Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from August 1 through August 3.


(US Air Force)

August 1, 1955 – The first flight of the Lockheed U-2. At the close of World War II, the Communist Soviet Union was firmly in control of much of Eastern Europe, while the Democratic western allies held Western Europe. It was the beginning of an ideological struggle between East and West known as the Cold War, and while it never broke out into WWIII, the struggle brought about an arms race, space race, and numerous proxy wars as the two sides strived to become the dominant influence in the world. In the early states of the Cold War, the United States was desperate for accurate and timely intelligence on Russian military activities. While that sort of information is gained by powerful satellites today, it wasn’t until the 1960s that satellites began providing pictures from the safety of space, and even then, it was unreliable. Long ranging reconnaissance planes like the Boeing RB-50, a variant of the WWII-era B-29 Superfortress, and the jet-powered Boeing RB-57 Stratojet, probed the edges of the Soviet Union, but it was hazardous duty and many planes and pilots were lost to Russian fighters and antiaircraft fire. What the US desperately needed was an aircraft that could fly high enough to be out of range of Soviet fighters, and perhaps even out of the range of Russian radars.

Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, the principal designer of the Lockheed U-2, poses with the Dragon Lady in 1966. (Lockheed Martin)

The US already had in their arsenal the Martin B-57 Canberra, the American-built version of the remarkable English Electric Canberra. The B-57 already had a ceiling of 48,000 feet, just out of the reach of Russian MiG-15 fighters. With a goal of 70,000 feet, Martin lengthened the wings of the B-57 in the hopes of gaining more altitude, but it came up 2,000 feet short. So the Air Force sent out requests to smaller aircraft manufacturers who might be able to devote all of their attention to this important project. Lockheed was not one of them. Nevertheless, the company heard of the project and submitted their own proposal, designed by the brilliant Kelly Johnson. Initially based on Lockheed’s XF-104, the single engine CL-282 had long, slender wings and was powered by a single General Electric J73 engine in a short fuselage. To save weight, the CL-282 had no landing gear, and would take off from a rolling cart and land on its belly. Even though the CL-282 promised the performance the Air Force requested, and perhaps even more, they passed on the Lockheed design in favor of a Bell aircraft that never actually flew. The CL-282 passed to the Central Intelligence Agency, who would adopt and fly what would eventually become the U-2.

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The first Lockheed U-2, known as Article 001 to mask its true mission. (US Air Force)

The CIA’s codename for the project was Dragon Lady, and that gave the U-2 its unofficial nickname. But the CL-282 needed some improvements to make it operational. Lockheed added landing gear in the form of two wheels directly behind the cockpit and another set of two wheels behind the engine. The rear wheels are coupled to the rudder and provide steering on the ground. Outrigger wheels on the wingtips, called pogos, keep the wingtips off the ground during taxi and takeoff. The pogos fall out on takeoff, and are replaced after landing, with the wingtips protected by titanium skid plates. The engine was also upgraded more powerful and proven General Electric J57 turbojet. The J57 added even more altitude to the U-2, which now had a service ceiling of nearly 75,000 feet, high enough to see the curvature of the Earth. So high, in fact, that pilots breathe 100% oxygen beginning an hour before their mission, and wear space suits in case the cockpit depressurizes at altitude.

The U-2 flies at the edge of space, where the curve of the Earth is visible. (Christopher Michel)

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Test flights began in 1956, and the Dragon Lady entered service the following year. CIA pilots, all civilians (military pilots were not allowed to make reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union) were called “drivers” rather “pilots.” With its long slender wing and unpowered controls, the U-2 was very difficult to fly at lower altitudes, and required constant attention at high altitude. In 1956, three U-2s crashed with the loss of the pilot. Despite these difficulties, the first U-2s were deployed to Germany in 1956 and began with overflights of East Germany and Poland in June followed by the first overflights of the Soviet Union in July. Though the Dragon Lady could be tracked by Soviet radars, more accurately than the US believed possible, it remained out of reach of the fighters sent up to knock it down. With the threat of nuclear war should the Soviets shoot down a U-2, President Eisenhower was reluctant to continue the flights, and they were canceled numerous times, only to be restarted at a later date, and U-2s made flights over other global hotspots such as the Suez, and later over Cuba and Vietnam. Despite the relative safety of extreme altitude, the Russians did mange to claim one U-2 with CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down by a surface to air missile on May 1, 1960. Another was shot down over Cuba in 1962.

