The Test Pilot Tradition
- By J.R. Dailey
- Air & Space magazine, November 2013
Viewport," by National Air and Space Museum director J.R. Dailey, opens each issue of Air & Space magazine. The column highlights the Museum's ongoing efforts to preserve the history of aviation and spaceflight. This article appeared in the August issue.
If you believe, as I do, that a pioneering spirit is part of the American national character, you’ll find this issue’s feature about the first U.S. test pilots to be an outstanding American story. In today’s risk-averse society, we may have trouble understanding the Air Service pilots who flew at McCook Field, Ohio, in the 1920s. They were courageous, but they weren’t reckless. Besides common sense, they had a pretty good understanding of aviation—of what a skilled pilot could accomplish with an airplane and what was out of the question. They were also farsighted and wise: They could see what needed to be done to help aviation advance.
One of the pilots who flew experiments at McCook went on to a flight test program that would change aviation forever. On September 24, 1929, Jimmy Doolittle, who had been part of McCook’s test pilot division from 1922 to 1927, made the first “blind” flight, flying solely on instruments.
Doolittle and another Army Air Corps pilot, Lieutenant Ben Kelsey, climbed into a Consolidated NY-2 Husky, supplied for the tests by the Guggenheim Foundation for the Promotion of Aeronautics, which also funded the development of the instruments. Kelsey, in the front cockpit, watched for traffic and was ready to help if any instruments failed, but he kept his hands in the air so that observers could see that only Doolittle, in the rear cockpit with its canopy covered with a canvas hood, was flying the airplane. He flew for only 15 minutes, out and back, and, calculating his position with compass, stopwatch, and a rudimentary radio beam receiver, he descended to his starting place.
The Husky was a good choice for the test program; it was stable and rugged. But it was also slow, and Doolittle, who liked speed—by 1929, he was a famous race pilot—wrote to the president of Consolidated asking for an engine cowling to streamline the biplane. “On one occasion, while we were flying low over a road and into a head wind, a green automobile overtook and passed us. Hurt my pride no end,” he wrote.
Doolittle’s flight proved that a pilot could fly in fog and at night; in other words, without having to see outside the cockpit. The pilots now training to fly the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will soon be able to fly without looking outside their helmets. Flight information—altitude, speed, location—will be projected on the helmet’s visor, along with a view of what’s going on outside the airplane. And if the pilot sees an enemy aircraft approaching, and the aircraft flies beneath him, the pilot can keep watching, as though he’s looking through the floor of the airplane, because the cameras and sensors providing the helmet view are still tracking. There are no blind spots.
The author, Marine Corps Colonel Art Tomassetti, explains that the F-35 is still being developed even as the first aviators are learning to fly it. The careful, incremental steps in flight testing that Tomassetti followed for the F-35 were pioneered in the 1920s by the brave pilots of McCook Field.