Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from April 11 through April 14.
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.
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.
STS-1 was commanded by veteran astronaut John Young, who served as commander on Apollo 16 in 1972 and 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 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 a matter of coincidence rather 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.
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 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.
For the historic orbital 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.
America 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.
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 was short-lived. Seven years after his momentous flight, Gagarin was killed at the age of 34 on March 27, 1968 in the crash of his Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 trainer. The cause of the crash remains a matter of debate.
April 13, 1970 – An oxygen tank explodes in the Apollo 13 Service Module. Triskaidekaphobia is a word that comes to us from the Greek, and it means having an extreme superstition about, or fear of, the number 13. As a matter of tradition, many tall buildings don’t number the 13th floor, counting from 12 to 14, and Friday the 13th has become famous as a day for experiencing bad luck and ill omens. As the Apollo program progressed from the ill-fated Apollo 1, the rational scientists at NASA chose not skip the number 13 despite its ominous history, though in hindsight they may have wished that they had.
Apollo 13 was the seventh manned mission of the Apollo program and the third mission slated to land on the Moon. On board were Mission Commander James Lovell, Lunar Module pilot Fred Haise, and Command Module pilot Jack Swigert, and (astronaut Ken Mattingly had originally been slated to serve as Command Module pilot, but fears that he had contracted rubella from his one of children led to his replacement by Swigert). The launch on April 11 took place without any significant problems, and the crew successfully detached the Service Module (SM) and Odyssey Command Module (CM) to perform the transposition maneuver that would attach the Aquarius Lunar Module (LM, pronounced “lem”) to the nose of the CM and allow the astronauts to pass between the CM and the LM. Once the spacecraft reached lunar orbit, the LM, with two astronauts aboard, would separate and fly to the surface, while the third astronaut remained in orbit in the CM.
The barrel-shaped Service Module, as its name implied, was filled with various tanks and batteries and one of its duties was to supply electricity and oxygen to the CM throughout the mission. On April 13, two days after launch and about three-fourths of the way to the moon, NASA flight controllers instructed Swigert to activate the hydrogen and oxygen tank stirring fans, a routine procedure that kept the tanks functioning properly and ensured proper readings of the tanks’ levels. Two minutes later, the crew heard a loud bang, and Lovell reported the words that have since become synonymous with something going seriously wrong: “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” Looking out the window of the CM, Lovell told Mission Control that the spacecraft was venting “a gas of some sort” into space. Unknown to the crew at the time, one of the oxygen tanks had exploded, taking not only precious oxygen for the crew, but also electricity and water. Soon, the CM had only battery power and limited water, and what little electrical power that remained would be needed for re-entry. So the astronauts shut down the CM and moved to the LM, which had its own power supply. Without Aquarius to act as a lifeboat, the accident would almost certainly have been fatal.
Following the official decision to abort the Moon landing, NASA was now faced with the problem of getting the astronauts home safely, a scenario for which there was no procedure. On idea was to have the astronauts turn around and fly straight back to Earth, but Flight Director Gene Kranz decided it was best to allow the spacecraft to swing around the Moon and use the Moon’s gravity to slingshot the astronauts back to Earth. The astronauts had to use the LM’s landing rocket to make manual course corrections, and the four-and-half-minute burn, something the astronauts had never trained for, was so accurate that only two subsequent small course corrections were needed. Though the LM had plenty of oxygen, the removal of carbon dioxide became critical, and the astronauts had to jury-rig a system using incompatible C02 scrubbers from the CM. They also faced critical shortages of water and food. Once they were close enough to Earth, the astronauts jettisoned the Service Module and finally got a good look at the damage, seeing that an entire side panel of the module had blown off. After photographing the damaged module, they returned to the CM and jettisoned Aquarius. Despite concerns about the possibility of a damaged heat shield, Odyssey splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean on April 17.
