Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from October 1 through October 4.
October 1, 1990 – The death of Curtis LeMay. During the Second World War, strategic bombing became one of the most powerful elements of modern warfare, and one man would take the lead in shaping the bombing program for the US, molding it into one of the most powerful—and perhaps controversial—forces in the world. Born in Columbus, Ohio in 1906, Curtis LeMay earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Ohio State University before receiving a commission in the US Army Air Corps (USAAC) in 1930, where he flew pursuit fighters, specialized in navigation, and flew as a navigator aboard the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. When WWII started, LeMay’s reputation for discipline and perfection saw him rise quickly through the ranks of the USAAC. He began as the commander of a squadron of B-17s based in England, where he helped to develop the combat box formation that would become standard practice for American bombing missions. Later, as the commander of a squadron of Consolidated B-24 Liberators, he personally led many dangerous missions, and threatened crews with court-martial if they failed to reach the target. His insistence on discipline and doing things his way earned him nicknames like “Old Iron Pants” and the “Big Cigar.” By 1944, LeMay was transferred to the Pacific Theater, where he found the bombing tactics that were used in Europe unsuitable for the war against Japan, where war industries were decentralized and spread among the civilian population. To address the poor success rate of high-altitude bombing, LeMay had his crews switch to low level, nighttime incendiary attacks against the Japanese homeland, where many of the cities were largely constructed of wood. These fire raids caused the deaths of an estimated 500,000 Japanese civilians, and led to vicious reprisals against American POWs. But, despite the high civilian casualties, LeMay remained dedicated to his methods, believing that if his tactics could shorten the war by one day it would be worth it. The attacks continued until the Japanese surrender in 1945. In 1948, with Berlin under a Russian blockade, LeMay took over and reorganized the Berlin Airlift which, at its peak, brought in 5,000 tons of supplies on 500 flights a day, with one cargo aircraft landing every minute. By the end of the Airlift in 1949, 213,000 flights had brought in 1.7 million tons of supplies, and the Russians lifted their blockade. Also in 1948, LeMay took over the nascent Strategic Air Command (SAC), molding it into an effective tool for the nuclear age and projecting American power around the globe with high-flying strategic bombers such as the Convair B-36 Peacemaker, Boeing B-47 Stratojet, and Boeing B-52 Stratofortress. LeMay served as the US Air Force Chief of Staff from 1961 until his retirement in 1965, and was George Wallace’s running mate for Wallace’s unsuccessful presidential bid in 1968. In addition to his Air Force service, LeMay was also a sports car owner and racing enthusiast, and he allowed the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) to use SAC facilities to hold their races. For his support of the SCCA, LeMay was inducted into the SCCA Hall of Fame in 2007. LeMay died of a heart attack at March Air Force Base, and is buried at the US Air Force Academy Cemetery in Colorado Springs, Colorado. (US Air Force photos)
October 1, 1942 – The first flight of the Bell XP-59 Airacomet. American efforts to produce their own jet-powered fighter early in WWII were shrouded in secrecy, so much so that there are actually two aircraft that bore the “XP-59” name. The first was a twin boom, pusher-propeller fighter developed by Bell Aircraft which was given the designation XP-59. This aircraft was under development at the time that the US received jet engine technology from the British and, while the XP-59 was never slated for production, it provided a useful cover for the development of America’s first jet fighter. American jet engine technology was far behind Germany and Britain. Germany had flown the first jet-powered aircraft, the Heinkel He 178, in the summer of 1939, even before the war had begun, and Britain had flown their first jet aircraft, the Gloster E.28/39 in 1941. As part of an agreement between the US and Britian to share British technology in exchange for American help manufacturing military hardware, the US obtained plans for the Power Jets W.1 turbojet engine, and a complete engine was flown back to the US in the bomb bay of a Consolidated B-24 Liberator. The plans were given to General Electric to manufacture the Frank Whittle-designed engine under license as the General Electric I-A. The US Army Air Corps then approached Larry Bell, head of Bell Aircraft, to design a fighter around the new powerplant. The project was given the designation P-59A to give observers the idea that the aircraft was merely a development of the canceled XP-59, and the ruse was further perpetuated when, during ground movements of the first aircraft at Muroc Army Air Field (Edwards Air Force Base today), a wooden propeller was affixed to the nose and shrouds were placed over the engine nacelles to hide the true nature of the aircraft’s power plant.
