Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from April 24 through April 26.
April 24, 1980 – US forces launch Operation Eagle Claw to rescue American hostages held at the US Embassy in Iran. Though the United States now considers Iran as an enemy, that wasn’t always the case. Friendly relations between Iran and the US date all the way back to 1856, when the two nations signed a treaty governing commerce and navigation. Iran was neutral during WWII, but an invasion by the British and Soviets forced Reza Shah, the first member of the Pahlavi Dynasty, to abdicate the throne over fears he might support the Axis powers. He was replaced by his young son, Mohammad Reza Shah, known to modern history simply as the Shah of Iran. Throughout the Shah’s 38-year reign, Iran remained a staunch US ally, but that relationship came to an end with the Islamic Revolution of 1979, when the Shah was overthrown and the country was transformed into an Islamic Republic lead by the Ayatollah Khomeini.
Following the Shah’s ouster, the US allowed the exiled ruler to come to America for cancer treatments, but the Ayatollah and his followers wanted the Shah returned to Iran for trial and execution. On November 4, 1979, a group of Iranian students invaded the US Embassy in Tehran, taking 52 members of the embassy captive. As the hostage drama dragged into April 1980 with no resolution in sight, US president Jimmy Carter broke off diplomatic negotiations with the Iranian government and decided to mount a military mission to rescue the hostages. The tremendously complex mission involved all four branches of the US military along with the CIA, but ended in a debacle for the US military and a humiliating embarrassment for the US government.
The mission faced many challenges, but perhaps the greatest was distance. Tehran is located far to the north in Iran, and American helicopters from USS Nimitz (CVN 68) had to fly from ships stationed far to the south in the Gulf of Oman. The two-night operation called for eight US Navy Sikorsky RH-53D Sea Stallions to take of from Nimitz and land at a remote location in the desert called Desert One. There they would meet four US Air Force Lockheed EC-130 transports scheduled to arrive the previous day from Masirah Island off the coast of Oman. Three of the transports would be carrying bladders of fuel, while the fourth would carry tactical supplies and soldiers of the US Army’s elite Delta Force, who would be carrying out their first-ever rescue mission, as well as 12 US Army Rangers and Persian-speaking Americans who would act as truck drivers.
After refueling, the plan called for the helicopters to fly the Delta Force commandos to a second staging area known as Desert Two, where they would hide until the following night. Then, CIA agents would pick up the troops and drive them to Tehran in trucks while US Army Rangers flying aboard Lockheed C-141 Starlifters would arrive at the nearby Manzariyeh Air Base and capture it. The Sea Stallions would then fly to a soccer stadium across the street from the embassy while the Delta Force commandos stormed the embassy, eliminated the guards, and rescued the hostages. Once everybody was back at the stadium, the helicopters would fly everybody to the captured air base to be evacuated by the waiting C-141 transports. Fighter cover for the mission would be provided by Navy A-7 Corsair IIs and Marine Corps F-4 Phantom IIs flying from Nimitz and USS Coral Sea (CV 43) stationed in the Gulf of Oman.
The extremely complex plan went awry almost from the beginning. While the EC-130s arrived at Desert One without serious incident, the eight helicopters fared much worse. One landed in the desert and was abandoned for mechanical reasons, and its crew was picked up by one of the other helicopters. A second got lost in a sandstorm and returned to Nimitz. Only six helicopters reached Desert One, and one of those was deemed unserviceable, leaving just five helicopters, too few for the mission. After much debate, commanders on the ground and in Washington decided to abort the rescue attempt. In preparation for leaving, the helicopters and one of the EC-130s had to be refueled, which meant that both helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft had to be repositioned. Moving the helicopter required a hover taxi, or moving while hovering slightly above the ground. While one of the Sea Stallions was trying to maneuver behind one of the EC-130s, its rotor struck the aircraft’s vertical stabilizer and the helicopter crashed into the wing root of the Hercules. The crash and fire killed eight US servicemen and one Iranian civilian. Following the crash, the rest of the personnel boarded the remaining helicopters and transports and left, leaving behind two intact Sea Stallions that now serve with navy of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Once the Iranians became aware of the failed rescue attempt, the hostages were dispersed around the country to prevent a second rescue attempt and, though the US prepared and rehearsed for another attempt at rescuing the hostages, it was never carried out. After 444 days in captivity, the Americnas were finally released on January 20, 1981, the first day of the administration of President Ronald Reagan.
