Jimmy Doolittle – 100% Essential
The fate of the free world was seriously in doubt during the summer of 1940. The massive evacuation of English and French forces from Dunkirk followed by the surrender of France to Germany on June 22nd, marked Great Britain as the next target of Nazi aggression. The German Luftwaffe quickly launched bombing raids on the infrastructure of England and supported the airborne assault with Messerschmitt 109 fighter aircraft. The English defense was bolstered by squadrons of Spitfires and Hurricanes. The Battle of Britain was on. The allied aviators who rose to meet each onslaught had a performance enhancement in support of their skill and courage. That advantage was provided by the unique makeup of the aviation fuel they were burning.1
Three years earlier, Jimmy Doolittle, an executive with Shell Oil, at the invitation of an old friend, Ernst Udet, paid a return visit to Germany.2 While there, Doolittle was given unrestricted access to German aircraft manufacturing and design facilities. He was especially intrigued by the Mercedes-Benz factory where the Me-109 and Me-110 engines were produced. Upon his return to the U.S., Doolittle was certain that the buildup of German aviation assets, coupled with the apparent lack of readiness on the part of the French and English, was a call for action. No longer in the military, having separated from the Army in 1930 to accept the position of Aviation Department Manager for Shell Oil, private citizen Doolittle took the only course of action available to him. He renewed his efforts to persuade the senior management of Shell U.S. to expand its manufacturing of high performance aviation fuel; 100-Octane. 3
By 1934, Jimmy Doolittle had convinced Shell to invest in plant and equipment necessary to produce 100-Octane. Many executives within Shell had their doubts. At the time, there was no market for such an expensive grade of aviation fuel.4 His persistence, however, proved to be successful, as he personally demonstrated the advantages of the new fuel. Doolittle’s expertise as an air racer was legendary; having won the Bendix Trophy in 1931, Burbank to Cleveland. In 1932, he set the world speed record in the “Shell Speed Dash”, 296 miles per hour. He won the Thompson Air Race Trophy later that year in the Gee Bee R-1. Performance and speed were his passion. His analytical expertise was gained during a two year sabbatical from the Army beginning in 1922 when he attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology. During that short stay, Doolittle earned a Masters and a Doctorate in Aeronautical Engineering. Acceleration testing was a primary focus of his studies.
100-Octane fuel provided high performance aircraft with a 15 to 30 percent increase in power over a compatible engine burning 87-Octane. Fuel endurance, quicker bursts of speed, shorter take off runs, and time to climb savings, were all to the advantage of the user.5 German petroleum strategy during the buildup prior to aggression relied on the production of synthetic oil from coal reserves. To accomplish this process, large fabrication facilities had to be constructed near base material centers or adjacent to rail hubs which were supported by a network of coal trains. England abandoned such plans early on even though they possessed vast resources of coal within the United Kingdom. It was the consensus of the British Military leadership that although synthetic fuel would be cheaper to acquire, it’s production facilities would be vulnerable to attach from the air. The revised Neutrality Act in late 1939 allowed England to begin to stockpile large quantities of 100-Octane fuel, shipped from the United States. The Lend-Lease act of 1941 postponed the financial burden of additional stockpiles for the UK.6
The higher the Octane, the less prone the fuel is to detonation. That fact was discovered in the 1920’s when two reference fuels were mixed at differing levels, and then tested for their combined explosive characteristics. The two fuels were iso-octane (100-Octane), resistant to detonation and n-heptane (0-Octane), easily detonated. The percentage of iso-octane in the mix determined the Octane Rating of the fuel. The higher the Octane the more controlled the burn. Lower Octane fuels are more likely to detonate in an uncontrolled manner.7 100-Octane was very expensive to produce. A large capital investment was required. Engine technology in the 20’s and 30’s didn’t require such a powerful fuel.
