Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from April 27 through April 30.
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 passenger jets 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 and, 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 with 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, 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 takes place throughout Europe. Once completed, the parts of the gargantuan airliner travel 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. 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, and it now serves with 15 operators worldwide. Airbus has delivered 234 A380s since its introduction, with total orders reaching 313. 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, Airbus finally 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-Euro investment they made to develop the giant airliner.
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.
April 29, 2013 – The first powered flight of the Virgin Galactic SpaceShip Two, a suborbital spaceplane designed by Burt Rutan and built by Scaled Composites to carry tourists into space. SpaceShip Two is carried aloft by the White Knight Two mothership, then released to leave the atmosphere under rocket power. For paying passengers, the entire flight will last two-and-a-half hours, but tourists will only experience a few minutes of microgravity. On SpaceShip Two’s return to Earth, an innovative feathering system raises the tail structure to stabilize the craft during reentry, and then retracts before an unpowered landing. The space tourism concept was suspended following a crash of VSS Enterprise in 2014, and test flights resumed on May 1, 2017 with the second SpaceShip, VSS Unity, to evaluate a redesigned re-entry system.
April 29, 1991 – The first flight of the Cessna CitationJet, a small, turbofan-powered corporate jet which formed the basis for a full line of models offering different engine and passenger accommodations. The CitationJet was originally developed as a replacement for the Citation and Citation I and offered a laminar flow wing and a T-tail configuration. Though the CitationJet is shorter than its predecessors, it offers increased cabin height through a lowered cabin center aisle. Depending on the variant, the CitationJet can carry from 3 to 9 passengers, and is rated for operation by a single pilot. A number of variants have increased passenger capacity, and the CitationJet remains in production. More than 1,800 of all variants have been built to date.
April 29, 1988 – The first flight of the Boeing 747-400, a development of the 747-300 and the variant that has been delivered in the greatest numbers. The 400 has an updated glass cockpit and can be flown by two pilots, eliminating the need for a flight engineer. The most recognizable feature of the 400 is the addition of 6-foot tall winglets for increased fuel efficiency, though these are not included in aircraft built for the Japanese domestic market. Boeing offered the 400 in five basic variants: passenger (-400), freighter (-400F), combi (-400M), domestic (-400D, with a shorter range and capacity for 624 passengers) and extended range (-400ER). Northwest Airlines was the launch customer for the 400, and a total of 694 of all variants have been delivered.
April 29, 1981 – The first flight of the Myasischev VM-T, a variant of the Myasischev M-4 Molot bomber that was repurposed for strategic airlift and the transportation of extremely large loads. The VM-T is capable of carrying loads in excess of 55 tons, and was originally developed to transport rocket boosters and other large components to the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan for the Russian space program. A large, external cargo pod was added, and the vertical stabilizer of the Molot was removed and replaced by a pair of endplane tail fins. The VM-T was also used to transport the Russian space shuttle Buran. Two VM-Ts were built, and they were eventually replaced by the larger Antonov An-225 Mriya.
April 29, 1971 – The first flight of the Piper PA-48 Enforcer. Designed as a low-cost counter-insurgency (COIN) platform, the original Enforcer was developed from the Cavalier Mustang, the civilian version of the WWII North American P-51 Mustang, and powered by a turboprop engine. Though the aircraft performed well, neither the Air Force nor any foreign air forces showed any interest at the time. The program was resurrected in 1979 when Congress allocated money to build two more prototypes of a more advanced version, one that now shared only 10% of the original Mustang airframe. Again, the Air Force chose not to adopt the aircraft. Two of the four prototypes remain, one at the Air Force Flight Test Museum at Edwards AFB, and the other at the National Museum of the Air Force near Dayton, Ohio.
April 29, 1931 – The first flight of the Boeing YB-9, a Boeing-funded development of their Model 200 Monomail single-engine commercial aircraft and the first all-metal cantilever monoplane bomber built for the US Army Air Corps. Powered but a pair of Pratt & Whitney R-1860 Hornet B radial engines, the YB-9 had a top speed of 188 mph, equal to or better than contemporary fighter aircraft. Boeing built two test and five production aircraft (Y1B-9A), but lost the competition for a production contract to the Glenn L. Martin Company, which offered the more advanced Martin XB-907 and entered service in 1934 as the Martin B-10.
April 29, 1918 – American ace Eddie Rickenbacker scores his first victory. Rickenbacker was America’s leading ace in WWI, and a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor. He served in the 94th Aero Squadron, nicknamed the “Hat-in-the-Ring” squadron, where he flew French-made Nieuport 28 and SPAD S.XIII fighters. Rickenbacker eventually commanded the 94th, and finished the war with 26 confirmed victories. After the war, he started the ill-fated Rickenbacker Motor Company in 1920, but made his greatest contribution to aviation as the head of Eastern Air Lines from 1938 until his retirement in 1963. Rickenbacker died of a stroke in 1973.
April 30, 1985 – The first flight of the British Aerospace Harrier II, the second-generation development of the McDonnell Douglas AV-8B Harrier II, itself a derivative of the Hawker Siddeley Harrier. Provided with a more powerful engine, an improved wing, and upgraded avionics, the Harrier II was operated by both the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, and saw service in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, where it flew air interdiction and close air support missions. Due to budget shortfalls, a controversial decision was taken by the British government to retire the Harrier II in December of 2010 with no immediate successor in place. The Harrier II’s mission eventually will be taken over by the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II, which will operate from two new Queen Elizabeth-class carriers scheduled for activation by 2020.
April 30, 1958 – The first flight of the Blackburn Buccaneer, a low-level, subsonic, carrier-based attack aircraft developed by the Royal Navy to counter the threat posed by Soviet Sverdlov-class cruisers. With a crew of two and a top speed of 667 mph, the Buccaneer could carry up to 12,000 pounds of either conventional or nuclear weapons and entered service in 1962. It saw action with the South African Air Force during the South African Border War, and in the Gulf War, where Buccaneers flew as target designation aircraft for the Panavia Tornado. The Buccaneer was retired from service in 1994 and replaced by the Tornado in the RAF and by the British Aerospace Sea Harrier in the Royal Navy.
April 30, 1926 – The death of Bessie Coleman. Coleman was born on January 26, 1892 in Atlanta, Texas. She was the first woman of African American descent to become a pilot, and also the first woman of Native American descent to hold a pilot’s license. Coleman developed an interest in flying after WWI but, since no American flight instructors would agree to train her, she received her training and pilot license in France in 1920. After her return to the US, Coleman flew on the barnstorming circuit and planned to establish a flight school for African American women. Coleman was killed during a reconnaissance flight for a parachute display. With her mechanic at the controls, Coleman, who was not wearing a seat belt and did not have a parachute, was thrown from the cockpit following an unexpected dive.
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