Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from July 8 through July 11.
July 8, 2011 – The launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis on STS-135, the final flight of the Space Shuttle program. Before the Space Shuttle Columbia took its first flight on April 12, 1981, going into space had been the work of expendable spacecraft. Multi-stage rockets were left behind in orbit after their fuel was spent, or burned up re-entering the atmosphere, and the relatively tiny capsules that held the astronauts were so heavily damaged by the friction and heat of re-entry that they could not be used again. Not only was this a wasteful way to get into space, it was also terribly expensive, since every component of the spacecraft had to be built from scratch for every launch. Though we think of the Space Shuttle as a product of the 1980s, NASA had already begun the process of developing a reusable spacecraft in 1969, the year that Neil Armstrong took his “one small step” on the Moon. They hoped that such a spacecraft could function essentially as a “space truck” and haul payloads into space relatively cheaply. The Space Shuttle Program got its official start in 1972 with an announcement by President Richard M. Nixon that NASA would develop what would later come to be called a Space Transport System (hence, all Shuttle missions were given the prefix “STS”). They considered many different concepts for the launch system and orbiter, and debated over just how much of the system would be reused. Engineers considered 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. They considered placing the Shuttle directly on top of an expendable launch rocket. Ultimately, NASA settled on a design where the orbiter sat atop a huge fuel tank, which would not be reused, and was lifted into space by a pair of solid rocket boosters that would be retrieved from the ocean and used again. At the start of the program, the goals for the Shuttle were quite ambitious, with NASA hoping to preform as many as one launch per week. But by the time the Shuttle was ready for launch, the realities of the complex system and Congressional funding meant that the Shuttle never became the flying truck that NASA originally envisioned, though it did become NASA’s orbital workhorse during its thirty years of service. NASA built six Shuttles (the first, Enterprise, never went to space and was used for testing), and they carried out hundreds of science experiments in the reusable Spacelab module carried in the Shuttle’s cargo bay. Shuttles were instrumental in the construction of the International Space Station (ISS), rotated crews between Earth and the Russian Mir space station and the ISS, and placed the Hubble Space Telescope, along with many satellites, into both low and high Earth orbit. They also carried classified Department of Defense payloads into space.
STS-135 was the 135th and final mission of the Shuttle program. Atlantis lifted off from Kennedy Space Center and docked with the ISS on July 10. The mission was originally not scheduled to be flown due to a lack of funding, but NASA administrators stated the need to deliver materials to the ISS in light of delays in commercial rocket development, and Congress eventually provided funding for the mission. The crew of four astronauts was the smallest since STS-6 in 1983, a necessity since there were no Shuttles available for a rescue mission should the need arise. If Atlantis were damaged during launch, the crew would have to stay at the ISS and return to Earth on regularly scheduled Soyuz capsules, a process that would have taken a year. With the end of the Shuttle Program, resupply missions to the ISS have been taken over by commercial space interests as part of NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services program. All crews will have to fly on Russian spacecraft until the completion of the Commercial Crew Development program to build a spacecraft capable of transporting crews into low Earth orbit, while NASA continues work on the Space Launch System and the Orion spacecraft for manned missions at greater distances, with a possible return to the Moon. The remaining Space Shuttles were distributed to museums and display sites around the country, and Atlantis is on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. (NASA photos)
July 8, 1947 – The first flight of the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser. When the passenger airliner entered service before WWII, it was a relatively small aircraft by today’s standards, with room for only 10-15 passengers. But with the coming of WWII, strategic bombing missions called for aircraft that could carry large bomb loads, and development of large piston-powered aircraft reached its zenith by the end of the war. After the war, companies that had produced bombers for the military took their expertise into the civilian sector, and airplanes that had originally been designed for battle formed the basis of a new generation of large passenger airliners. In England, the Avro Lancastrian and Avro York were developed from the Avro Lancaster bomber, and the Avro Lincoln bomber formed the basis for the Avro Tudor. But England wasn’t the only country that took advantage of military aircraft conversions. With the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, the US had produced one of the most technologically advanced bombers in the world. Designed to cross the vast reaches of the Pacific Ocean, the Superfortress had unparalleled range and power, and was already pressurized. With the success of the B-29, Boeing chose it as the basis for a large cargo aircraft, and work on the C-97 Stratofreighter began in 1942. They took the wings and lower fuselage from the Superfortress and added a second, enlarged fuselage tube on top, creating a double-bubble fuselage that had both an upper and lower deck. While double-decker seating wasn’t necessarily an innovation (earlier large flying boats such as the Boeing 314 Clipper had two decks), the 377 was one of the first postwar airliners to feature a lower seating area that accommodated 14 passengers in a lower deck lounge. The upper section was also wider than competing airliners by Douglas, and the supercharged Pratt & Whitney R-4360 Wasp Major engines provided a higher level of pressurization for the cabin passengers, as well as air conditioning.
