Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from July 12 through July 14.
July 12, 1980 – The first flight of the McDonnell Douglas KC-10 Extender. In the earliest days of aviation up through WWII, flying long distances was limited by the amount of fuel that could be carried on board an aircraft. But attempts at aerial refueling had actually taken place before the war. The very first instance of aerial refueling occurred in the barnstorming era when a stuntman strapped a tank of fuel to his back and climbed from one plane to another. It was effective, though not terribly practical. One of the earliest attempts at a practical system occurred in 1923 when two Airco DH.4 biplanes transferred fuel via a long hose strung from one plane to another. But it wasn’t until 1949 that a truly useful system was devised, and a nonstop around-the-world flight was carried out by a US Air Force Boeing B-50 Superfortress that was refueled in the air three times by bombers that had been converted to KB-50 tankers. Aerial refueling for the Air Force became a standard practice with the arrival of the jet-powered Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker, but even that aircraft didn’t have the truly global range required for Air Force operations the world over, a lesson learned during operations in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. During the procurement process for a new, long-range tanker, the Air Force realized that the best solution might be found by converting existing commercial airliners for use as refueling aircraft, and the Air Force started an evaluation of the Boeing 747, the McDonnell Douglas DC-10, the Lockheed L-1011 and the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy strategic airlifter. After quickly dismissing the two Lockheed aircraft, the Air Force ultimately chose the DC-10, citing its ability to operate from shorter runways as being a principal factor in the selection. Once the DC-10 was chosen, extensive modifications to the airliner were undertaken, though the KC-10 still retains an 88% commonality with its airliner predecessor. Most of the windows were removed, along with the lower cargo doors, and the McDonnell Douglas Advanced Aerial Refueling Boom (AARB) was added to the rear of the aircraft. This flying boom was a significant upgrade to earlier hose systems, as it allowed the refueler, or “boomer,” to control the refueling probe while the receiving aircraft held station below and behind the KC-10. The Extender also retains the probe-and-drogue system used by the US Navy and its NATO allies.
Three bladder-type fuel cells were installed below the main cabin floor and, combined with the KC-10's own fuel stores, it can carry more than 356,000 pounds of fuel, nearly twice the load of the KC-135. The Extender has an operational range of 4,400 miles, and its mission can be extended with its own ability to refuel from another aircraft. In addition to its enormous fuel load, the KC-10's cargo hold can also carry up to 170,000 pounds of cargo or hundreds of troops. The Extender has served mostly in the strategic role, refueling large numbers of aircraft on ferry flights or other strategic transport aircraft, and they have proven critical during long-range missions where countries have prohibited overflying of their sovereign territory. The Netherlands also operates two Extenders, and while there was talk in the US of retiring the fleet, appropriations in 2015 mean that the Extender will keep flying for the foreseeable future. (US Air Force photos)
July 14, 1951 – The first flight of the Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation. The story of aviation is often as much about evolution as revolution. It is relatively common for an aircraft that is designed for a single purpose to be developed to fulfill a different role, or a successful design will receive variants to enhance performance or capacity. Such is the story of the Super Constellation, which began with the first flight of its L-049 Constellation predecessor in 1943. The Constellation, nicknamed “Connie,” and arguably one of the most graceful aircraft ever to take to the skies, started life as a much more plain Jane aircraft, the Lockheed L-044 Excalibur, a run of the mill, four-engine transport that never entered production. In 1939, the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, owner of Transcontinental & Western Airlines (which would become TWA), held a meeting with Jack Frye, the president of T&WA, along with other Lockheed executives. Among those present was Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, who was destined to become one of America’s greatest aviation engineers. Hughes felt that the Excalibur wouldn’t meet his needs, and he wanted something entirely new. So the Lockheed engineers went back to the drawing board, and just three weeks later they presented Hughes with the initial plans for the Connie, now designated L-049. The new airliner, powered by a quartet of Wright R-3350 Duplex-Cyclone radial engines, was the most expensive aircraft produced to date, and Hughes himself funded the purchase of 40 aircraft since T&WA didn’t have the funds to pay for them. The first Connies were pressed into military transport service as the Lockheed C-69, but production turned to the civilian market after WWII and enjoyed a successful airline career with the production of 865 airliners. But as flying became more popular, airlines needed bigger planes. And Lockheed’s competitors were making strides of their own. In 1950, Lockheed’s competitor, Douglas, came out with the DC-6A, a stretched cargo version of its successful airliner, and were soon to launch the passenger version, the DC-6B, which carried 23 more passengers than the Connie. Lockheed had looked into a stretched Constellation, but decided not to build it at the time. Douglas’ move, though, forced their hand. Lockheed repurchased the prototype XC-69 Constellation from Hughes Tool Company and lengthened the fuselage by 18 feet, and the newly christened Super Connie accommodated up to 106 passengers.
