Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from April 10 through April 12.


The Shuttle Columbia lifts off from Pad A, Launch Complex 39, at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (NASA)

April 12, 1981 – The Space Shuttle Columbia launches on STS-1, the first flight of the Space Shuttle Program. Before the arrival of the Space Shuttle, satellites and astronauts were sent to space in entirely expendable spacecraft. The rockets that boosted them beyond Earth’s atmosphere were left behind in orbit after their fuel was spent, or burned up re-entering the atmosphere, and the 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 process wasteful, it was also terribly expensive. So, beginning all the way back in 1969, the same year that Neil Armstrong first set foot on the Moon with Apollo 11, NASA began to develop a spacecraft designed to be used again and again, one that would function as a “space truck” that could haul payloads into space relatively cheaply.

Columbia, with its white external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters, rests on the pad prior to launch. Beginning with STS-3, the Shuttle flew with an unpainted external fuel tank to save roughly 600 pounds of weight. (NASA)

The Shuttle program got its official start in 1972 with an announcement by President Richard M. Nixon that NASA would develop what eventually came to be called a Space Transport System (all Shuttle missions were given the prefix STS). Initially, the hopes for the new system were quite ambitious, and NASA envisioned as many as 50 launches per year. But before the space truck could start hauling payloads to space, NASA had to decide exactly what the Shuttle would look like. Engineers considered a myriad of designs and configurations, and there was much debate over just how much of the system would be reused. There was talk of placing air-breathing engines on both the Shuttle and its booster, so both return to earth like an airplane, or even fly under their own power between landing and launch sites. But ultimately, NASA settled on a design where the orbiter sat atop a huge expendable fuel tank and was boosted into space by a pair of solid rocket boosters which would be retrieved from the ocean, refueled, and used again. The first Shuttle, Enterprise (originally named Constitution, but changed after a huge write-in campaign to honor Gene Roddenberry and the Star Trek TV series), was used for flying and landing tests. The second Shuttle, Columbia, would be the first to blast off and reach Earth orbit.

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The crew of STS-1, astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen (NASA)

STS-1 was commanded by veteran astronaut John Young who, as the commander of Apollo 16 in 1972, became the ninth person to walk on the Moon. Young would eventually become NASA’s longest-serving astronaut. The Shuttle Pilot for STS-1 was Robert Crippen. Crippen was going to space for the first time, but would later command three other Shuttle missions. Unlike all missions prior to the Space Shuttle, which launched unmanned spacecraft to test the vehicle, STS-1 was the first time NASA performed the maiden flight of a spacecraft with astronauts onboard. NASA had originally considered using STS-1 to test the Return To Launch Site (RTLS) abort procedure, but Commander Young overruled that idea, citing the danger involved in such a test, So STS-1 was carried out as a planned orbital mission. By the end of the Space Shuttle program, no Shuttle ever had to use the RTLS procedure.

Columbia touches down on the dry lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base in California, successfully completing the first mission of the Space Shuttle program (NASA)

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Columbia launched into space without incident twenty years to the day after the launch of Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man to fly in space. However, the timing of the launch was more coincidence than recognition, since Columbia was originally scheduled to go to space two days earlier but the launch was scrubbed. Columbia’s only payload was a flight instrumentation package, and the mission was designed to test the overall spaceworthiness of the Shuttle, achieve orbit, and return. After attaining an altitude of 166 nautical miles and making 37 orbits of the Earth, Columbia re-entered the atmosphere and glided to a gentle stop on the dry lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Columbia went on to serve NASA for 22 years, and flew 27 successful missions before it was lost during re-entry on its 28th flight in a crash that killed all seven crew members. By the time the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011, the program that was meant to save money ended up costing $209 billion. Shuttles completed 133 successful missions, flew 20,830 orbits of the Earth, spent 1,323 days in space, and carried 3,513,638 pounds of cargo into space while returning 229,132 pounds of cargo to Earth. Two orbiters, Challenger and Columbia, were lost, along with 14 astronauts.


