Greatest Aviator Who Ever Lived

By Capt. Michael R. Daciek (Continental, Ret.)
Air Line Pilot, April 2003, p. 33

We landed our Frontier Airlines Convair 580 at Riverton, Wyo. I bolted from the cockpit and rushed into the terminal, salivating from the thought of eating one of their freshly baked cream pies. Passengers were milling about shoulder to shoulder, talking in a high state of excitement reminiscent of a high school reunion. The small restaurant was packed, standing-room only. Bad news, I thought, looking at the empty pie trays.

"I’m sorry," the harried waitress said, following my line of sight. "There’s not a piece of pie in the building."

"What’s going on?" I asked. "Is the town being evacuated?"

She placed a pencil behind her right ear, wiping her brow with a tissue. "It’s the annual Antelope One-Shot contest. This place is full of movie stars, astronauts, and politicians. I even heard the governor talking to a general. At least he called him general."

I hurried back to the boarding area wondering who the general could be.

There stood "Jimmy" Doolittle in animated conversation with a distinguished-looking gentleman.

Backtracking, I approached the Frontier gate agent. "Is Doolittle going to Denver on my flight?"

He nodded. I gave him a thumbs up.

"Wonderful, just absolutely wonderful," I said out loud as I slowly walked back to the airplane.

Deep in thought, I recalled some of the accomplishments of the greatest aviator who ever lived. The leader of the "Tokyo Raiders," Lt. Col. James Harold Doolittle led 16 Mitchell bombers off the pitching deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Hornet in 1942 to bomb Japan. Although aware they might be discovered by a Japanese reconnaissance aircraft, Doolittle’s Raiders elected to execute the mission knowing full well that all the aircraft would run out of fuel before reaching their landing bases in China.

At age 16, he built his first glider from a 1910 magazine plan. He became a military aviator in 1918, excelling in gunnery and flight instruction. In 1922, he served as an experimental test pilot. That same year he was the first to fly across the United States in a single day. He performed the first outside loop in a Curtiss P-1 pursuit plane. I chuckled over that one.

In October 1925, in an airplane fitted with streamlined single-step wooden floats and designated the Curtiss Navy Racer, RC3-2, Doolittle won the Schneider Cup—the World Series of seaplane racing—with an average speed of 232.57 mph. The next day on a straight course in the RC3-2, he established a world speed record of 245.7 mph. This was the fastest a seaplane had ever flown.

In 1929, he was the first pilot to take off and land with no outside references, the first "blind flight" in history.

During World War II, he commanded the U.S. Air Forces in North Africa and in 1944 commanded the mighty Eighth Air Force in England during the invasion of Europe.

Medal of Honor recipient Lt. Gen. Doolittle retired from the Army Air Forces in 1946.

Along the way Doolittle had earned a mining engineering degree from the University of California, an aeronautical engineering degree at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a doctorate in aeronautical science at MIT, had been awarded the National Aeronautic Association Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy, and had been inducted into the International Aerospace Hall of Fame and the Aerospace Walk of Honor.

The captain and I sat in the cockpit, watching the boarding passengers cross the ramp to the base of the stairs. As we guessed at the names of the astronauts, air show pilots, and politicians, I finally spotted Doolittle and pointed him out to the captain. Now I knew what I was going to do.

I waved my folded flight chart at the captain. "When we’re established in cruise flight, I’m going to go back and ask him to sign this number 7 & 8, September 1975, Jepco Aviation chart."

The captain laughed, shaking his head. "I hope he doesn’t embarrass you. I wouldn’t do it."

Minutes later at cruise altitude, I unstrapped my seat belt and pulled up from the seat. "It can’t be any worse than being refused a dance. Back in a flash."

Our 50-passenger turboprop CV580 was full. Doolittle was seated on the left side about 5 rows back in an aisle seat. He was talking to an astronaut who was seated next to the window.

I cleared my throat, and Doolittle turned toward me. "General Doolittle, I’m Mike Daciek, your first officer on this flight. May I talk to you for a moment?"

All the passengers nearby turned their heads to listen.

He nodded. "What’s up?"

"There’s nothing wrong." I said it loud so all could hear. "Besides flying commercially, I’m an Air Force Lieutenant Colonel flying with the Colorado Air National Guard. I flew the Mitchell B-25 in pilot training in 1957."

"Great aircraft. How did you like it?"

He’s very receptive, I thought, which immediately put me at ease. "Very stable and easy to land, sir."

"Yes, it was a fine airplane. However, I liked the B-26 Marauder even better, more maneuverable, flew like a fighter."

"That was the ‘Widowmaker,’ wasn’t it?"

"Yes, but undeserving of that name. It had a 100 mph landing speed and stubby wings, which made it tricky to handle. After the pilots received the proper training, it became a favorite."

I looked back toward the cockpit. "I have to get back to the office, but I would like you to know that every time I flew the B-25 I thought of you. I’m very familiar with your history and admire you very much."

He looked me right in the eye as though trying to figure where I was going with this. I looked at his companion for support. He nodded his head with a friendly smile showing his approval of my behavior. I think he knew. The time was now.

"Would you please sign my flight chart?" I blurted out.

General Doolittle gave me a wide grin as if relieved. "Certainly."

He unfastened his seat belt and started to stand up. I lightly placed my hand on his shoulder and said, "You don’t have to get up, sir. I have my chart right here."

He laughed and started walking toward the cockpit. He stopped and opened the Blue Room door.

Now I laughed. "I see where you’re going."

He motioned for my chart as the Convair 580 entered some light turbulence.

I handed it to him with a pencil, offering my left hand as a platform while holding the door open with my right hand. He paused waiting for a steady airplane.

I felt very awkward in that position and blurted out. "Did you get an antelope?"

"No, my team didn’t, we missed." We entered some smooth air, and he autographed my chart.

"Who was on your team?"

"Jack Hilger and Bill Bower." He quickly scanned the cabin looking for his hunting buddies. "They’re both on this flight."

Damn, I thought, here I am talking to the number one "Doolittle Raider" and there’s two more on my flight. I think I’ll just stick with the General.

"Where did you hunt?"

"We were given a guide who led us to a section of land near Lander."

"Did you each have a shot?"

"No, just one per team. Bill took the shot."

"Was there any penalty for missing?"

"Oh, yeah! We had to suffer the indignity of dancing with the squaws. It’s an old Indian custom."

With an impish grin he handed back my autographed chart and said, "Now I suppose we both have urgent business to take care of."

I could tell that was a general talking.

"Yes, sir, thank you, sir." I rushed to the cockpit door, then slowed my pace, entering casually with a somber face.

The captain turned to study my expression. I remained silent as I fastened my seat belt and adjusted my seat.

He shook his head. "You didn’t get it, did you?"

"Of course I did, we’re both Air Force pilots."

The autographed chart has been donated to the "Wings Over the Rockies" aviation museum located in a preserved Lowry Air Force Base hangar in Denver, Colo.

Note: "Doolittle’s Raiders"—Flying lead ship No. 1, Doolittle’s crew bailed out successfully. Bill Bower and Jack Hilger flew first pilot on B-25 aircraft numbers 12 and 14, respectively, both crews bailing out over China, all surviving. Jack Hilger and Doolittle have by now gone "West." I see Bill Bower once a month at our Daedalian meetings at Buckley AFB.

Other passengers that day in 1975 included (but I’m not absolutely sure) astronauts Jack Lousma and John Swigert, racing and movie (The Great Waldo Pepper) stunt pilot Frank Tallman, and former Colorado Governor John Love.

Capt. Daciek also wrote "That Lonesome Old Widow," April 1999.