Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from July 1 through July 4.
July 1, 1872 – The birth of Louis Blériot. The opening of the 20th century was an extremely exciting time in the history of aviation. The Wright Brothers made their historic flight in 1903, and while they are widely recognized as being the first to fly a controllable aircraft, aviation pioneers in Europe were working hard to catch up to them. In 1906, Brazilian inventor Alberto Santos-Dumont, working in France, made a public flight in his Santos-Dumont 14-bis, which resembled a giant box kite, and the next year, Frenchman Gabriel Voisin made the first flight of his Voisin biplane. Despite the news surrounding the successful flights of the Wright Brothers, many in Europe remained skeptical of their achievements. To prove the doubters wrong, Wilbur Wright traveled to Europe in 1908 and made a series of demonstration flights near Le Mans, demonstrating just how far he and his brother Orville had come with their Wright Flyer. He flew circles and figure-eights that stunned their French audience, and one of those in attendance that day was Louis Blériot. Though Blériot is best known today for his pioneering work in aviation, he made his money as an inventor and engineer. Following his education at the prestigious École Centrale in Paris, and compulsory military service with an artillery regiment, Blériot went to work for an electrical engineering firm, where developed the first practical headlamp for automobiles. The money he earned from this invention would fund his foray into aviation. Blériot began with attempts at building ornithopters, but these flapping-wing designs proved unsuccessful. In 1905 he met Voisin, and the two agreed to work together. They formed the Ateliers d’ Aviation Edouard Surcouf, Blériot et Voisin, but the partnership was unsuccessful, and Blériot realized that he was still far from his goal. After witnessing a successful flight by Santos-Dumont, Blériot dissolved his partnership with Voisin and struck out on his own, experimenting with different configurations but focusing on the development of the world’s first powered monoplane, the Blériot V, which took its maiden flight on March 21, 1907. The plane only made short flights, and was damaged beyond repair after its third flight, but Blériot was on his way.
Numerous modifications and experiments followed, and his Blériot VII, with a large forward wing and smaller tail wing, established the fundamental layout of almost all aircraft to follow. The controls of the Blériot VII featured tail surfaces that could be moved together or separately, forming the predecessor to the elevators, ailerons and elevons used in modern aviation. Though the success of the Blériot VII established Blériot as a pioneering innovator, his greatest public notoriety came when he completed the first successful crossing of the English Channel. On July 25, 1909, Blériot took off from Calais at 4:41 am in his Type XI monoplane, which was powered by a 25-horsepower, 3-cylinder Anzani engine. After a 36-minute flight, he made a hard landing in Dover and claimed the £1000 prize which was being offered by the British newspaper the Daily Mail. The feat brought him fame and helped the success of his aircraft manufacturing business, leading to 100 orders for his Type XI, and more than 900 orders for aircraft during WWI. Following the war, Blériot’s manufacturing work continued, and he was present at Le Bourget Airport in 1927 to welcome Charles Lindbergh to Paris. Blériot died in 1936 at the age of 64 and, in his honor, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale established the Louis Blériot Medal to recognize records set in speed, altitude and distance. (Photo authors unknown)
July 2, 1937 – Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan disappear over the Pacific Ocean while attempting to circumnavigate the globe. The history of aviation has had many important contributors, but for the most part, those contributions were made by men. Not because men were more capable of building or flying aircraft, but simply because society didn’t believe that flying was an appropriate endeavor for women. The Wright Brothers refused to train female pilots, and the British aviation pioneer Claude Grahame-White went so far as to say, “...women lack qualities which make for safety in aviation. They are temperamentally unfit for the sport.” The fact that Grahame-White saw flying as a sport is telling, but he was not alone in his views. Still, many women fought for their rightful place in the field, and those pioneering aviatrixes gained notoriety and broke barriers that helped create opportunities for those who followed. Amelia Earhart was smitten with aviation at a young age, and took her first flying lessons in 1921. Soon after, she purchased her first airplane, a Kinner Airster biplane that she named The Canary. She became a celebrity in 1928 as the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, though she was merely a passenger and did no piloting. On arriving in Wales, Earhart told a reporter, “...maybe someday I’ll try it alone.” She did just that in 1932, when she piloted a Lockheed Vega from Newfoundland to Ireland, and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross as the first woman to pilot a plane across the Atlantic. Earhart made subsequent solo flights and set numerous records, but the great feat that had not yet been accomplished by a female pilot was a circumnavigation of the globe. She began her first attempt in March 1937, but that flight ended in Hawaii following engine trouble.