A Lockheed ER-2 operated by NASA for high altitude research. (NASA)

Though very much a product of the Cold War, the U-2 remains in service today, and provided intelligence for conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 60 years after its maiden flight. The airframe has been updated with more powerful General Electric F118 turbofans and upgraded sensors and cameras. The ability to quickly changes sensors for different mission parameters makes the U-2 a valuable asset to this day. NASA also flies updated ER-2 variants for high altitude research. Capable of providing critical reconnaissance with more flexibility than orbiting satellites, and the judgement of a human pilot, it is likely that the U-2 will continue flying for years to come.

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August 2, 1966 – The first flight of the Sukhoi Su-17. Before the adoption of the jet engine, almost all aircraft, dating back to the Wright Flyer, were built with straight wings. Generally, straight wings provide good low-speed stability and handling, but the advent of the turbojet engine during WWII led designers to experiment with swept wings that would incur less drag at higher speeds. However, swept wings also had the drawback of requiring higher landing speeds. But what if you could design an airplane that could benefit from both straight and swept wings? As early as 1944, the idea of having an airplane with a variable-sweep wing (also called variable-geometry) was being investigated in Germany with the Messerschmitt Me P.1101. But this aircraft, which never entered production, could only vary the sweep of the wings to a fixed position before takeoff. In England, Barnes Wallis began working on a swing-wing concept in 1949, but it wasn’t until the experimental Bell X-5, which first flew in 1951 and had three different wing positions, that an aircraft could change its wing sweep in flight.

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An illustration of the wing positions on the Sukhoi Su-17. (emoscopes)

However, one of the problems faced by variable geometry aircraft is an unfavorable shift in the airplane’s center of gravity when moving between the straight and swept positions. To counter this problem, Russian designers at the Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute (TsAGI) modified an existing Sukhoi Su-7B to use a fixed central wing with a variable outer wing in the hopes of improving the Su-7's low-speed flight characteristics and lowering its landing speed. This new aircraft, dubbed the Su-7IG, was further developed into the Su-17 to become Russia’s first variable geometry aircraft. Along with the modified wing, Sukhoi gave the Su-17 a new canopy, and a dorsal spine for additional fuel and avionics. The new variable sweep fighter was the first in a series that also included the Su-20 and the Su-22 and, despite the different Sukhoi classifications, all of these variants received the NATO reporting name Fitter.

Sukhoi Su-22M4 of the Polish Air Force with wings swept forward for landing. (aceebee)

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The Fitter was powered by a single Lyulka AL-21 afterburning axial flow turbojet that gave it a top speed of 870 mph, and the Fitter was armed with two 30mm cannons and could carry up to 8,800 pounds of external stores under the fixed wing section or on the fuselage. It entered service with the Soviet Air Force in 1970, where it served during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan from 1979-1989. While high elevation and high temperature operations proved challenging for the Su-17, the ruggedly constructed engine was tolerant to sand ingestion and the Fitter maintained a high level of readiness, though it proved susceptible to anti-aircraft fire and shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles. The Fitter was widely exported to Soviet allies, and eventually served for over 20 years with the Soviet Air Force and 15 export countries, including Libya, where two Su-17s were shot down by US Navy Grumman F-14 Tomcat fighters over the Gulf of Sidra in 1981. Despite advances in Soviet fighter design, the Su-17 and its derivatives remained in service with Russia until 1998, and more than 500 of the 2,867 aircraft produced remain in service today.


