Aviation History Themes: From Jimmy Doolittle to the Movie “The Right Stuff”


Psychologists and philosophers alike have long pondered the optimum combination of qualities and characteristics which comprise the “seeds of greatness.” If they were measured by Jimmy Doolittle’s personality traits, they would assuredly encompass integrity, ability, humility, and courage.

Introduced to aerial flight in 1909 when he had attended the first air show west of St. Louis, Doolittle subsequently built a full-sized glider from plans detailed in a magazine and unsuccessfully launched it from a 15-foot-high hill. Yet the Army Air Corps provided the actual means to sustained fight when a six-hour training program resulted in a flight instructor designation and his insatiable desire for aviation knowledge produced a doctorate in aeronautics-the second such one ever to have been awarded.

Always demonstrating meticulous planning and an almost fearless ambition, he dispensed with emotionalization and undauntingly pursued his goals. The Gee Bee Racer, for instance-the world’s fastest and probably most unstable-design, proved the ultimate test of his abilities, but he nevertheless set a 1932 speed record of 60 mph above that of the previous year’s with it. It was an example of the edge to which he stretched himself in order to perform a stunt of daredevilism. As indicated, fear, whether real or perceived, is otherwise the greatest deterrent to action.

Doolittle’s self-formulated definition of “hero” was a person who “carried out a mission regardless”… and “don’t let death deter you.”

It was with this staunch philosophy that he sought 79 men to engage in an aircraft carrier-launch of 16 North American B-25 Mitchells in order to strike Japan’s military targets 800 miles away. Although the squadron was much aided by a long-duration, 35-mph tailwind, the aircraft’s insufficient fuel capacity caused their pilots to ultimately parachute toward inhospitable land in China. Roosevelt bestowed him with the congressional medal of honor for the raid, but responding with characteristic humbleness, he proclaimed, “I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to earn it.”

In 1944 Doolittle had been given command of the Eighth Air Force in England whose purpose had been to progressively incapacitate Germany’s fighting ability. Again he was decorated. He had thus been instrumental in both World War II’s primary theatres.

A psychological formula reads: “Attraction of same-repulsion of dissimilar.” What this implies is that people do not genuinely respond to overwhelming, tyrant, beyond-human personality traits viewed in others, but easily “flow” in response to those characteristics and qualities innately incorporated in themselves and reflected in others-namely, humility, humbleness, integrity, and courage. If Doolittle’s successes and accomplishments are any indication of this formula’s validity, he had been able to spark the best in others in order to implement his ideals, strategies, and goals.


The Bible warns about creating false gods. Many create themselves. Hitler, like the multitude of atheistic leaders who had preceded him, once again attempted to erect a kingdom of suppression on earth through intimidation and submission. Yet, unaware that those flowing from a higher power-connected entity exuded a collective spirit which could not be easily broken or swayed, he futilely endeavored to diminish, conquer, and rule them. But there was more to the human being than the physical body.

The last addition needed to complete his European domination lay across the English Channel. Perhaps its symbolic obstacle should have been a forewarning to him: water was the symbol of life and growth-and it was not to be his.

Yet England’s ultimate triumph would be no small task. Hitler’s tri-phase plan of capture, born in Mephistophelean desire, was directed toward a paltry, vulnerable army dredged from the water after its Dunkirk crossing devoid of the prerequisite tools of war which continued to litter France. Ironically, despite their pulchritude, they had successfully crossed the channel whereas Hitler never would-at least not permanently! Returning to home soil, the men were reflected by the majority of British citizens who appeared even less adept than themselves-the workers, the farmers, the newborn. But the less able often retain a closer connection to God and therefore their inner resources, and what they lack individually, they recoup collectively. The women, in particular, provided invaluable assistance in supporting the country’s industrial and transportation infrastructure with 24-hour, fatigue-engulfing work schedules. The fact that people, instead of government, created war (and peace) in a democratic society was a foreign, incomprehensible concept to the Nazis across the water.