For her second attempt, Earhart teamed with experienced navigator Fred Noonan, and the pair began their effort with an unpublicized flight from Oakland to Miami. Their attempt to fly around the world began on June 1, 1937. Earhart and Noonan departed from Miami flying a modified Lockheed Electra 10E and made stops in South America, Africa, India and Southeast Asia before arriving in Lae, New Guinea on June 29 after covering roughly 22,000 miles. The Pacific Ocean was their last big obstacle. After departing from Lae on July 2 at midnight GMT, they headed for Howland Island, a tiny speck of land 2,556 miles away. The Coast Guard cutter Itasca was on station at Howland to guide them by radio for the final part of their flight. As they approached Howland, Earhart and Noonan made contact with Itasca, but problems with the radio set meant that the crew of Itasca could hear Earhart but Earhart and Noonan could not hear Itasca. The ship was sending out tracking signals, but the fact that Earhart didn’t home in on them indicates that there may have been a problem with the Electra’s direction finder as well. At one point, Earhart radioed, “We must be on you, but cannot see you—but gas is running low.” She requested that Itasca send voice signals so she could take a radio bearing, and the strength of the signal received by the cutter meant that her Electra was very close, yet could not be seen. Earhart’s final transmission indicated that they believed they were near Howland; however, they had likely missed it by as few as five miles. Unable to contact the plane by radio, Itasca sent up smoke signals from the ship’s boilers in hopes that they would be seen, but to no avail. After those few radio calls, Earhart and Noonan were never seen nor heard from again. Search efforts lasted until July 19, and, despite the best efforts of the Coast Guard and Navy, no trace of the pilots or their aircraft was ever found. Some believe that Earhart and Noonan simply ran out of fuel and came down in the Pacific. Another theory is that they landed at Gardner Island, now Nikumaroro, an uninhabited coral atoll in the Phoenix Islands, and were stranded there until they eventually died. Searchers have turned up evidence that they claim are parts of Earhart’s Electra, and even a skeleton and a shoe. But the evidence is circumstantial and the mystery of their disappearance remains unsolved to this day. (Earhart Electra photo via NASA; Earhart and Noonan photo author unknown)
July 4, 1927 – The first flight of the Lockheed Vega. The Wright Brothers made their famous First Flight in 1903, and soon after the airplane became a common sight in the skies over the battlefields of WWI. But it was during the period between WWI and WWII that aviation moved from the purview of the military into the civilian world, and aviation reached its Golden Age in the 1920s and 1930s. Barnstorming pilots crisscrossed the countryside offering rides and flying demonstrations, air races pushed technological advances in speed and handling, and daring aviators assaulted the record books, each trying to set the next mark in distance, speed or altitude. The fabric-covered biplane gave way to the all-metal monoplane, and many great—and some not-so-great—airplanes came out of this era. But one aircraft in particular, the Lockheed Vega, became an icon of the Golden Age, a rugged airplane with long range that was the preferred aircraft for some of the age’s best known aviators. The Vega was designed by Lockheed’s John K. “Jack” Northrop and Gerard Vultee, both of whom would go on to start their own successful aircraft companies in later years. At first, the Vega was designed as a four-seat airliner intended for service on Lockheed’s passenger routes. As paved runways were not as common as they are today, the Vega would need to be rugged enough to operate from grass fields and unimproved airstrips. But Northrop and Vultee also wanted their new aircraft to be fast, and when the Pratt & Whitney R-1340 Wasp radial engine was fitted in the Vega 5 in 1929, it’s maximum speed was an impressive 185 mph. The monocoque fuselage was constructed of laminated plywood shaped in a concrete mold, with each half of the fuselage shaped separately and then assembled over a metal tube frame (as many as 10 later Vegas were built by the Detroit Aircraft Corporation with an all-metal