Ocker, William Charles (1880–1942)

By: Deolece M. Parmelee

Type: Biography

Published: May 1, 1995

William Charles Ocker, the "father of blind flying," or instrument flight, was born on June 18, 1880, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In 1898, a few years after quitting grammar school, he claimed to be twenty-one and enlisted for Spanish-American War service. After becoming an aircraft mechanic in the Signal Corps in 1912, he took private lessons, obtained a pilot's license in 1914, became a "flying sergeant," and then earned a commission in 1917. Many pilots who chose to "fly by the seat of their pants" considered instrument users cowardly, but Ocker disagreed after seeing vertigo send good fliers to their deaths. To combat disorientation, he used and improved the elementary instruments of the Wright brothers and contemporaries such as Elmer and Lawrence Sperry. He tested an early turn indicator and added a turn-and-bank feature. He constructed a flight integrator that allowed pilots to view an airplane's movements in miniature on a screen and contributed to many other advancements in instrument flying. Ocker presented the patent rights to his flying devices to the United States government.

In 1929 at Brooks Field, San Antonio, Ocker and Carl J. Crane put together revolutionary flying systems, including an early training simulator, and wrote the world's first manual for instrument flight, Blind Flight in Theory and Practice (1932). They briefly improved air-cadet training before superior officers banned their procedures as dangerous. In 1930 one airline and a private school were adhering to Ocker's theories and methods. The Soviets pirated the book Blind Flight in 1933 and used it long before it found wide acceptance in the United States. Ocker was an outspoken advocate for instrument flight. Without such a crusader, neither advanced terrestrial nor outer-space flight would ever have been possible. Orville Wright called him a great "missionary" of instrument flying who had "more influence in bringing about the use of instruments than . . . any other person." Ocker's donation of his early invention for testing and training pilots belatedly won him a government award. A year after he died, the United States military permanently adopted his training principles. At Randolph Field, San Antonio, Ocker is honored as the developer of "the first needle-ball-airspeed blind flying procedure, the foundation of all instrument flight." The Flight Safety Foundation's Pioneer Award was presented to him posthumously in 1979. Ocker was married late in life and had a son and a daughter. He died on September 15, 1942, in Walter Reed Army Hospital, Washington, D.C.

New York Times, September 18, 1942. Ben Pearse, "Why Not a Medal for Bill Ocker?" Coronet, August 1954.

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Deolece M. Parmelee, “Ocker, William Charles,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 14, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/ocker-william-charles.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

May 1, 1995