Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from April 19 through April 21.
April 19, 1960 – The First flight of the Grumman A-6 Intruder. During WWII, aircraft of the US Navy focused their efforts in the main on Japanese shipping and coastal targets. But during the Korean War, which followed quickly on the heels of the Second World War, Navy and US Marine Corps pilots found themselves flying the majority of their sorties against targets on land, far away from their carrier bases. Most of those missions were carried out by the remarkable Douglas A-1 Skyraider, but the Navy decided in 1955 to develop a jet-powered aircraft that could perform the same ground attack mission but carry a significantly larger payload. They issued requirements for an all-weather, jet-powered tactical strike aircraft, and no less than eleven designs were submitted by Bell, Boeing, Douglas, Lockheed, Martin, North American, Vought and Grumman. Grumman already had a long history and solid reputation for building naval aircraft, and on January 2, 1958 the Navy awarded a contract for development of an aircraft that Grumman had designated the G-128. Unlike most aircraft of its size, the Intruder accommodated its two-man crew in a side-by-side configuration, more like a traditional bomber, rather than in tandem like a fighter. This arrangement allowed for better communication between the pilot and bombardier/navigator (B/N) and, in practice, the B/N often became as much a copilot as a weapons officer, helping the pilot monitor aircraft systems and radios. The large canopy covering the wide cockpit provided excellent visibility, and the bulbous nose section supplied ample room for electronic equipment. The first Intruders were fitted with the Digital Integrated Attack/Navigation Equipment (DIANE), a system that provided the crew with a digital display of both targets and terrain features and allowed attack missions in day or night, all weather, or other low-visibility conditions. The A-6's large wing was designed for both low-speed maneuverability and large weapons load, and the Intruder was capable of carrying as much as 15,000 pounds of munitions or a single nuclear weapon. Later variants were capable of carrying up to 18,000 pounds of stores. Power for the Intruder was provided by a pair of Pratt & Whitney J52 non-afterburning turbojets which propelled the Intruder to a top speed of 685 mph in a clean configuration and a range of just under 2,000 miles fully loaded with weapons. To get all that armament off the deck, the original prototype of the Intruder was fitted with jet nozzles that could be swiveled downward to provide extra lift on takeoff. This system was eventually dropped, but the engine nozzles of production aircraft were still given a slight downwards deflection.
The Intruder entered service with the Navy and Marine Corps in 1963 and was the primary all-weather attack platform throughout the Vietnam War. The A-6 proved to be a rugged aircraft that could absorb significant punishment and still return its crew to the carrier, reaffirming the “Iron Works” nickname that Grumman earned during WWII. Operating from carriers off the coast of Vietnam, Intruder crews flew 35,000 sorties during the war, with the loss of 69 aircraft to enemy fire. The A-6's excellent low-level maneuverability often allowed the pilot to out-turn incoming surface-to-air missiles, and the majority of Intruder losses were attributed to anti-aircraft artillery. Following Vietnam, the Intruder saw action in support of the Multinational Force in Lebanon in 1983 and over Libya in 1986. In the mid-1980s, Grumman proposed a significantly upgraded Intruder, the A-6F Intruder II, which would have replaced the original turbojets with General Electric F404 turbofans, the same engine flown in the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet. The radar also would have received a significant upgrade, and weapons load would be increased. However, the Navy passed on the Intruder II, focusing instead on the development of the stealthy McDonnell Douglas A-12 Avenger II, which was slated as the A-6's replacement. But when cost overruns led to the cancelation of the A-12, the Navy was left without a dedicated attack aircraft. So the Intruder fought on, flying 4,700 sorties against Iraqi targets during the Gulf War of 1990-1991. After nearly 35 years of service, the A-6 was retired in 1997 following a production run of nearly 700 aircraft, and its mission was briefly passed to specially equipped Grumman F-14 Tomcats. The attack mission is now carried out by the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet and Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. (US Navy photos)
