Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from August 18 through August 21.


(PHAN J. Mason, US Navy)

August 19, 1958 – The first flight of the Lockheed P-3 Orion. The modern carrier battle group is one of the most potent assemblages of warships ever put together. But in spite of all that firepower, it remains vulnerable to attack from submarines. Since U-Boats prowled the seas in WWI, navies have struggled to find the subs before the subs find them, and aircraft have come to play a vital role in submarine detection and defense. Following WWII, the US Navy fielded its first dedicated antisubmarine warfare (ASW) aircraft with the hunter-killer team of the Grumman AF Guardian. That two-aircraft system was followed by the Grumman S-2 Tracker, the first purpose-built carrier-borne ASW aircraft that was large enough to carry both the equipment to detect submarines and the weapons to counter them.

The Orion prototype, a converted Lockheed Electra (US Navy)

In August 1957, the Navy issued a call for design proposals to meet Type Specification 146 for a new land-based aircraft to fulfill the ASW role, complementing the Lockheed P-2 Neptune and replacing the Martin P5M Marlin flying boat. To meet their needs as quickly as possible and to reduce cost, the Navy encouraged manufacturers to modify an aircraft already in production. Concurrent with the Navy request, Lockheed was working on the L-188 Electra, a four-engine turboprop airliner that carried about 100 passengers and was the first large turboprop airliner in the US when it made its maiden flight in December of 1957. Lockheed proposed adapting the Electra for the ASW role, an idea that was accepted by the Navy, and a contract was awarded in May 1958. Production began immediately on a flying prototype, and the first Orion was fitted with a simulated weapons bay and carried a mock-up of the Magnetic Anomaly Detection (MAD) boom in the rear of the aircraft. While by no means a production-ready aircraft, and still looking very much like an Electra, the mock-up gave the Navy a good idea of the feasibility of the design.

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A P-3B Orion of Patrol Squadron 9 (VP-9) armed with four Bullpup air-to-ground missiles in 1969. (PH2 D.T. Isenberg, US Navy)

VP-9 (PD 7) P-3B (BuNo 152737) armed with four Bullpup air-to-ground missiles, enroute from NAS Moffett Field to the Point Mugu missile range. Photo taken by PH2 D.T. Isenberg, 13 February 1969. Photo from the Naval Historical Center.While the P-3 retains the wings, tail, basic structure and engines of the Electra, the fuselage was shortened, a weapons bay was added, and upgrades were made to the avionics. Four Allison T56 turboprop engines take the Orion to a top speed of 411 knots (about 466 mph) with a combat radius of over 1,500 miles. Once on station, the Orion can loiter for up to three hours at 1,500 feet. If an enemy sub is detected, ten wing stations and eight internal bomb bay stations can hold up to 20,000 pounds of air-to-surface missiles, depth charges, mines, torpedoes or sonobuoys. The Orion can also carry the B57 nuclear bomb, though that capability was retired in 1993.

A P-3 Orion from Patrol Squadron 10 (VP-10) flies over a Soviet Victor III class submarine. (US Navy)

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The P-3 was introduced in 1962, and its primary mission was to track Soviet submarines lurking around US fleets and destroy them if the Cold War suddenly became hot. Patrolling Orions were often shadowed by opposing aircraft and, in one high-profile incident on April 1, 2001, an Orion operating near China was struck by a Chinese Shenyang J-8 fighter, causing the loss of the fighter. The Orion was forced to land on the Chinese Island of Hainan, leading to an international incident that was eventually resolved with the release of the Orion and its crew and the return of the aircraft. The P-3 has shown a remarkable adaptability, and Lockheed has produced a host of variants, including the WP-3D Orion hurricane hunter for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A total of 757 Orions have been produced, a number which includes 107 aircraft built under license by Kawasaki in Japan. They are operated by a number of export countries, including Iran, who received its aircraft when Iran was still allied with the US. After more than 50 years of service, the Orion soldiers on, but it is in the process of being replaced by the Boeing P-8 Poseidon, another sub hunter derived from a civilian airliner, the Boeing 737. 

A pair of WP-3D Orion hurricane hunters. (NOAA)

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August 19, 1871 – The birth of Orville Wright. Orville Wright was one of seven children born to Milton Wright and Susan Koerner. Wilbur, his older brother, was born on April 16, 1867 near Milville, Indiana, and Orville, four years his junior, was born in Dayton, Ohio, where much of the brothers’ groundbreaking work in powered flight took place. When Orville was just eight years old, his father presented him and his brother with a toy helicopter powered by a rubber band. The two were fascinated by it and, when it broke, they built their own. That simple toy inspired the brothers to a lifelong fascination with flight. Neither of the brothers finished high school, and Orville’s first foray into business was as a printer. He built his own press, but then the two brothers decided to capitalize on the bicycle craze sweeping the nation and started their own bicycle repair shop, eventually producing their own bicycles.

