Monday, August 11, 2014


One of my most cherished possession is an autobiography “I could never be so lucky again”.  As anyone who has read any of my posts on this blog might surmise, that could be the title of my biography. I would agree.  However, it actually is General Jimmy Doolittle’s autobiography and I have a signed copy. I read it again this past week. Most people are familiar with General Doolittle receiving the Medal of Honor for leading the Raid on Japan from the USS Hornet.  But this pioneering aviator had many other successes that paved the way for aviation in the US Military to be so successful in all theaters in WWII.

I’m going to focus on one aspect that many pilots, and passengers, take very much for granted, but which 85 years ago, was NOT possible.  Instrument Flying.  To quote from Sarge’s favorite reference source:
Doolittle's most important contribution to aeronautical technology was the development of instrument flying. He was the first to recognize that true operational freedom in the air could not be achieved unless pilots developed the ability to control and navigate aircraft in flight, from takeoff run to landing rollout, regardless of the range of vision from the cockpit. Doolittle was the first to envision that a pilot could be trained to use instruments to fly through fog, clouds, precipitation of all forms, darkness, or any other impediment to visibility; and in spite of the pilot's own possibly confused motion sense inputs. Even at this early stage, the ability to control aircraft was getting beyond the motion sense capability of the pilot. That is, as aircraft became faster and more maneuverable, pilots could become seriously disoriented without visual cues from outside the cockpit, because aircraft could move in ways that pilots' senses could not accurately decipher.
Instrument panel back then.
By United States Air Force (USAF) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Not so different now. similar arrangement
By US Navy ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Yeah, yeah, yeah, Juvat…a long time ago, people crashed because they couldn’t fly instruments, so what.  Well….

So, There I was…..*  Holloman AFB, New Mexico and I’m an AT-38B Instructor Pilot.  It’s a clear, cool winter day and I am in the back seat with a brand new 2Lt fighter pilot wannabe in the front seat.  We’ve got an 0500 brief for an 0700 takeoff on a range mission.  During this mission, the young stud up front will point his nose at the ground at a speed of 450 knots, and dive angles of between 10 and 30 degrees, and drop 6 x  25Lb practice bombs (Their nomenclature was BDU-33, hence my confusion in later life when I found out that BDUs were uniforms, not bombs.)  Following delivery of said ordnance, we will practice dry strafe passes until reaching Bingo Fuel and then return home.  Since the weather is forecast to be clear, we will use Visual Flight Rules requirements for minimum fuel which IIRC was being on initial with 1000 lbs of fuel.

It’s a beautiful morning.  There is no wind, it’s fairly cool, so the aircraft will perform well on takeoff and should be stable in the bombing pattern and not require much offset for wind displacement, Assuming the kid up front can control dive angle and speed, (never a certainty), he should have some decent scores.  There’s nothing like hearing “Shack two” from the Range Control Officer to build a budding fighter pilot’s confidence.  (Note I said confidence, not ego.  They are different.)

Takeoff is normal, the range work is acceptable, except my student has a regrettable habit of using throttle to maintain spacing in the pattern rather than cutoff, so we’re a bit lower on gas than lead.  Finally we call Bingo, rejoin and head for home. 

Visibility is so good, we can see the field from the range, so we’re headed directly to the pattern’s visual entry point and we switch to the tower frequency.  We contact them and find out several things, all bad.

 First, the weather is now W0X0F (pronounced Wok’s Off, which is good if you’ve just completed cooking a Chinese Dinner, not worth a darn if you’re airborne in a jet).  W0X0F means “Indefinite Ceiling Zero Visibility Zero Due To Fog”.  Translated means if you’re on the ground looking up, the sky is clear.  If you’re in the air, looking down, you can see fine.  But if you’re trying to see anything straight ahead, you can’t see squat.  And the Supervisor of Flying is reporting that the fog goes to about 200’ above the ground. 

We can’t do an overhead as we’ll lose the field just about the overrun, not good.  So, we’ll have to get vectored for individual approaches. Flight lead clears us off.  We are vectored out over White Sands as we’ll be landing to the north.  I don’t recall why, I’m pretty sure this was the only time I landed in that direction.  In any case, we’re over White Sands headed south as the SOF asks us if we want to divert to Ft Bliss/El Paso International.  I’m doing some fierce calculations, and as best I can figure, it’s going to be close either way, but I’m pretty sure I don’t have enough fuel to get to El Paso. 

We tell the SOF, it’s Holloman or bust.  Now, I’m also strategizing with my student.  I’m going to fly the approach, he’s going to look out front and let me know when he sees the runway.  The decision I've got to make is whether or not to switch control to him and he makes the landing or whether I keep control and trust that when he says he sees the runway, I can look up, find the runway and make the transition from instruments to visual and land. 

