Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from August 21 through August 23.
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 by late in the war, 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.
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. 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. The bubble canopy, a first for a US Navy fighter, afforded the pilot with a significant improvement in visibility, while 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 had provided the Navy with an extremely powerful fighter that was still small enough to operate from the Navy’s smaller escort carriers which provided air cover for troop landing operations in the Pacific.
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 aircraft 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 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.
August 23, 1990 – The Boeing VC-25, better known as Air Force One when transporting the President of the United States, enters service. Aircraft that transport world leaders around are an important symbol of national power, pride, and technological prowess. In 1959, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev arrived in the US in a Tupolev Tu-114, a huge 4-engine turboprop airliner, and his arrival caused quite a stir among the Western press because the plane represented a higher level of aircraft development than the West had thought the Soviets capable of. The history of American presidential air transport began more out of necessity than propaganda, but the modern symbolism of the US President arriving on a large airliner, decked out in the iconic United States livery designed by Raymond Loewy, has since become an important part of showing the US flag in foreign countries.
American presidential aviation dates back to 1945, when President Franklin Roosevelt flew on a Douglas C-54 Skymaster named the Sacred Cow to attend the Yalta Conference. Later, President Harry Truman flew in a Douglas DC-6 (VC-118 Liftmaster) named Independence, and President Dwight Eisenhower had Columbine II and Columbine III, both Lockheed VC-121 Constellations. It was during President Eisenhower’s administration that the name “Air Force One” came into use, a call sign created in 1953 to indicate any Air Force aircraft that is carrying the president to differentiate it from other civilian aircraft. (If the president is flying in a a US Marine Corps aircraft it becomes Marine One, while a civilian aircraft becomes Executive One.) President Eisenhower brought presidential aviation into the jet age when he ordered three VC-137 aircraft based on the Boeing 707, and those aircraft served all the following presidents through Ronald Reagan. But the Air Force One we know today from the TV news and in movies, a Boeing 747-200B (Air Force designation VC-25), didn’t begin serving the president until September 1990.
In 1985, the Air Force began looking for a replacement for the aging VC-137s currently in service. The new aircraft was required to have at least three engines for added safety and be capable of flying 6,000 miles without refueling. The only two aircraft that fit those criteria were the Boeing 747 and the McDonnell Douglas DC-10. Following the Air Force’s selection of the 747, President Reagan ordered two aircraft which were given tail numbers 28000 and 29000. Rather than modify existing airliners, construction began on two purpose-built aircraft, with interiors designed by First Lady Nancy Reagan. The first VC-25 took its maiden flight on May 16, 1987, but the first completed aircraft wasn’t delivered until 1990 during the first term of President George H. W. Bush.
Inside, the VC-25 features a suite of offices and sleeping quarters for the president, as well as other meeting rooms and quarters for the staff. There is also a medical suite, with an operating table, staffed by a doctor and a nurse. In addition to transporting the president, Air Force One can also function as a flying military command center in the event of war or other national emergency and, following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the VC-25 was modified to give the President the ability to speak to the entire nation from the air. The VC-25 has the capability for aerial refueling and is armed with classified defensive missile countermeasures, though, as popularly shown in the movie Air Force One, it does not have a rear cargo ramp. As the current fleet of VC-25s ages, plans are in the works to replace them with a pair of 747-8 aircraft that had originally been built for the Russian airline Transaero. President Donald Trump has also said that the iconic Raymond Loewy livery will be replaced, but a final decision remains to be made.
August 23, 1954 – The first flight of the Lockheed C-130 Hercules. During WWII, the true power of the aircraft became clear, not only as a weapon of destruction but also as a tool of logistics and supply. After the war, development of large tactical haulers continued, and piston engines gave way to powerful turboprops. The C-13o, in all of its myriad variants, has become a ubiquitous transport and logistics aircraft for the United States military and many partner countries, and has seen action in every theater of combat from the Vietnam War to the conflicts of the present day. It has become a true workhorse, tackling jobs from troop transport to logistical support to counterinsurgency to reconnaissance, and also exists in gunship variants and as an electronic spy and propaganda platform.
