Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from April 20 through April 23.
April 21, 1918 – The death of Manfred von Richthofen. When the First World War broke out in 1914, the airplane was still in its infancy. The Wright Brothers had made the First Flight just eleven years earlier, and when the first airplanes entered the fray they were called scout planes and flown solely for reconnaissance. Opposing pilots often shared a friendly wave as they crisscrossed the skies over the battlefield. But it wasn’t long until those amicable greetings turned hostile. Aircrews started carrying pistols and rifles into the air, then machine guns. Soon, the dedicated fighter plane was born. Fighter pilots became a breed apart from other fighting men, enjoying the prestige and gallantry of their role in battle, and Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, better known as the Red Baron, became the greatest of them all, the iconic fighter pilot, both feared and respected by his enemy.
Manfred von Richthofen was born to an aristocratic Prussian family in what is now a part of Poland. He began the war as a cavalry reconnaissance officer. But, as the war stagnated and the cavalry became little used, he transferred to the Imperial German Army Air Service, later called the Luftstreitkräfte, and began flying as a reconnaissance officer in August 1915. Following a chance meeting with Oswald Boelcke, who has since become recognized as the father of fighter tactics, Richthofen began training to be a pilot. The following year, when Boelcke was looking for pilots to form a new squadron, he tapped Richthofen to become a member of the fledgling Jagdstaffel 2, or Jasta 2. Flying for Jasta 2, Richthofen scored his first victory on September 17, 1916. Soon, he was leading his own fighter group, Jasta 11, and then was appointed to head the larger Jagdgeschwader 1, better known as the Flying Circus.
Richthofen flew a number different aircraft during his time in the war, and though he is most famously associated with the Fokker Dr.1 Dreidecker, he only scored about twenty percent of his career victories in the iconic triplane. Before the Dreidecker, Richthofen flew the Albatros D.II, then the Albatros D.III, and Albatros D.V. He scored the bulk of his victories in the D.III, and it was this aircraft that first received Richthofen’s trademark red paint. A brilliant leader and tactician, Richthofen’s unit was soon one of the most effective of the war. In April of 1917 alone, he shot down 22 British aircraft, including four in one day. He finished the war with 80 confirmed victories, making him the leading ace of WWI and the second leading ace of all time behind Erich Hartmann, who claimed a staggering 352 victories during WWII.
Despite Richthofen’s prowess in the cockpit, flying fighters was by no means a safe business. On July 16, 1917, Richthofen was seriously wounded when he was shot in the head during a dogfight. He managed to land his plane and, after a brief convalescent leave, he returned to flying, though the wound caused him continued nausea and headaches. The end of the Red Baron finally came on April 21, 1918, when he was shot through the heart and lungs during a dogfight. Though he was able to land his plane safely, Richthofen soon succumbed to his wounds. Controversy immediately swirled around who took the fateful shots. Initially, Captain Arthur Roy Brown, a Canadian pilot flying for the Royal Navy Air Service, was credited with the victory. However, a post-mortem of Richthofen showed that he had in fact been killed by a single .303 British round that was most likely fired from the ground. Who actually inflicted the mortal wound will likely never be resolved. Though he came down behind enemy lines, Richthofen was buried with full military honors in Amiens, France by members of No. 3 Squadron of the Australian Flying Corps. In 1975, his remains were moved to a family cemetery plot in Wiesbaden, Germany.
April 22, 1958 – The first flight of the Boeing Vertol CH-46 Sea Knight. From the earliest days of the single-rotor helicopter, designers were faced with the significant problem of yaw caused by the single large spinning rotor disc. Ultimately, that problem was solved by the use of a smaller vertical rotor disc affixed to the tail. This eliminated the yaw induced by the main rotor, and provided control over the direction that the fuselage faced in hover and flight. But that wasn’t the only solution. The other is a tandem tandem rotor helicopter. In a tandem rotor helicopter, two main rotors provide lift rather than just one, and yaw is canceled by having the discs turn in opposite directions. This arrangement has the benefit of a larger center of gravity and greater lift capacity, but it also requires a complex transmission system to turn the rotors in opposite directions.