Analysis of the debacle led to much soul searching in the US military. The lack of effective coordination between the four branches of the armed forces resulted in the creation of the US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) in 1987 to coordinate future missions of special operations forces. To address the difficulties of flying helicopters in nighttime and low visibility, the Army created the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), better known as the Night Stalkers. But the mission also demonstrated the need for a new type of aircraft, one that could fly great distances at high speed, yet be able to land vertically while still carrying a useful payload of troops or cargo. That necessity led directly to the development of the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey tiltrotor.
April 26, 1962 – The first flight of the Lockheed A-12. When the shooting war of WWII was replaced by the Cold War in 1947, it was imperative for the United States to have eyes in the sky to keep track of military activities inside the Soviet Union. Immediately after the war, the US began flying reconnaissance missions around the periphery of the Soviet Union, but these slow aircraft often became the targets of Russian jet fighters and fell prey to Russian guns. The answer to the problem was a new reconnaissance aircraft, one that could fly high enough to be out of reach of any contemporary fighter. At first, those missions were flown by the Lockheed U-2, which entered service in 1955. But while the U-2 flew high, it wasn’t particularly fast, and it didn’t take long for the U-2 to become vulnerable to radar-guided missiles. The CIA found themselves in need of a new plane that could fly still higher and faster. For that, they turned to Lockheed’s super-secret Skunk Works, led by Kelly Johnson, who began development of a successor to the U-2 in a program that the CIA called Oxcart.
Lockheed’s developmental aircraft were nicknamed Archangel (the U-2 had been called Angel), and began with design Archangel 1 (A-1). As subsequent designs were developed and discarded, Lockheed progressed to A-2, A-3 and so on. By the time they were ready to field an aircraft for CIA consideration, they had reached the twelfth iteration, or A-12. Competing against the Lockheed design was a delta wing aircraft proposed by Convair called the Kingfish. By 1959, the Kingfish design had progressed to offer a smaller radar cross section (RCS), and it was pitted against the A-12. However, based on Lockheed’s record of producing the U-2 on time and under budget, the A-12 was selected and the CIA awarded a contract for twelve A-12s on January 26, 1960.
The A-12 was unlike any aircraft that had ever flown. It was constructed mainly of titanium, which required Lockheed to develop entirely new ways of working with the exotic metal. In fact, there was so little domestic titanium available that the CIA used dummy corporations to purchase titanium from Russia, who were wholly unaware that their metal was being used to build an airplane that would one day spy on them with impunity. The titanium, combined with iron ferrite and silicon laminate composite materials and asbestos, helped to further reduce the A-12’s RCS. When the new spy plane was fitted with a pair of Pratt & Whitney J58 turbojets, the A-12 was capable of speeds in excess of Mach 3. By all measures, the A-12 was an enormous aircraft. Essentially a fuel tank wrapped in titanium and mated to two enormous engines, the spy plane’s delta wing was just over 55 feet across and covered 1,800 square feet. The entire aircraft measured a whopping 101 feet long and was 18-and-a-half feet tall. Its powerful radar could reach out nearly 800 miles, an extraordinary range, but a distance that the A-12 could cover in just 20 minutes at top speed. Performing a U-turn at Mach 3 required a 180-mile turning radius. And that incredible speed allowed the aircraft to set 12 official speed records. The extreme heat generated by such high speed was mitigated by the use of a corrugated skin that could expand and contract as the aircraft heated and cooled.
Though the A-12 was developed to spy on Russia, it actually never undertook that mission. At the time it entered service, the US government deemed flights over the Soviet Union too dangerous, and believed that the reconnaissance job could be handled by US satellites. So, the A-12s were instead sent to Kadena Air Base on the island of Okinawa in 1967, where they flew missions over North Vietnam, and over North Korea during the Pueblo crisis. There the A-12 showed that, while it could be tracked by targeting radar, the missiles sent against it could not bring it down. Ultimately, the A-12's career was relatively short, but its legacy is long lasting. Soon after development of the A-12, Lockheed began working on its successor, the SR-71 Blackbird. With the arrival of the SR-71 in 1966, the A-12 program officially ended, and the final flight took place in 1968. Though the A-12 was faster and could fly higher, the SR-71 was stealthier and more capable, and the Blackbird served until 1999 and carried out many of the reconnaissance missions originally intended for the A-12. Though the majority of A-12s were built for the CIA, the Air Force also experimented with the YF-12, an armed interceptor version that could carry three Hughes AIM-47A air-to-air missiles housed in an internal bomb bay, but they chose not to adopt it, and only three YF-12s were built.
