IEEE Milestone Honors First Flight to Rely on Instrumentation

A U.S. Army pilot made history in 1929 by flying “blind”

8 December 2014

After World War I ended in 1918, the role of the U.S. aviation industry changed and expanded. Airplanes—once primarily for military purposes—began being used commercially to transport mail, cargo, and civilian passengers. Weather and low visibility, however, often disrupted scheduled flights, which were required for planes to become commercially successful.

In the early 1920s, cockpit instruments could display altitude, direction, and air speed, but they could not determine an aircraft’s position relative to the ground. Knowing that position is crucial for pilots to land safely—especially if low visibility prevents the pilot from seeing the ground. Better navigation instruments were available by the end of the decade, but for pilots to trust them, someone had to test the instruments during a real flight.

That person was U.S. Army Lt. James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle, who in 1929 became the first to fly a plane “blind.” His vision was purposely obstructed so that he would rely solely on radio and aeronautical instruments to guide him. He took off and landed a biplane—an aircraft with its two wings stacked one above and one below the fuselage—at Mitchel Field, in Garden City, N.Y. His flight was recognized in September with an IEEE Milestone. Administered by the IEEE History Center, the Milestone program applauds outstanding technical developments from around the world.

A COLLABORATIVE EFFORT

The instrument panel developed for Doolittle’s biplane was the result of collaboration among the Army Air Corps, engineering companies, and research laboratories. The Consolidated Aircraft Corp. of Buffalo, N.Y., built the Army Air Corps Husky NY-2 biplane [right] that Doolittle piloted. It was equipped with an altimeter, which measured the altitude of the plane above the ground. The Kollsman Instrument Co. of Merrimack, N.H., manufactured the device.

The altimeter was synchronized with a barometer on the ground—which allowed it to measure the airplane’s height above the ground. An artificial horizon display developed by Sperry Corp., an electronics manufacturer in Lake Success, N.Y., indicated the aircraft’s orientation relative to the Earth, expressed as pitch, roll, and yaw. The plane also was equipped with a special directional radio system to navigate to and from the airport. The system, built by Radio Frequency Laboratories of Boonton, N.J., included a radio transmitter and receiver with a trailing wire antenna that provided voice communications with people on the ground. At the time, the standard installation relied on Morse code transmissions—which made their use problematic under difficult flying conditions. Other onboard instruments standard in most aircraft at the time included a magnetic compass, an air speed indicator, and a turn and bank indicator.

Researchers from the Full Flight Laboratory, a facility at Mitchel Field that was funded by philanthropist Daniel Guggenheim, tested and installed the plane’s special instruments.

FLYING BLIND

On 24 September 1929, Doolittle and his copilot, Army Lt. Benjamin Kelsey, took off from Mitchel Field for the test flight. Doolittle piloted the plane from the rear cockpit, where a metal hood kept him from seeing outside. Kelsey, in the front cockpit, served as Doolittle’s safety officer; he could see the ground and was ready to take over the controls if the instruments failed. But Kelsey was never in control at any time during the flight—which he indicated by keeping his hands visible above his cockpit. The plane flew 32 kilometers and then landed after 15 minutes.

Doolittle would go on to receive the Medal of Honor for leading a World War II mission in 1942. He led the 16 B-25s that took off from the carrier USS Hornet in the Pacific and bombed Tokyo for the first time during the war.

A ceremony for the IEEE Milestone was held on 24 September, 85 years after the blind flight took place. A plaque was mounted on the wall of the Mitchel Field exhibit at the Cradle of Aviation Museum, in Garden City. It reads:

On 24 September 1929, the first blind takeoff and landing occurred at Mitchel Field, Garden City, N.Y., in a Consolidated NY-2 biplane piloted by Lt. James Doolittle. Equipped with specially designed radio and aeronautical instrumentation, it presented the cooperative efforts of many organizations, mainly the Guggenheim Fund’s Full Flight Laboratory, U.S. Army Air Corps, U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Sperry Gyroscope Company, Kollsman Instrument Company, and Radio Frequency Laboratories.

This article was written with assistance from the IEEE History Center, which is funded by donations to the IEEE Foundation.

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