Jimmy Doolittle – Intrepid Pioneer of “Flying Blind”

Any pilot hampered by adverse weather conditions and having to rely on instruments to complete a safe journey can give a thought to General James “Jimmy” Harold Doolittle – a pioneer in the development of what is often referred to as “flying blind”.

Jimmy Doolittle (December 14, 1896 – September 27, 1993) was a highly respected member of the United States Army Air Forces, serving as a brigadier general, major general and lieutenant general during his career, and being awarded the Medal of Honor for his fearless leadership as commander of what came to be known as the Doolittle Raid during World War II. But one of the most enduring of Doolittle’s many accomplishments is undoubtedly his groundbreaking work in the field of aeronautical technology which resulted in the development of instrument flying.

Doolittle proved himself to be a visionary in his field, being the first to realize that pilots could only reach their full potential if they had the ability to control and navigate their aircraft irrespective of weather conditions and what the range of vision may be from the cockpit. He pursued his conviction that pilots could be trained to fly through clouds, fog, darkness and any other visual impediment, even if these are contrary to the pilot’s motion sense inputs.

This need became ever more urgent as aircraft became faster and their range of maneuverability increased. Aircraft were now moving in ways that could cause a pilot to become dangerously disoriented without visual cues. Doolittle realized that human senses have limitations, particularly with regard to the motion sense inputs of up and down, left and right. Doolittle initiated a study focusing on the relationship between motion senses and the psychological effects of visual cues, with the results further substantiating the need for instrument flying. Soon pilots were being trained in the use of navigational instruments, with the emphasis being on developing trust in the instruments, even if the pilot’s senses were giving him contrary information.

In 1929, Doolittle demonstrated that flying blind was possible when he became the first pilot to successfully complete a flight from take-off to landing, having no view from the cockpit and using instruments alone. He went on to assist in the development of fog flying equipment, as well as playing an integral role in the development and testing of the artificial horizon and directional gyroscope – technology that continues to be used worldwide today. Doolittle enjoyed a long and illustrious career, receiving many honors for his innovative contributions to the exciting world of aviation.