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April 12, 1961 – Yuri Gagarin becomes the first man to fly in space. Man’s efforts to fly in space have seen a number of milestones, the first of which was the launch of a Russian satellite named Sputnik 1 into Earth orbit on October 4, 1957. With that launch, the journey to space became a race, one which actually traces its roots back to Germany and WWII. The Germans were far ahead of the Russians and the Western allies in rocket technology, having unleashed their V-2 ballistic rockets against England and Europe in the dying throes of the Third Reich. Following the war, captured scientific data—and captured scientists—formed the nucleus of the space programs for both the Cold War superpowers. The emphasis at first was on creating ballistic missiles, but with the announcement of the International Geophysical Year set for 1957, the Americans said that they would place a satellite in Earth orbit, and the Russians replied that they would do the same. The Russians were the first, with Sputnik 1. The Americans responded to the basketball-sized Russian satellite with a satellite of their own, Explorer 1, and the space race shifted into high gear.

For reasons that were perhaps more propaganda than science, each country wanted to be the first to put a man into space. The American effort was dubbed Project Mercury, and the program began with a series of 20 unmanned developmental flights beginning in 1959. On the other side of both the world and the ideological divide, the Soviets initiated the Vostok program. Like their American counterparts, the first Russian cosmonauts, known as the Sochi Six, were all military pilots, though none were as experienced in flying as the original American astronauts, known as the Mercury 7, since the Russian program relied more on automation. Before sending a cosmonaut to space, the Russians carried out a series of test launches, some carrying dogs and other biological specimens. The dogs Belka and Strelka were the first living creatures to leave the planet and, lucky for the space dogs, the first to be recovered from orbit.

The orbit flown by Yuri Gagarin in his Vostok 1 spacecraft (Reubenbarton)

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For the historic flight, Russia tapped fighter pilot Yuri Gagarin, with cosmonauts Gherman Titov and Grigori Nelyubov as backups. The Vostok rocket was erected on its launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and, with a cry of “Poyekhali!” (“Let’s go!”), Gagarin was launched into space at 6:07 am local time. The rocket worked flawlessly, and Gagarin radioed that he could see the Earth, and that everything was working well. From launch to landing, the entire flight, with its single orbit of the Earth, took 108 minutes. The capsule re-entered Earth’s atmosphere safely and, as he neared the ground, Gagarin was automatically ejected from his capsule and parachuted to the ground. The capsule descended separately by its own parachute. After landing, Gagarin encountered some Russian farmers, and told them, “Don’t be afraid, I am a Soviet citizen like you, who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow!”

The Russians followed Vostok 1 four months later with Vostok 2, when Titov spent just over 25 hours in space and made 17 orbits of the Earth. The Americans responded to Gagarin’s flight with the launch of Freedom 7 on May 5, 1961, a short suborbital flight. However, it provided important data for the American program, and astronaut Alan Shepard became the first to exercise manual control over a spacecraft. The American orbital response finally came on February 20, 1962, when John Glenn, flying Friendship 7, became the first American—but the third man—to orbit the Earth.

Yuri Gagarin receives a hero’s welcome in a parade in the Polish capital city of Warsaw in 1961.

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Though Gagarin served as a backup crew for the ill-fated Soyuz 1, he never returned to space. For being the first man in space and, more importantly, beating the Americans, Gagarin was named a Hero of the Soviet Union, his nation’s highest honor. He became an international celebrity, and served as the deputy training director of the Cosmonaut Training Center. However, his fame would be short-lived. Seven years after his momentous flight, Gagarin was killed on March 27, 1968 in the crash of his Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 trainer at the age of 34. The cause of the crash remains a matter of debate.