fuselage, though they retained the original wooden wings). In order to maintain the strength and integrity of the fuselage, the cantilever wing was mounted on top of the fuselage rather than passed through it. To improve aerodynamic efficiency, a NACA cowling was placed over the engine and streamlined spats were mounted on the fixed landing gear. The Vega was introduced in 1928, but it proved too small for airline service. However, it soon found a home with private owners, and by the end of the year Lockheed and built 68 of the eventual 132 aircraft they would produce. The Vega soon leapt into the record books when stunt pilot Arthur Goebel set a new coast-to-coast record of 19 hours, completing the first nonstop west to east flight in the process. The following year, Vega pilots won every speed award in the National Air Races in Cleveland. In 1932, Amelia Earhart made her historic solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in a Vega 5b that had been modified by Fokker Aircraft Corporation of America by increasing the fuel capacity to 420 gallons. But there was nobody like Wiley Post when it came to getting the most out of the Vega.
Flying a Vega 5C named Winnie Mae, Post won the National Air Race Derby in 1930, flying from Los Angeles to Chicago in 9 hours 8 minutes 2 seconds, setting a record that Post trumpeted by having it painted on the side of his Vega. The following year, Post and co-pilot Harold Gatty established the first record for circumnavigating the globe in a fixed-wing aircraft when they departed Roosevelt Field in New York in Winnie Mae and returned in 8 days after traveling 15,474 miles. Then, in 1933, Post beat his own record, making the global flight alone in 7 days. But Post and his Vega weren’t done. In 1934, Post began work on developing the world’s first practical pressure suit for pilots. In September 1934, Post flew Winnie Mae to 40,000 feet, then 50,000 feet, and discovered the existence of the jet stream as an added bonus. Like so many great aircraft, technological advances soon surpassed the Vega, and only a handful remain in museums (the National Air and Space Museum is home to Winnie Mae), and as of 2014, only one Vega remains airworthy, though another is currently undergoing restoration. (Photo by Bill Larkins via Wikimedia Commons; photo via Smithsonian Institution)
July 1, 1976 – The National Air and Space Museum opens in Washington, DC. Part of the Smithsonian Institution, the NASM holds the largest collection of historic aircraft and spacecraft in the world and, with 6.7 million visitors in 2014, it is the 5th most-visited museum in the world. The museum was originally established in 1946 as the National Air Museum, and today it displays some of the most important aircraft in the history of aviation, including the Wright Flyer, the Spirit of St. Louis, the Bell X-1, and the North American X-15, as well as spacecraft such as the Friendship 7 capsule and the Apollo 11 command module. In addition to its collection in Washington, DC, the NASM operates the Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration and Storage Facility in Maryland, as well as the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport that houses pieces of the museums’s vast collection that do not fit in the building on the Washington Mall. (Photo by the author)
July 1, 1933 – The first flight of the Douglas DC-1, the first model of the DC (Douglas Commercial) airliner series that found its greatest success with the DC-3. Development of the DC-1 began in 1931 after the crash of a Fokker F.10 trimotor that suffered a structural failure that was traced to its wooden wings. With Boeing selling its successful Model 247 to United, TWA approached Douglas to build an all-metal airliner for them. Though only one DC-1 was built, rigorous testing showed it to be significantly superior to the aircraft it was meant to replace, and it formed the basis for the improved DC-2, which entered service in 1934 with TWA and saw nearly 200 built. (Photo via San Diego Air and Space Museum)
