Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from April 12 through April 14.
April 12, 1981 – The first flight of Space Shuttle Columbia, and the first flight of the Space Shuttle Program. Before the arrival of the Space Shuttle, flying into space was done in expendable spacecraft. Rockets were left behind in orbit after their fuel was spent, or burned up re-entering the atmosphere, and the capsules that held the astronauts and cosmonauts were so heavily damaged by the friction and heat of re-entry that they could not be used again. Not only was it wasteful, it was also terribly expensive. So, beginning all the way back in 1969, the same year that Neil Armstrong first set foot on the Moon with Apollo 11, NASA started began the process to develop a spacecraft that could be used again and again, one that could function essentially as a “space truck” that could haul payloads into space relatively cheaply. The Shuttle program got its official start in 1972 with an announcement by President Richard M. Nixon that NASA would develop what would eventually be called a Space Transport System (hence, all Shuttle missions were given the prefix “STS”). Initially, the hopes for the new system were quite ambitious, with NASA hoping to preform as many as 50 launches per year. But before NASA could start hauling payloads to space, they had to decided exactly what the Shuttle would look like. They considered a myriad of designs and configurations, and there was much debate over just how much of the system would be reused. There was talk of placing air-breathing engines on both the Shuttle and its booster, so both could be flown like a plane during landing, or even flown between landing and launch sites. But ultimately, NASA settled on a design where the orbiter sat atop a huge fuel tank, which would not be reused, and was boosted into space by a pair of solid rocket boosters which would be retrieved from the ocean and used again. The first Shuttle, Enterprise (originally named Constitution, but changed after a huge write-in campaign to honor Gene Roddenberry and the Star Trek TV series), was used for flying and landing tests. The second Shuttle, Columbia, would be the first to blast off and reach Earth orbit.
The first mission, STS-1, was commanded by veteran astronaut John Young, who was the commander of Apollo 16 and the ninth person to walk on the Moon in 1972. The Shuttle Pilot was Robert Crippen. Crippen was going to space for the first time, but would later command three other Shuttle missions. Unlike all pre-Shuttle missions, which launched unmanned spacecraft to test the vehicle, STS-1 was the first time NASA launched a spacecraft with astronauts onboard for its maiden flight. NASA had considered using STS-1 to test the Return To Launch Site (RTLS) abort procedure, but Commander Young overruled that idea, citing the danger involved in such a test (by the end of the Space Shuttle program, no Shuttle ever had to use the RTLS procedure). Thus, STS-1 was carried out as a planned orbital mission. Twenty years to the day after the launch of the first manned space flight of Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (somewhat serendipitously, it must be said, since Columbia’s first launch two days earlier had been scrubbed), STS-1 blasted off without incident. Its only payload was a flight instrumentation package, and the mission was designed to test the overall spaceworthiness of the Shuttle, achieve orbit, and return. After attaining an altitude of 166 nautical miles and making 37 orbits of the Earth, Columbia returned to Edwards Air Force Base in California, gliding to a landing on the dry lake bed. Columbia went on to serve NASA for 22 years and complete 27 missions before it was lost during re-entry on its 28th mission, killing all seven crew members. (NASA photos)
April 12, 1961 – Yuri Gagarin makes the first manned spaceflight. Man’s journey into space has had a number of milestones, the first of which was the launch of a Russian satellite named Sputnik 1 into Earth orbit on October 4, 1957. But with that launch, the journey to space became a race, a race that actually traces its roots back to Germany and WWII. The Germans were far ahead of the Russians and the Western allies in rocket technology, having unleashed their V-2 ballistic rockets against England and Europe in the dying throes of the Third Reich. Following the war, captured scientific data—and captured scientists—formed the nucleus of the space programs for both the Cold War superpowers. At first, the emphasis was on creating ballistic missiles, but with the announcement of the International Geophysical Year set for 1957, the Americans said that they would place a satellite in Earth orbit, and the Russians replied that they would do the same. The Russians were the first, with Sputnik 1. The American response to the diminutive Russian satellite was their own Explorer 1 satellite, and the space race shifted into high gear. For reasons that were more propaganda than science, each country wanted to be the first to put a man into space. The