Bell finalized his design for the Airacomet in January 1942, and even before the first prototype was flown, an order was placed for 13 aircraft. Unlike the Gloster Meteor and the Messerschmitt Me 262, both of which had their two engines housed in wing-mounted pods, the Airacomet had its engines and intake nacelles integrated into the fuselage, a design that would heavily influence future jet aircraft design. The Airacomet’s first flight was actually unintended, as Bell test pilot Robert Stanley unintentionally lifted off the ground during high-speed taxi tests, and the official maiden flight was made on October 2. The Airacomet generally performed well, though it showed a tendency to yaw from side to side and was deemed unsuitable as a fighter. With a top speed of 404 mph, it was no great leap forward from contemporary propeller fighters and, even when the P-59B was given an upgraded engine, it’s top speed only just equaled that of the North American P-51 Mustang. A further development of the Airacomet, with a single engine, was considered, but that project was eventually handed off to Lockheed, where Kelly Johnson developed it into the P-80 Shooting Star, the first jet fighter to be flown operationally by the US. A total of 66 Airacomets were produced and, while the aircraft saw limited service, it still proved useful for training the first generation of jet fighter pilots and mechanics, who used the P-59 to learn the characteristics of jet aviation and maintenance before transitioning to more modern aircraft. (US Air Force photos)
October 4, 1957 – The launch of Sputnik 1. The eighteenth-month period from July 1, 1957 to December 31, 1958 was celebrated as the International Geophysical Year (IGY). Sixty-seven countries (but not China, who was protesting the inclusion of Taiwan and refused to participate) tried to transcend the divides of the Cold War and come together on scientific projects covering eleven Earth sciences, including ionospheric physics and other investigations into the near space around our planet. But since this was still the Cold War, the Soviet Union saw the IGY as the perfect opportunity to make a propaganda statement by launching the world’s first artificial satellite into space, Sputnik 1 (Sputnik simply means satellite). For a generation brought up on stories of space adventure and the wonders of science fiction, this was science reality, and the American public was shocked that the Russians had beaten the US into space. Sputnik 1 was launched into orbit from the modern-day Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan atop the Sputnik rocket, which was derived from the R-7 Semyorka, the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The satellite itself was about 24 inches in diameter and trailed four antennas, whose placement equally around the satellite meant that it could transmit to Earth from any position in its rotation. As Sputnik 1 circled the Earth, it emitted radio pulses that could be tracked by amateur radio operators on the ground, a constant reminder that the Russians were directly overhead. Sputnik 1 could also be seen from the Earth, and those who turned their binoculars and telescopes skyward could watch the Russian satellite pass overhead. In addition to the obvious propaganda coup that Sputnik provided the Russians, the satellite also performed some useful scientific experiments. As the satellite moved through the upper atmosphere, the drag it experienced helped to ascertain the density of the upper atmosphere, and the radio signals sent back to Earth provided useful information about the ionosphere. The radio signals lasted for 21 days before the three silver-zinc batteries ran out, and Sputnik 1 burned up on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere on January 4, 1958, just three days after the US launched their own satellite, Explorer 1. However, the Americans only managed a third place finish in the first heat of the Space Race, as the Russians had launched Sputnik 2 in November of 1957. Despite the intention of the IGY to bring nations together, the launch of Sputnik 1 also marked the beginning of the Space Race, an entirely new competition between East and West, with America seemingly always one step behind. It was not until the Apollo program put a man on the Moon that the Americans gained the upper hand. But the Russians would shrug and say they never wanted to go to the Moon anyway, though they tried, and instead focused their efforts on long endurance missions in orbiting space stations. (NASA Photo)
