Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from August 10 through August 13.
August 12, 1985 – The crash of Japan Airlines Flight 123. In 1938, the Boeing 307 Stratoliner entered service as the first pressurized airliner, using bleed air from the engine’s superchargers to pressurize the cabin. Today, that bleed air comes from air bled from jet engines, and aircraft can fly at altitudes of 35,000 feet while passengers enjoy the comfort of flying at a simulated 8,000 feet. (The FAA mandates a maximum of 8,000 feet, while most airliners maintain 6000-7000 feet, and some business jets can maintain sea-level pressure.) But pumping that much air into the fuselage puts enormous stress on the aircraft, and repeated pressurizations and depressurizations can weaken an aircraft over time. This lesson was learned tragically when a series of fatal, explosive decompressions plagued the world’s first jet-powered airliner, the de Havilland Comet, in the 1950s. De Havilland had fitted the Comet with large, rectangular windows, and crash investigators discovered that the cyclical compression and decompression of the aircraft caused metal fatigue and cracks around the large windows, which then contributed to fatal aircraft breakups. The Comet was redesigned to use oval windows, which then became an industry standard. Aside from the windows, another critical component of aircraft pressurization is the rear pressure bulkhead, a circular, dome-shaped structure that closes off the aft end of the passenger compartment tube from the rest of the empennage. This bulkhead must be regularly and rigorously inspected and, if damaged, must be repaired precisely to the standards set by the manufacturer. If not, the results of continued pressurization cycles could be disastrous.
At 6:12 pm on August 12, 1985, Japan Airlines Flight 123, a Boeing 747SR (JA8119) took off from Haneda Airport in Tokyo for a short, one-hour flight to Osaka International Airport. Just 12 minutes after departure, the aft pressure bulkhead ruptured, leading to a rapid depressurization of the cabin and the loss of most of the vertical stabilizer. When the stabilizer broke free, it ruptured all four hydraulic lines and left the plane almost completely uncontrollable. Captain Masami Takahama, a veteran 747 pilot with over 12,000 hours of flight time (4,850 in the 747), along with his crew, managed to regain some measure control using engine throttle inputs to steer and adjust altitude. But landing the plane safely would be next to impossible. The crew’s skilled piloting kept the airliner in the air for 32 minutes, long enough for many passengers to write farewell notes to their families. When the plane eventually crashed near Mount Osutaka, 505 passengers and crew were killed, making it the deadliest single-aircraft accident in history. Miraculously, four passengers survived, but it is surmised that more may have lived had the Japanese government acted more quickly to reach the crash site.
The cause of the bulkhead rupture was traced to an improper repair following a tail strike seven years earlier which had damaged the aft pressure bulkhead. Rather than provide a redundant overlap of the bulkhead sections as dictated by Boeing, technicians in Japan instead used two separate splice plates, leaving the bulkhead dangerously weakened. Even though the aircraft had gone through over 12,000 pressurization cycles before the crash, the bulkhead finally burst on that fateful day. Though JAL officially admitted no liability, they agreed to pay $7.6 million of “condolence money” to the families of the victims, JAL’s president resigned, and a maintenance manager committed suicide in atonement for improper repair. JAL no longer uses the number 123 for any flight, and has changed the flight number on that particular route to 127.
August 13, 1932 – The first flight of the Gee Bee Model R. The speed at which the airplane evolved from its first flight in 1903 to breaking the sound barrier in 1947 years is truly extraordinary. A mere eight years after the Wright Brothers first flight, the fighter plane became a fixture in the skies over the battlefields of WWI, and war has been one of the great drivers of advances in aviation. But during the the period between the World Wars, known as the Golden Age of Aviation, the mantle of technological evolution passed into civilian hands. Aircraft design left fabric-covered airframes behind and replaced them with metal monoplanes of increasing size, strength and speed. And, just as the first automobile drivers pitted themselves against each other in contests of speed, airplane races became hugely popular. Events such as the the Schneider Trophy drew entrants from around the world, and helped spur ever more experimentation and innovation.
Beginning in 1920, newspaper publisher Ralph Pulitzer initiated the National Air Races in the United States, a series which included the Thompson Trophy races sponsored by Thompson Products (the company that would eventually become the aerospace and automotive company TRW) which began in 1929. These contests of speed and piloting skill pitted aircraft and pilots in closed-course races around pylons, while the Bendix Trophy was created to recognize the fastest time between two points. In the quest to design the fastest aircraft possible, Granville Brothers Aircraft built a series of powerful racers beginning with the Sportster in 1930. All the aircraft featured cockpits that barely rose above the fuselage, relatively short wings, and most were powered by enormous radial engines. The planes were definitely fast, but they were also notoriously difficult to fly. Most of them crashed, claiming the life a number of pilots, including Zantford Granville, one of the five Granville brothers.