Short Takeoff


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August 1, 2002 – The first flight of the Scaled Composites White Knight, an aircraft designed to launch the SpaceShipOne experimental spacecraft in the first part of a program to take paying passengers into space. Designed by Burt Rutan, White Knight is powered by two General Electric J85 turbojet engines and carried the SpaceShipOne to an altitude of 45,000 feet before releasing the spacecraft to fly on its rocket motor. A total of 17 flights were made with SpaceShipOne before it was replaced by the larger and more powerful White Knight Two. Following the completion of the SpaceShipOne program, White Knight carried out drop tests of the Boeing X-37 Orbital Test Vehicle. In July 2014, White Knight was retired to the Flying Heritage Collection in Everett, Washington.


(NASA)

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August 1, 1973 – The first flight of the Martin Marietta X-24B, an experimental wingless aircraft developed jointly between the US Air Force and NASA to explore the design of lifting body aircraft. The X-24 was dropped from a Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, then powered by a rocket engine in flight before gliding to a landing. The lifting body research was carried out from 1963 to 1975 to investigate wingless vehicles that could land on Earth after flying in space, and data gained during these experiments was put to use in the design of the Space Shuttle. The X-24B made a total of 36 test flights before it was retired to the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.


(Tim Shaffer)

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August 1, 1949 – The first flight of the Northrop C-125 Raider. Following WWII, Northrop’s first offering for a civilian airliner was the three-engine N-23 Pioneer. However, with so many surplus aircraft available, airlines showed little interest. So Northrop instead pitched it to the US Air Force as the C-125 Raider to fulfill the roll of a short takeoff and landing (STOL) cargo carrier. The Air Force placed an order for 23 aircraft, and Raiders began to enter service in 1950. However, the Raider proved to be underpowered, and they were quickly relegated to ground training duty and declared surplus in 1955. Most of the remaining aircraft ended up flying cargo in South and Central America. Two non-airworthy Raiders remain, one on display at the Pima Air and Space Museum in Arizona and the other at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Ohio.


Orville Wright (seated right) trains 1st Lt. Frank Lahm in the US Army’s first aircraft in 1909 (US Air Force)

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August 1, 1907 – The Aeronautical Division of the United States Army Signal Corps is created “to study the flying machine and the possibility of adapting it to military purposes.” Just four years after the Wright Brothers made their first flight, the US Army already showed interest in the possible military applications of the airplane. The Aeronautical Division was the world’s first heavier-than-air military aviation organization, and the Army purchased their first aircraft, a Wright Model A, also known as the Military Flyer, on August 2, 1909. The Aeronautical Division saw its first action in 1913 when the 1st Aero Squadron was sent into Mexico to take part in the hunt for Pancho Villa. The Aeronautical Division eventually gave way to the US Army Air Corps and US Army Air Forces in WWII, and then became its own equal branch of the military with the creation of the US Air Force in 1947.


(UK Government)

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August 2, 1917 – Royal Naval Air Service pilot Edwin Harris Dunning becomes the first person to land on a moving ship. American Eugene Ely had made the first landing on a ship in 1910 on a ship moored in Hampton Roads, but to make carrier operations useful an aircraft would have to land while a ship was underway. In the era before arresting wires and tail hooks, Dunning had to rely on crew members assembled on deck to grab his Sopwith Pup and bring it to a halt. He made two successful landings on HMS Furious as it steamed in Scapa Flow in northern Scotland, but on his third attempt a gust of wind caused his aircraft to veer off the deck and into the water. Dunning was rendered unconscious and drowned. He was just 25 years old.