Short Takeoff


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April 10, 1963 – The first flight of the EWR VJ 101, a supersonic vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) interceptor developed as a replacement for the Lockheed F-104G Starfighter. Two aircraft, designated X-1 and X-2, were completed during the five-year test program. The X-1 performed the first successful hover in April 1963, then the first transition to forward flight five months later. In all, a total of 40 level flights, 24 hover flights and 14 full transitions were performed. On July 29, 1964, the X-1 reached Mach 1.04 without using an afterburner and, though the program showed promise, it was canceled in 1968 after its role was changed from interceptor to fighter.


(Author unknown)

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April 11, 1943 – The first flight of the Piasecki PV-2, the second successful helicopter flown in the US after the Sikorski VS-300. Constructed as a technology demonstrator, the PV-2 introduced new features such as dynamically balanced rotor blades, a rigid tail rotor with a tension-torsion pitch changing system and full cyclic and collective pitch control. Only one example was ever produced, and it is now on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in northern Virginia.


(US Air Force)

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April 11, 1952 – The first flight of the Piasecki H-21 Workhorse/CH-21 Shawnee, a multi-mission tandem-rotor helicopter developed from the HRP Rescuer. The H-21 was originally designed for Arctic rescue missions and featured full winterization for polar climates. However, it was pressed into service in the early days of the Vietnam War primarily as a troop transport where it received the designation CH-21. Called the “Flying Banana” by troops, the Shawnee was poorly suited to the hot jungle climate of Southeast Asia, and was removed from service in 1964 with the arrival of the Bell UH-1 Iroquois, better known as the Huey. The Shawnee was finally retired from active service with the arrival of the Boeing Vertol CH-47 Chinook in 1965.


(NASA)

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April 12, 1985 – United States Senator Jake Garn becomes the first sitting politician to fly in space. STS-51-D launched from Kennedy Space Center and was the 16th flight of the Space Shuttle program and the first spaceflight carrying a sitting politician. Jake Garn, a Republican Senator from Utah, flew as a Payload Specialist after he asked to go to space as part of his role as the head of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA. Discovery’s primary mission was the deployment of two communications satellites, and Garn was along primarily as an observer, though he did serve as the subject of medical experiments. Garn suffered from such severe space adaptation syndrome, better known as space sickness, that the system for measuring the severity of the malady is now counted (jokingly) in “Garns.” The Jake Garn Simulator and Training Facility was named in the Senator’s honor.


(US Navy; Max Smith))

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April 12, 1945 – The destroyer USS Mannert L. Abele is sunk by a Japanese Ohkasuicide rocket plane. In the closing stages of WWII in the Pacific, the Japanese carried out kamikaze attacks on the US fleet using the Yokosuka MXY7 Ohka, a rocket-powered, piloted flying bomb that was dropped from a Mitsubishi G4M bomber mother ship. Off the island of Okinawa, a flight of six bombers released their Ohka rocket bombs against the American fleet, with one striking the destroyer USS Mannert L. Abele (DD 733). The piloted bomb penetrated the starboard side and its 2,646-pound warhead detonated in the aft engine room. The explosion broke the destroyer’s keel midships and the ship broke in two and sank in a matter of minutes with the loss of 84 sailors. Though Ohkas damaged a handful of ships, Abele was the only ship sunk, and the kamikaze rocket was negligible had no affect on the outcome of the war.


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April 12, 1935 – The first flight of the Bristol Blenheim, a British light bomber that was originally conceived as a fast airliner. The Blenheim saw extensive service early in WWII. It was one of the first British aircraft to employ an all-metal stressed-skin fuselage, retractable landing gear, a powered gun turret, and variable-pitch propellers. The Blenheim served as a light bomber, long range fighter, and night fighter, but, while it was capable of outrunning most fighters in the early days of the war, it was no match for the Messerschmitt Bf 109 during daylight bombing raids. The British retired the Blenheim in 1944, though it served in Finland until 1956.


Connecting Flights


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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, aviators and airplane oddities at Wingspan.

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