American designer Frank Piasecki pioneered the use of the tandem rotor helicopter with the HRP Rescuer, and his company, Piasecki Helicopter, went on to create two other tandem rotor designs, with the H-21 Shawnee seeing service early in the Vietnam War. When Piasecki left the company that bore his name in 1955, his old company took the name Vertol in early 1956. One of their first projects was a new tandem rotor helicopter that received the company designation Vertol Model 107, or V-107. By this time, turboshaft engines had replaced radial engines in many helicopters, and the Model 107 was powered by a pair of Lycoming T53 turboshaft engines, though the early production helicopters were powered by General Electric T58 engines which provided more power. The engines were mounted on either side of the rear rotor pedestal, and were coupled together so that one engine can drive both rotors in the case that one engine fails.
The US Army initially showed interest in the new cargo and transport helicopter, and ordered three prototypes designated the YHC-1, though they soon lost interest in the project. However, the YHC-1 proved the perfect fit for a medium-lift twin-engine helicopter for the US Marine Corps, and they selected Vertol’s helicopter as the CH-46A Sea Knight. The Sea Knight was capable of carrying up to 4,000 pounds of cargo or 17 passengers, and later variants could accommodate up to 25 passengers or 7,000 pounds of cargo. A rear cargo door served as a loading ramp, and could be left open in flight or removed entirely to facilitate parachute drops of troops or materiel. A sling hook attached to the belly can lift up to 10,000 pounds of external cargo. When flying on combat missions, armor plating and guns can be added for self defense.
Though the Sea Knight was also used by the US Navy as their standard utility helicopter, it was in the hands of the Marine Corps where the Sea Knight truly showed its mettle. By late 1967, the Sea Knight was in action in Vietnam, where it earned its nickname “Phrog” and became the primary Marine Corps utility helicopter, providing troop transport, medevac, search and rescue, vertical replenishment, and basically anything else the Marines could throw at it. But that heavy use came at a cost and, by the end of the Vietnam War, more than 100 Sea Knights had been lost due to enemy fire.
The end of the war in Southeast Asia was by no means the end of service for the doughty Sea Knight. It continued to serve the Marine Corps into the 21st century, and took part in all Marine Corps missions from Operaion Urgent Fury on the Island of Grenada to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, where it performed vital combat casualty evacuation (CASEVAC) missions. The Navy retired their fleet of Sea Knights by 2004 in favor of the Sikorsky SH-60 Seahawk, but the Sea Knight flew on for the Marine Corps as it awaited the introduction of the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey. The Marines finally retired the last of their CH-46s in an official ceremony on August 1, 2015.
April 20, 1978 – Korean Air Lines Flight 902 is shot down by Russian fighters. On a flight from Paris to Anchorage, Alaska, the crew of the KAL Boeing 707 (HL7429) made an error in calculating magnetic declination as they neared the North Pole and mistakenly turned back towards Russia. Russian fighter pilots initially identified the aircraft as a Boeing RC-135 reconnaissance plane before realizing it was actually a civilian airliner. The Russians claimed that the KAL crew ignored attempts at communication, and the order was given to shoot the plane down. One missile struck the airliner’s wing, and the pilots were forced to make a crash landing in Russia on a frozen lake near the Finnish border. Two passengers died, and the remaining passengers and crew were detained for two days before being released. The Russian government then billed South Korea $100,000 for expenses related to the care of the passengers.
April 20, 1964 – The first flight of the Lockheed L-100 Hercules, the civilian variant of the famous military cargo aircraft. The civilian Hercules arose in 1959 with an order from Pan Am for 12 of Lockheed’s planned GL-207 Super Hercules, but that project was eventually canceled. Instead, Lockheed chose to develop a variant of the C-130E, and produced it in three lengths designated L-100, L-100-20 and L-100-30. A total of 114 of all types were completed by 1992 when production ended. Lockheed plans to upgrade the L-100 by using the C-130J Super Hercules to produce the LM-100J, which took its maiden flight on May 25, 2017.
