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 28.
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 snooping around the periphery of the Soviet Union, but the WWII-era reconnaissance aircraft often became the targets of a new generation of 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. However, the service chose not to adopt it, and only three YF-12s were built.
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, and it was five years before one of their mechanics, Charley Furnas, became the first passenger to fly in a plane. But as the airplane grew and matured, it began to replace buses and trains in the people-moving business, and passenger capacity increased along with the size and complexity of the airliners. By the 1930s, airliners were crisscrossing the skies with paying passengers and, by the 1950s, jet-powered airliners could accommodate about 50 passengers, a number that seems small to us today.
When commercial airliners had gotten about as long and as wide as they could, the next logical way to make room for more passengers was to add a second deck. The earliest examples of double-deck airliners were large flying boats such as the Short Sandringham and the Boeing 314 Clipper. After WWII, military aircraft, such as the Lockheed R6V Constitution and Douglas C-124 Globemaster II took advantage of an added deck to carry more soldiers to far off battlefields. But the double-deck civilian airliner never really caught on after the war, and there was only one, the Breguet Deux-Ponts, a piston powered airliner that had its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s. But the dream of the double-deck airliner didn’t die with the retirement of the Deux-Ponts in 1971, and was resurrected by European aviation consortium Airbus with the 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, the company had basically cornered the market on large wide-body airliners. Airbus introduced their own wide-body, the twin-engine A300, in 1974, but they continued to envision a future of hub-and-spoke air travel, in which super-sized airliners would transport large numbers of passengers to a centralized airport where they could then take flights to their final destinations on smaller airliners. Beginning in 1988, Airbus initiated a secret project to develop an ultra-high-capacity-airliner (UHCA) and announced the A3xx program in June 1994. The company considered a number of different concepts, including a double fuselage arrangement that would knit two Airbus A340 fuselages together side-by-side. Ultimately, Airbus 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 and, like other Airbus airliners, the construction of the A380's major components took place throughout Europe. Once completed, the parts of the gargantuan airliner traveled by truck, train, and boat from France, Spain, the United Kingdom and Germany 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. There fore, 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 also 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. But the A380 is all about moving large numbers of people, and 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. Airbus has delivered 242 A380s since its introduction, with total orders standing at 251 as of February 2020. Emirates is by far the biggest customer for the super jumbo, and it was sales to Dubai-based airline that made the A380 possible and kept it afloat. However, improvements in range and capacity of smaller, twin-engined airliners have made those aircraft more popular with carriers who have an easier time filling a smaller airliner to capacity, and the hub-and-spoke concept of travel has given way to point-to-point travel with smaller, more efficient aircraft. Facing the reality of the current airliner market, and with the cancelation of 39 orders by Emirates and cancelations by other operators, Airbus announced that production of the A380 will cease in 2021. And while the company is no longer losing money on each A380 it sells, it remains unlikely that they will ever recoup the €25 billion investment they made to develop the giant airliner.
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 hypothetically long enough for a round trip to Mars. 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, and the record for the longest single stay in space for a woman is held by NASA astronaut Christina Koch who spent 328 days in the ISS.)
April 25, 2016 – Airbus delivers its first airliner built in the United States. In 2012, Airbus made the decision to build airliners in the US 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 – German bombers 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 reportedly replied, “No. You did.”
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 French service) 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 helicopters 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.
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 arrival 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.
April 28, 1988 – Aloha Airlines Flight 243 loses a section of its fuselage during flight. Aloha Airlines 243 was a Boeing 737-200 (N73711) that made regular short flights between the Hawaiian Islands. Though the airframe had only experienced 35,496 flight hours at the time of the accident, it had undergone 89,680 flight cycles (defined as a takeoff and a landing), exceeding the aircraft’s design limits. While cruising at 24,000 feet, a large section of the upper fuselage directly behind the cockpit tore away, exposing the passengers to the elements. One flight attendant was blown from the plane and died, but the 65 passengers, all of whom were belted at the time, survived, though some were seriously injured. An investigation by the NTSB cited metal fatigue aided by corrosion from the salty, humid environment, the high number of cycles, and inadequate maintenance practices as factors contributing to the accident.
If you enjoy these Aviation History posts, please let me know in the comments. You can find more posts about aviation history, aviators, and aviation oddities at Wingspan.