Pan Am was the launch customer for the 377, ordering 20 Stratocruisers in 1945, and the first passenger-carrying flight took place in April 1949 from San Francisco to Honolulu. The 377 accommodated up to 100 passengers on the upper deck, with an additional 14 in the lower deck lounge. For overnight flights, 28 passengers could be carried in berths that were more reminiscent of railroad sleeping cars than airliners. By the sixth year of operation the 377 had carried over 3 million passengers, completed almost 3,600 transcontinental flights and over 27,000 transatlantic flights. As with other propeller-powered airliners, the 377 was eventually superseded by jet-powered airliners such as the de Havilland Comet and Boeing 707, and its last passenger flight was made in 1954. But the 377 had yet one more conversion to make. Once its airliner days were over, the 377 served as the basis for the line of oversized Aero Spacelines Guppy cargo carriers. (Photo via San Diego Air and Space Museum; Library of Congress photo)
July 10, 1940 – The Battle of Britain begins. WWII in Europe started on September 1, 1939 with the German invasion of Poland, and, by the summer of 1940, the situation was looking decidedly bleak for the British. The British Expeditionary Force fighting in France had been beaten back to Dunkirk, and only through a truly heroic and herculean effort of the Royal Navy and British civilians were the soldiers evacuated from the beaches. Though nearly 240,000 British, French and Belgian troops had been rescued, the Allies were on the run in Europe. On June 22, France officially signed an armistice with Germany, marking the end of the Battle of France. England was now alone to face the Germans in western Europe, and Adolf Hitler turned his sights on the island nation. He knew that as long as England stayed in the war he would not be able to claim complete victory, nor would he be able to turn his armies fully against Russia in the east. What Hitler hoped for was a negotiated peace, but Britain was not interested. Despite the odds, they chose to fight, spurred on by the words of Prime Minister Winston Churchill:
...The Battle of France is over. The battle of Britain is about to begin.... The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world...will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age.... Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”
Unable to negotiate peace, the Germans began planning for the invasion of Britain, known as Unternehmen Seelöwe (Operation Sea Lion). But before such an invasion could take place, the Luftwaffe needed to achieve air superiority over the RAF. Luftwaffe Air Marshal Hermann Göring was certain that his forces could knock the RAF out of the sky while giving the Wehrmacht time to prepare for an invasion. The Battle of Britain began on July 10, 1941 (German historians observe different operational dates), and while the battle came to be symbolized by the indiscriminate bombing of London, the it opened with attacks against British shipping and ports. One month later, on August 13, the Luftwaffe launched Unternehmen Adlerangriff (Operation Eagle Attack), with three German Luftflotten (air fleets) unleashed against British air bases, radar installations and aircraft factories. Against this onslaught of 2,500 fighters and bombers, the RAF had about 600 fighters. But they weren’t just flown by British pilots. There were pilots from New Zealand, Australia, Canada, South Africa, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Belgium, France, Poland and Czechoslovakia, as well as a handful of pilots from neutral America and Ireland. The two main aircraft in the British arsenal were the Hawker Hurricane and the newer Supermarine Spitfire. Generally, the “Spit,” the more agile of the pair, tangled with the fighters, while the heavily armed “Hurries” took on the bombers. Both aircraft were superior to the Heinkel He 111s and Junkers Ju 88s ranging over England. German Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters were every bit the match for the British fighters, but long flights from the European continent left them low on fuel with little time to fight. The British also had the advantage of fighting over their home soil, where pilots could land quickly to re-arm and repair their fighters, and a network of radar stations that warned Fighter Command of attacking waves of German planes.
