Benjamin Kelsey file photo [18212]

Benjamin Kelsey

Given NameBenjamin
Born9 Mar 1906
Died3 Mar 1981
CountryUnited States


ww2dbaseBenjamin Scovill Kelsey was born in Connecticut, United States, in 1906. At the age of 15 he completed a flying course in New York and in June 1928 he graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering.

ww2dbaseKelsey was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the United States Army Air Corps in May 1929 and worked alongside Lieutenant Jimmy Doolittle in developing blind-flying systems. Following flying school he was assigned to the 20th Pursuit Group and in 1934 was transferred to Material Command to serve as the Fighter Project Officer in the Engineering Section.

ww2dbaseFrom the mid 1920s, if an officer wanted to advance up the chain of command, he was compelled to tow the party line and "love the bomber". For two decades USAAC's doctrine had insisted that the strategic bomber would fly so high and fast that no fighter or anti-aircraft battery could shoot it down. Should some interceptor get near, they insisted, the bomber would have enough guns aboard to destroy the attacker. Those who dared to question this doctrine were repeatedly denounced until they either left the service or kept their peace. Nevertheless, a few diehards stayed in the service and worked behind the scenes.

ww2dbaseWith little funding or encouragement for innovation, Kelsey, in his role as Fighter Projects Officer invented the term "interceptor" (at least in the Army Air Corps) in order as he recalled: "to permit development of true combat types with adequate armament and excluding baggage compartments for golf bags." Believe it or not, the latter was then an official requirement for US Army fighter aircraft.

ww2dbaseAs Project Officer, Kelsey was able to test fly a great number of aircraft models, but he was living through the years when the fighter "was scorned by the military philosophers and neglected in the USA. In Germany and in Britain there was a more pragmatic approach which led to superior performing, record breaking Messerschmitts, Hurricanes and Spitfires." When, in late 1936, Kelsey tested the new Allison 12-cylinder engine which reached an remarkable altitude of 26,400 feet without turbocharging he realised that he had a powerplant upon which to base specifications for a new range of "interceptor" fighters. By dogged pressuring his superiors (he was still only a captain) Kelsey eventually succeeded in getting design specifications issued which, in time led to the development of the P-38 Lightning, P-39 Airacobra and P-51 Mustang.

ww2dbaseFrom May to July 1940 Kelsey was sent as assistant military attaché for air to Europe to assess the technical progress of German, French and British fighter aircraft. Even though several American observers, including Colonel Carl "Tooey" Spaatz were also in Europe at the same time, most saw no need for escort fighters with American bomber groups since, they insisted, the B-17 Flying Fortress would be able to mount an effective self-defence. They could not have been more wrong, as they were to learn at a dreadful cost in lives and machines just three years later. In England, Kelsey spent a month touring British airfields, air groups and aircraft manufacturing facilities, receiving excellent cooperation from the Royal Air Force and learning much about fighter tactics.

ww2dbaseReturning to the United States, Kelsey used his connections with Lockheed to develop drop tanks to extend the range of the P-38, even though Air Corps policy at the time was absolutely inflexible toward fighter aircraft carrying external fuel tanks. In this he was again proved correct for when, in the spring of 1942, he was attached to the VIII Fighter Command, their use would prove vital for the trans-Atlantic ferry flights. Indeed, as an acting colonel, Kelsey would fly a P-38F in the first ferry flight of fighters across the North Atlantic to England.

ww2dbaseReturning in England in November 1943 he was appointed as Deputy Chief of Staff with the IX Fighter Command, and in the following February was appointed Chief of the Operation Engineering Section of the US Eighth Air Force. Once when he was present when a British commander was asked if fighters were necessary to escort the bombers on operations, he replied, "Rather." When asked if the bombers could not provide their own mutually supporting defence, he replied "I suppose they can, but you see, when we send out the bombers without the fighters we lose the bombers. When we send the fighters we get the bombers back. I don't know what the fighters do but we send them out because we have to."

