Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from April 8 through April 11.
April 9, 1967 – The first flight of the Boeing 737. At the start of the commercial jet era, the emphasis was on big airplanes. The four-engine de Havilland Comet was the world’s first jet airliner, but when that aircraft began suffering from an alarming string of fatal crashes, Boeing was poised to step in with its own four-engine airliner, the 707. But there was a trend developing in the airline industry, one that called for smaller airliners to operate on shorter routes. Boeing followed the 707 with the 727 tri-jet, but airlines still wanted something smaller that would complement Boeing’s other offerings. Development of the 737 began in 1964 with plans to create an airliner that would accommodate 50-60 passengers. The German carrier Lufthansa signed on as the launch customer a year later, and requested that Boeing increase the seating capacity to 100 passengers. When United Airlines signed on to the project, they wanted an airliner with still more capacity. So the 737 was lengthened again, with the Lufthansa version becoming the 737-100 and the United version becoming the 737-200. But Boeing faced stiff competition from its competitors: the Douglas DC-9, Fokker F28 Fellowship and British Aircraft Corporation BAC One-Eleven. To speed the development process, Boeing based the fuselage of their new airliner largely on the 727, using 60% of the 727's fuselage shape, particularly the upper lobe. This gave the 737 the same cross section and allowed the use of the same cargo pallets as the earlier airliner. And bringing in the 727 fuselage also meant the adoption of 6-across seating in coach, which gave the 737 a distinct advantage over its rival Douglas, which featured 5-across seating in their DC-9. The relatively short fuselage, when mated to its swept wings, resulted in an aircraft that was just about as long as it was wide, and the 737 was dubbed the “square airplane.” Boeing also eliminated the flight engineer position, helping to set a new industry standard for only two crew members in the cockpit. The first 737 was constructed at Plant 2 in Seattle, the last new airliner to be produced in the building where the B-17 Flying Fortress, B-47 Stratojet and B-52 Stratofortress were built. Despite the building’s size, the tail of the first 737 couldn’t be attached inside, so the tail was fitted outdoors using a crane before the airliner was rolled to the production facility known as the Thompson Site. Though the 737 has since become the best selling airliner in history, its early days were less rosy. By 1970, Boeing had received orders for only 37 aircraft, and they were considering shutting down production and selling the 737 design to Japanese aircraft manufacturers. But with the cancellation of the Boeing 2707 supersonic transport (along with the loss of 50,000 jobs), and reduction in the production of the 747, Boeing freed up enough money to continue development of the 737 into a wider range of variants, including the convertible 737C model with accommodations for palletized freight, and the 737QC (Quick Change) variant that featured palletized seating and allowed for a rapid switch from cargo to passenger configurations.
Following the production of the 737-100 and -200, the last of which was delivered in 1988, Boeing began developing the -300/-400/-500 series, which would later be known as the 737 Classic, each offering improvements in range, economy and passenger capacity. Most importantly, the Classic moved the 737 into the age of modern high-bypass turbofan engines, leaving behind the cigar-shaped Pratt & Whitney JT8D low-bypass turbofans in favor of the CFM International CFM56.