By early September, Göring and his Luftwaffe were destroying British planes faster than they could be replaced, but when some German bombs accidentally fell on London, the British retaliated by bombing Berlin. An outraged Hitler ordered Göring to shift his attacks from the RAF to London, which proved to be a fateful move. In what was known as The Blitz, German bombers rained their bombs down on British civilians, hoping to break British morale and force the British government to the negotiating table. However, all it did was strengthen British resolve to fight, and give the RAF the breathing room it so desperately needed to rest their pilots, rebuild their bases and replace their losses in planes and pilots. In what proved to be a stunning tactical blunder, the Blitz raids only continued to deplete the Luftwaffe while bringing them no closer to eliminating the RAF. As a result, Hitler pushed back the launch date for Operation Sea Lion, and eventually abandoned it altogether. In a speech to Parliament on August 20, 1940, as the battle was drawing to a close, Winston Churchill praised the RAF for their effort and sacrifice to protect their homeland:
The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the World War..... Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.
When the Battle of Britain drew to a close on October 31, 1940, the RAF had lost 544 pilots against roughly 2,500 Luftwaffe pilots, and more than 40,000 British civilians had been killed. But England would not face the threat invasion again, and for the RAF, and all the defenders and citizens who withstood the German attack, it was indeed their finest hour. (Top photo via RCAF; second photo author unknown)
July 8, 1999 – The death of Charles “Pete” Conrad, a test pilot, aeronautical engineer, astronaut, and the third man to walk on the Moon. Born on June 1, 1930, Conrad began his astronaut career with NASA as a member of Project Gemini, flying with Gordon Cooper on Gemini 5. Their eight-day mission orbiting the Earth set an endurance record for the the time. Conrad followed that with the flight of Gemini 11 with astronaut Richard Gordon. Conrad went to the Moon as mission commander on Apollo 12, and also commanded Skylab 2, the first manned mission to the Skylab orbital space station. For Skylab 2, which carried out significant repairs to the space station, Conrad was awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor in 1978. (NASA photo)
July 8, 1977 – The death of Katherine Stinson. Born on February 14, 1891, Stinson was the fourth woman in the US to obtain her pilot certificate, soloing at the age of 21 after just four hours of instruction. The following year, she began touring on the exhibition circuit, where she was known as “The Flying Schoolgirl,” and in 1915 she became the first female pilot to perform a loop. In 1917, Stinson set an American record for non-stop flying when she completed a 606 mile flight from San Diego to San Francisco. During WWI, Stinson drove an ambulance in Europe, where she contracted influenza and was forced to give up flying. Her brothers, inspired by her aviation feats, started the Stinson Aircraft Company in 1920. Katherine Stinson was 86 at the time of her death. (US Library of Congress photo)
July 8, 1965 – The death of Paul Mantz. Mantz was best known for his work as both an air racing pilot and movie stunt pilot, and, after a stint as a commercial pilot, he went to work in Hollywood. He worked for Howard Hughes and others, and made his film debut flying a Stearman biplane in the 1932 film Air Mail. During WWII, Mantz served in the First Motion Picture Unit and took up racing after the war, winning the Bendix Trophy in three consecutive years. Returning to his movie career, Mantz was hired to fly the Tallmantz Phoenix P-1, a highly modified aircraft that was meant to represent a jury-built aircraft flown out of the desert by a marooned aircrew in The Flight of the Phoenix. During filming, Mantz carried out a particularly aggressive maneuver and the plane broke apart, killing him. The FAA investigation cited alcohol consumption as a factor in the crash, though others dispute that finding. (Aircraft screenshot from The Flight of the Phoenix; Mantz photo public domain)
July 8, 1948 – The first flight of the Ilyushin Il-28, an early postwar twin-engine bomber produced for the Soviet Air Force and the first jet-powered Soviet bomber to enter large scale production. Ilyushin developed the Il-28 (NATO reporting name Beagle) first using Rolls-Royce Nene turbojet engines purchased from Britain, and then used reverse engineered copies designated the Klimov VK-1. The Il-28 had a top speed of 560 mph, could carry up to 6,600 pounds of bombs. It was also fitted with four cannons, two in the nose and two in the tail for defense. A total of 6,635 were produced, with just under 200 converted to two-seat trainers. The Il-28 was widely exported, and was also built under license in China as the Harbin H-5. The Soviets retired the Il-28 in the 1980s, though some remained in service into the 1990s. (Photo author unknown via Aircraft Information)