American effort to get to space was Project Mercury, which began with a series of 20 unmanned developmental flights beginning in 1959, while the Russians initiated the Vostok program. The first Soviet cosmonauts, like their American counterparts, were all military pilots, though none were as experienced in flying as the Mercury 7, since the Russian program relied more on automation than the American program. Ultimately, it was more important just to be first. And not just first into space, but first into orbit. The Russians carried out a series of test launches, some carrying dogs and other biological specimens. The dogs Belka and Strelka were the first living creatures to leave the planet and, lucky for the space dogs, the first to be recovered from orbit. For the historic manned launch into orbit, Russia tapped Gagarin, with cosmonauts Gherman Titov and Grigori Nelyubov as backups. The Vostok rocket was erected on its launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, and with a cry of “Poyekhali!” (“Let’s go!”), Gagarin was launched into space at 6:07 am local time. The rocket worked flawlessly, and Gagarin reported that he could see the Earth, and that everything was working well. From launch to landing, the entire flight, with its single orbit of the Earth, took 108 minutes.
The capsule re-entered Earth’s atmosphere safely and, as he neared the ground, Gagarin was automatically ejected from his capsule and finished the descent under his own parachute. The capsule descended separately by its own parachute. After landing, Gagarin encountered some Russian farmers, and told them, “Don’t be afraid, I am a Soviet citizen like you, who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow!” The Americans replied to Gagarin’s flight with the launch of Freedom 7 on May 5, 1961, a short suborbital flight. However, it provided important data for the American program, and astronaut Alan Shepard was the first to exercise manual control over a spacecraft. The Russians followed Vostok 1 four months later with Vostok 2, when Gherman Titov spent just over 25 hours in space and made 17 orbits of the Earth. The American orbital response finally came on February 20, 1962, when John Glenn, flying Friendship 7, became the first American—but the third man—to orbit the Earth. Though he served as a backup crew for the ill-fated Soyuz 1, Gagarin would never return to space. He was named a Hero of the Soviet Union, his nation’s highest honor, became an international celebrity, and served as the deputy training director of the Cosmonaut Training Center. However, his fame would be short-lived. Gagarin was killed on March 27, 1968 in the crash of his Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 trainer at the age of 34. The cause of the crash remains a matter of debate.
April 13, 1970 – An oxygen tank explodes in the Apollo 13 Service Module. Triskaidekaphobia is a word that comes to us from the Greek, and it means having an extreme superstition about, or fear, of the number 13. As a matter of tradition, many buildings don’t number the 13th floor, counting from 12 to 14, but NASA chose not skip the number 13, though perhaps they may have wished that they had. Apollo 13 was the 7th manned mission of the Apollo program, and the 3rd mission slated to land on the moon. On board were astronauts James Lovell, Commander, Jack Swigert, Command Module Pilot, and Fred Haise, Lunar Module Pilot. The launch on April 11 went off without any significant problems, and the crew successfully detached the Service Module (SM) and Command Module (CM) to perform the transposition maneuver that would attach the Aquarius Lunar Module (LM, pronounced “lem”) to the nose of the CM. This allowed the astronauts to pass between the CM and the LM. On arrival at the Moon, the LM would then separate and fly to the surface with two of the astronauts, while the third remained in orbit in the CM. The Service Module was filled with various tanks and batteries, and among its duties was to supply electricity and oxygen to the CM. On April 13, two days after launch and about three-fourths of the way to the moon, NASA flight controllers instructed Swigert to activate the hydrogen and oxygen tank stirring fans, a routine procedure that helped keep the tanks functioning properly and ensure proper readings of the tanks’ levels. Two minutes later, the crew heard a loud bang, and Lovell reported the words that have since become synonymous with something going seriously wrong: “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” Looking out the window of the CM, Lovell told Mission Control that the spacecraft was venting “a gas of some sort” into space. In fact, one of the oxygen tanks had exploded, taking not only oxygen for the crew, but also electricity and water. Soon, the CM had only battery power and limited water, and what power they had would be needed for re-entry. So the CM was shut down and the astronauts moved to the LM, which had its own power supply. Without Aquarius to act as a lifeboat, the accident would almost certainly have been fatal.
