Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from October 12 through October 14.
October 13, 1930 – The first flight of the Junkers Ju 52. Throughout the history of aviation, there are only a small handful of aircraft that have exceeded fifty years of service. Such a milestone can only be reached by truly breakthrough designs that can stand the test of time and remain relevant long after they were conceived. One member of the fifty-year club is the Junkers Ju 52. But the tri-motor aircraft we know today was not the aircraft’s original form. The 52 had its roots in the Junkers W 33, a single-engine transport and cargo plane that was developed from the Junkers F.13, the world’s first all-metal transport plane. Junkers took the cantilever monoplane design, made sturdy with its corrugated duralumin fuselage, and enlarged it to increase the passenger and cargo capacity. With power coming from a single Junkers or BMW liquid-cooled V-12 engine, the Ju 52/1m (1 motor) was underpowered for its size and weight. After the first seven aircraft were built, the Ju 52/1m became the Ju 52/3m with the fitting of three BMW 132 air-cooled radial engines, one in the nose and one each on the wings. This configuration would later be copied by Ford for their Trimotor, and Junkers successfully sued to block the sale of Trimotors in Europe. The 3m proved to be an exceptionally rugged and reliable aircraft, and entered service with Lufthansa as a civilian airliner before the outbreak of WWII. But, by 1935, with the nationalization of the German aviation industry, the Ju 52 became an instrument of war. The size and strength of the 52 was ideal for transport, cargo and paratroop operations, earning it the nickname Iron Annie. It had its baptism of fire with the Colombian Air Force in the Colombia-Peru War of 1932-1933, and with Bolivia in the Chaco War of 1932-1935. The Ju 52 made its debut in combat with the Luftwaffe during the Spanish Civil War.
However, by the start of WWII, its lack of speed (it was only half as fast as the British Hawker Hurricane) meant that combat operations required fighter escort. In one disastrous mission in Holland early in the war, 278 Ju 52s were lost either to anti-aircraft fire or crashes in boggy fields, a record for the most losses of a single type in a single day. But despite the shortcomings of what was by all accounts an obsolete aircraft at the start of the war, the Ju 52 served throughout WWII because the Germans really had no other aircraft that could perform the job in great numbers. German production of the Ju 52 ended with the fall of Germany in 1945, but continued for two more years in factories they had built in France. In Spain, where it is known as the CASA 352, production continued until 1952. In all, over 4,800 aircraft were built and, and the Ju 52 was flown by 38 nations. The last country to operate the Ju 52 militarily was Switzerland, who retired their last aircraft in 1982. (Top photo by Markus Kress via Wikimedia Commons; second photo author unknown)
October 14, 1964 – The first flight of the Sikorsky CH-53 Sea Stallion. In much the same way that the jet engine revolutionized fixed wing aviation, the turboshaft engine became the preferred powerplant for helicopters, as it offered greater power and speed over its piston-powered predecessors. In 1960, both the Army and Marine Corps were looking for a replacement for the CH-37 Mojave/HR2S, with the Army eventually settling on the twin-rotor Boeing CH-47 Chinook. In 1962, the US Navy issued a request for a Heavy Helicopter Experimental (HHX), searching for a helicopter that could carry up to 8,000 pounds, have an operational radius of 100 nautical miles and a speed of 170 mph. In order to save money, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara pressured the Marine Corps to adopt the Chinook, but they argued that their requirements were significantly different from those of the Army. In particular, they expressed the need for a watertight hull, and they preferred to accept the offering from Sikorsky, which was basically an enlarged version of the S-61R. After an intense competition, the Marines selected the YCH-53 over the Chinook, announcing in 1962 that it would procure two prototypes for further testing. (The US Air Force would later adopt the CH-53 as the HH-53 Super Jolly Green Giant for combat search and rescue). The CH-53 had a six-bladed main rotor that was borrowed from the S-64 Skycrane (CH-54 Tarhe), a watertight hull (not intended for amphibious operations, the hull only allows emergency landings on water), and was powered by a pair of General Electric T64 turboshaft engines mounted on pods outside the aircraft. Successively more powerful engines were added as development of the helicopter continued. The Sea Stallion had a crew of four and, depending on the mission could carry 38 troops, or 24 stretchers with attendants, or an internal cargo payload of 8,000 pounds. An external load of 13,000 pounds could be slung underneath the aircraft. The CH-53 saw immediate action in the Vietnam War, where it played a vital role in troop and materiel transport and search and rescue. At the end of America’s involvement in the war, the size of the Sea Stallion aided tremendously in the evacuation of troops and civilians from Saigon as part of Operation Frequent Wind. The Sea Stallion proved its mettle in every conflict since Vietnam, but was finally retired in 2012 after service in Afghanistan in favor of the CH-53E Super Stallion, a significantly upgraded and modernized version of the heavy lifter that benefits from the addition of a third turboshaft engine. (US Navy photo)