April 21, 1918 – The death of Manfred von Richthofen. When the First World War broke out in 1914, the airplane was still in its infancy. The Wright Brothers had made the First Flight just eleven years earlier, and when the first airplanes were used in the war they were called scout planes and flown solely for reconnaissance. Opposing pilots often shared a friendly wave as they crisscrossed the skies over the battlefield. But it wasn’t long until those amicable greetings turned hostile. Aircrews started carrying pistols and rifles into the air, then machine guns were mounted on the aircraft and the dedicated fighter plane was born. Fighter pilots became a breed apart from other fighting men, enjoying the prestige and gallantry of their role in battle, and Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, better known as the Red Baron, became the greatest of them all, the iconic fighter pilot, both feared and respected by his enemy. Manfred von Richthofen was born to an aristocratic Prussian family in what is now a part of Poland. He began the war as a cavalry reconnaissance officer, and as the war stagnated and the cavalry became little used, he transferred to the Imperial German Army Air Service, later called the Luftstreitkräfte, and began flying as a reconnaissance officer in August 1915. Following a chance meeting with Oswald Boelcke, considered to be the father of German fighter tactics, Richthofen began training to be a pilot. He met Boelcke again the following year when Boelcke was looking for pilots to form a new squadron, Jagdstaffel 2, or Jasta 2. Richthofen joined the unit, and it was here that he scored his first victory on September 17, 1916. Soon, Richthofen was leading his own fighter group, Jasta 11, and then was appointed to head the larger Jagdgeschwader 1, better known as the Flying Circus. Though Richthofen flew numerous aircraft during his time in the war, he is most closely associated with the famed Fokker Dr.1 Dreidecker triplane, though he only scored about 20% of his career victories in that aircraft. Before the Dreidecker, he flew the Albatros D.II, then the Albatros D.III, and Albatros D.V. He scored the bulk of his victories in the D.III, and it was this aircraft that he first painted red. A brilliant leader and tactician, Richthofen’s unit was soon one of the most effective of the war. In April of 1917 alone, he shot down 22 British aircraft, including four in one day. He finished the war with 80 confirmed victories, making him the leading ace of WWI and the second leading ace of all time behind Erich Hartmann, who claimed a staggering 352 victories during WWII. But being a fighter pilot, even the best of his era, was not without its dangers. On July 16, 1917, Richthofen was seriously wounded when he was shot in the head during a dogfight. He managed to land his plane, and after a brief convalescent leave he returned to flying, though the wound caused him nausea and headaches.
The end of the Red Baron finally came on April 21, 1918, when he was shot through the heart and lungs during a dogfight. Though he managed to land his plane, he soon succumbed to his wounds. Controversy immediately swirled around who took the fateful shots. The RAF first credited Captain Arthur Roy Brown with the victory, a Canadian pilot flying for the Royal Navy Air Service. But a post-mortem of Richthofen showed that he had been killed by a single .303 British round that was most likely fired from the ground. Who actually caused the mortal wound is still open to debate and will likely never be resolved. Though he came down behind enemy lines, Richthofen was buried with full military honors in Amiens, France by members of No. 3 Squadron of the Australian Flying Corps. In 1975, his remains were moved to a family cemetery plot in Wiesbaden, Germany. (Richthofen photo by C.J. Dühren; replica Dr.1 photo by J. Klank via Wikimedia Commons; funeral photo by Sgt John Alexander via UK Government)
April 19, 2006 – The death of Scott Crossfield. Crossfield was born on October 2, 1921 and served in the US Navy as a flight instructor and fighter pilot during WWII. After obtaining a degree in aeronautical engineering, Crossfield went to work for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, later NASA), where he took part in test flights of nearly every aircraft under development at the Dryden Flight Research Center, including the Bell X-1, Convair XF-92, Northrop X-4 Bantam, Bell X-5, Douglas D-558-1 Skystreak, and he became the first pilot ever to exceed Mach 2 while flying the Douglas D-558-2 Skyrocket. As the chief test pilot for North American Aviation, Crossfield played a major role in the development of the North American X-15, performing the first glide flight of the aircraft on June 8, 1959 and making a total of 14 test flights. After leaving North American, Crossfield worked as an executive for Eastern Air Lines and Hawker Siddeley, and died at the age of 84 in the crash of his Cessna 210A while flying in adverse weather conditions. (NASA photo)
April 19, 1951 – The first flight of the de Havilland Sea Venom, a carrier-based all-weather interceptor developed from the de Havilland Venom NF.2 two-seat night fighter. The Sea Venom was fitted with folding wings, an arrestor hook, and strengthened landing gear, and the canopy was modified to allow underwater ejection. The production model was fitted with a single de Havilland Ghost 105 turbojet which gave the Sea Venom a top speed of 575 mph, and it was armed with four Hispano Mk.V 20mm cannons and a combination of rockets and bombs. The Sea Venom saw action in the Suez Crisis of 1956, as well as during other conflicts in the Middle East before being replaced by the de Havilland Sea Vixen starting in 1959. It was retired by 1970. (Photo by Kookaburra2011 via Flickr)
April 19, 1944 – The first flight of the de Havilland Hornet, a twin-engined fighter that was developed from the larger de Havilland Mosquito, though it was an entirely new design. Like the Mossie, the Hornet used wooden laminate construction to save weight, but was powered by a pair of Rolls-Royce Merlin “slimline” 12-cylinder engines which provided a top speed of 475 mph, making it one of the fastest propeller fighters ever built. Though it came too late to serve in WWII, the Hornet was flown as a strike fighter during the Malayan Emergency, and set numerous speed records at air races. A navalized variant, the Sea Hornet, was also developed. A total of 383 Hornets were built from 1945-1950, and the type was retired in 1956. (Photo via San Diego Air and Space Museum)