Continued development of the Super Connie saw the addition of more powerful Wright R-3350 Duplex Cyclone 18-cyliner engines, and while the L-1049, even with the addition of wingtip fuel tanks, still lacked the range of the DC-6B, it was capable of carrying a larger payload. Other improvements included strengthened wings and increased cabin soundproofing. A total of 259 of the commercial version were built, and the Super Constellation also saw service with the US Air Force, who flew 320 aircraft that were converted to the EC-121 Warning Star electronic surveillance platform. Most of the Super Connies were retired with the advent of jet transports such as the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8, and the last commercial flight of the L-1049 was made by Dominican Airlines in 1993. The last military variant was retired in 1982. (US Air Force photo)
July 12, 1979 – The death of Georgy Mikhailovich Beriev. Beriev was born in on February 13, 1903 in present-day Tbilisi, Georgia. He is best known as the designer of numerous amphibious aircraft, which is understandable following his studies of both shipbuilding and aircraft engineering at the Leningrad Polytechnic Institute. Beriev founded the Beriev Aircraft Company in 1934, and specialized in the development and production of amphibious aircraft, winning the Stalin Prize for development of the Beriev Be-6, which was designed for maritime patrol and attack. While most designers stopped making amphibious aircraft with the transition to jet engines, Beriev developed a number of innovative jet-powered amphibians, including the Be-40 Albatros and Be-200 Altair, and pilots flying his seaplanes have set 228 aviation world records for the type. (Beriev photo via Ossetians.com; Be-200 photo by Aleksandr Markin via Wikimedia Commons)
July 12, 1966 – The first flight of the Northrop M2-F2, the second of three NASA designs to investigate the feasibility of an aircraft with no wings. Without wings, the shape of the aircraft itself, called a lifting body, provides the lift. It was thought that by eliminating conventional wings it would also eliminate the drag that comes with them. During the 1960s and 1970s, lifting bodies were a primary area of research into their use as small manned spacecraft. Eventually, the Air Force lost interest in the project, and NASA turned its efforts to the Space Shuttle. The M2-F2 was a development of the earlier M2-F1, and sixteen unpowered glide tests were carried out before the aircraft was modified into the M2-F3 which was capable of supersonic flight. (NASA photo)
July 12, 1957 – President Dwight Eisenhower becomes the first US president to fly in a helicopter. Today, flying in a helicopter is a routine practice for the US president. But in 1957, helicopters were still relatively new and not deemed safe enough for presidential travel. With Cold War concerns over the ability to evacuate the president from the White House by road, the Secret Service deemed the helicopter to be the best solution. President Eisenhower made the first presidential flight in a US Air Force Bell 47J Ranger from the White House to the presidential retreat at Camp David. Today, transporting the president by helicopter is an everyday occurrence, and it is now the responsibility of US Marine Corps helicopter squadron HMX-1. (National Air & Space Museum photo)
July 12, 1929 – The first flight of the Dornier Do X, a huge, 12-engine flying boat built by Claude Dornier and the largest, heaviest, and most powerful flying boat in the world at the time. In order to circumvent the restrictions of the Treaty of Versailles, the Do X was built in Switzerland. It was powered by twelve Curtiss V-1570 Conqueror V-12 engines in a combined push-pull configuration, and had a top speed of 131 mph. The Do X could accommodate up to 100 passengers, and set a world record for its day when it carried 169 passengers and crew, a record that stood for 20 years. However, Dornier had trouble finding customers for his giant flying boat, and only three were ever built. (Deutsches Bundesarchiv photo)
July 12, 1921 – The death of Harry George Hawker, an Australian aviation pioneer, chief test pilot for Sopwith during WWI, and founder of Hawker Aircraft. Born on January 22, 1889, Hawker began his career as an auto mechanic in England before starting work with Sopwith, where he convinced them to teach him to fly, and he soloed after just three lessons. Following the liquidation of Sopwith Aircraft in 1920, Hawker teamed with Thomas Sopwith to start a new company, H.G. Hawker Engineering. Harry Hawker died in the crash of his Nieuport Nighthawk, but his company continued. Through a series of acquisitions and mergers it became Hawker Siddeley, though it continued to make aircraft with the Hawker name. These included some of the most important and iconic aircraft of WWII, particularly the Hurricane and Typhoon.(Photo from the George Grantham Bain Collection via Wikimedia Commons)
July 12, 1910 – The death of Charles Stewart Rolls. Charles Rolls is best known to aviation and automotive history as one half of the famed Rolls-Royce Limited manufacturing company, which he formed with Henry Royce in 1906. But Rolls, born on August 27, 1877, was also a pioneering aviator, first in ballooning then in airplanes, following his purchase of a Wright Flyer Model A in 1909. While not the first to cross the English Channel, Rolls was the first to make the crossing and then return immediately, thus also becoming the first to cross the Channel flying eastward. Sadly, Rolls would achieve another, more infamous first, when he became the first Briton to die in an airplane accident following the crash of his Wright Flyer in 1910. (Rolls photo author unknown; Wright Flyer photo via US Army)