Orville Wright with the 1901 glider. (US Library of Congress)

In 1899, Orville and Wilbur fully turned their attention to aviation, and requested publications about early pioneers of flight from the Smithsonian Institution. From the beginning, the pair focused on the difficult problem of flight control, and worked on a system that warped the wings to control flight. Starting in 1900, the brothers built on the pioneering work of Otto Lilienthal and designed a series of gliders to test their theories. They even went so far as to build their own wind tunnel in their bike shop to test their designs. Their breakthrough came in 1902, when they developed a means to control their gliders in all three axes of flight: roll, pitch, and yaw. The brothers also made a breakthrough when they conceived of the propeller as a spinning wing rather than something more akin to a boat screw.

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Orville and Wilbur Wright photographed in 1908 (Author unknown)

Having proven many of their theories with gliders, the brothers were ready to try powered flight. But they needed a suitably light and powerful engine, so they turned to perhaps the greatest unsung hero of the dawn of aviation, their shop mechanic Charlie Taylor. Taylor, with guidance from the brothers, built the water-cooled four-cylinder inline engine that would power the Wright Flyer. To save weight, the block was made from cast aluminum, a first for the day. The chains used to turn the propellers were similar to those used on bicycles, but were actually heavy-duty drive chains produced for use in cars. The brothers moved their operation to Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, near Kitty Hawk, where steady winds and tall dunes would help with their continued experiments. After a toss of a coin, it was Orville who made the flight on the morning of December 17, 1903 that changed the world. Orville’s flight lasted just 12 seconds, and covered 120 feet at a speed of 6.8 mph, but that brief flight ushered in the age of the airplane.

Orville Wright (in left seat, wearing a wool cap) trains 1st Lt. Frank Lahm in the US Army’s first aircraft in 1909 (US Air Force)

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Following their initial successes, the Brothers went about the task of proving their achievements to the world, and legally protecting their inventions and discoveries with patents. By 1908, they were ready to display their invention to a skeptical world, and Wilbur traveled to France to perform a series of demonstration flights. In the hopes of winning a military contract, Orville demonstrated the Flyer to the US Army. When the Army purchased a Wright Model A on August 2, 1909, it became the first military aircraft in history. The pair faced numerous challenges to their patents, particularly by Glenn Curtiss, but Wilbur died of typhoid fever in 1912, two years before the Wrights were victorious in their patent fight, and he did not live to see the success of the company he founded with his brother. Orville, who was not as skilled a businessman as Wilbur, sold the Wright Company to Glenn L. Martin in 1915, and made his last flight as a pilot in 1918 flying a Wright Model B.

The board of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics photographed in 1929. Orville Wright is seated third from left. The original caption for the photograph identifies him as, “Orville Wright, Inventor of the airplane.” (US Library of Congress)

Though he left the airplane business, Orville continued to be a proponent of aviation, and served for 28 years on the board of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the predecessor to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). IN 1936, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Orville flew for the very last time on April 19, 1944 in a Lockheed Constellation piloted by reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. During the flight, Orville commented that, at 126 feet, the wingspan of the Connie was longer than his first flight 41 years earlier. Orville Wright died on January 30, 1948, three months after Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier while flying the Bell X-1. In a powerful testament to the pace of technological advances that began with the Orville and his brother Wilbur, the world had progressed from the First Flight at less than 7 mph to surpassing Mach 1 in the span of one man’s lifetime. To recognize their achievements, and celebrate the wonder of aviation that the Wright Brothers gave birth to, Orville’s birthdate is celebrated in the US as National Aviation Day.

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A Grumman F8F-1 Bearcat from USS Boxer (CV-21) flies over San Francisco in 1947. (San Diego Air and Space Museum)

August 21, 1944 – The first flight of the Grumman F8F Bearcat. The Second World War was not only the heyday of the piston-powered military aircraft, it also witnessed the birth of the jet-powered warplane. But new technologies can be slow to take hold, and while jet power would one day take over military aviation, propeller technology was reaching its zenith, and advanced fighters that had been conceived early in the war reached their full potential as the war drew to a close. The Grumman F8F Bearcat, which first came to the drawing board in 1942, was one of the fastest piston-powered fighters ever built, and the final piston-engined aircraft produced by the storied Grumman Aircraft Corporation.