By 1951, the US Air Force discovered that the WWII-era piston-powered airlifters were unsuited to the demands of the Korean War, and not up to the task of supplying the troops in the field. So the Air Force decided to acquire a new turboprop transport for the Military Air Transport Service (MATS), which later became the Military Airlift Command (MAC). But rather than develop a new freighter from an existing aircraft, as they had done in the past, the Air Force requirements called for a completely new plane designed from the wheels up as a heavy lifter. The request from the Air Force led to the creation of the C-130, the Douglas C-132 (later canceled before any prototypes were built), and the Douglas C-133 Cargomaster, a plane of similar design yet much larger and built in significantly fewer numbers. The Air Force settled on the C-130, which was powered by four Allison T56 turboprop engines designed specifically for the Hercules. These engines gave the plane a greater operating range than thirsty turbojet engines and allowed the C-130 to operate from rough, unimproved and shorter runways. The engines also had enough power to allow the Hercules to be fully operational with only three engines.
The Hercules, affectionately known as the Herk, set a new standard for modern airlift aircraft design, with a fully pressurized cabin and unprecedented range and capability. The high wing and external landing gear pods allowed for copious internal cargo space, and a rear cargo door and low deck allowed pallets and vehicles to be driven directly on board. After the successful flight of the two prototypes, the Air Force awarded an initial production contract in July 1951, and production of the Hercules, albeit in a significantly upgraded form, continues to this day.
The C-130 entered service with the US Air Force in 1956, followed by Australia in 1958. Herks flew their first combat missions in Vietnam in 1964, and the type has served in every theater of war since. In 1963, a Hercules set the record for the largest aircraft to land and take off from an aircraft carrier when it carried out trials aboard USS Forrestal, a record that remains unbroken. The basic design has allowed for more than 40 variants with upgraded engines and avionics for a host of different mission profiles, both military and civilian, including a gunship version, the AC-130, which is armed with miniguns and cannons for support of ground troops. Lockheed is now producing the C-130J Super Hercules, with the most powerful engines yet, a glass cockpit, and curved scimitar 6-bladed props. Over 2,500 Herks have been produced, and the 50-year-old design shows no sign of being retired any time soon.
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, with the rear instructor’s seat elevated above the student to improve visibility. The single Rolls-Royce Turbomeca Adour afterburning turbofan gives the Hawk a maximum speed of Mach 0.84. The simplicity of the design has 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.
August 21, 1943 – The death of Hilda Beatrice Hewlett. Hewitt was born on February 17, 1864 and became the first British woman to earn a pilot license. After attending her first aviation meeting at Blackpool in 1909, Hewlett adopted the pseudonym “Grace Bird” and began studying aeronautics, and later opened a flying school at the Brooklands racing circuit with business partner Gustav Blondeau. Among her pupils was Thomas Sopwith, founder of the Sopwith Aviation Company. Hewlett also taught her son to fly, and he went on to a distinguished career in the military and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in 1915. The company she formed with Blondeau began building Farman, Caudron and Hanriot aircraft, eventually producing more than 800 aircraft and employing 700 workers.
August 22, 1989 – The death of Alexander Yakovlev, a Soviet aeronautical engineer and founder of the Yakovlev Design Bureau, where he served as chief designer until his retirement in 1984. Yakovlev was born in Moscow on April 1, 1906 and began his design work as part of the Zhukovsky Air Force Military Engineering Academy. His design bureau produced a large number of fighter aircraft for Russia during WWII, such as the Yak-1, Yak-3, and highly successful Yak-9. Yakovlov served as Vice-Minister of Russia’s Aviation Industry under Joseph Stalin until 1946, and also designed Russia’s first jet powered fighter, the Yakovlev Yak-15.
August 22, 1980 – The death of James McDonnell. Born on April 9, 1899 in Denver Colorado, McDonnell was one of America’s great aviation pioneers and aircraft manufacturers. He began his design career in 1928 by setting up J.S. McDonnell & Associates, where he built his first aircraft. In 1938, McDonnell founded the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation and provided the US with some of its most iconic military aircraft, including the FH Phantom, the US Navy’s first purely jet-powered fighter, and the F-4 Phantom II, one of the era’s greatest all-weather fighter interceptors. His company also built the Mercury and Gemini space capsules. In 1967, McDonell Aircraft merged with Douglas Aviation to form McDonnell Douglas, and the new company went on to create still more great aircraft, such as the DC-10 airliner and the F-15 Eagle. For his life’s work, McDonnell was awarded the National Academy of Sciences Award in Aeronautical Engineering in 1980.