October 1, 1975 – The first flight of the Bell YAH-63, the unsuccessful entrant into the US Army’s Advanced Attack Helicopter (AAH) competition announced in 1972. Bell’s entry lost to the Hughes YAH-64, which would enter production in 1983 as the AH-64 Apache (now produced by Boeing). The Army cited Bell’s two rotor blades as being more vulnerable to ground fire than the Apache’s four, and felt the tricycle landing gear was less stable. Bell would use the lessons learned with the YAH-63 to help develop the AH-1 Super Cobra, an upgraded version of the earlier AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter. (Photo author unknown)
October 1, 1958 – The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) becomes operational. NASA has its origin in NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, an agency created in 1915 to further the efforts of aeronautic research and technological development in the United States. But as America entered the space age following WWII, it became clear that the country needed an organization for a new era. The National Aeronautics and Space Act carries this simple preamble: “To provide for research into problems of flight within and outside the earth’s atmosphere, and for other purposes.” The Act goes on to say that, “The Congress hereby declares that it is the policy of the United States that activities in space should be devoted to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind.” In addition to NASA’s high profile space programs such as Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, the Space Shuttle, and the International Space Station, the organization continues to fund research into all aspects of space exploration, space travel, aviation, and related sciences. NASA’s latest large project, the Space Launch System and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, will see astronauts return to the Moon, create a permanent lunar station, and one day journey to Mars.
October 1, 1950 – The first flight of the Ilyushin Il-14, a civilian and military transport aircraft that was developed to replace the Douglas DC-3 and its Russian-built version, the Lisunov Li-2. Developed from the Ilyushin Il-12, the Il-14 was produced in Russia, former East Germany, former Czechoslovakia and China. Over 1,300 were built, and they served in many Eastern Bloc and Russian allied countries. Following the Soviet aircraft design ethos, the Il-14 was of rugged construction and designed to operate from rough and unimproved airstrips. The last Russian aircraft were retired in 2005, though some remain operational today. (Photo from Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons)
October 1, 1881 – The birth of William E. Boeing. William Boeing was born to German and Austrian parents (Wilhelm Böing) in Detroit, Michigan. The family made a fortune selling timber, and William at first entered the family business. On a visit to Seattle in 1909, Boeing saw his first airplane, took flying lessons, and purchased his first aircraft, a Martin TA hydroaeroplane. When that plane crashed, rather than wait on parts, Boeing approached his friend George Westervelt and said they should build their own airplane. The Boeing Model 1 took its maiden flight in 1916, and their company built 50 airplanes for the US Army during WWI. After the war, Boeing focused on commercial aircraft, but he left the aviation industry in 1937 to raise horses and develop property. The company he founded is now one of the world’s largest producers of civilian and military aircraft and spacecraft. Boeing died on September 28, 1956 at age 74. (Boeing and factory photos via San Diego Air & Space Museum; Model 1C photo via US Library of Congress)
October 2, 1981 – US President Ronald Reagan restarts the Rockwell B-1 Lancer program. The original B-1 had been developed as a low level, supersonic nuclear and conventional bomber, and first flew in 1974. But citing cost overruns, as well as the proliferation of ICBMs, the project was canceled in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter. By the time Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, the doctrine of fighting the Soviet Union had changed, and the US was now facing regional conflicts that were difficult to fight with the existing Boeing B-52 Stratofortress. As part of his promise to rebuild the US military, President Reagan restarted the B-1 program, and the bomber was developed into the B-1B, an upgraded and more capable version of the original B-1A. Rockwell received a contract to build 100 Lancers at a cost of $2.2 billion, and production ended in 1988. (Photo by the author)