October 14, 1947 – Chuck Yeager breaks the sound barrier in the Bell X-1. On December 17, 1903, the Wright Brothers made their historic First Flight. Taking off from the dunes of Kitty Hawk, NC, their flight covered a distance 120 feet at a speed of 6.8 mph and, ever since that date, aircraft designers have sought ever greater speed. But as the world entered the age of jet- and rocket-powered flight during WWII, the last great landmark of speed was the speed of sound, or Mach 1, about 767 mph depending on altitude and conditions. Nobody really knew what to expect when an aircraft broke the sound barrier. During the war, rocket planes and airplanes in a steep dive had come close, entering the realm of transonic flight, where they discovered that the shockwaves that formed on the aircraft severely inhibited the ability of the control surfaces to move, or even cause them to reverse. While some German pilots made claims to breaking the sound barrier in the Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet rocket plane, it was the British who made the first attempts at supersonic flight with the turbojet-powered Miles M.52. An extremely advanced aircraft for its time, the M.52 pioneered the use of a powered stabilator, or flying tail, in which the entire horizontal tailplane moved, rather than just the stabilizers on the trailing edge of the tail to deal with the problems of control at high speed. Though the project was ultimately canceled, much of the groundbreaking work in supersonic aerodynamics would find its way to Bell as part of an agreement to share technical data on high-speed flight. Bell had already begun work on a supersonic rocket plane, but they had been employing a conventional tail, and with it came the problems of compressibility at transonic speeds. With the data from the M.52 in their hands, Bell adopted the all-moving powered stabilator and the problem was solved. Where the Miles M.52 was powered by a turbojet, the X-1 was powered by a four-chamber Reaction Motors liquid fuel rocket, with each chamber providing 1,500 lbf of thrust. The chambers could be added one at a time to increase speed. The X-1's maiden flight, a gliding test in Florida, took place on January 25, 1946. After a successful series of glide tests, the X-1 was taken to Muroc Army Air Field in California, modern day Edwards Air Force Base for powered tests. Bell chief test pilot Jack Woolams, who flew all the glide tests, had died on August 30, 1946 while practicing for the National Air Races in Cleveland, and another Bell test pilot, Chalmers “Slick” Goodlin, demanded $150,000, the equivalent of about $1.6 million today, to make the flight. So the task fell to Chuck Yeager.
Yeager began his military career as an enlisted aircraft mechanic before training as a pilot, and he became an ace while flying the North American P-51 Mustang in WWII. Two days before the historic flight, Yeager broke two ribs in a horse riding accident, but he hid the injury from the Air Force so he wouldn’t be barred from flying. The pain from the injury made it impossible for him to close the hatch on the X-1, so fellow pilot Jack Ridley rigged a broom handle to the door to allow Yeager to close it. Yeager had nicknamed the X-1 the Glamorous Glennis, the same name he had given his Mustang, after his wife, and on October 14, 1947, Yeager and the X-1 were taken aloft and dropped from a modified Boeing B-29 Superfortress. Yeager fired the rocket engine after falling clear of the B-29, and the X-1 became the first plane to break the speed of sound in level flight, flying at Mach 1.07 at an altitude of 45,000 feet. After the engines burned out, the X-1 glided to a soft landing on the dry lake bed of Muroc. For his historic flight, Yeager was awarded both the Mackay and Collier Trophies in 1948, and he received the Harmon International Trophy in 1954. The Glamorous Glennis now resides at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. Yeager would continue to set more speed records, and held various Air Force commands before retiring at the rank of brigadier general. Not only was the data gleaned from the X-1 flights used in future X planes and supersonic aircraft, the entire test and evaluation program served as a model for all future X plane projects. This has led to aircraft such as the recently retired Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird which routinely flew at three times the speed of sound, to the experimental NASA X-43 hypersonic aircraft, which has reached speeds approaching Mach 10. It is also worth noting that Orville Wright was still alive when Yeager broke the sound barrier, though he died two months later. The world had gone from the first flight to Mach 1 in the span of one man’s life. (US Air Force photos)