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The prototype XF8F-1 Bearcat at NACA Langley Field in Virginia in 1945. The Bearcat’s lineage with the Hellcat is readily apparent in this profile. (NASA)

Following the pivotal Battle of Midway in June 1942, Grumman met with veterans of the battle to discuss the future of US Navy fighters. Pilots who fought against the Japanese discussed the shortcomings of their 1930s-era fighters, and specifically expressed their desire for an increased rate of climb so they could get their heavier fighters above the more nimble Japanese designs. So, to help American pilots gain the upper hand, Grumman designed the smallest possible fighter around the largest possible engine. They began work on what the company referred to as G58 by starting with the F6F Hellcat, a fast and powerful fighter in its own right, and used the same Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp radial engine. To refine the design of the fuselage, Grumman shortened it by five feet and removed the dorsal ridge. This gave the new fighter a bubble canopy, the first for a US Navy fighter and afforded the pilot with a significant improvement in visibility. Thinner wings and flush rivets made the plane lighter and more aerodynamic. Where the Hellcat had a large, 3-bladed propeller, the Bearcat was given a slightly smaller, 4-bladed propeller. Further weight savings were found by making the wingtips detachable for carrier storage rather than using a heavy folding mechanism, and by reducing fuel capacity. Thus, the Bearcat proved to be an excellent interceptor, but the Hellcat was still needed for long-range missions. By the time Grumman was finished, the Bearcat was 20% lighter, had a climb rate that was improved by 30%, and, with a top speed of 421 mph, the Bearcat was 30 mph faster than the Hellcat. Grumman also provided the Navy with an extremely powerful fighter that was still small enough to operate from the Navy’s smaller escort carriers that regularly provided air cover for troop landing operations in the Pacific.

F-8F-1 Bearcat of the US Navy Blue Angels flight demonstration squadron. The Blue Angels flew the Bearcat from 1946-1949, the last propeller plane flown by the squadron. (Author unknown))

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In October 1944, the Navy placed an order with Grumman for just over 2,000 Bearcats, plus another 1,800 modified aircraft to be built by General Motors. But with the end of the war in the Pacific in August 1945, the Grumman order was cut to 770 and the GM order was canceled altogether. Though the first Bearcats were delivered to combat squadrons and were operational in May 1945, the war ended before the F8F ever saw combat. Nevertheless, the Bearcat became the principal carrier-based fighter for the US Navy after WWII and equipped 24 Navy and US Marine Corps squadrons. French Bearcat pilots saw their first combat during the First Indochina War, and a number of fighters were transferred to the Republic of Vietnam, but they were retired in 1963 before seeing extensive action in the Vietnam War. The Bearcat was also the second airplane flown by the US Navy’s Blue Angels flight demonstration squadron after the Grumman F6F Hellcat, and its size, power and maneuverability made it a popular aircraft among air racers after the war.


Short Takeoff


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August 18, 1965 – The first flight of the Kamov Ka-26, a light utility helicopter that was built in large numbers and has found its most popular use as an agricultural top dresser. The Ka-26 (NATO reporting name Hoodlum) is powered by two Vedenyev M14P nine-cylinder radial engines housed in external pods that drive a set of contra-rotating co-axial rotors, thus eliminating the need for a counter-torque rotor at the rear. A removable pod behind the cockpit can be configured for passengers, medevac or light cargo, and a chemical hopper can also be fitted for agricultural use. A total of 816 were produced from 1969-1985, and it was later developed into the more powerful Kamov Ka-126 and Ka-226.


(US Air Force)

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August 18, 1945 – The US suffers its last air combat casualty of WWII. Though the Japanese government had signaled its surrender three days earlier, some Japanese pilots continued to attack American bombers carrying out reconnaissance flights over the Japanese homeland. Two Consolidated B-32 Dominators, tasked with a photo reconnaissance mission over Tokyo, were attacked by 17 Japanese fighters, heavily damaging one of the Dominators. Three crew members were seriously wounded and 19-year-old Sergeant Anthony Marchione, a photographer’s assistant, was killed. Following the attack, the propellers were removed from all Japanese aircraft to prevent future attacks.