Boeing undertook further development of the 737 to compete with rival Airbus and followed the Classic with the 737 Next Generation, which encompasses models -600/-700/-800/-900ER beginning in 1991. While much of the 737NG is essentially new, it retains enough commonality with earlier aircraft to make it attractive to airlines with older fleets of 737s. And in 2011, Boeing announced the 737 MAX program, which will provide newer, still more efficient CFM International LEAP-1B engines for greater range and fuel economy. Deliveries of the MAX are scheduled to begin in 2017. In July 2012, the 737 earned the distinction of being the first airliner to surpass 10,000 orders, and nearly 9,000 have been delivered so far. Today, two 737s are landing or departing every 5 seconds somewhere in the world. As for the prototype, it never entered commercial service, though it did serve NASA as a flying laboratory for twenty years, and is now on display at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington. (Photo via Boeing; 737-300 photo by Konstantin von Wedelstaedt via Wikimedia Commons; photo by the author)
April 8, 1944 – The first flight of the Douglas BTD Destroyer. The Destroyer was designed in response to a 1941 US Navy request for a single aircraft to replace both the Douglas SBD Dauntless and the Curtiss SB2C Helldiver. Designed by noted Douglas engineer Ed Heinemann, the Destroyer featured a laminar flow wing and, in a first for a carrier aircraft, a tricycle landing gear. When the Navy changed its requirements, Douglas removed the extra crew member and the defensive armament. Still, only 28 were delivered before the war ended and production was canceled. (US Navy photo)
April 9, 1964 – The first flight of the de Havilland Canada DHC-5 Buffalo, a cargo and transport aircraft developed from the DHC-4 Caribou and designed for extremely short takeoffs, specifically from rugged or unimproved airstrips. Unlike its piston-powered predecessor, the Buffalo is powered by a pair of General Electric CT64 turboprop engines. It was originally pursued by the US Army as a replacement for the Caribou before all fixed-wing aircraft were transferred to the US Air Force, who wasn’t interested in the aircraft. Thus, only 122 were built, and the type certificates for all the de Havilland transports were purchased by Viking Air in Canada who plans to restart production of a newer, more powerful version of the Buffalo. (Photo by Darian Froese via Wikimedia Commons)
April 9, 1959 – NASA names the Mercury Seven, the first American astronauts who took part in the manned Project Mercury spaceflights from May 1961 to May 1963. Alan Shepard was the first Mercury astronaut to travel in space in 1961, just one month after Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. He was followed by Gus Grissom, then John Glenn, who would be America’s first astronaut to orbit the Earth. They were followed by Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, and Gordon Cooper. The seventh member of the group, Deke Slayton, was grounded for health reasons, but served as NASA’s Director of Flight Crew Operations until 1972. The Mercury 7 formed the core of American astronauts, and played a role in all NASA space missions of the 20th century. (NASA photo)
April 9, 1899 – The birth of James Smith McDonnell. Following the failure of McDonnell’s first aircraft in 1927, the Doodlebug, McDonnell Aviation was founded in 1939 as a major aircraft parts producer during WWII. Though its first military aircraft, the XP-67 Bat, was also unsuccessful, McDonnell Aircraft found great success after WWII with the development of jet fighters such as the FH Phantom, the F2H Banshee, the F3H Demon, the F-101 Voodoo, and the legendary F-4 Phantom II. In 1967, McDonnell Aircraft merged with Douglas Aircraft to form McDonnell Douglas. The new company produced some of the most successful military and civilian aircraft in history, including the F-15 Eagle, the AV-8B Harrier, the F/A-18 Hornet, the DC-8, the DC-9 and its derivatives, and the DC-10, plus numerous helicopters, missiles and space vehicles. James McDonnell died in 1980, and McDonnell Douglas merged with Boeing in 1997. (McDonnell photo via University of Arkansas Libraries; US Navy, US Air Force photos)
April 10, 1963 – The first flight of the EWR VJ 101, a supersonic vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) fighter developed as a replacement for the Lockheed F-104G Starfighter. Two aircraft were completed during the five-year test program, and known as the X-1 and the X-2. The X-1 performed the first successful hover in April 1963, then the first transition to forward flight in September 1963. In all, a total of 40 level flights, 24 hover flights and 14 full transitions were performed. On July 29, 1964, the X-1 reached Mach 1.04 without using an afterburner, and though the program showed promise, it was canceled in 1968. (Photo by Ralf Manteufel via Wikimedia Commons)
April 11, 1943 – The first flight of the Piasecki PV-2, the second successful helicopter flown in the US after the Sikorski VS-300. Constructed as a technology demonstrator, the PV-2 introduced new features such as dynamically balanced rotor blades, a rigid tail rotor with a tension-torsion pitch changing system and full cyclic and collective pitch control. Only one example was ever produced, and it is now on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in northern Virginia. (Photo author unknown)
April 11, 1952 – The first flight of the Piasecki H-21 Workhorse/CH-21 Shawnee, a multi-mission tandem rotor helicopter originally developed from the HRP Rescuer. The H-21 was originally designed for Arctic rescue missions and featured full winterization for polar climates, but it was used primarily as a troop transport in the early days of the Vietnam War as the CH-21. Called the “Flying Banana” by troops, the Shawnee was poorly suited to the hot jungle climate of Southeast Asia, and was removed from service in 1965 with the arrival of the Bell UH-1 Iroquois, better known as the Huey. (US Air Force photo)
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