On this day in 1929, renowned aviator Jimmy Doolittle completes the first blind flight. Today, airplanes make instrument landings all the time. But did you ever consider? Someone had to be the first to throw caution to the winds and actually try it. That someone was Doolittle.
Perhaps you recognize his name? He would later famously conduct a raid over Tokyo during World War II.
Aviation advances were being made quickly in those days, but pilots were constantly stymied by their inability to land in difficult weather conditions. “Fog is one of the greatest enemies of modern transportation,” Charles Lindbergh complained early in 1929.
Doolittle agreed, and he was determined to do something about it. For months, he prepared for the challenge. Finally, on September 24, 1929, a heavy fog blanketed Mitchel Field. He had “zero-zero conditions,” and he was ready to go!
Doolittle was up early that morning, impatient to prove that he could fly without any visibility. He’d already completed an unofficial test flight in the Guggenheim Fund’s Consolidated NY-2 when Harry Guggenheim arrived at the field.
“He suggested we make an official flight under a hood,” Doolittle later reported. So Doolittle climbed into the rear cockpit of his plane and zipped a canvas hood around himself. Doolittle would have taken off, just like that, but Guggenheim wouldn’t hear of it. Instead, he insisted that another pilot get into the plane, in the front cockpit.
Doolittle was resigned. “So Ben got in the front seat,” he later wrote, “and I taxied out and made the flight completely under the hood, with Kelsey holding his hands up at all times—to show he wasn’t touching the controls.”
Kelsey’s presence was an emergency measure, but he wasn’t needed. Doolittle flew the plane for fifteen minutes before circling and landing his plane mere feet from the spot where he’d taken off. He’d done it!
The feat seems simple to us now. We are used to a world in which planes routinely take off, fly, and land—all with the assistance of instruments. But back then, Doolittle’s feat was nothing short of extraordinary. “That took real courage,” aviation pioneer and future Chief of the U.S. Army Air Corps, Henry “Hap” Arnold said. “There was no cheering crowd. No Audience. Just Jim Doolittle, risking one life that many others might live.”
As for Doolittle, he was a little more blasé about it. “There was never any doubt in my mind,” he later said. “We’d practiced it for a year, until it was something very simple. Of course, we aviators used to try to make things look difficult.”
Doolittle and the First “Blind Flight” (Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum)
James M. Scott, Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid That Avenged Pearl Harbor (2015)
John Noble Wilford, 50 Years Later, ‘Blind’ Flight Is Routine (NY Times, Sept. 25, 1979)
Robert S. Gallagher, Jimmy Doolittle: “I Am Not A Very Timid Type …” (American Heritage Mag., April 1974)