An analysis of the explosion determined that damaged insulation on the stirring fan caused a short-circuit and fire that ignited the tank explosion. Even though the mission to land on the Moon wasn’t successful, the unintended orbital trajectory around the Moon gave the Apollo 13 astronauts the record for the absolute distance flown from the Earth by a manned spacecraft. Apollo 13 was the last spaceflight for Commander Lovell, the only man to fly to the Moon twice without landing on its surface. Jack Swigert was slated to return to space as part of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1972, but was removed from the flight for his role in a postage stamp scandal surrounding Apollo 15. Fred Haise also never returned to space, though he did take part in the early Space Shuttle program, piloting the Enterprise to three landings as part of the Shuttle Approach and Landing Tests.
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.
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.
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.
April 12, 1945 – The destroyer USS Mannert L. Abele is sunk by a Japanese Ohka suicide 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 did not affect the outcome of the war.
April 12, 1935 – The first flight of the Bristol Blenheim, a British light bomber that was originally conceived as a fast airliner and 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.
April 13, 2019 – The first flight of the Scaled Composites Stratolaunch, a dual-fuselage heavy-lift mothership designed as a completely reusable first stage to launch payloads into space. Envisioned by the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, the aircraft, nicknamed Roc after the mythical bird that could carry an elephant, takes the title of world’s largest aircraft away from the Hughes H-4 Hercules (popularly known as the Spruce Goose) with a wingspan of 385 feet and a length of 238 feet. The three-person crew flies from the right fuselage cockpit, and the other fuselage remains empty and unpressurized. The Roc is powered by six Pratt & Whitney PW4056 turbofans and is designed to carry a payload of 550,000 pounds and has a maximum takeoff weight of 1.3 million pounds. Following the death of Stratolaunch founder Paul Allen, the aircraft and company were sold to Cerebrus Capital Management, who plan to use the aircraft for flight testing services.
April 13, 1996– The death of Charles “Chief” Anderson, a pioneering African American aviator who is known as the “Father of Black Aviation.” Anderson was born on February 9, 1907 in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania and, by age 20, he decided he wanted to fly. However, nobody would teach him because of his race. Undaunted, Anderson saved and borrowed enough money to purchase a Velie Monocoupe and taught himself to fly it, eventually earning his pilot license in 1929. Anderson found similar obstacles while trying to obtain an air transport license, but help came from Ernest Buehl, a visiting German aviator, who taught Anderson and helped him earn the license in 1932. In 1940, Anderson was recruited by the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama as Chief Civilian Flight Instructor and, in 1941, he was selected by the US Army as Ground Commander and Chief Instructor of Tuskegee’s aviation cadets for the 99th Pursuit Squadron, which became America’s first all-black fighter squadron and part of the Tuskegee Airmen. After the war, Anderson continued training both black and white pilots, operated an aircraft maintenance and sales facility, and founded Negro Airmen International, America’s first African-American pilot’s association.
April 13, 1990 – The first flight of the Sukhoi Su-34, an all-weather strike fighter based on the Sukhoi Su-27 and intended as a replacement for the Sukhoi Su-24. The Su-34, NATO reporting name Fullback, is primarily used against ground and naval targets and also carries out reconnaissance missions. The Su-34's roomy cockpit allows the pilots to move around during long missions, and includes a small galley and rudimentary toilet. It is armed with a single 30mm cannon along with 12 external hardpoints capable of carrying up to 26,500 pounds of rockets, missiles and bombs. The Su-34 entered service in early 2014, and has recently seen action in Syria during Russian intervention in the Syrian Civil War.
April 13, 1945 – Boeing delivers the final B-17 Flying Fortress. Designed in the 1930s as a four-engine heavy bomber for the United States Army Air Corps, the B-17, nicknamed “Flying Fortress” for its bristling defensive armament, was one of the most effective weapons of WWII, particularly in Europe, where it dropped 640,000 tons of ordnance on Germany and its territories, more than any other bomber. Production began in 1936 and continued almost until the end of the war in 1945, with a total of 12,731 aircraft built, two-thirds of which were the B-17G variant. Though the Flying Fortress was quickly retired by the USAAC after the war, it continued in service with other countries, flying for the Brazilian Air Force until 1968. Approximately fourteen B-17s remain flying today.