Undeterred, the remaining Granville brothers forged ahead in 1931 with the Gee Bee (as in GB, or Granville Brothers) Model Z, which was essentially little more than a Pratt & Whitney R-985 Wasp Junior supercharged radial engine with wings. The stubby design certainly was fast, with a top speed of nearly 270 mph, and it won the Thompson Trophy in 1932. But with its minimal wings and vertical stabilizer it was also extremely difficult to fly, and a crash while attempting a world speed record killed pilot Lowell Bayles. Though the crash caused significant damage to the reputation of the Granville Brothers, they followed the Model Z with the Model R, perhaps the best known of the Gee Bee aircraft.
The Model R was two feet longer, and featured a refined fuselage shape that its designers hoped would make it more aerodynamic. The wings were lengthened slightly, but the cockpit was placed even farther back on the diminutive fuselage, and it was driven by a still more powerful Pratt & Whitney R-1340 Wasp radial engine which provided 800 hp. The Model R continued to be a very difficult airplane to fly, even in the hands of experienced aviators. But the new design, with a top speed of nearly 300 mph, also allowed the pilot to lap the racing pylons in a knife-edge turn without losing altitude. In the hands of famed aviator Jimmy Doolittle, the Model R won the Thompson Trophy in 1932 and set a land plane world speed record of 296 mph.
But the R-1 itself continued to be a handful to fly, and pilot Russell Boardman was killed flying a Gee Bee in 1933. Doolittle perhaps realized that he was cheating death and retired from air racing after his 1932 win, and went on to a storied career in the US Army Air Forces, where he commanded the audacious raid on Tokyo in April 1942. None of the original Gee Bee aircraft exist today, but some replicas are still flown by brave pilots in the quest for speed.
August 10, 1949 – President Harry Truman signs the National Security Act of 1947. Following WWII, the military and intelligence services of the United States underwent significant restructuring. The National Security Act split off the flying branch of the US Army to create the Department of the US Air Force and the US Air Force, ensured the continuation of the US Marine Corps as a separate branch inside the Department of the Navy, and created what was known as the National Military Establishment (later renamed Department of Defense) under the civilian control of the Secretary of Defense. To advise the Secretary of Defense, the act created the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and also created the National Security Council (NSC) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which replaced the military Office of Strategic Services (OSS) with a civilian intelligence organization.
August 10, 1949 – The first flight of the Avro Canada C102 Jetliner, the world’s second jet-powered airliner. The C102 took its first flight just 13 days after the de Havilland Comet, and while it appeared that the Jetliner would prove to be a successful design, de Havilland Canada chose instead to focus their efforts on the production of their CF-100 Canuck interceptor. American billionaire Howard Hughes approached de Havilland and asked them to build 30 for him, but the company refused, nor would they allow Hughes to produce the Jetliner in the US under license. A second, nearly completed prototype was scrapped, and the flying prototype was broken up in 1956. Despite a promising life cut short, the C102 did give the world one lasting legacy: the word jetliner. Coined by Avro Canada for the C102, jetliner has since become the generic word for any large, jet-powered commercial transport.
August 1o, 1896 – The death of Otto Lilienthal, an early and influential pioneer of manned flight who was known as the Glider King for his experiments with, and development of, unpowered glider flight. Born on May 23, 1848, Lillienthal worked closely with his brother Gustav and made over 2,000 flights beginning in 1891, some of which covered distances of over 800 feet. While all those flights only accounted for five hours of total flying time, Lillienthal’s influence on the history of manned aviation far outstripped his hours in the air. The notoriety he garnered not only popularized the idea of future powered flight, but also influenced the early work of the Wright Brothers and other aviation pioneers. Lillenthal was killed in the crash of one of his gliders when he entered an unrecoverable stall at an altitude of about 50 feet and suffered a broken neck when his glider plummeted to the ground.
August 11, 1995 – The first flight of the Embraer ERJ-145, the largest of a family of commuter airliners that includes the ERJ 140 (up to 44 passengers) and the ERJ 135 (up to 37 passengers). With accommodation for 50 passengers, the ERJ 145 was developed as a faster and more comfortable alternative to the turboprop regional airliners in service at the time. Powered by a pair of Rolls-Royce AE 3007 high bypass turbofan engines, the ERJ 145 has a maximum cruising speed of about 515 mph, and the XR long-range variant can travel up to 2,000 nautical miles. More than 900 have been produced since 1989, and it remains in production today.
August 11, 1972 – The first flight of the Northrop F-5E Tiger II, an upgraded version of the Northrop F-5A Freedom Fighter and winner of the International Fighter Aircraft competition in 1970. In an effort to make the F-5A more competitive with the Soviet Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21, Northrop lengthened and enlarged the F-5A to provide room for more fuel and improved avionics, and fitted more powerful General Electric J85 engines for increased speed. The wing area was also increased by the addition of larger leading edge extensions for better maneuverability. Where the F-5A/B had no radar, Northrop equipped the F-5E with an Emerson Electric AN/APQ-153 radar. Almost 1,400 F-5E/Fs were built, and they saw extensive service with American allies. Though tested in combat by the US Air Force in 1965 during Operation Skoshi Tiger, which gave the F-5E its nickname, the Tiger II never entered regular service with the USAF, though it does serve in the aggressor role for US combat flight training.
