Since April 18 is the seventy-seventh anniversary of the Doolittle Raid on Japan in World
War II, it is appropriate to have a narrative on this remarkable mission. It was the only time
medium bombers (two motors) were ever used to take off from an aircraft carrier. The planes
were too large to be landed back on the carrier (USS Hornet, which was later sunk) and so after
taking off about 600 miles from Japan, the planes flew on to China, an ally of ours at the time.
The decision of which of our bombers to use and how it was to be made to take off from a tiny
carriers’ deck was left to Jimmy Doolittle, a very unusual person. It is rare in history to have a
person who combines such diverse qualities as he had: he was a daredevil pilot, had a Ph.D.
from Stanford in Aeronautical Engineering, and later proved he had the administrative skills to
command our gigantic 8th Air Force in England.
There being to no catapults as there were later to “throw” planes into the air from a carrier,
and with the 16 planes crowding the deck, the problem Doolittle faced was that it was
impossible for a medium bomber to roll down the deck and build up enough speed to get off by
itself. Doolittle solved this by examining each of our medium bombers and adding a lot of
ingenuity as he reports in his book, “I Could Never Be So Lucky Again.”
It came down to the North American company’s B-25 and the Marin B-26. He had to discount
the B-26 because it required a take-off speed of close to its landing speed of 90 mph. The B-25
was the choice. It had a stalling speed of 58 mph. While he knew that a loaded B-25 could not
reach nearly that speed in its roll down the deck, he took more into his calculation. If it was a
windy day on the Pacific, which it was, and if the carrier was headed into the wind at full speed
(30knots) there would be plenty of lift under the wings.
It worked beautifully. All 16 planes got off and all struck one of the five designated cities.