Jimmy Doolittle – Scholar, Aviator, Daredevil, Military Leader, American – Part 3

By Marty Maisel

Industry Aviation
In late 1929, Doolittle was offered a position with the Shell Oil Company as Manager of their Aviation Department – at three times the pay he was earning in the Army. With a wife and two young sons to think about it was an offer he could not turn down. Jimmy Doolittle resigned his regular Army commission on February 15, 1930, but joined the Army Air Corps Reserve and was promoted to the rank of Major.

During the 1930s Doolittle toured 21 nations to promote Shell’s aviation products and conducted many flight test for the company. Recognizing that high performance military aircraft on the drawing boards would require high octane fuel, he persuaded Shell to initiate production of 100 octane aviation fuel – a decision that prove to be vital in the early years of World War II.

To allow Doolittle to travel on business as needed, Shell purchased a Stinson SR-10, which he flew for several years.

Back to the Races
During the early 1930s air racing, a popular spectator sport, was viewed by Doolittle as a vehicle to advance aviation, specifically with respect to aerodynamic and engine performance. Doolittle chose to remain active in air racing.

The Laird Super Solution, 1931. (Image is in the
public domain)

In 1931 Doolittle was recruited to fly the Super Solution, a racing biplane designed by Matty Laird. The aircraft was entered in the first Bendix Trophy race from Burbank, California to Cleveland, Ohio. With Jimmy Doolittle in the cockpit and Shell fuel in the tanks, the Super Solution won the first prize of $7,500 with an average speed of 223 mph. After landing in Cleveland Doolittle had the Super Solution fuel tanks gassed up and he took off toward Newark, New Jersey to set a new coast-to-coast flying time record of 11 hours and 11 minutes. His first transcontinental record flight was done in less than one day – his second record flight took less than half a day, and, by the way, earned Doolittle a bonus of $2,500.

Damaged 1932 Laird Super Solution after belly
landing due to landing gear failure. (Image is in the public domain)

Laird and Doolittle prepared for the next year’s race season by making significant modifications to the Super Solution with the goal of increasing its top speed by 50 or 60 mph. One of those changes was the installation of a retractable landing gear. During a flight test in August everything appeared to go as planned – until it was time to land. The airloads prevented the landing gear from fully extending and all maneuvers tried by Doolittle failed to shake it down. Doolittle’s only option was to burn off the remaining fuel and belly in on the grass at Wichita airport. Doolittle was not injured but the Super Solution was extensively damaged and would miss the 1932 race season.

Newspapers spread the word that Doolittle would not be flying the Super Solution in 1932 and several offers came in from race plane manufacturers asking him to fly their aircraft. With the Bendix race (from Burbank to Cleveland) only days away Doolittle rejected most requests since there would not be enough time to test fly the proposed entries.

One offer that interested Doolittle came from Zanford Granville. Zanford was one of the Granville Brothers of Springfield, Massachusetts who had built the Gee-Bee R-1 racer with a 750-horsepower engine. Doolittle was asked to fly the R-1 in the Thompson Trophy race in Cleveland that was to be held in September 1932, replacing pilot Russell Boardman who was injured in the crash of another Gee-Bee airplane.

Doolittle flew to Bowles airport near Springfield to check out the R-1. His initial assessment was that “There is no doubt the R-1 was a very directionally unstable airplane” and “it seemed like it was all engine with a minuscule set of wings and a bomblike fuselage.”

However, after walking around the aircraft several times to try to predict how it would handle in flight, he climbed in, started the engine, and blasted off toward Cleveland. He realized immediately that the R-1 was a touchy and probably unpredictable airplane. He stated: “I didn’t trust this little monster”.

During qualification flights on September 3 Doolittle in the Gee-Bee R-1 was clocked at 296.287 mph, a new world speed record. Doolittle went on to win the 100-mile triangular-course Thompson Trophy race with a speed of over 252 mph – a record for the event. The prize was $4,500.

The next day Doolittle flew the R-1 back to Springfield and returned it to the Granvilles. He claimed: “That airplane was the most dangerous airplane I have ever flown.”

Shortly after the 1932 races he announced that he was retiring from air racing. Thinking of his young family, Doolittle said “I have yet to hear of anyone engaged in this work dying of old age.”

Doolittle continued to apply his engineering and marketing skills for Shell and advocated for a stronger Air Corps during the remainder of the 1930s.

Throughout his career Doolittle kept abreast of developments in aeronautical technology and in 1940 was elected president of the Institute of Aeronautical Science (IAS).

Jimmy Doolittle with the Gee-Bee R-1. (NASM)