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The Father Of Blind Flying
William Charles Ocker knew there were times when a pilot couldn’t trust his senses
Fall 2008 | Volume 23, Issue 3
A typical flight instructor in 1917 would point to the instruments in a cockpit and tell his students to “pay no attention to them.” In aviation’s early days, pilots flew by the “seat of their pants.” They trusted their eyes and gut feelings, even though doing so sometimes killed them, especially when vertigo set in at night or during bad weather. Such loss of equilibrium was considered part of the business, a rite of passage that fliers just had to handle. A pilot who relied on any instruments other than the compass, and perhaps the altimeter, was a lightweight—or even worse, a coward.
William Charles Ocker, “the father of blind flying,” didn’t buy into such macho posturing. As an Army pilot in World War I, he had known too many competent fliers who became disoriented and died needlessly; he himself had narrowly escaped death in 1918 while testing one of Elmer Sperry’s early turn indicators. Lost in clouds with no visibility, Ocker discovered that the indicator showed his plane in a turn while his senses told him he was straight and level. The confusion sent him into a spiral dive: emerging from the clouds, he had just enough time to regain control. Others might have blamed the instrument. Ocker understood that, despite his training and experience, his pilot instincts had failed him.
The bowlegged, bifocal-wearing Ocker hardly fit the stereotype of a daring pilot or one who might challenge conventional wisdom, but he had a passion for flying and a fierce sense of mission. Born in Philadelphia in 1876, he enlisted in the Army at 22 and fought in the Spanish-American War and the Philippines as an artilleryman. In 1909 he met the Wright brothers while guarding their Wright Flyer during military tests at Fort Myer, Virginia. Fascinated by airplanes, he transferred to the Signal Corps’ Aviation Section in 1912. Starting out as an aircraft mechanic, he earned his wings in 1914 and an officer’s commission three years later.
Throughout his career, Ocker remained haunted by his close call and the reasons why it happened. A routine physical exam in 1926 at Crissy Field in San Francisco finally provided him with some answers. The flight surgeon, Capt. David Myers, sat Ocker in a Jones-Barany chair, a swiveling, spinning seat designed to measure a person’s sense of balance and equilibrium, and challenged him to take the exam with his eyes closed. Ocker discovered that when robbed of visual cues he couldn’t tell whether the chair was spinning or stationary, or even what direction he turned. Myers had re-created the same disorientation that Ocker had experienced eight years earlier.
Ocker devised a way to beat Myers’s test by rigging a turn indicator and penlight inside a covered shoe box with a viewing hole cut in one end. Seated in the chair, he held the box up to his face and watched only the instrument. Even though he was “flying blind,” he could now tell Myers precisely which way he moved and how fast. Ocker had proved that conflict can exist between a pilot’s subjective perceptions and the readings of his instruments—and that he should trust the instruments, not his instincts, when that occurred.
With evangelical zeal, Ocker spread news of his discovery to other pilots. He perfected his “Ocker box,” adding standard aircraft instrumentation such as a compass and artificial horizon, so that pilots could use the box in conjunction with the Jones-Barany chair as a training device. Even the most experienced, instrument-skeptical aviators could not help but be convinced after a spin in Ocker’s rudimentary flight simulator. Despite the evidence, the Air Corps stubbornly insisted that “blind” instrument flying was unnecessary, dangerous, and would not become part of its pilot training program. Many pilots learned it anyway under Ocker’s tutelage. Some of his superiors remained suspicious of this odd officer who liked to spin in chairs, more than once forcing him to undergo psychological examinations.
Ocker persisted, taking his ideas with him to his new assignment at the Air Corps’ main training center at Brooks Field in Texas. Along with the Ocker box, he invented the notion of the covered cockpit, in which a pilot has to rely strictly on instruments in flight training. The Army Air Corps might have disapproved, but Pan American Airlines soon adopted his methods in their flight school. He challenged the instrument-flight skeptics further by making the first cross-country flight in a completely covered cockpit, a nearly 900-mile jaunt from Brooks Field to Scott Field, Illinois, on June 24, 1930. (The year before, young Army officer Jimmy Doolittle had become the first pilot to take off, fly, and land completely on instruments, but that had only been a brief circle around an airport.)
Ocker’s research caught the attention of Lt. Carl J. Crane, another pilot who’d had a close call when he lost his bearings on a flight in 1925 and just missed the top of Detroit’s Statler Hotel with a congressman’s son in the back seat. Ocker and Crane conducted numerous experiments on instrument flying and pilot disorientation, most famously by tossing blindfolded pigeons out of an airplane in flight. They found that these birds exhibited the same disorientation as did pilots when confronted with severe cloud cover or darkness. (Most of the birds recovered their bearings or managed to shed their blindfolds.)
In 1932 Ocker and Crane distilled their research into the world’s first instrument flight manual, Blind Flight in Theory and Practice. While the U.S. military was slow to acknowledge the book’s value, the Soviet air force quickly adopted a pirated edition as a standard text.
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).