By Rudy Purificato
311th Human Systems Wing
Known as the "The Father of Instrument Flying," Col. William Charles Ocker's pioneering experiments and patented training and
navigational devices have had a profound and lasting impact on aviation safety. More importantly, this Brooks Field legend's work led
to a monumental leap forward in flying efficiency and mission effectiveness. His crusade to educate pilots about the efficacy for using
flight instruments as critically important navigational tools was initially met with resistance, ridicule and accusations that he was insane.
To his era's aviation community, flight disorientation was part of a rite of passage for pilots who favored "flying by the seat of their
pants." Yet while the years since his death in 1942 have been filled with great aviation technology advances, the principal problem of
pilot disorientation effecting flight control that motivated Ocker's research remains an issue today. Spatially disorienting illusions that
Ocker identified 80 years earlier were among those the National Transportation Safety Board said contributed to the 1999 aircraft
accident that claimed the life of John F. Kennedy, Jr. To a visionary pilot like Ocker, relying solely on instincts and visual cues during
adverse flying conditions invited inevitable problems that led to mishaps, injury and death.
Writing in the October 1930 Aero Digest, Ocker said, "The removal of the limitations imposed by weather is dependent upon two principal factors, the development of suitable instruments for flying during conditions of low or obscured visibility, when the pilot cannot refer to terrestrial objects to keep his ship level; and the education of the pilot in the use of proper instruments." The concept of "blind flying" or instrument flight that Ocker pioneered, however, did not exist when he was born in 1880.
One of seven children of German immigrants, the poor-sighted, bow-legged Philadelphia native had enough vision to see that aviation was his true calling. Nevertheless, the age of powered flight was five years away when Ocker enlisted in the Army as an artilleryman. The Spanish-American War and Philippine Insurrection combat veteran subsequently made a career move after he had guarded a Wright flier at Fort Myer, Va. Receiving approval from Capt. "Billy" Mitchell, his company commander, Ocker transferred to the Army Signal Corps Aviation Section in 1912. By 1914, he had earned his wings. Three years later he was commissioned, which led to a series of flying training assignments. Ocker's journey as a tireless flight instrument advocate began in 1918 during a period in American aviation history when navigational devices were both rudimentary and optional. He flight tested in clouds a "bank and turn indicator" that Dr. Elmer Sperry had invented that was based on an earlier design for a maritime gyroscope. By 1926, Ocker had developed a solution to counter the effects of vertigo, a disorienting spatial illusion, by adapting the bank and turn device for use with his "Ocker Box." His invention, attached to the revolving early "flight simulator" called the Jones-Barany chair, became the world?s first blind flying trainer.
Ocker's aviation disorientation research also led him to invent a "hooded" pilot cockpit seat that was used in blind flying instruction to teach aviators to rely on flight instruments rather than on their senses. Dramatically demonstrating his unwavering belief in blind flying, Ocker successfully made the world's first "instrument-only" cross-country trip in history June 24, 1930, a nearly 900-mile journey from Brooks Field to Scott Field, Ill. Ocker also found a kindred spirit in Col. Carl Crane, a Brooks Field instrument flight pioneer. Their partnership resulted in the invention of the Pre-Flight Reflex Trainer, a navigational aid called the Flight Integrator, and their co-authorship in 1932 of the book classic Blind Flight in Theory and Practice. Despite Ocker's contributions to pilot training and aviation safety, Army Air Corps leaders did not fully embrace his ideas until after his death.
Ocker remained steadfast in the legitimacy of his training ideas while suffering the humiliation of an Air Corps report issued at Duncan Field, Texas which stated, "Blind flying is not necessary under normal conditions, and is extremely dangerous under abnormal conditions with the instruments we now have. It is strongly recommended that blind flying be not included in any phase of training at the Air Corps Training Center." Ocker's reputation, however, prevailed. Flight instrument training was first introduced in 1930 to Advanced Flying School students at Kelly Field. Additionally, the Mexican Division of Pan American Airways at Brownsville was the first commercial aviation organization to adopt Ocker's "hooded" cockpit blind flying training. Among aviation legends who appreciated Ocker's contributions were Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle and Billy Mitchell who called his work "second to none in our service." Ocker's most famous tribute came from his greatest supporter, Orville Wright, who wrote in 1934, "Except for Maj. Ocker's great zeal as a missionary, I doubt whether the course in blind flying would be a requirement in the Army today. I believe that his campaign of education has had more influence in bringing about the use of instruments than that of any other person."