August 22, 1923 – The first flight of the Witteman-Lewis XNBL-1, an early heavy bomber built at the request of strategic bombing proponent William “Billy” Mitchell who hoped to demonstrate the potential for aerial bombardment by sinking a battleship. The XNBL-1, nicknamed the Barling Bomber after its designer Walter H. Barling, had a wingspan of 120 feet and weighed more than 27,000 pounds. It was designed to carry a single 5,000-pound bomb, and was the largest built in the US until the arrival of the Boeing XB-15 in 1935. With its considerable weight and the tremendous drag produced by the struts and bracing, the six Liberty L-12 engines (four pulling, two pushing) proved barely adequate to get the giant bomber in the air, and its range was limited to just 170 miles when fully loaded. Though ultimately unsuccessful, the Barling Bomber pioneered the concept of heavy strategic bombardment in the United States, and the single prototype was finally ordered destroyed by General Henry “Hap” Arnold and was burned in 1930.
August 22, 1922 – The first flight of the Vickers Victoria, a biplane transport and cargo aircraft developed for the Royal Air Force under Air Ministry Specification 5/20. The Victoria was pieced together from two existing aircraft, with the fuselage coming from the Vickers Vernon troop carrier and the wings coming from the Vickers Virginia bomber. Two Napier Lion W12 engines provided a top speed of 110 mph (later variants received Bristol Pegasus radial engines), and the fuselage could accommodate up to 22 troops. The Victoria entered service in 1926 and played a vital role in the Kabul Airlift in the winter of 1928-1929 during the Afghan Civil War, and provided troop transport services to various hotspots in the Middle East and North Africa. Though considered obsolete by the outbreak of WWII, the Type 264 Valentia variant served as a bomber early in the war, and continued service in Iraq until 1944.
August 23, 1977 – The MacReady Gossamer Condor wins the first Kremer prize for human-powered flight. The Kremer prize was established in 1959 by industrialist Henry Kremer to award pioneers in the realm of human-powered flight. To claim the £50,000 prize, an aircraft had to complete a figure-eight course of one mile while crossing over a ten-foot pole placed at the beginning and the end of the course. The Condor, designed by aeronautical engineer Paul MacCready, was constructed of aluminum poles covered in lightweight plastic, with a gondola underneath housing the pilot. A forward canard provided pitch control. Amateur bicyclist and hang glider pilot Bryan Allen flew the Condor on its prize-winning flight at at Minter Field in Shafter, California. MacCready followed up with the larger Gossamer Albatros, which crossed the English Channel in 1979.
August 23, 1948 – The first flight of the McDonnell XF-85 Goblin. In the early days of transoceanic bombers, fighters were incapable of escorting the bombers on their extended missions. Parasite fighters, first developed to be launched from Zeppelins during WWI, offered a solution, with the fighters carried by a host bomber and released if needed. The diminutive Goblin was designed to be carried by a Convair B-36 Peacemaker and was powered by a single Westinghouse J34 turbojet engine. Though flight tests demonstrated that the Goblin flew well, its performance was inferior to contemporary fighter aircraft. Combined with the development of reliable aerial refueling procedures, the Goblin was canceled in 1949 after the construction of two prototypes.
August 23, 1938 – The death of Frank Hawks. Born on March 28, 1897, Hawks served as a flight instructor during WWI and went on to perform as a barnstormer after the war. During the Golden Age of Flight in the 1930s, Hawks made a name for himself as a demonstration pilot and racer, famously flying a series of aircraft sponsored by Texaco and setting no less than 214 point-to-point records in the US and Europe. He also starred in the 1937 movie serial The Mysterious Pilot, where he was billed as “The Fastest Man Alive.” After his retirement from competitive flying in 1937, Hawks became the vice president of the Gwinn Aircar Company, where he marketed the company’s novel aircraft. Having ominously predicted that he would die in an airplane, Hawks was killed in the crash of a Gwinn Aircar in East Aurora, New York.
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