(Alain Durand; not accident aircraft)

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August 19, 1980 – All passengers and crew of Saudia Flight 163 die from a fire after the plane makes a successful emergency landing. Saudia Flight 163 (HZ-AHK) was regularly scheduled Lockheed L-1011 TriStar service from Riyadh International Airport to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Seven minutes after takeoff, a fire broke out in the cargo hold and the passenger compartment filled with smoke. As the fire spread, it burned through the aft passenger compartment floor and severed the engine control cables for the center engine. Despite this, the crew managed to return to Riyadh and land safely, though it continued to taxi for nearly three minutes before stopping on a taxiway. Rescue crews had to drive to where the plane stopped, but did not open the doors to the aircraft until the engines stopped, a full 23 minutes after the successful emergency landing. By that time, all 287 passengers and 14 crew had been killed due to smoke inhalation. It was the second worst death toll in any single aircraft accident after Turkish Airlines Flight 981, the worst accident ever involving an L-1011, and the deadliest aviation disaster that did not involve a crash or breakup of any kind.


(Embraer)

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August 19, 1969 – Aircraft manufacturer Embraer is founded by Brazil’s Ministry of Aeronautics. Empresa Brasileira de Aeronáutica was founded as a government-owned corporation as Brazil sought to gain a foothold in aircraft manufacturing and reduce its reliance on foreign aircraft manufacturers. Embraer’s first aircraft was the EMB 110 Bandeirante, a 21-passenger twin-turboprop developed for civilian and military customers. In 1994, Embraer became a private company, though the government retains a share of the company, and it has expanded into the third-largest airplane manufacturer in the world behind Boeing and Airbus, with production facilities in the United States and China. In 2018, Boeing took an 80% stake in Embraer to develop smaller regional airliners in an attempt to counter Airbus’ acquisition of the Bombardier CSeries.


(US Air Force; Andy Christensen)

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August 19, 1921 – The birth of Gene Roddenberry. Though Roddenberry is best known as a television producer and screenwriter and the creator of the Star Trek television series, his early life was dominated by a career in aviation. Roddenberry was born in El Paso, Texas, and earned his pilot’s license through the Civilian Pilot Training Program sponsored by the US Army Air Corps. He enlisted just 11 days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, eventually completing 89 combat missions piloting a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and earning the Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross. Following the war, Roddenberry continued flying as an international airline pilot with Pan Am before retiring from aviation in 1948. Roddenberry died on October 24, 1991 at the age of 70.


Republic of Korea Air Force)

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August 20, 2002 – The first flight of the KAI T-50 Golden Eagle, a two-seat supersonic trainer developed in a partnership with Lockheed Martin and the first supersonic aircraft developed by South Korea. One of only handful of supersonic trainers, the T-50 entered service with the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) in 2005 and is currently operated by Korea, Indonesia, Iraq and the Philippines. An armed version has also been developed for light attack, and the T-50 is currently being considered for the US Air Force’s T-X program to procure a new trainer to replace the Northrop T-38 Talon.


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August 20, 1963 – The first flight of the BAC One-Eleven, a short-range airliner and the second jet-powered airliner to enter service in Europe after the Sud Avation Caravelle. Also known as the BAC 111 and the BAC 1-11, the airliner was developed to replace the turboprop-powered Vickers Viscount, though early sales were dominated by purchases from US carriers. Originally designed to carry 89 passengers, subsequent variants accommodated up to 119 passengers and, with 244 produced in the UK and Romania, it became one of the most successful British airliners of its day. 


(US Navy)

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August 20, 1923 – The first flight of the rigid airship USS Shenandoah (ZR-1), the first of four rigid airships commissioned by the US Navy. Shenandoah was constructed at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey and its design was based on the German Zeppelin LZ-96. Like its German counterpart, Shenandoah was intended for fleet reconnaissance duties, and she was the first American airship to cross the North America in 1924, flying from New Jersey to California. Shenandoah was lost on September 2, 1925 during its 57th flight when the airship was torn apart by a thunderstorm over Ohio, killing 14 members of its 43-man crew.


(Cpl Paul Oldfield/MOD)

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August 21, 1974 – The first flight of the BAE Systems Hawk, a trainer developed by Hawker Siddeley (later British Aerospace) to replace the Folland Gnat, the BAC Jet Provost and still older Hawker Hunter trainers. The aircraft features a tandem cockpit, and the rear seat is elevated above the student to provide excellent visibility for the flight instructor. The single Rolls-Royce Turbomeca Adour afterburning turbofan gives the Hawk a maximum speed of 0.84. The simplicity of the design also lent itself to numerous upgrades and developments, including a single-seat ground attack variant in which the forward seat is removed and the space filled with avionics, computers, radar, laser rangefinder or forward-looking infrared. Over a 1,000 have been built, and it is currently flown by 13 nations, including the US Navy, where it is known as the McDonnell Douglas T-45 Goshawk.


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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