October 2, 1956 – The first flight of the Hughes TH-55 Osage. Development of the Osage began in 1955 when Hughes identified a market for a low-cost, lightweight two-seat helicopter, and began work on the Model 269. Initially turned down by the US Army, they showed a renewed interest in the improved Model 269A, and adopted it in 1964 as the primary training helicopter to replace the Hiller OH-23 Raven. By the time the Osage was replaced by the Bell UH-1 Iroquois (“Huey”) in 1988, more than 60,000 Army pilots had trained on the TH-55. The civilian Model 269/300 is used for transport, observation and agricultural spraying. 2,800 were produced from 1961-1983. (US Army photo)
October 2, 1946 – The first flight of the Vought F6U Pirate, the first jet fighter built by Vought for the US Navy. In September 1944, the Navy announced a specification for a single-seat fighter built around the Westinghouse J34 turbojet engine. To save weight, the Pirate was constructed of “Metalite,” balsa wood sandwiched between layers of aluminum. But the Pirate was woefully underpowered and, even after the installation of a more powerful engine, the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics stated, “The F6U-1 had proven so sub-marginal in performance that combat utilization is not feasible.” The 30 production Pirates racked up only 945 hours of total flight time, and some had a mere six hours on the airframe, just long enough to certify the aircraft for acceptance and ferry it to its final resting place. (US Navy photo)
October 3, 1985 – The first flight of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, the fourth of five Space Shuttles produced and the last Shuttle to launch into orbit (STS-135, July 8, 2011) after the cancelation of the Space Shuttle Program. It’s first mission, STS-51-J, delivered a classified Department of Defense payload to orbit and returned to Earth on October 7. Over the course of 33 spaceflights, Atlantis racked up 4,848 orbits of the Earth, flew nearly 126 million miles, carried 156 different astronauts to space, and performed the fourth and final servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope (STS-125). Atlantis is now on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. (NASA Photo)
October 3, 1943 – The first launch of the V-2 rocket, a gyroscopically guided “vengeance weapon” developed by German rocket scientist Werner von Braun. The test launch, and many following operational launches, took place from Peenemünde on the island of Usedom in the Baltic Sea. The rocket traveled just 118 miles, but it was the precursor to more than 1,100 rockets that would be fired against England and France beginning in early September 1944. Fired from mobile launchers and reaching speeds of almost 4,000 mph, the rockets were impossible to intercept and caused the deaths of more than 2,700 Britons. Following the war, captured V-2 rockets—and captured German scientists—formed the nucleus of American and Russian space programs. (Photo author unknown)
October 4, 2004 – The death of Gordon Cooper. Born on March 6, 1927 in Shawnee, Oklahoma, Cooper was an aerospace engineer, US Air Force pilot and test pilot, and the youngest of the original Mercury Seven astronauts. Cooper flew into space on May 15, 1963 on Mercury-Atlas 9, the sixth and final manned mission of Project Mercury and the final time a single American astronaut would be launched into orbit. Cooper spent 34 hours in space on that flight, setting a record for the time, and was the first American astronaut to sleep in space. In 1965, Cooper returned to space as Command Pilot of Gemini 5 with Pete Conrad. Passed over for an Apollo mission, Cooper retired from NASA in 1970, and died of Parkinson’s Disease at age 77. (NASA photo)
October 4, 1968 – The first flight of the Tupolev Tu-154, a three-engine narrow-body airliner that served as the mainstay of the Russian flag carrier airline Aeroflot and 17 other nations. Since its introduction in 1972, the Tu-154 has carried half of all civilian passengers flown by Aeroflot (137.5 million passengers a year). Like many other Soviet aircraft, the Tu-154 was designed to operate from unpaved airfields, and provided service to otherwise unreachable Arctic regions of the Soviet Union. Aeroflot announced the retirement of the Tu-154 in 2010 after almost 40 years of service, with the last scheduled passenger flight taking place in May 2015. (Photo by Anton Bannikov via Wikimedia Commons)