Following the official decision to abort the Moon landing, NASA was now faced with the problem of getting the astronauts home safely, a scenario for which there was no procedure. Rather than turn around and come directly back to Earth, Flight Director Gene Kranz decided to allow the spacecraft to swing around the Moon and use the Moon’s gravity to slingshot the astronauts back to Earth. The astronauts had to use the LM’s landing rocket to make manual course corrections, and the four-and-half-minute burn, something the astronauts had never trained for, was so accurate that only two more small course corrections were needed. While the LM had plenty of oxygen, the removal of carbon dioxide became critical, and the astronauts had to jury-rig a system using incompatible C02 scrubbers from the CM. They also faced critical shortages of water and food. Once they were close enough to Earth, the astronauts jettisoned the SM and could finally get a good look at the damage, seeing that an entire side panel had blown off. After photographing it, they returned to the CM and jettisoned Aquarius. Despite concerns about the possibility of a damaged heat shield, Odyssey splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean on April 17. An analysis of the explosion determined that damaged insulation on the stirring fan caused a short-circuit and fire that ignited the tank explosion. Even though the mission to land on the Moon wasn’t successful, the unintended orbital trajectory around the Moon gave the Apollo 13 astronauts the record for the absolute distance flown from the Earth by a manned spacecraft. (NASA photo; illustration author unknown)
April 12, 1985 – US Senator Jake Garn becomes the first sitting politician to fly in space. Launched from Kennedy Space Center, STS-51-D was the 16th flight of the Space Shuttle program and the first spaceflight carrying a sitting politician. Jake Garn, a Republican Senator from Utah, flew as a Payload Specialist after he asked to go to space as part of his role as the head of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA. Discovery’s primary mission was the deployment of 2 communications satellites, and Garn was along primarily as an observer, though he did serve as the subject of medical experiments. Garn suffered from such severe space sickness that the system for measuring the severity of space sickness is now counted (jokingly) in “Garns.” The Jake Garn Simulator and Training Facility was named in Garn’s honor. (NASA photos)
April 12, 1945 – The destroyer USS Mannert L. Abele is sunk by a Japanese Ohka suicide rocket plane. In the closing stages of WWII in the Pacific, the Japanese carried out kamikaze attacks on the US fleet using the Yokosuka MXY7 Ohka, a rocket-powered, piloted flying bomb that was dropped from a Mitsubishi G4M bomber. Off the island of Okinawa, a flight of 6 bombers released their Ohka rocket bombs against the American fleet, with one striking the destroyer USS Mannert L. Abele (DD-733), penetrating the starboard side and detonating its 2,646-pound warhead in the aft engine room. The explosion broke the destroyer’s keel midships and the ship broke in two and sank in a matter of minutes with the loss of 84 sailors. Though Ohkas damaged a handful of ships, Abele was the only ship sunk, and the overall effectiveness of the kamikaze rocket was negligible. (US Navy photo; photo by Max Smith via Wikimedia Commons)
April 12, 1935 – The first flight of the Bristol Blenheim, a British light bomber that was originally conceived as a fast airliner. The Blenheim saw extensive service early in WWII. It was one of the first British aircraft to employ an all-metal stressed-skin fuselage, retractable landing gear, a powered gun turret and variable-pitch propellers. The Blenheim served as a light bomber, long range fighter and night fighter, and while it was capable of outrunning most fighters in the early days of the war, it was no match for the Messerschmitt Bf 109 during daylight bombing raids. The British retired the Blenheim in 1944, though it served in Finland until 1956. (Photo by Airwolfhound via Wikimedia Commons)
