The group of Luftwaffe Bf-109 fighters passed high above the English channel at 38,000 feet. At that altitude, they were almost invisible to the naked eye and had little to fear from ground fire. Their job was to get over London, before the HE-111 bombers trailing behind them, and clear out any British fighters. At their current speed and altitude, they were faster and flying higher than any Spitfire or Hurricane could reach. And being faster and higher than your enemy made all the difference in winning a dogfight.

The Germans had fought the Spitfire and Hurricane in the skies over France the year before and were not impressed. The Bf-109 was at least 40 mph faster and could climb several thousand feet higher.

The flight leader scanned the skies below looking for RAF fighters when his wingman began to furiously wag his wings, trying to get his attention. The flight leader dipped his wing to acknowledge and saw his wingman gesture over his right shoulder with an extended thumb. “They must be behind us and below,” he thought as he craned his neck to see behind his aircraft. He then picked up the glint of metal above and behind him. A squadron of Spitfires was at least 2,000 above them and diving fast.

The flight leader hesitated for a moment. The Spitfires couldn’t fly higher or faster than them. Yet, there they were. A whole squadron, like Furies, descending on the Germans from above. The flight leader signaled to his men to break. His flight of 109s split left and right to try and spoil the RAF fighters’ diving attack.

In the dogfight that followed the German pilots would be astonished to find that the Spitfires were now just as fast and could climb just as high as them. “These can’t be the same planes we fought against in France,” the flight leader thought as he twisted and turned trying to shake off the Spitfire on his tail. “They can’t be.”

Doolittle with a plane prior to WWII
Jimmy Doolittle and Gee Bee Super-Sportster (PW Wasp Motor Collection: Charles M. Daniels Collection, National Air Races. San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive)

In 1935 aviation legend Jimmy Doolittle had left the Army and was working for the Shell Oil Company as an Aviation Fuels Manager. He was trying to solve a problem that nobody even knew existed. Doolittle may have been the first American to be both an Aeronautical Engineer and a pilot. He held a Ph.D. in Aeronautical Engineering from MIT, one of the first-ever such degrees.

Young Major Doolittle was a speed demon as well and an air racer. In 1931 he won the Bendix Trophy, set a world speed record of 296 miles per hour, and won the Thompson Air Race trophy flying the dangerously unstable but fast Gee Bee R-1. Along with Charles Lindberg, Amelia Earhart, and Eddie Rickenbacker, Doolittle was among the most famous aviators in the country. And this was why Shell Oil had lured him out of the Army. His task was to develop aviation fuels for military and civilian applications and be the public face of Shell Oil to the military.

What Doolittle grasped intuitively through his engineering training was that aircraft engine development was being limited by a “which came first, the chick or the egg?” paradox.