July 12, 1882 – The birth of Charles Voisin, an early French pioneer of aviation who started his own aircraft manufacturing company with his brother Gabriel called Appareils d’Aviation Les Frères Voisin. The Voisin brothers built airplanes to order for wealthy customers, and used these aircraft to further their understanding of controlled flight. Their 1907 biplane, flown by Henri Farman, made the first heavier-than-air flight in Europe of more than one minute, and that aircraft, known as the Voisin-Farman 1, formed the basis of their fledgling company. Charles was killed in an automobile accident on September 26, 1912, but the company continued under his brother’s leadership, producing aircraft for the French during WWI. (Photos via US Library of Congress)
July 13, 1982 – The death of LCDR Barbara Allen Rainey. Born on August 20, 1948, Rainey was the first female aviator in the history of the US military, receiving her Wings of Gold as a Naval Aviator in 1974. She was also the first woman qualified as a military jet pilot. After retiring from active duty, Rainey joined the Naval Reserves, but returned to active duty as an instructor flying the Beechcraft T-34 Mentor. She and a student were killed in a training crash while practicing touch-and-go landings. Due to the extensive damage to the aircraft, the cause of the crash could not be determined. Rainey was 33 years old. (Photo author unknown)
July 13, 1915 – The birth of David Lee “Tex” Hill, an American pilot who fought in WWII for Nationalist China as part of the American Volunteer Group, better known as the Flying Tigers. Hill earned his wings with the US Navy in 1930, but was recruited in 1941 to join the AVG under the command of Claire Chennault. After the deactivation of the Flying Tigers in 1942, Hill continued serving with the US Army Air Forces fighting in the Pacific, later commanding the 412th Fighter Group and flying the Air Force’s early jet fighters. After retiring from active duty, Hill served with the Texas Air National Guard and fought in the Korean War, retiring at the rank of Brigadier General. Hill died on October 11, 2007 at the age of 92. (US Army photo)
July 14, 1971 – The first flight of the VFW-Fokker 614, a twin-engined medium-range jetliner designed and built in West Germany as a replacement for the Douglas DC-3 and notable for the placement of its two engines in pods above the wings. The location of the two Rolls-Royce/SNECMA M45H turbofan engines avoided the added structural weight of attaching them to the rear fuselage, and also helped eliminate the possibility of ingestion of debris common in underwing mountings. Due to cost and development delays, only a handful were produced before the project was canceled in 1977. Unfinished aircraft were broken up, and the remainder were bought back by the manufacturer. (Photo by Pedro Aragão via Wikimedia Commons)
July 14, 1965 – Mariner 4 flies past Mars. Mariner 4 was part of NASA’s Mariner program that explored planets in the Solar System by flying by and returning photographs and making scientific observations. Mariner 4 was launched from Cape Canaveral on November 28, 1964 and, after its arrival at Mars, it sent back the first images ever returned from deep space. The views of a cratered, seemingly lifeless world changed many scientific opinions previously held about the Red Planet. Mariner 4 collected data for two days as it flew past Mars, and remains in its heliocentric orbit following termination of communications on December 21, 1967. (NASA photo)
July 14, 1948 – The first flight of the Supermarine Seagull, an amphibious air-sea rescue and maritime reconnaissance aircraft and the last propeller plane built by the famed Supermarine company. As its name suggests, Supermarine got its start making floatplanes, and became famous in the late-1920s and early-1930s winning the Schneider Trophy seaplane races in 1927, 1929 and 1931. Supermarine’s first landplane was the remarkable Spitfire, and they also produced the Royal Navy’s first jet fighter, the Attacker, and followed that with the more advanced Swift and Scimitar. Work on the Rolls-Royce Griffon-powered Seagull began late in WWII to develop a catapult-launched amphibian to replace the Supermarine Walrus and Sea Otter. However, by 1950, when the Seagull was to have entered service, its role had been taken over by helicopters and only two prototypes were built. Supermarine was incorporated into the British Aircraft Corporation in 1960. (UK Government photo)
July 14, 1936 – The first flight of the Kawanishi H6K, a maritime patrol flying boat built for the Japanese Navy. Influenced by the work of the Short Brothers in Ireland and the earlier Kawanishi H3K, itself a license-built and enlarged version of the Short Rangoon, the H6K entered service in 1938 and saw service in the Second Sino-Japanese War and WWII. Though vulnerable to modern fighters in use by the Allies during WWII, the H6K remained in service until the Japanese surrender in 1945, though it was eventually replaced in front line service by the more modern Kawanishi H8K. A total of 215 were produced. (Photo author unknown)
July 14, 1933 – Wiley Post departs on the first solo circumnavigation of the globe. Post had previously made a trip around the world in 1931 with navigator Harold Gatty, finishing the trip in 8 days and beating the previous record of 21 days held by the airship Graf Zeppelin (LZ 127). For his second flight, Post set off alone from Floyd Bennett Field, again in his Lockheed Vega Winnie Mae and, using an autopilot and compass in place of a navigator, completed the journey in just over 7 days, breaking his own record. Post was greeted in New York by a throng of 50,000 people, and his Winnie Mae now resides in the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in northern Virginia. (Photo by Rudy Arnold)
Recent Aviation History Posts
If you enjoy these Aviation History posts, please let me know in the comments. And if you missed any of the past articles, you can find them all at Planelopnik History. You can also find more stories about aviation and aviators at Wingspan and Planes You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of.