April 20, 1916 – The Lafayette Escadrille, a squadron of American fighter pilots flying for France in WWI, is deployed. Prior to the United States’ entry into WWI, US pilots went to Europe on their own to fight for England and France. The squadron was originally called the Escadrille Américaine, but was later renamed in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette, who fought for the United States in the Revolutionary War, and the American pilots wore French uniforms and had French commanders. With so many Americans arriving in France to fight, a larger group was formed, the Lafayette Flying Corps, and the Lafayette Escadrille was officially disbanded on February 8, 1918. Some of its members transferred to American air units, while others trained incoming US pilots.
April 21, 1964 – The first flight of the HFB-320 Hansa Jet, a ten-seat business jet manufactured by Hamburger Flugzeugbau that was notable for its use of a forward-swept wing. This arrangement allowed the wing spar to pass through the fuselage behind the passenger compartment and provided more internal space for passengers or cargo. The Hansa Jet is the only example of a civilian aircraft to use such a wing configuration. Only 47 were built before production ceased in 1973, with almost half of the aircraft being purchased and operated by the West German Air Force.
April 21, 1956 – The first flight of the Douglas F5D Skylancer, a fighter designed for the US Navy and originally conceived as an larger variant to the F4D Skyray. Though it began simply as an upgrade to the Skyray, the Skylancer soon became different enough to warrant its own designation. Aside from its larger size and more powerful engine, the F5D had numerous aerodynamic enhancements to increase its speed, including application of the area rule to the fuselage. Possibly due to political pressure, the Skylancer was canceled after completion of only four aircraft in favor of the Vought F8U (F-8) Crusader, and the completed Skylancers were used for testing by the US Air Force and NASA.
April 21, 1933 – The first flight of the USS Macon (ZRS-5), a rigid airship operated by the US Navy that served as a reconnaissance platform and flying aircraft carrier. The Macon and her sister ship USS Akron (ZRS-4) were the largest helium-filled airships in the world, and both could launch and recover five Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk scout planes or two-seat Fleet Model 1 training aircraft. The Macon served for only two years before she was damaged in a storm and crashed off the California coast with the loss of two members of her 76-man crew.
April 22, 1965 – The first flight of the Transavia PL-12 Airtruk, an agricultural aircraft that was developed from the Bennett Airtruck. The Airtruk’s main duty is to provide aerial topdressing of farm fields, but it has also been converted for use as a cargo aircraft, aerial ambulance, or passenger aircraft, with pilot and one passenger above and four passengers below. The Airtruk is powered by a single six- or eight-cyinder engine, and has the capacity for up to one metric ton of cargo. Transavia built 118 Airtruks between 1966-1993, though only a small number remain airworthy today.
April 23, 1988 – The U.S. government bans smoking on flights of two hours or less. Championed by consumer advocate Ralph Nader, the smoking ban was first put into effect voluntarily by United Airlines in 1971. But with airlines and the tobacco industry fighting any regulation limiting smoking, the US Congress stepped in. The original 1988 ban was later extended to flights of six hours or less in 1990, then extended to all domestic and international flights in 2000. Violating the smoking ban can lead to a fine of as much as $5,000. In 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration also banned the use of electronic cigarettes on all domestic and international flights.
April 23, 1956 – The first flight of the Douglas C-133 Cargomaster, a large cargo aircraft designed to replace the Douglas C-74 Globemaster and the Douglas C-124 Globemaster II. Unlike its traditional, low-winged predecessors, the high wing of the Cargomaster, along with its external landing gear blisters, removed internal obstructions and allowed for greater cargo capacity in the pressurized fuselage. The C-133 was the Air Force’s only production turboprop-powered strategic airlifter (the Lockheed C-130 Hercules is considered a tactical airlifter), and it went straight into production without the construction of any prototypes. Fifty were built, and Cargomasters provided critical airlift duties during the Vietnam War. The C-133 was replaced in the early 1970s by the turbofan-powered Lockheed C-5 Galaxy.
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