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Benjamin Scoville Kelsey


New York Times Obituary

Published: March 5, 1981
Brig. Gen. Benjamin Scovill Kelsey, U.S.A.F., retired, a test pilot and aeronautical engineer, died of cancer Tuesday at his home in Stevensburg, Va. He was 74 years old.

General Kelsey was a leading military test pilot and an expert on pursuit and interceptor aircraft in the 1930's, setting Army Air Corps speed records for the P-38. At the start of World War II he helped to develop combat tactics for American fighters.

Along with Gen. James H. Doolittle, General Kelsey participated in the first test of an instrument-guided takeoff and landing, on Sept. 24, 1929, at Mitchel Field on Long Island. The achievement is considered more significant than General Doolittle's famous bombing raid on Tokyo in 1942.

As a colonel in World War II, General Kelsey was chief of the operations section of the United States Eighth Air Force in England, and flew on 21 missions over Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union.

Started Flying at 14
General Kelsey was born in Waterbury, Conn., on March 6, 1906. He began taking flying lessons when he was 14 years old at Roosevelt Field on Long Island. As a bonus for signing up for the course, he received a World War I vintage Curtiss JN-4D training biplane, known as a Jenny, from the flying school.

He barnstormed with the aircraft across Connecticut for several summers before attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he graduated in 1928 with a degree in mechanical engineering.

After graduation he joined the Army Air Corps. He was once the backup pilot aboard a biplane that General Doolittle flew from a rear cockpit sealed to keep out all light over a 15-mile course that included several sharp turns.

In 1939, while attempting to break the time record for a transcontinental flight and piloting an experimental version of the P-38, then a secret Army aircraft, he struck a tree while landing at Mitchel Field. He was not seriously injured.

Helped Modernize U.S. Air Tactics
General Kelsey was sent to England in 1940 as an air attache for four months. After observing tactics in the Battle of Britain, he helped to modernize American fighters strategy upon his return. He returned to England in 1943 as deputy chief of staff for the Ninth Fighter Command, and was transferred to the Eighth Air Force a year later.

He was promoted to the rank of brigadier general in 1952 and was appointed deputy director of research and development for the Air Force. He retired in 1955 and became a consultant to the Grumman Aircraft Corporation and other aviation companies while operating a farm in Virginia.

For the past two years he held the Charles A. Lindbergh Chair at the National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, and conducted research on a book on military aviation that is scheduled for publication this year.

He is survived by his wife, Caryl, and three sons.


Units served with

  • 14th Fighter Group

    14th Fighter Group

    The 14th Fighter Group (USAAF) was a P-38 Lightning Group that fought in Tunisia and the Italian campaign, as well as providing bomber escorts for attacks across southern Europe. ...

  • 336th Fighter Squadron

    336th Fighter Squadron

    The 336th Fighter Squadron was constituted by the War Department on 22 august 1942, and was activated at Bushey Hall, England, on 12 September. It had been designated as No. 133 (Eagle) Squadron, and was made up of American volunteers to the Royal Air...


  • 43-6876 'Penny'

    P-51 Mustang
    Assigned to 336FS, 4FG, 8AF USAAF. Transferred to 368FS, 359FG, 8AF USAAF. Transferred to 554FTS, 496FTG, 8AF USAAF. Transferred War Weary to 352FS, 353FG, 8AF USAAF as a hack A/C.

Associated Place

  • Atcham

    Military site : airfield
    Atcham, at some remove from other American Air Force bases in Shropshire, was used by USAAF to train pilots from June 1942, several months before the American Eagle Squadrons were combined to form the 4th Fighter Group. Pilots here were mainly trained...

  • Debden

    Military site : airfield
    RAF Debden, construction of which began in 1935, is perhaps most famous as a Battle of Britain fighter airfield, partly responsible for the defence of London in 1940. In 1942 it was also home to three RAF 'Eagle Squadrons’ of volunteer American pilots...

  • High Wycombe

    Military site : non-airfield
    High Wycome known as Daws Hill was the Headquarters of Eighth Air Force Bomber Command (Pinetree). Situated on land and in a house formerly occupied by Wycombe Abbey School and restored to them by the US on 9 May 1946. ...

  • Middle Wallop

    Military site : airfield
    Planned as an RAF bomber station with a grass airfield, concrete perimeter track and hardstandings, Middle Wallop opened as a training base in April 1940, before construction was complete. Used as an RAF day-fighter and night-fighter base during 1940...


Event Location Date
Born Waterbury, CT, USA 9 March 1906
1st Intrument take-off and landing Mitchell Field, Garden City, NY 11530, USA 24 September 1929

Along with Gen. James H. Doolittle, General Kelsey participated in the first test of an instrument-guided takeoff and landing, on Sept. 24, 1929, at Mitchel Field on Long Island. The achievement is considered more significant than General Doolittle's famous bombing raid on Tokyo in 1942.

Based Middle Wallop November 1943 – February 1944

Deputy Chief of Staff
IX Fighter Command

Based High Wycombe February 1944 – July 1945

Chief of Operations Engineering Section
8th Air Force HQ

Died Stevensburg, VA 22741, USA 3 March 1981


Date Contributor Update
19 November 2016 03:35:25 466thHistorian Changes to middlename, firstname, role, biography, awards, events, unit associations, place associations and media associations

Date Contributor Update
29 March 2015 18:50:18 apollo11 Created entry with surname, firstname, nationality, highest rank, role, biography, unit associations and place associations

Personal research & 'The Debden Eagles' by Garry L. Fry.