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Leaders as Role Models - The story of General Jimmy Doolittle

Leadership is a quality often seen in aviation. Perhaps an aviator possesses the personality traits associated with leadership such as a well-developed quest for accomplishment- high self-esteem and self-confidence. Case in point: General Jimmy Doolittle.

Jack Olcott   |   1st March 2014
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Leadership is a quality often seen in aviation. Perhaps an aviator possesses the personality traits associated with leadership such as a well-developed quest for accomplishment- high self-esteem and self-confidence. Case in point: General Jimmy Doolittle.

James Harold Doolittle- born seven years before the Wright brothers’ first powered flight and raised in relatively modest circumstances- was an extraordinary aviator with many achievements to his credit. Upon completing a Bachelor’s Degree from Berkeley just as the U.S. entered World War I- Doolittle enlisted in the Signal Corps aviation section but completed his pilot training too late to participate in combat.

He remained in the Army- however- and continued his flying as a member of the Signal Corps’ aerobatic and demonstration team established to garner public support for military aviation. During the 1920s he engaged in test flying but was allowed by the Army to re-join academe to earn a Doctorate in Aeronautical Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1925- one of the first students to earn such a degree.

Continuing as a military aviator- Doolittle in 1929 was the first pilot to take-off and land an aircraft without any visual references- relying solely on instruments. In 1931 he flew a Laird Super Solution from Burbank- California to Cleveland- Ohio to win the Bendix Trophy Race. One year later he piloted the Granville Gee Bee R-1- an aircraft that looked like an excuse to bolt a huge engine to a small fuselage with stubby wings- to win the 1932 Thompson Trophy. (The Gee Bee R-1 had an ominous reputation for dangerous flying qualities.)

During the 1920s and early 1930s- the military was short on funds and welcomed requests by industry to borrow its best pilots for the purpose of sales and demonstration tours. For one such assignment—an extended tour throughout South America— Doolittle flew his routines even though he had broken both ankles early in the tour and the bones were not set properly. Such was his stamina and dedication to duty.


Lead by Example
In 1935 Doolittle transferred to the Air Corp Reserves to pursue a career with Shell Oil- but he returned to active duty in 1940 with the rank of Major. By 1942- at the age of 45- he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and assigned to plan the first retaliatory air raid on the Japanese.

Planning was not sufficient for Doolittle. He volunteered to lead the raid and piloted the first of 16 North American B-25 Army medium bombers as they launched from the aircraft carrier Hornet on April 18th. Made famous by news accounts immediately following his bombing mission and eventually by the book- Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo- Doolittle’s raid provided the US with a huge morale-boost during the grim days following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

While damage to the enemy’s war factories was minimal- the presence of US aircraft over Japanese cities created extensive radio chatter that enabled US intelligence to significantly expand their ability to read their enemy’s secret codes. Following the raid- the Japanese military recalled large numbers of aircraft from attack positions throughout its empire to defend the homeland.

While best known for leading the first air raid on Japan- Doolittle continued in the war effort as head of the Fifteenth Air Force in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations- a unit that included Martin B-26 Marauders. Known as the “Widow Makers” by some and the “Flying Prostitute” by others (because its short wings seemed to provide no means of visible support)- the B-26 was feared by many pilots within his command. To counter the apprehension of pilots and crews- the diminutive Doolittle (height 5’4”) displayed his huge leadership qualities. He was determined to show that the aircraft should be respected- not feared.

Piloting his personal B-26 in essence solo (only his crew chief accompanied him)- he would fly to a unit’s base to conduct demonstrations of the B-26’s capabilities. With a volunteer in the right seat- Doolittle would depart the unit’s field- climb to about 6-000 feet- feather one engine and perform a show that in retrospect seems like the maneuvers displayed decades later by Bob Hoover in his Rockwell Shrike Commander.

One of his volunteer co-pilots was Paul Tibbets- subsequently the pilot of the Enola Gay when it dropped the first atomic Bomb on Japan- who remarked that Doolittle’s actions were “…an important start in convincing [pilots and operations people] that the B-26 was just another airplane.”

Not known as a person who sought special attribution- Doolittle was a leader who garnered respect by his actions rather than by his rank or positional authority. Initially rejected for theater command by both General MacArthur in the Pacific and General Eisenhower in Europe (Ike objected to Doolittle being a reservist and not an academy graduate)- Doolittle rose in command to be the highest ranking reserve officer to serve in World War II.


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