Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from April 29 through May 2.
May 1, 1960 – Francis Gary Powers is shot down over the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, the United States was desperate for timely, accurate intelligence on Russian military operations. By 1960, rudimentary satellite imagery was available, but it was unreliable, and not at all timely, since satellite photos had to be ejected from the orbiting satellite and returned to Earth for pickup, usually snatched from the air as they descended by parachute. It was not a foolproof system, and many rolls of film were lost. American reconnaissance planes had been probing the edges of the Soviet Union, but the shooting down of reconnaissance aircraft was a real danger, and many planes and pilots were lost. What the US sorely needed was an aircraft that could fly high enough to be out of the reach of Soviet fighters so it could take pictures of military installations, missile tests, or other high-value assets, then return to have the images analyzed immediately. At the time, there was perhaps nobody better suited to tackle that problem than Kelly Johnson, head of Lockheed’s super-secret Skunk Works. With the Lockheed U-2, Johnson and his team of engineers produced an aircraft that was capable of flying at 70,000 feet. While the “Dragon Lady” was by no means a fast aircraft, its extreme operating altitude made it immune to interception by enemy fighters. But as Soviet antiaircraft missile technology improved, the US knew it was just a matter of time before one of their pilots was shot down. The inevitable occurred on May 1, 1960, when CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down while on a spy mission over Russia. Powers took off from Pakistan and flew northward to photograph ICBM sites at the Baikonur Cosmodrome and the Plesetsk Cosmodrome. After photographing the sites, his flight plan dictated that he continue north and land in Norway. By now, these reconnaissance flights had become somewhat routine, and Powers was flying a predictable route. Soon after entering Soviet airspace north of Kazakhstan, his aircraft was detected near Chelyabinsk and fighters were sent to intercept it. Despite their best efforts, the fighters were unable to reach the spy plane at its extreme altitude.The Russians launched eight SA-2 Guideline missiles at Powers. The Russian missiles claimed at least one of the fighters sent to intercept Powers, but another detonated directly behind the U-2, showering it with shrapnel. Powers ejected, but the plane came to earth relatively intact. He chose not to take the poison capsule that the CIA provided him with, though its use was optional. At first, the US denied that Powers was on a spy mission. They explained that the unmarked U-2 was a “weather plane” that had gone off course. As part of the attempted cover up, NASA released a detailed account to the media of how one of its research planes had flown off course, and other U-2s were hastily painted with NASA markings to lend credibility to the ruse.
But the Russians were not fooled, and the incident served as another blow to already-brittle US-Soviet relations. The Eisenhower administration was forced to admit the true nature of the flight, and Powers pled guilty at what was essentially a propaganda show trial. He was convicted of espionage and received a sentence of ten years in prison, including seven years of hard labor. Ultimately, Powers served only 21 months of his sentence, and on February 10, 1962, he was exchanged for KGB spy Rudolf Abel, who had been convicted for espionage in what was known as the Hollow Nickel Case. Following the incident, the US halted flights over the Soviet Union and accelerated its work on satellite reconnaissance. But the true legacy of the Powers incident was the CIA’s Oxcart program, which saw the development of the Lockheed A-12 and Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, aircraft whose combination of extreme altitude and Mach 3 speed made them capable of flying over enemy territory with impunity. Powers returned to the US and worked as a test pilot for Lockheed, though he remained on the CIA payroll. After leaving Lockheed, Powers worked as a helicopter pilot for a Los Angeles television station, and died in 1977 when his Bell 206 JetRanger ran out of fuel and crashed while he covered a news a story. (U-2 photo via CIA; U-2 wreckage photo and Powers trial photo author unknown)
May 1, 1940 – The first flight of the Douglas SBD Dauntless. In the summer of 1921, US Army Air Service Brig. Gen. William “Billy” Mitchell carried out a series of tests to demonstrate his belief that air power alone could destroy ships at sea. Flying Martin NBS-1 bombers, Mitchell’s unit was successful in sinking the captured German battleship SMS Ostfriesland, but the results remained controversial. Though the battleship sank, no direct hits were made by the large level bombers, and the Ostfriesland and other target ships were all lying at anchor and making no attempts to defend themselves. In addition to the hits made by the level bombers, others were achieved by Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5 fighters acting as dive bombers. Mitchell’s experiment proved the potential of airpower over sea power, and it was the dedicated dive bomber that turned the tide of battle in the Pacific during WWII. The Douglas SBD Dauntless (SBD stands for Scout Bomber Douglas) traces its lineage back to the Northrop BT, a two-seat, single-engine dive bomber developed for the US Navy that first flew in 1935. An innovative feature of the BT was its spilt perforated flaps, which helped eliminate tail buffeting during dives. These split flaps became a trademark of the later Dauntless. When Northrop was taken over by Douglas Aircraft Company in 1937, work on Northrop projects continued. Development of the Dauntless was taken over by a team led by Ed Heinemann, and it became the first in a long list of great warplanes that Heinemann helped to develop. The first production models of the Dauntless were the SBD-1, which went into service with the US Navy, and the SBD-2, which served with the US Marine Corps. Both were powered by a 1,000 hp Wright Cyclone engine, and differed only in that the Marine Corps version had an increased fuel capacity and different armament. Development progressed to the SBD-3 in early 1941 with the addition of more armor plating to protect the crew, increased firepower in the form of four machine guns, and self-sealing fuel tanks. But it was the SBD-5 that became the mainstay of the US Navy in the early years of the war. The most marked changed in the SBD-5 was the inclusion of a more powerful Wright R-18920 Cyclone engine. This was the same engine that powered the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, and boosted the SBD’s power up to 1,200 hp. In addition to its two rearward-firing .30 caliber defensive machine guns, the SBD-5 also featured two forward-firing .50 caliber machine guns which proved quite effective against more lightly built Japanese fighters. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Dauntless went directly into battle, attacking Japanese positions throughout the Pacific Theater.
