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Doolittle held tight to his vision

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Calling the racing planes of the 1920s “the guinea pigs of aviation,” Jimmy Doolittle, one of the great aviation pioneers and a wildly successful air racer himself, saw the need— and the market—for bigger, safer planes in the 1930s.

So, he tried to convince Shell Oil Co. to produce a standard, higher-octane fuel for larger planes, which were still in the design phase.

“But Jimmy, this country is in a deep depression,” said Alex Fraser, vice president of Shell. “You want to spend millions of dollars on a product with no guarantee of a market.”

Doolittle stuck by his guns. He knew that larger planes might never be built without the right fuel. He thought Shell should be ready to meet the demand when it came, that creating better fuel was a calculated risk. So, he promised that if Shell would commit to developing 100-octane fuel, he would work on convincing the Army to standardize its fuel requirement to 100-octane.

Shell built a plant to develop the fuel, and the engineers listened to Doolittle’s ideas … not so much because he was a daredevil pilot, but because he held a doctorate from MIT. Next, Doolittle set out to convince the U.S. War Department to adopt Shell’s new product. Word leaked out, and the press soon dubbed his mission “Doolittle’s Folly.”

He ignored the press, took a promotional trip around the world, and eventually won his quest for more powerful planes and fuel.

Later, he pushed hard for the Army Air Corps to become a separately operated and funded Air Force. He won that argument, too.

— Adapted from Calculated Risk: The Extraordinary Life of Jimmy Doolittle, Jonna Doolittle Hoppes, Santa Monica Press.

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