July 1, 1912 – The death of Harriet Quimby. Born on May 11, 1875, Quimby became the first woman to earn a pilot’s license in the United States in 1911, and her exploits were an inspiration to many women of her day who railed against male-dominated society. Quimby was hired as a spokesperson by the Vin Fiz Company and became the first woman to fly across the English Channel in 1912, a feat that was unfortunately overshadowed by news of the sinking of the Titanic just one day later. Quimby was killed during a flight when, for unknown reasons, her Blériot XI monoplane suddenly pitched forward, ejecting both her and her passenger at an altitude of 1,500 feet. Ironically, the plane came to earth relatively undamaged. (Library of Congress photo)
July 1, 1903 – The birth of Amy Johnson (CBE). Johnson was a pioneering British aviatrix and the first female pilot to fly alone from England to Australia, making the 11,000-mile flight in a de Havilland DH.60 Gipsy Moth named Jason. In 1931, she made another historic flight from London to Moscow with copilot Jack Humphreys in a record time of 21 hours, and made other record-setting flights from England to India and from England to South Africa. During WWII, Johnson served as a pilot for the Air Transport Auxiliary, and died on January 5, 1941 after bailing out of her Airspeed Oxford over the Thames Estuary when the aircraft ran out of fuel. The crew of the HMS Haslemere witnessed the bailout, but she was killed by the ship’s propellers during the rescue attempt. (Johnson photo via British government; photo of Johnson in India by Dabbler via Wikimedia Commons)
July 2, 1959 – The first flight of the Kaman SH-2 Seasprite, an all-weather, high-speed helicopter designed to fulfill the role of anti-submarine warfare, search and rescue, light cargo transport and liaison. In a design departure for Kaman, which was best known for their dual, intermeshing rotor designs that eliminate the need for a tail rotor, the original Seasprite was powered by a single General Electric T58 turboshaft engine with an anti-torque rotor at the tail. After entering service in 1962, the Seasprite was found to be underpowered, so Kaman added a second turboshaft engine, with both engines housed in external pods. Nearly 200 Seasprites were produced, and they served primarily with the US Navy and the Royal New Zealand Air Force before being retired by the US Navy in 1993. (US Navy photo)
July 2, 1943 – Lt. Charles Hall becomes the first African-American pilot to shoot down a German plane. A native of Brazil, Indiana, Hall flew with the 99th Pursuit Squadron and was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen. Following the deployment of his unit in support of the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943, Hall’s squadron was tasked with escorting a flight of Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers in an attack on Castelvetrano in southwestern Sicily. When the flight was attacked by Focke-Wulf Fw 190s, Hall turned his Curtiss P-40 Warhawk to intercept them and downed one, the first of three victories he would score in service with the 99th. After returning to the US, Hall reached the rank of major in the US Air Force before his retirement in 1967. Hall died in 1971. (Photo author unknown)
July 2, 1900 – Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin flies the first rigid airship. Perhaps inspired by his time in the US during the Civil War observing the balloon camp of Thaddeus Lowe, Zeppelin first expressed his ideas about building rigid airships in 1874. After a stint in the military, he devoted all his time to their development. Zeppelin built and flew the first rigid airship, LZ 1, from a floating hangar on Lake Constance in southern Germany. Constructed using a cylindrical metal framework covered with cotton cloth and lifted by 17 gas cells made from rubberized cotton, the LZ 1 was small by later standards, and carried just five passengers. The first of three flights covered a distance of 3.7 miles in 17 minutes before a malfunction led to a forced landing. But Zeppelin started a revolution of airship design, and by 1914, his airships had transported over 37,000 passengers on over 1,600 flights without incident.(Zeppelin photo via Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin; LZ 1 photo via US Library of Congress)