April 24, 2001 – An unmanned Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk flies autonomously from Edwards Air Force Base in the US to Australia non-stop and unrefuelled. This flight marked the longest point-to-point flight ever completed by an unmanned aircraft, and took just over 23 hours to complete. The Global Hawk is also the first autonomous aircraft to cross the Pacific Ocean. The Global Hawk has proven to be a versatile and powerful surveillance platform, flying at altitudes of up to 65,000 feet for as long as 35 hours and capable of imaging an area the size of Illinois on a single mission.
April 24, 1990– The Space Shuttle Discovery launches on STS-31 to deploy the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). Named after American astronomer Edwin Hubble, the HST has a 7.9 foot diameter mirror and instruments to observe near ultraviolet, visible and near infrared spectra. Though the HST is not the first space telescope, it is the first designed to be serviced in space by astronauts, and four Space Shuttle missions have performed repairs or upgrades since it was placed in orbit in 1990. A fifth mission was canceled after the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, but one final servicing mission (STS-125) was undertaken by Space Shuttle Atlantis in 2009. The HST is still operating and providing astounding images of deep space, and will hopefully continue to operate until 2020. It is scheduled be replaced by the James Webb Space Telescope in 2021.
April 24, 1971 – Soyuz 10 performs the world’s first docking with the Salyut 1 orbiting space station. Once the United States had put a man on the Moon in 1969, the Russian space program shifted its emphasis from the Moon to orbital space stations. Salyut 1 was launched on April 19, 1971 as the world’s first orbiting space station then, three days later, Soyuz 10 was launched with a crew of three cosmonauts to rendezvous with the station. While the Soyuz 10 achieved a soft docking, a malfunction of the automated alignment system prevented a hard docking and the astronauts were unable to transfer to the station. The following Soyuz 11 mission was able to dock successfully, but a malfunctioning air valve caused the death of the cosmonauts during re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere.
April 24, 1967 – The death of cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov. Komarov was the sole cosmonaut on board Soyuz 1, the first flight of the Soyuz spacecraft which had launched from Baikonur on April 23. He was supposed to rendezvous in space with Soyuz 2, but that spacecraft never launched due to thunderstorms. While orbiting the Earth, Komarov’s spacecraft suffered numerous failures of electrical systems, solar panels, and guidance gyroscopes, and he was forced to manually orient his spacecraft for reentry. During descent, the capsule’s parachute failed to open and the spacecraft impacted the ground at speeds estimated as high as 400 mph. Komarov was killed in the crash, becoming the first fatality of any manned space program.
April 24, 1946 – The first flight of the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-9, the first jet fighter developed by Mikoyan-Gurevich following WWII. The MiG-9 was powered by a pair of reverse engineered BMW 003 turbojet engines which had powered the German Heinkel He 162. The MiG-9 was a modestly successful first generation fighter, but continuing problems with the engine plagued the project, and the ingestion of gases from the weapons caused frequent engine flameouts at high altitude, a problem that was never fully solved. Nevertheless, Mikoyan-Gurevich produced 610 MiG-9s between 1946-1948, with roughly half of them sent to China.
April 24 , 1946 – The first flight of the Yakovlev Yak-15, a early Soviet jet fighter developed from the Yakovlev Yak-3 piston powered fighter following WWII. The Yak-15 was powered by a reverse-engineered Junkers Jumo 004 turbojet and, with the Saab 21R, the Yak-13 was one of only two piston powered aircraft to enter production after conversion to jet power. The engine was placed under the forward fuselage of the fighter, with the exhaust exiting beneath the pilot, and the removal of the propeller spinner allowed for an air intake in the front. The Yak-15 had numerous problems, particularly kerosene and oil smoke which filled the cockpit, but the relative ease of flying meant that the aircraft served well as a transition trainer for pilots moving from piston fighters to jet fighters. A total of 280 were built during its brief production run from 1946-1947.
April 24, 1933 – The first flight of the Grumman JF Duck, an amphibious biplane that entered US Navy service in 1935. The JF was only manufactured for two years before production switched to the improved J2F Duck, and only 48 were built. The JF featured landing gear that could be retracted into the main centerline float which allowed the aircraft to land on water then taxi up onto land. Early versions of the aircraft had provisions for a rear-firing machine gun and a single bomb rack under each wing, but the Duck was used primarily for photographic missions, target towing, scouting, and search and rescue.
