stable now was keeping some 5,000 planes in the air.

Myron Beckenstein is assistant foreign editor of The Baltimore Sun.

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