ww2dbaseAfter the war, Kelsey remained in the Air Force serving in a number of roles including as an instructor at the National War College. In 1952 he was appointed Deputy Director of Research and Development and from October 1954 was heavily involved in the X-15 rocket-powered research project. He retired from the service at the end of 1955 but continued to have a keen interest in aeronautical subjects; regularly flying his personal Cessna and giving lectures and interviews.

ww2dbaseBenjamin Kelsey died of cancer at the age of 74 on March 3, 1981 at his home in Virginia. His book The Dragon's Teeth?: The Creation of United States Air Power for World War II (in which he maintained that the nation should keep a core of military engineering and manufacturing industries alive) was published posthumously by the Smithsonian Institution in 1982.

Collin's Aircraft of World War II

Last Major Revision: Feb 2013

Benjamin Kelsey Interactive Map


1st Lieutenant Benjamin Kelsey exiting the cockpit of a P-36A aircraft, Wright Field, Ohio, United States, circa Apr 1938

Benjamin Kelsey Timeline

9 Mar 1906 Benjamin Kelsey was born in Waterbury, Connecticut, United States.
2 May 1929 Benjamin Kelsey was promoted to the rank of second lieutenant.
24 Sep 1929 Benjamin Kelsey flew with James Doolittle as his safety pilot during the first fully blind instrument flight.
1 Oct 1934 Benjamin Kelsey was promoted to the rank of first lieutenant.
2 May 1939 Benjamin Kelsey was promoted to the rank of captain.
15 Mar 1941 Benjamin Kelsey was promoted to the war time rank of major.
5 Jan 1942 Benjamin Kelsey was promoted to the war time rank of lieutenant colonel.
1 Mar 1942 Benjamin Kelsey was promoted to the war time rank of colonel.
9 Apr 1943 The modified P-38G aircraft which Benjamin Kelsey was test flying failed to pull out of a dive; Kelsey parachuted to safety, albeit suffering a broken ankle on landing, but the aircraft would crash near Calabasas, California, United States.
2 May 1946 Benjamin Kelsey was promoted to the rank of major.
2 Apr 1948 Benjamin Kelsey was promoted to the rank of colonel.
5 Sep 1952 Benjamin Kelsey was promoted to the war time rank of brigadier general.
31 Dec 1955 Benjamin Kelsey retired from military service.
3 Mar 1981 Benjamin Kelsey passed away from cancer in his home at Stevensburg, Virginia, United States.

Did you enjoy this article or find this article helpful? If so, please consider supporting us on Patreon. Even $1 per month will go a long way! Thank you.

Share this article with your friends:


Stay updated with WW2DB:

 RSS Feeds

Posting Your Comments on this Topic

Your Name
Your Email
 Your email will not be published
Comment Type
Your Comments


1. We hope that visitor conversations at WW2DB will be constructive and thought-provoking. Please refrain from using strong language. HTML tags are not allowed. Your IP address will be tracked even if you remain anonymous. WW2DB site administrators reserve the right to moderate, censor, and/or remove any comment. All comment submissions will become the property of WW2DB.

2. For inquiries about military records for members of the World War II armed forces, please see our FAQ.

Search WW2DB
More on Benjamin Kelsey
Associated Aircraft:
» P-38 Lightning
» P-39 Airacobra
» P-51 Mustang

Benjamin Kelsey Photo Gallery
1st Lieutenant Benjamin Kelsey exiting the cockpit of a P-36A aircraft, Wright Field, Ohio, United States, circa Apr 1938

Famous WW2 Quote
"Goddam it, you'll never get the Purple Heart hiding in a foxhole! Follow me!"

Captain Henry P. Jim Crowe, Guadalcanal, 13 Jan 1943

Support Us

Please consider supporting us on Patreon. Even $1 a month will go a long way. Thank you!

Or, please support us by purchasing some WW2DB merchandise at TeeSpring, Thank you!