October 14, 1938 – The first flight of the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk. The Curtiss P-40 Warhawk has become one of the iconic aircraft of WWII, perhaps best known for its service with the 1st American Volunteer Group fighting in China, where the Flying Tigers, in their classic shark-mouthed P-4os, fought admirably against more maneuverable Japanese aircraft. And while the P-40 wasn’t the fastest, nor the most nimble fighter of the war, it was one of the most numerous, and was available to America and her allies in numbers before more powerful fighters could be brought to bear. The Warhawk traces its roots back to the Curtiss P-36 Hawk, a fighter that was designed at the same time as the Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Hawker Hurricane. It proved popular with pilots and, though it saw limited action at the outbreak of WWII, the P-36 fought well for the French in the early years of the war. But while the P-36 handled well, it suffered from a lack of power. The P-40 was developed from the tenth P-36A Hawk airframe and, rather than using the Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp radial of the P-36, the Warhawk was fitted with an Allison V-1710 V-12 engine, the same engine found in the Lockheed P-38 Lightning and the Bell P-39 Airacobra and the only operational American-designed V-12 liquid-cooled engine developed by the US during the war. Interestingly, the original P-40 design called for the radiator to be placed behind the pilot, but the Curtiss-Wright sales department asked that it be moved to the front, perhaps in an attempt to make the P-40 look more like its P-36 predecessor to make it more appealing to the Army. The radiator placement gave the P-40 its iconic shark mouth silhouette, and the rear-mounted radiator would later become the trademark of another famous fighter, the North American P-51 Mustang. A major drawback for the new fighter, though, was its single-stage, single-speed supercharger. But what the Warhawk gave up in performance it made up for in ruggedness and firepower. The lack of power limited the Warhawk’s performance against more powerful German aircraft at high altitudes, but it more than held its own under 16,000 feet. And while more nimble aircraft, such as the Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero, could outmaneuver the Warhawk, the development of effective tactics gave it an edge against the fragile Japanese designs. The P-40 was developed into a myriad of variants, including the P-40F and P-40L, both of which mounted a Packard V-1650 Merlin V-12 in place of the Allison. But with the majority of the Merlin engines going to the P-51, Curtiss reverted to the Allison engine, and it was the P-40N that became the definitive model and was produced in the greatest numbers, with 5,220 of the nearly 14,000 fighters built as the P-40N.
The N retained the stretched fuselage that was introduced with the F, and attempts were made to further lighten the aircraft by removing two of the six wing-mounted .50 caliber machine guns. But in practice, the added firepower was preferable to the increase in speed and the guns were replaced. The metal fuselage behind the pilot was opened up and covered with plexiglass to improve rearward visibility, and the rugged, powerful fighter was used primarily for ground attack from 1944 onward. The P-40 was the third most-produced American WWII fighter, behind Republic P-47 Thunderbolt (15,660) and the P-51 Mustang (15,586). The P-40 was also exported to almost every Allied combatant in WWII, and found great success with the Royal Air Force and Royal Australian Air Force, where it was known as the Tomahawk and later the Kittyhawk. (XP-40 in flight via US Air Force; P-40N photo by Rror via Wikimedia Commons)
October 12, 1997 – The death of John Denver. Denver is best known as a successful singer and song writer, but he was also an avid pilot, with over 2,700 hours of experience and pilot ratings single- and multi-engine aircraft, as well as glider and instrument ratings. On the day of his death, Denver was practicing touch-and-go landings at Monterey Peninsula Airport in California in his Rutan Long-EZ (N555JD). The builder of the aircraft (not Denver) had placed the fuel gauge and switch for the two fuel tanks behind the pilot’s seat, making it very difficult to monitor the fuel and operate the switch. NTSB crash investigators surmised that Denver attempted to twist his body to operate the switch, lost control of the aircraft, and crashed into Monterey Bay. Investigators also cited unfamiliarity with the aircraft and an insufficient fuel load at takeoff as factors in the crash. (Long-EZ photo—not accident aircraft—via Wikimedia Commons; Denver photo Hughes Television Network via Wikimedia Commons)
October 12, 1976 – The first flight of the Sikorsky S-72, a hybrid helicopter/fixed wing aircraft that was produced in conjunction with NASA and the US Army. Assembled from different parts of Sikorsky S-61 and S-67 helicopters, the goal of the research program was to allow in-flight measurements of helicopter rotor characteristics prior to fitting them on prototype helicopters, though the S-72 was also capable of flight without a main rotor. The S-72, also called the Rotor Systems Research Aircraft (RSRA), took its first full compound flight in 1978, but the program was canceled in 1988. (NASA photo)
October 12, 1964 – The launch of Voskhod 1, the seventh manned space flight of the Soviet space program. Based on the Vostok spacecraft, Voskhod 1 had an added solid-fuel retro-rocket fitted to slow its descent. The flight is notable as being the first to carry three crewmen into orbit—a cosmonaut, an engineer and a physician—and also the first in which the cosmonauts did not wear spacesuits. The bulky spacesuits were removed so that all three cosmonauts could fit into a capsule designed for only two. The standard ejection seats were also removed and replaced with three simple couches. The flight set an altitude record of 209 miles above the Earth, and the crew primarily carried out biomedical research. After 24 hours in space, Voskhod 1 returned to Earth on October 13. (Photo author unknown)
