James H Doolittle: Aviation Racer, Stunt Pilot, WWII Legend

During World War I, California native James H. Doolittle (1896-1993) trained in the Army Signal Corps to become a pilot. He accomplished the first coast-to-coast crossing of the United States in less than 24 hours in 1922. One of the best performers of the 1920s, Doolittle was also a record-breaking racer and a legendary acrobatic pilot.

He won the Thompson Trophy in 1932, Schneider Trophy in 1925, and the Bendix Trophy in 1931. But his flying had a more important aspect as well. He was a superb test pilot who, in 1925, was among the first individuals to be awarded a Ph.D. in aeronautical engineering. He returned to active duty as a high-ranking commander in the USAAF during World War II, famously directing a risky long-distance bombing attack in Tokyo in 1942.

Early Life and Education

James Harold Doolittle, often known as "Jimmy," was born in Alameda, California, however, he lived much of his early years in western Alaska. Jimmy excelled as a boxer and gymnast while attending high school in Los Angeles. After high school, he attended the School of Mines at the University of California, Berkeley.

He left Berkeley in October 1917 and joined the Signal Corps Reserve and started his flying cadet training. He wed Josephine E. Daniels on December 24, 1917. They were married for seventy-one years before Josephine passed away. Their two sons both became military officers and pilots.

Achievements during World Wars

Jimmy was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Signal Corps Aviation Section in March 1918. He worked as a flight teacher at brand-new air bases in Texas, Louisiana, Ohio, and California during World War I. In July 1920, he was promoted to first lieutenant.

Jimmy studied aviation as well as aviation research after earning his degree from Berkeley in 1922 and went on to become one of the most well-known pilots of the interwar period. With just one stop for refueling, he accomplished the very first cross-country journey between Florida and California lasting 21 hours, 19 minutes.

Jimmy Doolittle invented a funnel-and-tube-based "pilot dehydrator"—possibly the first airplane toilet—to assist his record-breaking 1922 coast-to-coast journey. He was awarded the United States Distinguished Flying Cross for this achievement.

Jimmy participated in air shows and tried his hand at several high-speed records. One of his victories was the Schneider Cup Race in 1925, where he averaged 232 mph and won the Mackay Trophy the subsequent year. He accomplished the outside loop maneuver, which was considered to be unachievable, in 1927!

His Research Changed Aviation Industry

The stunt pilot Jimmy Doolittle was much more than just an airshow stunt pilot. His innovations in the field of aviation altered aviation operations. The military sent him to MIT and the Air Service Engineering School in the 1920s, where he completed his master's degree through studies on airplane acceleration trials for which he was awarded a 2nd Distinguished Flying Cross.

He graduated from MIT in 1926 with a Doctorate of Science, becoming the country's first person to have that title in the field of aeronautical engineering. In 1929, he was the very first aviator to lift off, cruise, and land without looking out the plane's windows because he established instrument flight procedures. He created instruments for precision flying and then instructed aspiring pilots in its use.

Services for Aviation Industry

He worked on the Navy Test Board, piloted test aircraft, and received specialized training in high-speed flight. He provided advice aviation advances and assisted oil firms in testing new aviation gases.

The military dispatched Jimmy to Chile in the spring of 1926 with a flight demonstration crew. He broke both of his ankles there, yet he continued to fly his presentation in a P-1 Hawk while wearing casts.

He participated in the Baker Board's aviation assessment in 1934, and in 1940 he served as the Institute of Aeronautical Science's president. Jimmy coordinated with auto manufacturers to establish strategies for their industrial facilities to produce aircraft if America entered the fight as World War II broke out in the Pacific and Europe. He traveled to Britain on behalf of the American military and administration to research and report on developments in air power and Allied military hardware.

Doolittle Raid

Following the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the US engaged in World War II. Jimmy Doolittle returned to the armed services and was promoted from major to lieutenant colonel in January 1942. He immediately started preparing for the first attack in retaliation against Japan. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for organizing and carrying out the raid, which now carries his name.


United States Space Program

Jimmy participated on military boards after World War II ended and actively helped launch the American Space Program. Together with Robert Goddard, he oversaw the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in 1956.

He left the Air Force Reserve in February 1959, although he continued to work and serve as a consultant to the military and commercial aviation communities until his demise. James Doolittle, who passed away in Pebble Beach, California, on September 27, 1993, is buried at Arlington National Cemetery next to his wife Josephine.