An Aviation Legend Makes His Most Pivotal Contribution to Flight Technology

September 24, 1929

U.S. Army Air Corps (USAAC) Lieutenant James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle, who would achieve lasting fame as commander of the Doolittle Raid during World War II, made his most significant contribution to aeronautical technology when he guided a Consolidated N-Y-2 Husky training biplane over Mitchel Field in New York in what was the first all-instrument flight. Another pilot, USAAC Lieutenant Benjamin Scovill Kelsey, accompanied Jimmy (also spelled as “Jimmie”) Doolittle on that flight and sat in the forward cockpit. It was the 32-year-old Doolittle, however, who conducted the entire flight over a 15-mile (24.1-kilometer) course.

Sitting in the rear cockpit of that aircraft and underneath a hooded sunlight-proof enclosure, Doolittle piloted that completely “blind” takeoff, flight, and landing without any visual reference to earth and sky and by traveling along the path of a directional radio beacon and relying on certain instruments on board. These instruments were an “artificial horizon” indicating longitudinal and lateral position in relation to the ground; a precision altimeter for measuring altitude; and an experimental gyroscopic compass.

Money for this demonstration flight was provided by the Daniel Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics. This foundation’s president, Harry F. Guggenheim, proclaimed the flight and in particular the use of those innovative instruments on board the plane a success. He said, “The demonstration eliminates the last great hazard to the reliability of airplane travel and means that a principle has been developed which, when eventually perfected for commercial use, will make the airplane more independent of weather conditions than any other form of transportation.”

At the dinner celebration that subsequently took place, Doolittle’s wife Josephine (also known as “Joe”) had guests sign a white damask tablecloth. She continued collecting hundreds of signatures on that spread from others in the aviation world. This tablecloth can be found today at the Smithsonian Institution.

For more information on James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle and his airborne achievements, please check out https://www.centennialofflight.net/essay/Explorers_Record_Setters_and_Daredevils/doolittle/EX18.htm and https://pioneersofflight.si.edu/content/doolittle-and-first-blind-flight

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