(Author unknown)

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August 2, 1985 – The crash of Delta Air Lines Flight 191, a regularly scheduled flight of a Lockheed L-1011 TriStar (N726DA) from Fort Lauderdale to Dallas-Fort Worth that crashed while trying to land during a thunderstorm. Lacking the sophisticated Doppler radar found on today’s airliners that could warn the pilots of wind speeds in a storm, the airliner was struck by microburst-induced wind shear at low altitude that caused the L-1011 to crash a mile short of the runway, killing 136 passengers and crew, plus 1 person on the ground. The National Transportation Board investigation faulted the pilots for choosing to land through the storm, as well as a lack of training for dealing with wind shear. As a result of this crash, the Federal Aviation Administration now mandates wind shear detection systems on all commercial aircraft. A memorial plaque placed at Founder’s Plaza next to the airport commemorates the tragedy.


(Flyernzl)

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August 2, 1960 – The first flight of the Bennett Airtruck, an agricultural aircraft constructed from surplus Royal New Zealand Air Force North American Harvard (T-6 Texan) training aircraft. The Airtruck is essentially an agricultural chemical hopper with wings, engine and twin-boom tail, with the cockpit placed directly over the engine. As many as five passengers could also be carried instead of chemicals. Two were built, though the first crashed in 1963, and the second crashed two years later. Despite the loss of the prototypes, the Airtruck proved to be a very efficient agricultural aerial top dresser. The design was transferred to the Transavia Corporation which produced the Transavia PL-12 Airtruk, a similar aircraft that was manufactured from scratch and did not use scavenged Harvard parts.


(US Library of Congress)

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August 2, 1911 – Harriet Quimby becomes the first American woman to be certified as a pilot. At a time when flying was dominated by male pilots, Quimby, a Hollywood screenwriter, became the first woman to earn a pilot’s license in the United States, and her piloting exploits served as an inspiration to many women of her day. Quimby was hired as a spokesperson by the Vin Fiz Company and became the first woman to fly across the English Channel in 1912, a feat that was unfortunately overshadowed by news of the sinking of the Titanic just one day later. Quimby was killed on July 1, 1912 when her Blériot XI monoplane was struck by a gust of wind and suddenly pitched forward, ejecting both her and her passenger at an altitude of 1,500 feet over Dorchester Bay. The plane came down relatively intact.


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August 3, 1981 – The Professional Air Traffic Controllers go on strike. Air traffic controllers in the US had been unionized since 1970, and had a history of poor relations with the Federal Aviation Administration. Demanding better pay, better working conditions, and a 32-hour work week, controllers went on strike in 1981 in contravention of established US laws prohibiting strikes by government employees. When the strikers refused to return to work after being ordered to do so by President Ronald Reagan, 11,345 controllers were fired and banned for life from federal service. In 1993, President Bill Clinton reversed the ban, but only 800 controllers regained their jobs, and it took 10 years to fully staff the nation’s air traffic system.


(Japanese government)

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August 3, 1945 – The first flight of the Kyushu J7W Shinden, an interceptor developed for the Japanese Navy and notable for its use of a pusher propellor and forward canard. Similar in layout to the Curtiss-Wright XP-55 Ascender, the Shinden (Magnificent Lightning) was developed to provide defense against Boeing B-29 Superfortress raids on the Japanese homeland, and designers planned that the propeller engine could be supplanted by a jet engine in the future. The navy ordered the Shinden into production off the drawing board, but the war ended before development progressed beyond the construction of two prototypes.


(Author unknown)

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August 3, 1921 – The first use of an aircraft to apply pesticides to crops. Aerial application, popularly known as crop dusting, was first done from the air in 1906 in New Zealand when seeds were spread from a balloon. But the modern method of using airplanes began in 1921, when US Army pilot Lt. John Macready flew his modified Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” over a field in Ohio, spreading a load of lead arsenate to kill catalpa sphinx caterpillars as part of a joint operation between the US Agriculture Department and the US Army Signal Corps. Today, crop dusting is performed the world over by both converted and purpose-built airplanes, helicopters, and even unmanned aerial vehicles.


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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