No good answers.  But Switching Control at a critical point and not very high above the ground doesn't seem the best answer to me.  I tell him I’m going to keep the aircraft, but he needs to be sharp about it, because we don’t have fuel for a go around.  I fly the approach and am on course, on glideslope all the way down.  We’re a little above decision height and the student hasn't said anything.

We’re at decision height (the altitude where you make the decision to land or go around) nothing.

 We’re at min altitude, nothing.

 I pause for a nanosecond and am just about ready to push up power, when the student says  “I see it!”

 I glance up and see nothing.  I’m on glideslope, on course, should be right there! I glance out the right side and see mobile and the edge of the runway.  Pull the power back, hold the stick position and drop it on to the runway.  Lower the nose, hit the brakes and Magically Delicious, we are underneath the fog. The bottom of the fog was about 8’ above ground.

We taxi clear of the runway and elect to shut down in the arming area.  Crew Chief said later we wouldn’t have made it back to parking.

General Doolittle
By Hephaestos at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

In 1932, General Doolittle, landed an aircraft without any visual reference to the ground.  50 some odd years later, I basically did the same, but I couldn't have done it, if he hadn't done it first. Maybe sometimes it's not the heroic things you do in your life that affect the world and future generations the most.  Maybe it's the ordinary things.


  1. Another excellent post Juvat. General Doolittle was a giant of the aviation world.

    Of course, learning something new (W0X0F) is always a treat. Who knew? (But thinking about it, I have seen those conditions. Odd.)

    1. I suspect you've already read that book. Got it at Command and Staff when he stopped by. Still an amazing man even at 90 something. First pilot to successfully complete an outside loop. Got that little tidbit while researching. I was looking for a picture of his instrument aircraft. Lots of them out there of course with just one little teeny problem. Ah well...

  2. Great story!

    My Dad owned and flew a small single engine plane in the 60's. He worked hard to get his instrument rating. One day I was flying with him and we stopped in for lunch at a little airport. In a while weather came up and visibility was poor. He said if it doesn't clear, we might have to stay at a motel. I said but don't you have your instrument rating? He told me he worked for that rating so he had something to work with in an emergency, he was not looking for an emergency to test his ability. Hey, I was a stupid kid,

    1. No, your Dad was a wise man! There's an old pilot saying that goes something like this. "It's better to be down here wishing you were up there, than to be up there wishing you were down here". I've ops checked that more times than I should have and know it to be true.

    2. Juvat is correct; there is also the truism, "there are bold pilots and old pilots; but there are precious few old, bold pilots." Your dad was well on his way towards becoming an old, bold pilot.

  3. I suppose there are more than a few things we take for granted these days, things we never even give a passing thought. It's the pioneers like General Doolittle that "make things happen" and they are heroic, in the truest sense of the word.

  4. Yep, 0/0 landings are NOT fun... But they DO beat the alternative...

    1. Why yes they do. Hence the cause of the extra nanosecond at minimums.

    2. ROTFLMAO! Now imagine doing that on a boat...

    3. No thanks, a man's got to know his limitations.

    4. Or be smarter than the average Navy pilot... :-)

  5. Reading the DV guest log of the quarters they put me in at Peterson AFB one night revealed that General Doolittle had once stayed in that suite. Needless to say, I was humbled and honored. regards, Alemaster

    1. That must have been very cool.
      I really enjoy reading Proof Positives MOH series. The thing that always strikes me is these folks don't look like heroes. They look like ordinary folks yet, they found something within themselves to do something absolutely extraordinary. I wonder how that happens.

  6. Cool stories - both regarding General Doolitle and your getting that bird safely back on the ground.

    We're sitting on the shoulders of the giants that came before us.

  7. Great story. I fly the VFR but I remember the A6 pilot I worked for back at Penn State telling me that all we had to do was take off from Cape May on IFR rules and fly home because it was VFR at destination. Neither one of us at Cape May were IFR rated but only one of us was an Ensign who had to report back or be AWOL. I took the bus. I took the bus from Camden. Probably would have been much safer to fly. :)

  8. VFR at destination....Yep, I think I've heard those words before...But then again, a bus from Camden. Hmmm, damned if you do, damned if you don't.

  9. I have a signed print by J H Doolittle in front of a penciled GB-2. Among aviation pioneers he seems to have done so much and yet outside of the aviation community few seem to know him.

    "Jimmy who?"

    I think the GB-2 killed most of its pilots - even a replica made in the last few years crashed.

    They were supposed to be a bear to land.

    If the visibility had still been bad and you were almost out of fuel could you have landed?

    Among aviation pioneers he is a giant.

    1. "If the visibility had still been bad and you were almost out of fuel could you have landed? "
      As it turns out, yes. I was right on the centerline. But, I probably wouldn't have. There was no way of knowing that the instruments were that tight. Missing the runway and hitting the ground would have been fatal, for us certainly and for anybody else that might have been in the vicinity. I think I'd have powered up, pointed out towards White Sands got to as much altitude as we had fuel and jumped out.


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