Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from August 24 through August 27.
August 24, 2001 – Air Transat Flight 236 runs out of fuel over the Atlantic Ocean and glides to a landing in the Azores. Flying across the great expanses of the open ocean has always been a risky proposition, though certainly less so in the modern era. In the early days of commercial aviation, transoceanic flight was the bailiwick of large flying boats that could land on the surface of the water should an emergency arise far from land. Following the flying boat era, transoceanic flights were restricted to airliners with more than two engines for added insurance against engine failure, until new regulations, known as ETOPS, recognized the reliability of modern jet engines and allowed for flights across the oceans with two-engined airliners.
But any engine, be it piston, turboprop or jet, requires fuel to run, and pilots must make rigorous calculations to prevent an aircraft from running out of fuel. These calculations also include extra fuel to allow for holding patterns and diversions to different airfields. But if those calculations are done incorrectly, an airliner can become starved of fuel and turn into a giant glider, as happened famously in 1983 to an Air Canada flight known as the Gimli Glider. In that case, crews simply didn’t put a sufficient amount of fuel onboard the airliner. But undetected mechanical faults can also lead to fuel starvation, and the middle of the Atlantic Ocean is a terrible place see your fuel gauge reading empty.
Air Transat Flight 236 was Airbus A330-200 (C-GITS) service from Toronto, Canada to Lisbon, Portugal. The flight, carrying 293 passengers and 13 crew, took off without incident, but a little more than four hours into the crossing the flight deck crew received a warning for low oil temperature and high oil pressure in the number two Rolls-Royce Trent engine. Twenty minutes later, the crew received a warning for fuel imbalance, and they responded by transferring fuel from the left wing tank to the right wing tank, which was nearly empty. What the crew did not realize was that a leak had caused the imbalance, and the fuel transfer caused what fuel they had remaining to flow through the leaking fuel line and drain out at roughly one gallon per second. The pilots declared a fuel emergency and decided to divert to Lajes Air Base in the Azores, which lies in the Atlantic Ocean 850 miles west of Portugal.
Within ten minutes, and still far from Lajes, both engines flamed out, and the Airbus lost all primary electrical power, as well as its main hydraulic power. The captain of the flight, Robert Piché, an experienced glider pilot, put all his gliding skills to use as he and First Officer Dirk de Jager worked to control the powerless plane with minimal controls. Their skill kept the plane in the air for 19 minutes and roughly 75 miles, the longest distance ever flown by an unpowered passenger jet. Military air traffic controllers at Lajes guided the airliner to the runway, and the plane touched down at a speed of 200 knots, resulting in a fire in the braking system that caused the loss of all eight main wheels.
Fourteen passengers and two crew members received minor injuries during the evacuation, and two passengers were seriously hurt. The plane experienced damage to the landing gear and lower fuselage. Investigators traced the cause of the leak in the number two engine to the installation of an incorrect part in the hydraulics system by Air Transat maintenance staff, and though pilot error was also listed for the crew’s failure to identify the fuel leak, Captain Piché was awarded the Superior Airmanship Award by the Air Line Pilots Association. The French aeronautics board also issued a directive leading to a revision in the flight manual to prevent future incidents.
August 26, 1959 – The first VC-137 enters service. In 1943, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt became the first US President to fly on an airplane, a Boeing 314 flying boat named the Yankee Clipper, for official government business when he traveled to Casablanca on the Moroccan coast for a war strategy meeting with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. In 1945, when Roosevelt went to the Yalta Conference, he flew in a Douglas VC-54C Skymaster named the Flying White House but popularly known as Sacred Cow, the first purpose-built presidential aircraft. His successor, President Harry S. Truman, used a Douglas DC-6 named Independence. President Dwight Eisenhower then flew in two different Lockheed VC-121 Constellations named Columbine II and Columbine III.
But with the arrival of America’s first jet airliner in 1958, the Boeing 707, it was clear to the Air Force that it was time for the President to transition to a jet-powered transport. In 1958, the Air Force accepted its first 707, dubbed the VC-137A, and it was given the designation Special Air Mission (SAM) 970 based on its serial number (59-6970A). Two more 707s were then added and were given the designations SAM 971 and SAM 972.
The new aircraft featured living and working spaces for the president and his staff, as well as modern communications equipment. President Eisenhower was the first US President to fly in the new airliner, visiting 11 Asian nations during his “Flight to Peace” goodwill tour in 1959. But the SAM jets used by Eisenhower, and briefly by his successor, John F. Kennedy, looked nothing like the iconic blue and white jets we see today. The original 707s featured a rather gaudy, bright red-orange nose and bright orange tail stripe. It wasn’t until the next generation of Boeing C-137 Stratoliners purchased for President Kennedy that the airliners were decked out in the famous blue, white and silver livery designed by Raymond Loewy.