April 25, 2017 – Astronaut Peggy Whitson breaks the record for the most cumulative time spent in space by an American astronaut. While flying aboard the International Space Station (ISS) on her third long-duration mission, Whitson broke astronaut Jeff Williams’ previous record of 534 days, 2 hours and 48 minutes of total time in space. When Whitson finally returned to Earth on September 3, 2017, she had amassed 665 days in space over her career, more than any other woman astronaut and more than any other NASA astronaut. Whitson made her first trip to the ISS in 2002 and stayed for 184 days, then returned in 2008 for a 192-day stay. She also holds the record for the most spacewalks (10) and the most hours spacewalking (53) by a woman astronaut. In 2009, Whitson was the first woman to be appointed chief of the astronaut office, a position which she held until 2012. (The record for the longest single stay in space belongs to cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov, who stayed on the Russian space station Mir for 437 days.)
April 25, 2016 – Airbus delivers its first airliner built in the United States, Airbus made the decision to add an American assembly facility in 2012, and constructed a $600 million final assembly facility in Mobile, Alabama located at the Mobile Aeroplex at Brookley. Major components for the A319, A320 and A321, such as the fuselage and vertical stabilizer, are built in Germany, shipped to the US, and delivered to the facility by rail. The front fuselage is shipped from France, and the remaining 40-percent of parts, including engines, are provided by American suppliers. The first airliner delivered from the Alabama factory, an A321 CEO (Current Engine Option) delivered to JetBlue Airlines (N965JT) and nicknamed BluesMobile, took its maiden flight on March 24, 2016. Airbus also has plans to manufacture the A220, the rebadged Bombardier C Series, at the Alabama facility.
April 25, 1983 – NASA’s Pioneer 10 flies beyond the orbit of Pluto after completing the first mission to Jupiter. Despite flying beyond Pluto’s orbital path, Pioneer 10 still had not left the solar system, since Pluto’s irregular orbit meant that the spacecraft was closer to the Sun than Neptune at that point. But on June 13, 1983, Pioneer 10 passed the orbit of Neptune and officially became the first man-made object to leave our solar system. By September 9, 2012, Pioneer 10 was predicted to be about 10 billion miles from the Sun, traveling at about 26,930 mph and heading for the constellation Taurus. At that distance, light from our sun takes almost 15 hours to reach the probe. Its trajectory will take it in the general direction of the star Aldebaran, about 68 light years away. If Aldebaran had a zero relative velocity, Pioneer 10 would still take more than 2 million years to reach it.
April 25, 1933 – The first flight of the Stout ST. William Bushnell Stout was an American inventor and engineer who began work in the auto industry before branching out into aviation. Inspired heavily by the work of German Hugo Junkers and his use of corrugated metal skin for strength, Stout built the ST as a torpedo bomber for the US Navy. The first all-metal monoplane to serve the Navy, the ST had two engines, fixed gear, and featured a large thick wing that helped increase lift and increase wing strength. Stout hoped to sell a large number of aircraft to the US Navy, but a US Marine Corps pilot stalled and crashed the sole prototype ST and the Navy canceled the contract. Stout went on to design the somewhat more successful Stout 2-AT Pullman airliner, which he developed into the three-engine Stout 3-AT. While the 3-AT was thoroughly unsuccessful, it formed the basis for the Ford Trimotor after Ford purchased Stout’s company, with the stipulation that Stout not have anything to do with the development of the Trimotor.
April 26, 1937 – Luftwaffe bombers of the Condor Legion attack the Spanish city of Guernica. During the Spanish Civil War, the fascist Nationalists, led by Francisco Franco, turned to Germany and Italy for aid in fighting the Republicans, and the German Luftwaffe saw the conflict as an opportunity to hone the tactics of aerial warfare that they would employ during the upcoming invasion of Europe. Acting on the request of Franco’s government, Heinkel He 111s of Germany’s Condor Legion bombed the defenseless civilian population of Guernica in what historians consider the first instance of terror bombing as an effort to break the will of an enemy. The number of civilians reported killed in the bombing varies widely, depending on the source, and has been given anywhere from 132 to 1,654.
During the German occupation of Paris in WWII, Pablo Picasso handed out photos of his famous Guernica painting to German soldiers. When asked by a Gestapo officer, “Did you do this?” Picasso replied, “No. You did.”
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