July 3, 1988 – The US Navy cruiser USS Vincennes shoots down Iran Air Flight 655 over the Persian Gulf. While operating in the Persian Gulf to protect civilian shipping during the Iran-Iraq War, the US Navy Ticonderoga-class cruiser USS Vincennes (CG-49) detected an Iran Air Airbus A300 (EP-IBU), operating in Iranian territory on a scheduled route and issuing squawks that identified it as a civilian aircraft. Believing it instead to be an Iranian Grumman F-14 Tomcat on an attack mission, Vincennes shot down the airliner with two missiles, killing all 290 passengers and crew. The US never officially apologized for the incident, though it did formally express regret and paid $62 million dollars to the families of the victims. In 1989, a pipe bomb detonated in a van driven by the wife of Captain William Rogers III, the commanding officer of Vincennes at the time of the attack, though no evidence was ever found to determine that the act was in retaliation for Iran Air incident. Rogers’ wife was unhurt. (Photo by Khashayar Talebzadeh via Wikimedia Commons)
July 3, 1973 – The death of Laurens Hammond. Born on January 11, 1895, and best known for his invention of the Hammond Organ, the Hammond electric clock, and the Novachord, the world’s first polyphonic music synthesizer, Hammond nevertheless holds an important place in aviation history. Following service in WWI as an engineer, Hammond again served his country as an inventor during WWII by developing bomb and missile guidance systems. He was awarded patents for infrared and light-sensing bomb guidance systems, developed a new gyroscope that was less sensitive to the cold of high altitude, as well as controls for a gliding bomb, the forerunner of our modern guided missile. (Photo author unknown)
July 3, 1948 – The first flight of the North American AJ (A-2) Savage, a large hybrid-powered nuclear bomber designed to operate from US Navy carriers. The Savage was the heaviest carrier aircraft ever put in service at the time. It was powered by two Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp radial engines and one Allison J33 turbojet in the rear, though the turbojet was only intended for use during takeoff and high-speed attack runs. The Savage entered service in 1950, but it was cumbersome to operate onboard the carriers. The size of the aircraft hampered deck operations, and folding the wings one at a time by hydraulic pump was a slow process. The Savage also served as an aerial tanker and reconnaissance aircraft, and a few were pressed into aerial firefighting duties. 140 were built, and the A-2 was retired in 1960. The sole remaining example is on display at the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Florida. (US Navy photo)
July 3, 1937 – The first flight of the Dornier Do 24, a three-engine German flying boat built by Dornier Flugzeugwerke for maritime patrol and search and rescue. Dornier developed the Do 24 to meet a requirement from the Dutch navy to replace the Dornier Do J Wal (Whale) that had been introduced in the same role in 1923 for service in the Dutch East Indies. The all-metal, parasol wing Do 24 entered service in November 1937. According to Dornier records, the Do 24 was credited with as many as 12,000 rescues during its time in service, and was also used used as a maritime attack aircraft and was responsible for the sinking of the Japanese destroyer Shinonome on December 17, 1941. A total of 279 were produced between 1937-1945, and one remains airworthy today, with its radial engines replaced by modern turboprops. (Photo via UK government)
July 3, 1886 – The birth of Giovanni Battista Caproni, an Italian aeronautical, civil and electrical engineer who was known for his design of aircraft and the creation of the airplane manufacturing company in 1908 that bears his name. Starting out with the construction of aircraft engines, Caproni moved on to the production of biplanes, and was an early proponent of passenger aircraft such as the Caproni Ca.48 triplane airliner. During WWII, Caproni was a major manufacturer of large aircraft for the Italian Royal Air Force (Regia Aeronautica), and also developed the Caproni Campini N.1, an experimental jet predecessor that was powered by a motorjet, a precursor to modern jet engines. Caproni died in 1957 at age 71. (Photo author unknown)
July 4, 2005 – The NASA space probe Deep Impact successfully impacts comet Tempel 1. Deep Impact was launched on January 12, 2005 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and was designed to investigate the interior composition of comet Tempel 1. After rendezvousing with the comet, the spacecraft released an impactor that collided with the comet’s nucleus, excavating debris from the interior of the comet and forming a crater, becoming the first probe to eject material from a comet’s surface for study. After completion of the mission, the spacecraft flew by Earth on December 31, 2007 on its way to study extrasolar planets, as well as comet Hartley 2. (NASA illustration and photo)