July 8, 1947 – The Roswell Daily Record reports that a UFO crash landed near Roswell, New Mexico. The UFO craze grew its roots in rural New Mexico when a farmer near Roswell found pieces of what he believed was an alien spacecraft, and the local newspaper ran a headline announcing the capture of a “flying saucer.” The US military arrived, quickly took the wreckage away, and told local residents that it was debris from a crashed weather balloon, fueling theories of a government cover up. Recently released documents now explain that the debris was actually part of Project Mogul, a balloon that carried secret listening devices to detect Soviet nuclear tests. Other reports that actual aliens had been found in the wreck are most likely due to the discovery of weighted mannequins that were dropped from Air Force planes to test the the effects of high-altitude ejections from aircraft. (Photo by the author)
July 8, 1941 – The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress flies its first combat mission of WWII. The B-17 was the iconic American heavy strategic bomber in the airwar over Europe, but despite its association with the US Army Air Corps (USAAC), the Flying Fortress first flew into battle in the hands of Royal Air Force pilots in 1941. At the start of the war, England had no heavy bomber of its own, so the USAAC provided them with 20 B-17Cs (the RAF designated it the Fortress I), and the bomber saw its first action of the war in an unsuccessful raid against the German port at Wilhelmshaven. The B-17 never really caught on with the RAF, and after losing 8 of their initial fleet, the remaining bombers were shifted to Coastal Command. (US Air Force photo)
July 8, 1838 – The birth of Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin. Count Zeppelin was born in modern-day Baden Würtemberg and served as a general in the army of Würtemberg before turning his interest to aviation. On a trip to the United States, Zeppelin observed the use of observation balloons during the American Civil War, then returned to Europe to develop dirigibles and rigid airships. His first airship, LZ 1, took its maiden flight in July 1900, and he followed it with ever larger airships that were eventually capable of transatlantic flight. Zeppelins were used in combat during WWI, but their heyday ended in 1937 with the crash of the Hindenburg (LZ 129) and the advent of transatlantic airliners. Zeppelin died on March 8, 1917. (Photo via Deutsches Bundesarchiv)
July 9, 1991 – Bombardier-Navigator Lt. Keith Gallagher experiences partial ejection from a US Navy Grumman KA-6D Intruder. While flying from the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72), a malfunction of his ejection seat partially ejected him through the canopy of his Grumman KA-6D Intruder (the aerial tanker version of the Navy attack plane). As the aircraft flew at 264 mph, Gallagher found himself stuck in the broken canopy, his arms flailing in the gale outside the aircraft. His helmet and air mask were ripped off, and he could not breathe because of the wind blasting into his face. Pilot Lt. Mark Baden announced the emergency and was immediately routed back to the carrier, where he landed safely, with Gallagher still sticking out of the cockpit. Miraculously, Gallagher was still alive. He suffered paralysis in half of his right arm, and damage to his left shoulder, as well as significant facial injuries. After six months of recovery, Gallagher returned to service. A full account of the incident can be read here. (US Navy photo)
July 10, 2013 – The Northrop Grumman X-47B unmanned combat air vehicle lands aboard USS George Washington (CVN 73). In 2000, the US Navy committed to the development of an Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) and awarded contracts for demonstrator aircraft to Boeing and Northrop Grumman. Following its first launch from the USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) on May 14, 2013, the X-47B performed the first autonomous touch-and-go landings three days later and the first arrested carrier landing on July 10. The X-47B also demonstrated autonomous aerial refueling in April of 2015. The X-47 program has finished, and the Navy plans to open the competition for a deployable fleet of Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) aircraft in 2016, with regular operations beginning in 2020, though the original mission of long-range stealthy attack and reconnaissance has changed to one of an autonomous refueling aircraft. (US Navy photo)