Jimmy Doolittle found himself in the unique position of possessing not only the professional expertise of a pilot, but the intellectual capacity to understand how vital high performance fuel would eventually be to the United States and its allies. Doolittle was instrumental in convincing the Army to establish 100-Octane as its new fuel of choice. He spent countless hours lobbying in Washington, DC capitalizing on his notoriety to gain critical support. The Unites States Army Air Corps adopted 100-Octane fuel as its new standard in 1938. In his book, The Leading Edge, Walter Boyne opines that Jimmy Doolittle “...did more for the Allied effort in World War II as a scientist than as an airman because of his push for the development of 100-Octane fuel.”8
Jimmy was born in Alameda, California, but spent his youth in Nome, Alaska. Growing up in a tough environment, he was known as a pretty fair boxer. In 1917 while enrolled at Berkley, he joined the Signal Corps Reserve as an aviation candidate. He was a flight instructor in the U.S. at the end of the Great War and remained in the Army. In 1922, prior his enrollment at MIT, 2nd Lieutenant Doolittle flew a de Havilland DH-4 from Pablo Beach, Florida to San Diego in 21 hours and 19 minutes. As the first person to fly across the United States in less than 24 hours, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. The young Army officer was into firsts. He was the first to fly an outside loop, a feat considered by many to be impossible for a pilot to withstand. In 1929, as an extension of the research for his PhD, Doolittle was the first person to fly an aircraft from takeoff to landing completely without an outside visual reference. The following year, he joined Shell Oil. Three years later, 1933, Adolph Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany.
When Germany and its allies began their systematic and relentless aggression, 100-Octane fuel suddenly had a marketplace. American manufacturing provided almost 90 percent of the total demand for 100-Octane up to 1944. As America entered the war, aircraft manufacturers were already producing advanced engine designs due to the availability of 100-Octane. In order to compete with English and American fighters, Germany was forced to boost the octane rating of its synthetic fuel using aromatics.1 The additive volume approached nearly forty percent. Strategically this combination required more synthetic fuel to produce a gallon of the higher octane product. The additional demand put tremendous strains on synthetic production. An unforeseen detriment was the lesser amount of fuel available for training new pilots during the war. As replacements were needed, less experienced crews manned axis cockpits.
Another revelation for German engineers was the fact that the use of high volumes of aromatics caused cylinder head temperatures to exceed design limits during full power applications. To prevent engine seizure, pilots were forced to run on rich fuel to air mixtures. This led to less efficiency and greater consumption. Self-sealing fuel tanks and rubber fuel hoses would breakdown much faster due to the corrosive effects of the fuel additives.
Doolittle’s folly, as it was termed by critics during the mid 1930’s when he was lobbying for the acceptance of 100-Octane fuel, had turned into a stroke of genius. Jimmy Doolittle rejoined the Army Air Corps following Pearl Harbor. He was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel on January 2, 1942. Assigned to head the retaliatory raid on the island of Japan, his and fifteen other crews trained in modified B-25’s for their secret mission. On April 18, 1942, all sixteen B-25’s successfully launched from the USS Hornet and struck Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka and Yokohama. In recognition for planning and leading the raid on Japan, Lt. Colonel Doolittle was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Increased responsibility continued. Commiserate promotions led to General Doolittle’s command of the Eight Air Force in 1944. In 1946 he retired from the Army and rejoined Shell Oil as an executive vice president and later served on its board of directors.
The young scrapper from Nome had certainly accounted well for himself. His was a unique blend of daredevil and intellectual; engineer and lobbyist; leader and executive. Jimmy Doolittle’s contribution to aviation and the free world went far beyond his trophies or commendations. His personal and intellectual participation as a member of the “greatest generation” far exceeded his accomplishments as an aviator.
- McFarland, Stephen & Newton, Wesley, “The Battle for Air Superiority Over Germany, 1942-1944”, To Command the Sky, 1991, pg. 58, Smithsonian Institution Press.
- Hoppes, Joanna Doolittle, “The Extraordinary Life of Jimmy Doolittle – Aviation Pioneer and World War II Hero,” Calculated Risk, 2005, pg. 177, Santa Monica Press.
- Krebs, Albin, “James Doolittle, 96, Pioneer Aviator Who Led First Raid on Japan, Dies, The New York Times, September 29, 1993, pg. B.9.
- Perret, Geoffrey, “The Army Air Forces in World War II,” Winged Victory, 1993, pg.40, Random House.
- Yergen, Daniel, “The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power”, The Prize, 1991, pg. 383, Simon & Schuster.
- “The Narrow Margin of Criticality: The Question of the Supply of 100-Octane Fuel in the Battle of Britain”, English Historical Review, Vol. CXXIII No. 501, April 2008, Oxford University Press.
- Handbook of Aviation Fuel Properties, 2004 Third Edition, pg. 1-38, Coordinating Research Council, Inc.
- Witkin, Richard, “The Wild Blue Drawing Boards; [Review], The New York Times, (Late Edition (East Coast)), October 12, 1986, pg. A.29.