August 11, 1955 – The first flight of the Bell XV-3. Though not the first tiltrotor aircraft, the Bell XV-3 verified the tiltrotor concept and eventually completed 110 successful transitions from vertical to horizontal flight and back again. The XV-3 was powered by a single Pratt & Whitney R-985 Wasp Junior radial engine located in the fuselage which turned a pair of two-bladed rotors (the prototype had a three-bladed rotor) through a drive assembly that could rotate through 90 degrees. While only two aircraft were built, data from the XV-3 program was used to develop the Bell XV-15, which then paved the way for the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey tiltrotor in service today.
August 11, 1950 – The first flight of the Fairchild XC-120 Packplane. Developed from the successful Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar cargo aircraft, the Packplane was intended as a cargo aircraft that would carry a detachable modular cargo compartment. The concept would allow cargoes to be prepackaged for shipment, rather than have the entire aircraft wait on the ground for loading or unloading. Though the Air Force made numerous flights with the prototype XC-120 in the first half of the 1950s, the design was never adopted, and the Air Force instead opted for the more traditional C-119. Only a single Packplane was built, and it was eventually scrapped after the cancelation of the program in 1952.
August 11, 1937 – The first flight of the Boulton Paul Defiant, a “turret fighter” interceptor developed for the RAF just prior to the outbreak of WWII. At the time, the RAF envisioned waves of unescorted German bombers flying over England, and the turret fighter concept would allow the pilot to focus on flying below or alongside the bomber while the gunner, along with other Defiants, concentrated the firepower of four M1919 Browning .303 caliber machine guns on the bomber. In practice, the Defiant proved to be vulnerable to more maneuverable escort fighters such as the Messerschmitt Bf 109, and it was eventually converted to a night fighter before being replaced in the interceptor role by the de Havilland Mosquito. The Defiant was then used for gunnery practice and as a target tug. Just over 1,000 were built, and it was retired at the end of the war.
August 12, 2018 – The launch of the Parker Solar Probe, a robotic probe built by NASA and the first to investigate the Sun’s corona by passing through it. The probe will take approximately seven years to reach the sun by flying ever shrinking elliptical orbits, and scientific observations will take place each time the probe passes close to the Sun. Launched atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket, the Parker Solar Probe will pass the Sun on December 7, 2025 at 3.85 million miles at its closest while flying at a speed of roughly 430,000 mph. The goal of the mission is to study the Sun’s corona in the hopes of improving the forecast of space weather events that directly affect life on Earth.
August 12, 1960 – The launch of Echo 1A, an experimental passive communications satellite and the first of two enormous, metal-coated balloons placed into low Earth orbit. The balloons acted as passive reflectors of microwave signals that could be bounced off the balloon and back to Earth. The launch of Echo 1 took place on May 13, 1960, but a stage of the newly-designed Thor-Delta launch system failed and the rocket fell into the Atlantic Ocean. The launch of Echo 1A three months later was successful, and a microwave transmission from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California reflected off the massive space balloon and was received at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. Echo 1 was followed four years later by Echo 2, which was 35 feet larger and was placed in a polar orbit that was visible from Earth with the naked eye. Echo 1A burned up in Earth’s atmosphere in 1968, followed by Echo 2 a year later.
August 13, 1976 – The first flight of the Bell 222, a light executive and utility helicopter and the first of its class to have two turbine engines. The 222 also features retractable landing gear housed in sponsons on the sides of the fuselage and an advanced vibration reduction system. A total of 199 were built from 1980-1991, and it was developed into a number of variants, including the 222B configuration with a larger main rotor, and the 222UT (Utility Twin) which replaced the landing gear with fixed skids. In 1991, Bell upgraded the 222 to the 230, which had more powerful Allison 250 turboshaft engines, and later with the still larger and more powerful Bell 430. A cosmetically modified Bell 222 appeared as the titular helicopter in the television series Airwolf that ran from 1984-1987.
August 13, 1962 – The first flight of the British Aerospace 125, a twin-engine corporate jet originally developed by de Havilland as the DH.125 Jet Dragon and designed as a replacement for the de Havilland Dove. Following the purchase of de Havilland by Hawker Siddeley in 1960, the 125 entered production as the Hawker Siddeley HS.125, while later models were known as the Hawker 800. One of the earliest business jets, the 125 found a wide open market for executives and government agencies, including the US Air Force, where it was adopted as the C-29, and the Royal Air Force, who flew it as a navigation trainer designated the Hawker Siddeley Dominie T1. A 125 was also owned by Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna. More than 1,600 aircraft were produced from 1962-2013.
August 13, 1939 – The first flight of the Vickers Warwick, an aircraft originally designed and built by Vickers-Armstrongs as a bomber to complement the Vickers Wellington. The Warwick went through a long and difficult development process, and was ultimately deemed to be redundant by the time it entered service in 1942, and only 16 were delivered as bombers. The rest of the nearly 850 aircraft produced still found roles to fill, and served as transports, maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine patrol, and for air-sea rescue. Most of the production Warwicks were fitted with a deployable lifeboat (see photo) which could be dropped to the crews of downed bombers over the English Channel or North Sea. A small number of Warwicks were also converted as passenger planes and flown by British Overseas Airways Corporation.
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