July 10, 1968 – The first flight of the Mil V-12, a twin-rotor helicopter capable of lifting up to 88,000 pounds and the largest helicopter in the world. After experimenting with a tandem rotor system similar to the Boeing CH-47 Chinook, Mil settled on a transverse system of rotors that eliminated the need for a tail rotor. Power is derived from a pair of Soloviev D-25 turboshaft engines that give the V-12 a top speed of 162 mph. Two aircraft were built, and they set eight world records, four of which still stand today. However, by the time the aircraft was ready for production the Soviet Air Force decided that they no longer needed the gargantuan helicopter and it was never produced in any numbers. (Photo by Groningen Airport-Eelde via Wikimedia Commons)
July 10, 1962 – Launch of Telstar 1. The Space Race between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War began when the Russians launched their Sputnik 1 satellite into Earth orbit on October 4, 1957. The earliest satellites simply relayed electronic signals back to the ground, but Telstar 1 was the first truly utilitarian communications satellite and the first capable of relaying television pictures, telephone calls and fax images. It also transmitted the first live television images across the Atlantic Ocean. Built by a consortium of telecom companies, Telstar 1 was launched from Cape Canaveral atop a Thor-Delta rocket and beamed its first images back to Earth the following day. A total of 18 Telstar satellites were launched by 2004, and the last is expected to function for 13 years. (Illustration via Engineering & Technology Magazine)
July 10, 1942 – The first flight of the Douglas A-26 Invader, a fast, powerful attack aircraft designed as a successor to the Douglas A-20 Havoc and one that was unusual for having a single pilot for a plane of its size. The A-26 was powered by a pair of Pratt & Whitney Double Wasp radial engines, featured an laminar flow wing, and was capable of carrying up to 6,000 pounds of bombs. It was produced in two main versions: one with a plexiglass nose housing a Norden bombsight for traditional bombing missions, and a second with a solid nose armed with up to eight .50 caliber machine guns. Later versions mounted an additional six machine guns in the wings, for a total of 14 forward-firing guns. Delivery of the Invader to the Pacific began in August of 1943, then to Europe the following year, where it fought effectively, flying over 11,000 sorties and dropping over 18,000 tons of bombs. After WWII, the Invader saw service in Korea and Vietnam, plus numerous other Cold War conflicts. Almost 2,500 A-26s were produced, and it served until 1980 with the Colombian Air Force.(US Air Force photo)
July 11, 1979 – Skylab re-enters Earth’s atmosphere. Skylab was an orbiting space station that had been launched by NASA on May 14, 1973. The first manned mission to the station launched on May 25, 1973, and was planned primarily to repair damage suffered during the station’s launch. Two subsequent missions were flown to place crews on the station and to carry out scientific experiments in microgravity. Skylab orbited Earth 2,476 times, and the third mission, Skylab 4, set a new record for time in space when the astronauts remained on board for 84 days. NASA planned to use the Space Shuttle, then under development, to boost Skylab to a higher orbit and keep it functioning, but delays in the Shuttle program made that impossible. When Skylab re-entered the atmosphere, parts of the station landed in the Pacific Ocean and on western Australia, but no injuries were reported from falling debris. (NASA photo)
July 11, 1894 – The birth of Edward “Eddie” Stinson, a pilot and and the founder of an aircraft manufacturing company that bore his name. Stinson was born in Fort Payne, Alabama and learned to fly at the Wright School in Dayton, Ohio. He served as a US Army Air Corps flight instructor during WWI, and later worked as a test pilot for Stout Engineering. In 1925, Stinson teamed with a group of investors to form the Stinson Aircraft Syndicate, which led to the production of a number of successful aircraft designs. Stinson was killed on January 26, 1932 when a flag pole sheared the wing off a prototype Stinson Model R during a landing attempt. At the time of his death, Stinson had logged over 16,000 hours in the air, making him the world’s most experienced pilot. Stinson was just 38 years old at the time of his death. (Stinson photo author unknown; Stinson Model R photo via San Diego Air and Space Musuem)
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