Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from April 25 through April 27.


(US Department of Defense)

April 26, 1962 – The first flight of the Lockheed A-12. When the shooting war of WWII was replaced with 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, that aircraft was the Lockheed U-2, which entered service in 1955. But it didn’t take long for the U-2 to become vulnerable to radar-guided missiles, and the CIA found themselves in need of a new plane that could fly still higher and faster. Project Rainbow attempted to make the U-2 less observable to enemy radar but, when that proved unsuccessful, Lockheed’s super-secret Skunk Works, led by Kelly Johnson, began an internal project to develop a successor to the U-2 in a program that the CIA called Oxcart.

Concept drawings illustrate how the design of Archangel progressed towards the final A-12 (CIA)

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 son 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, which featured vertical stabilizers canted inwards to further reduce its RCS. 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.

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A scale model of the A-12 mounted inverted on a pole for radar testing (CIA)

The A-12 was unlike any aircraft that had ever flown. It was constructed mainly of titanium, which required Lockheed had 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 delta wing was just over 55 feet across and 1,800 square feet in size. 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 distance, until you realize that the A-12 could cover that distance 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 those speeds was mitigated by the use of a corrugated skin that could expand and contract as the aircraft heated and cooled.

Factory fresh A-12s lined up on the tarmac at the US Air Force Plant 24 in Palmdale, California (US Air Force)

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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. While 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.


(Tim Shaffer)

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April 27, 2005 – The first flight of the Airbus A380. When the Wright Brothers made their first flight in 1903, their airplane carried a single pilot. But as the airplane grew and matured, it began to replace buses and trains in the people-moving business, and the number of people airliners could carry also grew. By the 1950s, jet-powered airliners could accommodate about 50 passengers, a number that seems small to us today. When airliners had gotten about as long and as wide as possible, somebody had the idea of making a double-deck aircraft. The earliest examples were large flying boats, such as the Short Sandringham and the Boeing 314 Clipper. After WWII, military aircraft, such as the Douglas C-124 Globemaster II, took advantage of the added deck to carry more soldiers to far off battlefields. With airliners, however, many of the aircraft that are considered double-deckers have only a partial second level, such as the Boeing 747, or a second level that is mostly used for galley space. There are only two fully double-decker airliners: the Breguet Deux-Ponts, a post-war piston powered airliner, and the Airbus A380, a mammoth double-decker that could only fly in the modern era of composite construction and powerful, efficient jet engines.

Since the beginning of the jet airliner days, Boeing had been the king of the airliner business for years and, with the introduction of the 747 in 1970, they had cornered the market on large airliners. In order to break Boeing’s stranglehold, Airbus began a secret project in 1988 to develop an ultra-high-capacity-airliner (UHCA. After exhaustive research into the feasibility of such a large airliner, and having received design concepts from each of its European partners, Airbus announced the A3xx program in June 1994. Among the designs Airbus considered was a double fuselage arrangement that would knit two Airbus A340 fuselages together side-by-side. Ultimately they decided on a full double-deck design as being more feasible, and the program was officially launched on December 19, 2000 with 50 firm orders from six customers. Manufacturing began in January 2002. Like other Airbus airliners, the construction of the A380's major components takes place throughout Europe, and parts of the gargantuan airliner from France, Spain, the United Kingdom and Germany are shipped to Toulouse, France for final assembly. For an aircraft of its size to fly, and carry a useful load, it must remain as light as possible. The majority of the A380 is constructed of traditional aluminum, while 20% of the airframe is constructed from composite materials, with heavy use of composites in the wings. The A380 is the world’s first airliner to have a wingbox constructed from carbon reinforced plastic. Depending on the requirements of the purchaser, the A380 is powered by four Rolls-Royce Trent 900 or four Engine Alliance GP7000 turbofan engines which provide a cruising speed of 587 mph (Mach 0.85) and a range of over 9,000 miles. Currently, the longest flight by an A380 is from Auckland, New Zealand to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, a distance of 8,824 miles.