October 13, 1972 – An airliner carrying a rugby team and other passengers crashes in the Andes. The chartered Fairchild FH-227D, carrying 45 passengers and crew, crashed in the Andes on their way to a match in Chile when the crew started their descent too soon through a fog-shrouded mountain pass. Twelve passengers died as a direct result of the crash, and five more died the following day from their injuries. A further eight died in an avalanche, and the remaining victims resorted to cannibalism to survive. After two survivors walked for nine days to find help, the remaining sixteen survivors were finally rescued on December 23, two months after the crash. Their ordeal was dramatized in the 1993 feature film Alive. (Photo by Pedro Escobal via Wikimedia Commons)
October 13, 1950 – The first flight of the Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation, the first major variant of the original L-1049 Constellation to enter production. Faced with competition from the rival Douglas DC-6, which could carry more passengers (and generate more revenue), Lockheed added eighteen feet to the fuselage which added as many as 106 passengers, increased the fuel capacity, fitted larger windows and improved the cabin heating and pressurization. The result was an aircraft that equaled the DC-6 in performance, and though it had a shorter range it could carry a greater payload. The Super Connie also served with the USAF as a transport and part of the airborne warning and control system (AWACS) as the EC-121 Warning Star. (Photo by Ralf Manteufel via Wikimedia Commons)
October 14, 2012 – Felix Baumgartner sets a new altitude record for a parachute jump. The jump was part of the Red Bull Stratos project, which set out to break the parachute altitude record of 102,8oo ft held by US Air Force Capt. Joseph Kittinger set during the Excelsior project in 1960. Stepping out of a capsule suspended from a balloon, Baumgartner dove from an altitude of 128,097 feet and reached a speed of 1,357.64 mph, becoming the first person to break the speed of sound without a vehicle. Baumgartner’s record would stand for just two years before it was broken by Alan Eustace, who jumped from 135,890 feet. (Photo via Felix Baumgartner Facebook)
October 14, 1962 – A US Air Force Lockheed U-2 reconnaissance flight over Cuba discovers Russian-built ballistic missile launching facilities, triggering the Cuban Missile Crisis. Following the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961, as well as the presence of American missiles in Italy and Turkey, Cuba requested that the Soviets place missiles in Cuba to deter any more American action against the Cuban Revolutionary government. The US demanded that the R-14 Chusovaya medium-range nuclear missiles be removed and, after a tense 13-day stand off highlighted by low-level US reconnaissance flights over Cuba and an American naval blockade of the island that put the world on the brink of nuclear war, the Russians backed down and agreed to dismantle the sites and remove the missiles. (Department of Defense photo)
October 14, 1953 – The first flight of the North American X-10, an unmanned aircraft powered by two Westinghouse J40 turbojets and designed to investigate the development of long-range cruise missiles. Though essentially a flying missile, the X-10 was fitted with landing gear which made the aircraft reusable. It had a delta wing and forward canard for control, and was controlled in flight by an onboard computer. When the X-10 entered service for testing, it was the fastest turbojet-powered aircraft of its day, with a maximum speed of Mach 2 and could reach an altitude of 49,000 feet with a range of 627 miles. Thirteen research aircraft were built, though only one survives, and it is housed at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Ohio. (US Air Force photo)
October 14, 1949 – The first flight of the Fairchild C-123 Provider, a transport and cargo aircraft designed by Chase Aircraft and built by Fairchild Aircraft. The C-123 was originally designed by Chase as an airborne assault glider before the addition of two Pratt & Whitney R-2800 radial engines which were later augmented by two General Electric J85 turbojets. The C-123 primarily served the US Air Force before being transferred to the US Coast Guard, Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard, and saw extensive use in the Vietnam War, most famously—or notoriously—as the platform for the spraying of Agent Orange defoliant. Just over 300 were built, and the type was retired in 1980. (US Air Force photo)
October 14, 1943 – Bombers of the US Eighth Air Force attack the ball bearing factories at Schweinfurt for a second time, suffering heavy losses. Strategic bombing in WWII was seen as a way to destroy both enemy war production and morale, and the ball bearing factories at Schweinfurt were seen as a “panacea target,” one which, if destroyed, would cripple the German war machine. Following an unsuccessful raid on the factories in August 1943, 291 Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses tried again in October, but more than 1,000 Luftwaffe fighters rose to meet them, and the ensuing carnage came to be known as Black Thursday. Republic P-47 Thunderbolt escort planes ran short of fuel, leaving the bombers to continue to the target on their own and, by the end of the mission, 198 of the 291 bombers were either damaged or destroyed and 650 men were killed, wounded or MIA. The raid was ultimately a failure, as ball bearing production was not halted, and it would be four months before the Allies tried again, but this time, with more effective escort from the North American P-51 Mustang. (US Air Force photo)