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Retired Lt. General James H. Doolittle-MIT alumnus, Life Member Emeritus of the MIT Corporation, a pioneer in the science of aviation and a record-setting pilot who led the first World War II bombing raid on Japan-died Monday (Sept. 27) at the age of 96.
Gen. Doolittle died at his son's home in Pebble Beach, CA. He had suffered a stroke earlier in the month.
His career included a period away from the military as vice president and director of Shell Oil Company. But even as a businessman he worked to improve airplanes and flying techniques.
"His great achievements in peace and war will always be remembered by a grateful nation," said Howard W. Johnson, former chairman of the MIT Corporation. "But we at MIT are equally in debt to General Doolittle for his diligent service to the Institute. We have benefited hugely from his leadership, generosity and counsel. As we told him in a birthday tribute just two years ago, he may have been a native son of California, but he was truly an adopted son of MIT.
"Once when he was asked to sum up his philosophy, he said it was simply a matter of trying to leave the earth a better place than he found it. He certainly did that, and he did it with grace and good humor. The Doolittle grin was almost as famous as his flying exploits. While we are deeply saddened, we are grateful for his valuable service to MIT and for the immense pleasure of knowing him as a friend."
Gen. Doolittle first came to MIT in the fall of 1923 as an Army lieutenant, under a special program, to study advanced aeronautical engineering, the first such university course in the country. When he received the Master of Science and Doctor of Aeronautical Engineering degrees in June of 1925, there were not 100 men in the world who held comparable advanced degrees.
His doctoral dissertation, "Wind Velocity Gradient and Its Effect on Flying Characteristics," disproved the popular theory held by many pilots of the day that they could tell wind direction and the level of the plane by instinct even when they could not see the ground or the horizon. Applying classroom theory to test flights in the worst possible weather, he determined that there was no accurate way for a pilot to know how the wind was blowing or the attitude of the plane unless he had visual aids or instruments.
These were believed to be the first studies in aeronautics to combine directly data from the university laboratory with data from the flights of a test pilot.
The accomplishment was one of his many pioneering feats, among them blind flying. He was the first person to take off, fly and land an airplane entirely by instruments.
For his research accomplishments at MIT, the Army, which at that time was responsible for military flying, awarded Doolittle an Oak Leaf Cluster to add to the Distinguished Flying Cross he already had received. By the end of his career in the US Air Force, he would hold the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military award, for the Tokyo raid.
His studies at MIT marked the beginning of a lifelong association with the Institute. He was appointed to the MIT Corporation as an Alumni Term Member in 1953, was made Life Member in 1958 and Life Member Emeritus in 1967.
He returned to MIT many times and served on several visiting committees.
These included Aeronautics and Astronautics from 1948 to 1957 and again from 1962 to 1967; Chemical Engineering from 1953 to 1954; Civil Engineering from 1961 to 1965; Mechanical Engineering from 1957 to 1958; Membership from 1959 to 1961, and Sponsored Research from 1957 to 1962. He was chairman of three of those committees and he also was a member of the Charles Stark, Draper Professorship Sponsoring Committee.
Gen. Doolittle was born in Alameda, CA., in 1896. He enrolled in the University of California School of Mines with the intention of becoming a mining engineer, but left in his senior year when the United States entered the first World War.
Even then interested in flying, he reported to the School of Military Aeronautics at the University of California and soloed after only six hours of instruction.
It was the beginning of a career in flying that would include a succession of aviation records, including a coast-to-coast flight in 1922 in less than 24 hours. It culminated with the raid over Tokyo on April 18, 1942, by 16 B-25 bombers that flew off the deck of the aircraft carrier Hornet. While the raid did not inflict major damage, it put the Japanese on notice that their cities were in reach of US air power.
His legendary career has been described in the book, The Amazing Mr. Doolittle, by Quentin Reynolds. The movie, "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo," told the story of the famous raid.
In later years, Gen. Doolittle had made his home in Santa Monica, CA., with his late wife, Josephine. His two sons, the late James H. Doolittle, Jr., and John P. Doolittle, who survives him, were both Air Force officers.
A version of this article appeared in the September 29, 1993 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 38, Number 8).