July 4, 2002 – The death of Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., the commander of the Tuskegee Airmen in WWII and the first African-American general officer in the US Air Force. Davis was born in Washington, DC on December 18, 1912 into a military family, his father achieving the rank of brigadier general in the US Army. The younger Davis graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1936, but was denied entry to the Army Air Corps at a time when they did not accept blacks for flight service. Davis was then assigned to the first training class at Tuskegee University, and was deployed to the Mediterranean in support of the invasion of Sicily. Following the war, Davis rose through the Air Force, eventually gaining the rank of four-star General in 1998. (Photo author unknown)
July 4, 1997 – Mars Pathfinder lands on Mars. After landing on Mars, Pathfinder deployed a roving probe named Sojourner, the first rover to operate outside of the Earth-Moon system. Pathfinder was launched from Cape Canaveral on December 4, 1996 and bounced to a landing on what is now called the Carl Sagan Memorial Station. Pathfinder was the first in a series of rover missions to the Red Planet, and the first successful lander since two Viking landers arrived on the Martian surface in 1976. Developed as part of NASA’s “faster, better and cheaper” initiative, the solar-powered rover carried out experiments on the Martian soil and took photographs of its surroundings before contact was lost two months after landing. (NASA photo)
July 4, 1986 – The first flight of the Dassault Rafale, a fourth generation multi-role fighter developed in the mid-1970s to replace and consolidate aircraft and missions of the French Air Force and Navy. Development began with the Rafale A technology demonstrator, a delta-wing aircraft that featured forward canards to increase maneuverability. Development lead to the Rafale C, which was both smaller and stealthier than its predecessor, and utilized a redesigned vertical stabilizer, radar-absorbent materials, and increased use of composite materials. Production began in 1982, and more than 133 of both the one- and two-seat variants have been produced to date. The Rafale entered service in May of 2001. (Photo by Tim Felce via Wikimedia Commons)
July 4, 1975 – The first flight of the Boeing 747SP, the smallest and fastest variant of the Boeing 747. Development was initiated by a request from Pan Am for an airliner capable of carrying passengers from New York to Tokyo, its longest route at the time. Originally designated SB for Short Body, the name was changed to SP for Special Performance, and the airliner was created by shortening the fuselage, increasing the size of the horizontal stabilizer and simplifying the wing’s trailing edge flaps. When the SP entered service, it was the longest-range airliner available until the introduction of the 747-400 in 1989, but Boeing received few orders and only 45 SPs were produced. As of December 2016, 10 SPs remain flying, and NASA also operates one SP to carry the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), with a large opening in the side of the aircraft for a reflecting telescope. (Photo by Konstantin von Wedelstaedt via Wikimedia Commons)
July 4, 1957 – The first flight of the Ilyushin Il-18, a four-engine turboprop airliner that proved to be one of the most successful Soviet airliners of its era. Like many Russian designs, the Il-18 was durable and rugged, with many airframes achieving over 45,000 flight hours. The Il-18 entered service in 1958, and it set 25 world records for range and altitude, earning the Brussels World Fair Grand Prix in 1958. The Il-18 was widely exported, and also served as a military transport and cargo aircraft. Just under 700 were produced from 1957-1985, and though it was superseded by the Ilyushin Il-62 jetliner, the Il-18 remains in limited civilian and military service. (Photo by Sergey Riabsev via Wikimedia Commons)
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