April 13, 1990 – The first flight of the Sukhoi Su-34, an all-weather strike fighter based on the Sukhoi Su-27 and intended as a replacement for the Sukhoi Su-24. The Su-34, NATO reporting name “Fullback,” is primarily used against ground and naval targets as well for reconnaissance missions. The Fullback’s roomy cockpit allows the pilots to move around during long missions, and includes a galley and rudimentary toilet. It is armed with a single 30mm cannon along with 12 external hardpoints capable of carrying up to 26,500 pounds of rockets, missiles and bombs. The Su-34 entered service in early 2014, and has seen action in Syria during Russian intervention in the Syrian Civil War. (Photo by Alex Beltyukov via Wikimedia Commons)
April 13, 1945 – Boeing delivers the final B-17 Flying Fortress. Designed in the 1930s as a four-engine heavy bomber for the United States Army Air Corps, the B-17 was one of the most effective weapons of WWII, particularly in Europe, where it dropped 640,000 tons of ordnance on Germany and its territories, more than any other bomber. Production began in 1936 and continued almost until the end of the war in 1945, with a total of 12,731 aircraft built, two-thirds of which were the B-17G variant. Though the Flying Fortress was quickly retired by the USAAC after the war, it continued in service with other countries, flying for the Brazilian Air Force until 1968. Fifteen B-17s remain flying today. (US Air Force photo)
April 13, 1931 – The first flight of the Boeing YB-9, an experimental bomber funded by the Boeing Company as a development of their Model 200 Monomail mail plane. At a time when many US Army Air Corps bombers were still constructed of wood and canvas, the YB-9 was the first all-metal, stressed-skin, cantilever monoplane bomber to serve the USAAC. Powered by two Pratt & Whitney R-1860 radial engines, the YB-9 had a top speed of 188 mph, equal to many contemporary fighter planes. Five YB-9s were built, and they entered service in September 1932, but were phased out in just three years. Ultimately, Boeing lost out to the the Glenn L. Martin Company, which offered the much more modern Martin B-10, which entered service in 1934. (US Air Force photo)
April 13, 1928 – The first non-stop flight across the Atlantic from East to West. Just one year after Charles Lindbergh’s famous eastward flight from New York to Paris, German aviators Hermann Köhl, Baron Gunther von Hunefeld, and Major James Fitzmaurice took off from Baldonnel, Ireland on April 12 in a Junkers W 33 named the Bremen on a westward crossing, against the prevailing winds, hoping to land in New York. However, strong winds forced them well north of their intended course, and they landed instead at Greenly Island, Canada after a flight of 37 hours. Their W.33 has been restored and is currently displayed at the airport in Bremen, Germany. (Photo author unknown)
April 14, 1962 – The first flight of the Bristol 188, nicknamed the “Flaming Pencil,” a research aircraft developed to explore supersonic flight. In response to Operational Requirement 330, which called for a Mach 3 reconnaissance aircraft, Bristol produced three 188s. The project was plagued with problems, most notably fuel consumption issues which did not allow the aircraft to fly supersonically long enough to test the effects on the airframe. The 188 could not reach Mach 2, and the nearly 300 mph take off speed hampered the test program. However, much of what was learned with the 188 was used later in the development of the Concorde. (Bristol photo via Aviation Archive)
April 14, 1947 – The first flight of the Douglas D-558-1 Skystreak, a turbojet-powered research aircraft built as a joint project between the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and the US Navy. The Skystreak was the first in a planned series of three aircraft that would explore the regime of supersonic flight, though the second phase was canceled in favor of the swept wing D-558-2 Skyrocket. Douglas built three examples of the Skystreak, and in just four months it had broken the previous speed record set by the German Me 163 Komet rocket plane. Though overshadowed by the supersonic Bell X-1, the Skystreak nevertheless provided important data in the realm of transonic flight which was used in the development of future supersonic aircraft. (NASA photo)