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The Father Of Blind Flying

Ocker’s restless energy led him to pursue other aviation innovations. In 1938, along with Lt. George Smith, he patented a propeller with hinged blades for quieter flight. In 1941 Ocker and Crane created a “preflight reflex trainer,” essentially a ground flight simulator “pilot buggy” with a cockpit that could move in three axes, powered with a one-cylinder engine and complete with a .22-caliber blank-firing machine gun for target practice. Ocker also invented a “flight integrator,” a gyroscope-driven instrument that displayed a plane’s movements with a miniature plane on a screen depicting a sky complete with clouds. More concerned with the welfare of his fellow flyers than with profit, he assigned his patents to the government.

Controversy continued to stalk Ocker. In 1934 he was court-martialed for supposedly making insubordinate comments about a superior officer. When he proved that the officer had falsely doctored Ocker’s medical records to keep him grounded after an accident, he was quickly acquitted.

Ocker also made some influential friends along the way, including Orville Wright, who called him a “missionary” with “more influence in bringing about the use of instruments than any other person.” He counted Eddie Rickenbacker, Billy Mitchell, and Jimmy Doolittle among his supporters. Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, and pioneering Australian aviator Charles Kingsford-Smith learned about instrument flying from him personally. When he retired as a full colonel, he was the oldest serving pilot in the U.S. military.

Ocker died at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., on September 15, 1942. The following year, the military authorities finally made his instrument training procedures standard for all pilots. Few remember Ocker today; no airports, aviation companies, or museums bear his name. Yet he would be happy enough to know that he rides with every pilot who relies on instruments to find the way home. T

Mark Wolverton, a frequent contributor, is the author of A Life in Twilight: The Final Years of J. Robert Oppenheimer (St. Martin's Press, 2008).