The first significant contribution made by the Dauntless and her crews was in the Battle of the Coral Sea on May 4-8, 1942, when SBDs flying from the carriers Yorktown and Lexington sank the Japanese light carrier Shōhō and damaged the fleet carrier Zuikaku, which had taken part in the Pearl Harbor attack. The Battle of the Coral Sea was the first naval battle in history where the surface ships of the opposing navies never sighted each other. While a tactical victory for the Japanese, the battle slowed Japanese expansion north of Australia, and set the stage for the pivotal Battle of Midway a month later. During that battle, four squadrons of SBDs flying from the American carriers Yorktown, Hornet and Enterprise sank the Japanese fleet carriers Akagi, Kaga, Sōryū and Hiryū, all four of which had taken part in the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Americans lost one carrier, but the balance of power in the Pacific, and the initiative, had decisively shifted to the Americans. Though the Dauntless was meant to be replaced by the more powerful Curtiss SB2C Helldiver, the SBD soldiered on, and fought effectively throughout the Pacific War. The US Army evaluated a land-based version called the A-24 Banshee that was identical save for the removal of the tail hook and the inclusion of an inflated tail wheel, but it was not nearly as successful as the Dauntless. When production of the SBD and A-24 finished in 1944, nearly 6,000 aircraft had been built. Despite their exemplary service, the Dauntless had become obsolete, and they were quickly retired at the end of the war. (US Navy photos)
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. During return, 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. (Photo by Bill Deaver/Deaver-Wiggins and Associates via Space.com)
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, offering 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. (Photo by Adrian Pingstone via Wikimedia Commons)
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 highest 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 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. (Photo © by the author)
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 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. The vertical stabilizer of the Molot was removed and replaced by a pair of endplane tail fins, and a large, external cargo pod was added. 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. (Photo by Dmitry Pichugin via Wikimedia Commons)
April 29, 1971 – The first flight of the Piper PA-48 Enforcer, the ultimate development of the North American P-51 Mustang. Designed as a low-cost counter-insurgency (COIN) platform, the first Enforcer was developed from the Cavalier Mustang, the civilian version of the WWII fighter and powered by a turboprop engine. Though the aircraft performed well, neither the Air Force nor any foreign air forces showed any interest. 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. (US Air Force photo)
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 out to the Glenn Martin Company, which offered the more advanced Martin XB-907, which entered service in 1934 as the Martin B-10. (US Air Force photo)
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, and finished the war with 26 confirmed victories. Rickenbacker eventually commanded the 94th, and after the war he started the ill-fated Rickenbacker Motor Company in 1920. But Rickenbacker 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. (Photo author unknown)
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 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. (US Air Force photo)
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 Soviet Sverdlov-class cruisers. With a crew of 2 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 the British Aerospace Sea Harrier in the Royal Navy. (Photo via Gatwick Aviation Museum)
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 the first woman of Native American descent to hold a pilot’s license. Coleman developed an interest in flying after WWI, but had to earn her pilot license in France because no American flight instructors would agree to train her. After receiving her license in 1920, Coleman returned to the US and flew on the barnstorming circuit, and hoped 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, was thrown from the cockpit following an unexpected dive. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
May 1, 1912 – The first flight of the Avro Type F. Though only one was ever built, the Type F is notable as the world’s first aircraft to feature an enclosed cabin as part of the design. With room for just one pilot, who entered through an aluminum sheet metal trapdoor in the top of the fuselage, the Type F also had circular holes in the side windows so the pilot could stick his head out in case the windscreen became fouled by oil. The wire-braced monoplane made a number of test flights, but was eventually damaged beyond repair on September 13, 1912. It’s Viale 35 hp radial engine is displayed at the Science Museum in London, and its rudder belongs to the Royal Aero Club. (Photo author unknown)
May 2, 1998 – The 100th and final Rockwell B-1B Lancer is delivered. The Rockwel B-1 was originally envisioned as a Mach 2, long-range nuclear bomber to replace the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress. The B-1A was canceled in 1977 by the Carter administration, but was resurrected during the Reagan administration as the B-1B, and its mission was changed to low-level bombing with conventional armament. Despite the recent emphasis on stealth technology, the B-1B has become a mainstay of the US Air Force, serving in all US conflicts since Operation Desert Fox in 1988. With recent upgrades announced by Boeing, the “Bone” is expected to serve until at least 2030. (Photo © by the author)
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