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This Week In Aviation History -- Flying Blind

September 24, on this morning in 1929, Jimmy Doolittle saw an opportunity in the gray scene in front of him at Mitchel Field, Long Island, New York.September 24, on this morning in 1929, Jimmy Doolittle saw an opportunity in the gray scene in front of him at Mitchel Field, Long Island, New York. The Daniel Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics had assembled a team to witness the demonstration of a fog dispersal heater created by a Mr. E. C. Reader of Cleveland, Ohio. Doolittle -- and the Fund’s special aircraft, with which he’d been entrusted -- was among those present to witness the event. Unfortunately for Mr. Reader, his previous trials at home had taken place on gravelly surfaces and faced with different conditions, the fog did *not* disperse. Fortunately for the rest of us -- and largely because of Reader’s failure, this same fog became the medium through which the first aircraft would fly 'blind', that is, on instruments alone.

Background
The Daniel Guggenheim Fund had enlisted famous and skilled pilot Jimmy Doolittle to outfit and pilot their 'Full Flight Laboratory' aircraft -- a Consolidated NY-2 biplane was equipped at Doolittle's direction. The rear cockpit was transformed from a mundane trainer to a state of the art testing arena. In addition to evaluating instruments, the rear seat had a fabric hood that enabled the pilot to be sealed away from outside references while a safety pilot rode in the front cockpit as a precaution. Safety pilot and sounding board to Doolittle was Lt. Benjamin S. Kelsey, an excellent flight test pilot in his own right.

Special Equipment
Upon delivery, the NY-2 was sent out for installation of a voice radio system, and then the craft was equipped with Bureau of Standards radio beacon location aids. When initial testing was undertaken, the problems with conventional instruments became apparent. Compasses and altimeters suffered from lag and general lack of precision. Turn and bank indicators showed turn rate, but not degrees of bank.

The names associated with this effort have endured as industry standards for more than 70 years. For the altimeter, Doolittle contacted Paul and E. Otto Kollsman, brothers operating the Kollsman Instrument Company in New York City -- yes, this was the birth of the Kollsman Window. With Paul's newly designed precision barometric altimeter, Doolittle now found his accuracy in determining his height greatly improved.

Next were the other two instruments. Approaching Elmer Sperry with his ideas, he was given the able assistance of Sperry's son, Elmer Sperry, Jr. The team created an artificial horizon to act in conjunction with a turn and bank indicator, and a gyrocompass, basing its reading on a gyroscope calibrated to a magnetic compass. The Fund team, working with Elmer Sperry, Jr. and MIT staff refined these instruments through trial, test and practice.

History Is Made
After readying the radio and ground crews, Doolittle launched the NY-2 into the New York sky above Mitchel Field, and disappeared. Swinging around, the airplane could be heard on the ground, but could not be seen. Still, using the radio directional gear, and 'playing his instruments,' Doolittle landed where he had left -- ten minutes after takeoff. On the morning of September 24, 1929, a pilot had taken off in thick fog, flown safely and made a precision landing -- and all the while relying entirely on his instruments.

Consolidated NY-2 (Registration NX-7918): Length: 31 feet, 4inches; Wingspan: 40 feet; Weight: 2,800; Height: 9 feet; Powerplant: Wright R-970-8 radial of 220 hp; Cruise Speed: 75 mph; Range: 210 miles.

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About This Author:
Brian Nicklas is a researcher and the Asst. Reference Chief in the Archives Division of the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution. As a freelance aerospace writer and photographer he has covered the space program to military aviation, and has flight experience in gliders to blimps. He is an alumnus of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Daytona Beach in Aeronautical Studies and was recently named a Contributing Editor to Air&Space/Smithsonian Magazine. As an unlicensed pilot, he flies in whatever he can when not building airplane models.
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