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An A380 of launch customer Singapore Airlines arrives at Frankfurt am Main in 2013 (Kambui)

The A380 was conceived to take part in the hub-and-spoke theory of air travel, in which large airliners would transport large numbers of passengers to a centralized airport, where they could then take flights to their final destinations on smaller airliners. To that end, the A380 can accommodate 544 passengers in a 4-class configuration, 644 in a 2-class configuration, and an incredible 868 passengers in a single-class arrangement. The first A380 entered service with Singapore Airlines in 2007, and it now serves with 13 operators worldwide. Though Airbus has delivered 222 A380s since its introduction, the airliner faces a troubled future, as improvements in range and capacity of smaller, twin-engined airliners have made them more popular with carriers who have an easier time filling a smaller aircraft to capacity. Facing the reality of the current airliner market, Airbus recently announced a plan to reduce production of the A380 as it faces order cancelations, even with fuel costs at a record low. And while Airbus is no longer losing money on each A380 it sells, it remains unlikely that they will ever recoup the $25 billion investment it made to develop the giant airliner.


Short Takeoff


(NASA)

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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 NASA astronaut of any gender. 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 has spent more then 53 hours performing spacewalks, earning her the title of the most spacewalking by a female astronaut. She also holds the record for the most spacewalks (10) by a woman astronaut. Whitson was appointed chief of the astronaut office in 2009, making her the first woman in the 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.


(Airbus)

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April 25, 2016 – Airbus delivers its first airliner built in the United States, an A321 CEO (Current Engine Option), delivered to JetBlue Airlines (N965JT). 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 aircraft, nicknamed BluesMobile, took its maiden flight on March 24, 2016. Airbus plans to deliver four aircraft per month from the Alabama facility by the end of 2017. Airbus also has plans to manufacture the Bombardier C Series at their Alabama facility.


(NASA)

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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 it 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.


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April 26, 1937 – Luftwaffe bombers of the Condor Legion attack the Spanish city of Guernica. During the Spanish Civil War, the 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 the Nationalist 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 reportedly was about his famous Guernica painting asked by a Gestapo officer, “Did you do this?” Picasso replied, “No. You did.”


(Author unknown)

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April 26, 1896 – The birth of Ernst Udet, the second-highest scoring ace of WWI and the highest scoring ace to survive the Great War. Udet served under Manfred von Richthofen in Jagdgeschwader 1 (the Flying Circus) where he scored 62 confirmed victories. Following the war, Udet flew as a stunt pilot and barnstormer, then joined the Nazi Party in 1933 and was instrumental in the development of the Luftwaffe, particularly the dive bombing tactics employed by the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka. Following Germany’s inability to destroy the RAF in the Battle of Britain, Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring led Hitler to believe that the loss was Udet’s fault, and Udet committed suicide on November 17, 1941.


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April 27, 1991 – The first flight of the Eurocopter Tiger, a two-seat tandem attack helicopter built by Airbus Helicopters (formerly Eurocopter). The Tiger (Tigre in France) was initially developed as a Cold War-era anti-tank helicopter but, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, its mission was changed to a multirole helicopter. The Tiger is the first all-composite helicopter developed in Europe, and is roughly comparable to the Boeing AH-64 Apache. The Tiger was deemed ready for service in 2008, and the first Tigers saw action in Afghanistan in 2009. A total of 135 have been built, and they serve the armed forces of Australia, France, Germany and Spain.


(US Navy)

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April 27, 1952 – The first flight of the Tupolev Tu-16, a twin-engine strategic bomber designed to carry up to 9,000 lbs of nuclear or conventional weapons. Following WWII, the only long range bomber the Soviets possessed was the Tupolev Tu-4 (NATO code name Bull), which was a reverse engineered copy of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress. With the development of turbojet engines, Tupolev began work on a jet-powered, swept-wing bomber with a range of up to 3,000 miles. In addition to the original bomber version, the Tu-16 (NATO code name Badger) was also developed into reconnaissance, electronic intelligence and electronic warfare variants, as well as a passenger variant that served with the Soviet airline Aeroflot. Just over 1,500 Tu-16s were produced and exported to most Eastern Bloc nations and other Russian-allied states. 


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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