Jimmy Doolittle: Daredevil Pilot & Fun-Loving Friend

Posted on Sun, August 7, 2016
  • by: MaryCate Most, Digital Experiences Intern

On National Friendship Day, we take time to remember the friends that stand with us through good times and bad. World War II hero James “Jimmy” Doolittle was fun-loving and fearless as a teenager, making himself quite a few friends along the way. Looking back on his friendship with Doolittle, opera singer Lawrence Tibbett recalled some of the ups and downs they shared.

Jimmy Doolittle

Portrait of Doolittle. Image: SI 81-878

Tibbett and Doolittle attended high school together, and although they were polar opposites (Doolittle was popular and fearless, Tibbett a bit more reserved), they formed a great friendship. When Doolittle became bored of his “souped-up” motorcycle, he took his need for speed to another level, Tibbett recounted in a column he wrote for the newspaper Sunday Star in 1953.

Doolittle brought Tibbett to the top of a tall hill in Los Angeles. Doolittle introduced him to a small, flimsy aircraft he had made of spruce and muslin. Tibbett was puzzled by how Doolittle planned to fly this motorless aircraft, but Doolittle had it all figured out.

He climbed to the peak of the hill and into the cockpit of the “crate,” and ran down the hill at full speed. Within seconds, the oncoming wind picked Doolittle and his aircraft up, sending them flying into the sky. And then, just as quickly as it had gone up, the tiny plane shot straight down, hitting the ground with a loud crunch of cracking spruce.

Tibbett, horrified by the crash, ran towards the wreckage believing his friend had been killed. To his relief, Doolittle popped his head out of the debris unharmed and said:

 “See that Larry? Just need a little faster start, that’s all. Wait till you see my next flight.”

Doolittle went on to lead the Doolittle Raid, the first air raid against Japan following the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was also the first person in Air Force Reserve history to wear four stars, and the first person to complete a “blind flight.” To make the flight, Doolittle had to take off, fly a set course and land with a hood completely covering his eyes.

Beyond the walls of his high school and the hills of Los Angeles, Doolittle continued to win the admiration and friendship of so many that met him.

The men that worked under him in the Air Force recognized Doolittle’s courage but also appreciated him for his kindness, intelligence, and notable punctuality. They felt his “glamor” had distracted the public from his prowess as an engineer and administrator.

Although Doolittle could be stubborn and straight-faced in interviews with the media, his friends always regarded him with admiration.

Doolittle and friends do tricks on the beach. Doolittle on the bottom holds up his other two friends who create a pyramid.

James H. Doolittle and two friends doing athletic poses on the beach; Doolittle is the man on the bottom. Image: NASM 2002-2542

Images included in this post of Doolittle come from the Museum’s Jimmy Doolittle Scrapbook collection.