April 19, 1922 – The birth of Erich Hartmann, the most successful fighter pilot in history with 352 victories to his credit, all but seven coming against Russian aircraft. Over the course of 1,404 sorties, Hartman, known as the Blond Knight, was never shot down or forced down by enemy fire, though he did crash land 14 times, all due to mechanical problems or damage caused by the debris from aircraft he had dispatched. Following the war, Hartmann spent 10 years in Soviet prison camps before his release in 1955, and the following year he joined the newly-formed West German Luftwaffe as the first commander of Jagdgeschwader 71, named after Manfred von Richtofen, better known as the Red Baron. Hartmann resigned from the Luftwaffe in 1970 over his opposition to the Luftwaffe’s adoption of the Lockheed F-104G Starfighter, and died of natural causes in 1993. (Hartmann photo author unknown; Bf 109 illustration by Jerry Crandall)
April 20, 1978 – Korean Air Lines Flight 902 is shot down by Russian fighters. On a flight from Paris to Anchorage, Alaska, the crew of the KAL Boeing 707 (HL7429) made an error in calculating magnetic declination as they neared the North Pole and mistakenly turned back towards Russia. Russian fighter pilots initially identified the aircraft as a Boeing RC-135 reconnaissance plane before realizing it was a civilian airliner. The Russians claimed that the KAL crew ignored attempts at communication, and the order was given to shoot the plane down. One missile struck the airliner’s wing, and the pilots made a crash landing in Russia on a frozen lake near the Finnish border. Two passengers died, and the remaining passengers and crew were detained for two days before being released. The Russian government billed South Korea $100,000 for expenses related to the care of the passengers. (Photo via istpravda)
April 20, 1964 – The first flight of the Lockheed L-100 Hercules, the civilian variant of the famous military cargo aircraft. The civilian Hercules arose in 1959 with an order from Pan Am for twelve of Lockheed’s planned GL-207 Super Hercules, but that project was eventually canceled. Instead, Lockheed chose to develop a variant of the C-130E, producing it in three lengths designated L-100, L-100-20 and L-100-30. A total of 114 of all types were completed by 1992 when production ended. Lockheed plans to further upgrade the L-100 by using the modernized C-130J Super Hercules to produce the LM-100J, with its first flight expected in early 2017. (Photo by Bob Garrard via Ed Coates Collection)
April 20, 1916 – The Lafayette Escadrille, a squadron of American fighter pilots flying for France in WWI, is deployed. Prior to America’s entry into WWI, US pilots went to Europe to fight for England and France. Named in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette, who fought for the United States in the Revolutionary War, the group was originally called the Escadrille Américaine, and wore French uniforms and had French commanders. With so many Americans arriving in France to fight, a larger group was formed, the Lafayette Flying Corps, and the Lafayette Escadrille was officially disbanded on February 8, 1918. Some of its members transferred to American air units, while others trained incoming US pilots. (Photo author unknown)
April 21, 1964 – The first flight of the HFB-320 Hansa Jet, a ten-seat business jet manufactured by Hamburger Flugzeugbau that is notable for its use of a forward-swept wing. This arrangement allows the wing spar to pass through the fuselage behind the passenger compartment, which provides more internal space for passengers or cargo. The Hansa Jet is the only example of a civilian aircraft to use such a wing configuration. Only 47 were built before production ceased in 1973, with almost half of the aircraft being purchased and operated by the West German Air Force. (Photo via HansaJet.de)
April 21, 1956 – The first flight of the Douglas F5D Skylancer, a fighter designed for the US Navy originally conceived as an upgrade to the F4D Skyray. Though it began simply as an upgrade to the Skyray, the Skylancer soon became different enough to warrant its own designation. Aside from its larger size and more powerful engine, the F5D had numerous aerodynamic enhancements to increase its speed, including application of the area rule to the fuselage. Possibly due to political pressure, the Skylancer was canceled after completion of only four aircraft in favor of the Vought F8U (F-8) Crusader, and the completed Skylancers were used for testing by the US Air Force and NASA. (NASA photo)
April 21, 1933 – The first flight of the USS Macon (ZRS-5), a rigid airship operated by the US Navy that served as a reconnaissance platform and flying aircraft carrier. The Macon and her sister ship USS Akron (ZRS-4) were the largest helium-filled airships in the world, and both could launch and recover five Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk scout planes or two-seat Fleet Model 1 training aircraft. The Macon served for only two years before she was damaged in a storm and crashed of the California coast, resulting in the loss of two members of her 76-man crew. (US Navy photo)