April 13, 1931 – The first flight of the Boeing YB-9, an experimental bomber funded by the Boeing Company as a development of their Model 200 Monomail mail plane. At a time when many US Army Air Corps bombers were still constructed of wood and canvas, the YB-9 was the first all-metal, stressed-skin, cantilever monoplane bomber built for the USAAC. The YB-9 was powered by two Pratt & Whitney R-1860 radial engines and had a top speed of 188 mph, equal to many contemporary fighter planes. Five YB-9s were built and entered service in September 1932, but they were phased out in just three years. Ultimately, Boeing lost out to the the Glenn L. Martin Company, which offered the much more modern Martin B-10 which entered service in 1934.
April 13, 1928 – The first non-stop flight across the Atlantic from east to west. Just one year after Charles Lindbergh’s famous west-to-east flight from New York to Paris, German aviators Hermann Köhl, Baron Gunther von Hunefeld, and Irishman James Fitzmaurice took off from Baldonnel, Ireland on April 12 in a Junkers W 33 named Bremen. The team flew westward, against the prevailing winds, and planned to land in New York. However, strong winds forced them well north of their intended course, and they landed instead at Greenly Island, Canada after a flight of 37 hours. Their W.33 has been restored and is currently displayed at the airport in Bremen, Germany.
April 13, 1910 – The first flight of the Vickers Vimy Commercial. The Vickers Vimy was a biplane heavy bomber developed for the RAF late in WWII, and while the war ended before the Vimy could see action, the aircraft continued to be the RAF’s main bomber throughout the 1920s. It was subsequently converted into both an air ambulance and, with an enlarged fuselage, an airliner known as the Vimy Commercial, one of the world’s first purpose-built large airliners. The prototype Vimy Commercial took part in a race to Cape Town, South Africa in 1920, but crashed before completing the race. China, who also operated the bomber version of the Vimy, ordered 100 copies of the airliner variant, though only 43 were completed while just seven were assembled and flown. The Vimy Commercial also served as a troop transport known as the Vernon.
April 14, 1962 – The first flight of the Bristol 188. Nicknamed the “Flaming Pencil,” the Bristol 188 was a research aircraft developed to explore supersonic flight. Bristol produced three 188s in response to Operational Requirement 330, which called for a Mach 3 reconnaissance aircraft. The project was plagued with problems, most notably fuel consumption issues which did not allow the aircraft to fly supersonically long enough to test the effects on the airframe. The 188 could not reach Mach 2, and the nearly 300 mph take off speed hampered the test program. However, much of what was learned with the 188 was applied later in the development of the Concorde supersonic transport.
April 14, 1959 – The first flight of the Grumman OV-1 Mohawk. The Mohawk began as joint US Army/Marine Corps project to replace the Cessna L-19 Bird Dog for battlefield reconnaissance while also adding expanded attack capabilities. Among the missions for the two-man crew were forward air control, artillery spotting, emergency resupply, and naval target spotting. The Mohawk was also designed to operate from short, unimproved runways as well as US Navy escort carriers, and the OV-1's two Lycoming T53 turboprop engines gave the aircraft a top speed of 305 mph. The Mohawk entered service with the US Army in 1959, and saw action during the Vietnam War, where 65 were lost to accidents but only one to enemy fire. OV-1s continued flying as late as the Gulf War before retirement in 1996. A total of 380 were built.
April 14, 1947 – The first flight of the Douglas D-558-1 Skystreak, a turbojet-powered research aircraft built as a joint project between the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and the US Navy. The Skystreak was the first in a planned series of three aircraft designed to explore the regime of supersonic flight, though the second phase was canceled in favor of the swept wing D-558-2 Skyrocket. Douglas built three examples of the Skystreak and, in just four months, it had broken the previous speed record set by the German Me 163 Komet rocket plane. Though overshadowed by the supersonic Bell X-1, the Skystreak nevertheless provided important data in the realm of transonic flight which was used in the design of future supersonic aircraft.
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