The Battle of Britain had officially been sparked on August 8, 1940 when the Germans crossed the Channel, but they were aerially confronted by Royal Air Force fighters before they could penetrate the coast. Perhaps collective spirit could not be quantified, but this fact was dispelled during the first ten days when the 26 raids recorded a Nazi loss of 697 opposed to England’s 153. Hitler, needless to say, outwardly continued to predict victory, but clandestinely berated Goering for the defeat and demanded new strategies. To tip the scales back toward Germany’s favor, he laid out a plan to weaken Britain by directly attacking its factories and aerodromes.

Yet England had always been one step ahead of Germany. Its increased vigilance and amplification methods monitored any channel crossings and afforded increased preparation time for retaliatory measures should an advancing invasion be detected. The technique, as indicated by the latest scoreboard, had apparently been successful with 562 German losses and 219 British.

Directly attacking the core of London for the first time on September 7 with 375 aircraft, Hitler had hoped to puncture the core of democracy upon which all resistance seemed to depend. But the British sublimated their own survival to that of the democratic whole by losing almost all material possessions, foregoing food, and spending endless nights in damp subshelters beneath the city’s monolithic structures while rescue workers and firefighters desperately tried to keep pace with the German-fraught destruction during day.

On September 15, 500 enemy bombers and fighters engaged in aerial combat with the RAF, resulting in 200 dogfights in the first 30 minutes alone. Although the Luftwaffe managed to penetrate England’s circumferenced defenses and bulls eyed central London, one-third of the 500 aircraft were ultimately shot down–the direct result of the feisty performance of the opposition’s Spitfire.

Even when the Nazis modified their strategy by launching raids during the obscurity of darkness, the British responded by burrowing underground during night and taking to the skies with greater-ranged retaliatory aircraft. The British were defending more than themselves.

Although Germany ultimately killed 40,000 British citizens and virtually ploughed the country into rubble, the Nazis had lost 2,375 aircraft and crews in the Battle of Britain before they had finally retreated. The British spirit had thus triumphed. And of Hitler: even if he had successfully taken control of the country, it still would have resulted in ultimate failure. “For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul” in the process?*


Things are sometimes greater than the sum of their parts. This statement certainly applies to naval aviation. Airplanes had long conquered gravity. Ships had tamed the sea, providing a temporary, but moveable, floating portion of land. Together they superseded distance by artificially increasing range, speed, and foresight.

Yet there seemed to be several correlations between the major nations which employed this combination. Japan, an isolationist, traditional society centered round the Samurai culture, quickly ascertained its inherent vulnerability and weakness when the Great White Fleet, sent on a round-the-world tour by Roosevelt, docked, revealing the US as a growing naval contender. Following this example, Japan, suddenly plunging itself into a state of flux, quickly penetrated the 20th century and modernized its defenses, building a considerable naval fleet. They had ultimately hoped to lure the US fleet into their waters and thus destroy the very example they had attempted to emulate.

But the correlation did not end here-as both nations had attempted surprise attacks which were only partially successful: the famed December 7, 1941 Pearl Harbor assault had occurred when all US aircraft carriers had been out to sea and the Doolittle-orchestrated B-25 Mitchell raid on Tokyo, launched from the deck of the Hornet with only 467 feet of runway, had been forced into play 800 miles from the coast instead of the planned 450 because of early detection. Although the aircraft had reached their target and dropped ammunition on what they had believed to be the general vicinity, none had sufficient range to return to the ship and were forced to land in China.

It is one thing to follow in someone else’s footsteps-as Japan had certainly done in the case of the naval build-up-but quite another when a nation refollows its own. The US had already been taught the vital need of maintaining a naval presence when the British, which had traditionally protected the US coastline, ceased this surveillance at the turn of the century, resulting in the 1922 commissioning of the first US aircraft carrier, the Langley, with a 55-biplane fleet. Yet, despite their indispensability in the Second World War victory, all but four were eventually removed from service. When the political- and geographical-boundary restrained conflict erupted in Korea, the US retraced its earlier path by reinventing its naval aviation policy: with aircraft carrier advancements, such as angled decks and launch catapults, and pure-jet designs, naval aviation would continue to play the vital role it had provided under every president since its inception-its 15 aircraft carrier fleet, each with 90 fixed-wing and rotorcraft airplanes, would be able to blanket 85 percent of the earth’s surface.

We sometimes teach ourselves the best lessons.


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