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Inspiration for the “Witherspoon” Project

About The Witherspoon Project

About the “Witherspoon” Project

Every naval aviator who reads the Witherspoon articles will immediately recognize the format and it’s character. Dr. Witherspoon is a clone of another irascible old expert who gives advice about mishaps and how to prevent them. It is fitting we give due recognition to the inspiration for our series, the legendary “Grampaw Pettibone.”

In the early days of WWII, the U.S. Navy had expanded from a few aircraft pilots to thousands, practically overnight. Most were, by far, responsible individuals who took their jobs very seriously.

There were those few, however, who, shall we say, had their difficulties doing things by the book.

Those few were taking their toll. Flying below minimum altitude (i.e, flat-hatting) performing unauthorized air combat maneuvers, the mundane error of skipping the pre-flight or pre-landing checklists or simply flying too long and falling asleep at the stick (the deadly disease known as “get-home-itis”); they all frustrated a command desperate to get every pilot and his machine out into the fleet to face the enemy.

Exasperated by an alarming number of accidents attributed to “pilot error,” Capt. Seth Warner, head of the navy’s Bureau of Flight Statistics, teamed up with a young illustrator, Lt. Robert Osborne, and the two created the character Grampaw Pettibone. Described as “the oldest, wisest aviator,” gramps would tell ‘em how to get it right. Each month, an article in Naval Aviation News magazine reviewed an accident with an analysis by the old expert. Gramps gave a lively, straightforward, no-nonsense critique of what went wrong and why.

The pilots loved it. If they ignored the NATOPS manuals or the “read and initial” directives, they avidly read the Grampaw Pettibone articles. They liked the character, the cartoons were wonderfully crafted, and it was fun to read.

That’s the key. This is not funny stuff – accidents involving deaths and injuries – nevertheless, it was fun to read. It was purposely crafted to be so. And, as Capt. Warner, Lt. Osborne and those who followed in their footsteps discovered, when pilots read the articles, albeit simply for pleasure, they learned.

Through the years, editors of Naval Aviation News magazine have received numerous letters from pilots who claimed they owed their lives to Grampaw Pettibone. They found themselves in situations that seemed familiar, recalled the articles they read, thought to do the right things and did. The series succeeded brilliantly in its mission to promote safety in naval aviation. Seventy years later, it’s still going strong, a regular feature in Naval Aviation News magazine.

Dr. Witherspoon was created for the same purpose with the exception that, rather than pilots, our target audience includes health care professionals and their patients.

Like the “Grampaw Pettibone” material, this is not funny stuff. It is deadly serious. Yet we hope our health care professionals partake of the series for fun. We know, if they do, they’ll learn. As our readers become exposed to the classic mistakes in medicine, we imagine some of them might find themselves in familiar situations, recall articles they read and prevent errors.

Once again, a crusty old mentor may prevent injuries, perhaps save lives, by providing valuable information of a subject matter often ignored by members of our profession that is presented in an engaging format.

The Articles

Material for the articles is obtained from disciplinary files of state medical boards or malpractice case files. Both are public access. Occasionally, personal experiences of physicians are included. Cases are discussed with the appropriate specialist, making every effort to “get it right.”

We try to stick to cases that have a “lesson to be learned.” Regular readers will see recurrent themes: overlooked lab or study results, communication errors, missed injuries in trauma patients, etc. Some of the errors reviewed are most unusual. There is the occasional “good save,” always fun to write about.

The material is endless.

Check It Out

We called Naval Aviation News magazine in Washington, D.C. to request permission to reproduce the images on this page. We were kindly advised by their editor that the magazine is a United States federal publication, its contents are free for use by the general public and permission to reproduce its images is not necessary.

Just about all of the Grampaw Pettibone articles are on the internet, going back to 1943. For some pleasurable (and informative) reading, boot up their website, put your feet up and browse through these fascinating articles with their wonderfully crafted illustrations. You’ll not be disappointed.