By Marty Maisel
Race, Demonstration, and Test Pilot
With his flying and academic credentials, Jimmy Doolittle was appointed Chief of the Flight Test Section at McCook Field, the Army Air Service research, development and flight test center.
In early 1926 the President of the Curtiss Aeroplane Exporting Company asked Doolittle’s Army superiors to put him on extended leave and allow him to go to South America to demonstrate the Curtiss P-1 Hawk fighter to potential military customers. The Army approved of his leave without pay and in April, Doolittle, a Curtiss mechanic, and a crated-up P-1 Hawk sailed for South America.
In May 1926 when Doolittle was a guest at a cocktail party hosted by Chilean pilots, he was introduced to a powerful drink called a pisco sour. After a few drinks Doolittle was encouraged to show off his ability to do a hand-stand.
When one of the Chilean pilots said that he had seen Douglas Fairbanks, the American movie actor, do a hand-stand on a window ledge, Doolittle complied and did a hand-stand on the ledge of an open window. However, after a few seconds the sandstone ledge crumbled and he fell to the courtyard about 15 feet below, breaking both ankles.
With both ankles in casts, Doolittle, in his autobiography, he claimed that “embarrassment overcame pain” and within a few days he managed
to perform the aerobatic flight demonstration to promote the sale of the Curtiss Hawk fighter. Curtiss subsequently received orders for several Hawk airplanes from Chile and later from Argentina.
When Doolittle returned to the states he was transferred to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. where he spent a few months healing from the improper casts that were set in South America. He was finally discharged from the hospital in April 1927.
Back at McCook Field Doolittle began to consider what human, aerodynamic or structural factors would prevent the successful completion of an “outside” loop. During an inside loop centrifugal-forces kept the pilot in his seat but the outside loop would do the opposite. The high g-forces experienced by the pilot during an outside loop may cause high pressure on the brain – would the pilot “red-out” and loose consciousness due to the excessive pressure?Using a P-1 Hawk, one of the latest Army fighters available at McCook Field, Doolittle gradually began to develop the techniques required to perform that difficult maneuver. By the end of May 1927 he demonstrated the outside loop to a half-dozen of his fellow pilots, proving that advanced aircraft of the day were capable of withstanding the forces and that the pilot would suffer no ill effects from that extreme flight condition.
Before long Army headquarters in Washington prohibited Army pilots from performing an outside loop because most of the Army aircraft in service
were not stressed for that maneuver. In any event, Jimmy Doolittle is credited with being the first pilot to successfully perform the outside loop.
In the late 1920s Elmer Sperry Jr. of the Sperry Gyroscope Co. developed flight instruments aimed at enabling “blind flying.” Funding was provided by the Daniel Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics. Two of Sperry’s instruments consisted of little gyroscopes in instrument cases: one to determined the direction (called a directional gyro) and the other determined the attitude of the airplane (known as an artificial horizon).
At the same time, Guggenheim was also sponsoring Jimmy Doolittle to conduct “all weather flying” experiments at Mitchel Field on Long Island,
New York. With shared goals and common funding, Doolittle teamed with Sperry. Eventually others joined the team including Professor Bill Brown from M.I.T., specialists at the Federal Bureau of Standards, the Army, the Navy, and the Department of Commerce, and engineers from the Pioneer, Taylor and Kollsman Instrument Companies, the Bell and Radio Frequency Laboratories, and the Radio Corporation of America.
of “Blind Flying” technology, Doolittle was awarded the Harmon Trophy (presented for the most outstanding achievement in the art of flying) in 1929.