SAM 970 served Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and, after the original SAM 970 was replaced in 1962 by two newer VC-137Cs (SAM 26000 and SAM 27000), the executive transport continued flying VIPs and the Vice President until 1996, with its last executive passenger being Vice President Al Gore. SAM 970 is preserved and is on display at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington, while SAM 971, a V137B, resides at the Pima Air and Space Museum in Arizona. SAM 972 was scrapped in 1996.
August 27, 1990 – The first flight of the Northrop YF-23. In war, control of the airspace over the battlefield is of paramount importance and, by the 1980s, the US Air Force needed to counter the latest generation of Russian fighters such as the Sukhoi Su-27 and Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-29. The Air Force issued requirements for a new air superiority fighter that would take advantage of developments in cutting-edge construction materials, engines that could provide super cruise, and vectored thrust. But perhaps most importantly, the new fighters would include the latest developments in stealth technology that were first demonstrated brilliantly by the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk. While stealth doesn’t make an aircraft invisible, it does reduce its radar signature so that it can be difficult to detect against the background clutter of the radar screen.
In 1981, the year that the F-117 took its maiden flight (though designated as a fighter, the Nighthawk is truly a tactical bomber), the Air Force initiated its Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) program to find a replacement for the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle in the air superiority role. Two groups of manufacturers—Lockheed/Boeing/General Dynamics and Northrop/McDonnell Douglas—paired with Pratt & Whitney and General Electric to produce two prototype aircraft each. The Lockheed-led group proposed the YF-22, which incorporated stealth capability along with thrust-vectoring engines for increased maneuverability. The Northrop-led group offered the YF-23 Black Widow II (the second prototype was dubbed Gray Ghost due to its lighter paint scheme). The Northrop proposal placed greater emphasis on stealthy design but saved weight and complexity by eliminating thrust-vectoring. The YF-23 also made extensive use of the area rule to reduce drag at transonic speeds. The first YF-23 was powered by a pair of Pratt & Whitney YF119 afterburning turbofans, while the second received General Electric YF120 engines. To increase the stealthiness of the fighter, the exhaust from the engines was routed through troughs lined with materials to reduce the aircraft’s heat signature.
Both aircraft underwent four years of testing and competition, during which the YF-23 proved to be stealthier and faster than the YF-22. However, the YF-22, with its vectored thrust, proved to be more agile. On April 23, 1991, the Air Force announced that the Lockheed design was the winner, and the YF-22 entered production as the F-22 Raptor in 1996. Both YF-23 prototypes were sent to NASA for use as test beds, but they were never flown again. Some consideration was given to having Northrop develop a carrier-based version of the YF-23 for the US Navy, or an interim bomber version for the Air Force, but those plans never came to fruition. The first prototype is now housed at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Ohio, and the second is on display at the Western Museum of Flight in California.
August 24, 1979 – The death of Hanna Reitsch, a German aviatrix and test pilot and the only woman awarded the Iron Cross First Class and the Luftwaffe Pilot Observer Badge for her service during WWII. Born March 29, 1912, Reitsch set over 40 altitude and endurance records flying gliders. She later served as a test pilot on the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka, Dornier Do 17 and Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet rocket plane. She was the first female helicopter pilot and one of the few to fly the Focke-Achgelis Fa 61, the world’s first fully controllable helicopter, which she famously demonstrated inside the Deutschlandhalle during the International Automobile Exhibition in Berlin in 1938. Reitsch was captured near the end of the war and, after her release, she continued flying gliders and set yet more records.
August 24, 1951 – US Air Force Major Louis J. Sebille is posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. After serving as a bomber pilot in WWII, Maj. Sebille served as the commander of the 67th Squadron, Jet after the war before transferring to Japan at the outbreak of the Korean War. In the Battle of the Pusan Perimeter early in the war, United Nations forces were pushed back to the South Korean city of Pusan and nearly overrun by North Korean forces. While supporting UN troops in the Perimeter, Maj. Sebille was flying a North American F-51 Mustang and attacked a column of North Korean armored vehicles. When the first of his two 500-pound bombs malfunctioned, Maj. Sebille, gravely wounded by North Korean antiaircraft fire, turned and dove directly into the line of vehicles, firing his machine guns as he struck the column. Maj. Sebille was the first member of the newly-formed United States Air Force to receive the Medal of Honor, and the first of four USAF pilots to be awarded the CMH in Korea, all of whom were killed in action.
August 24, 1932 – Amelia Earhart becomes the first woman to fly nonstop across the United States. America’s most famous aviatrix, Amelia Earhart set a number of flying records for her day and achieved many firsts for female pilots. Perhaps her greatest feat was her solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean on May 20-21, 1932, but she followed that just three months later with another first when she became the the first woman to fly nonstop across the United States. In doing so, she also set a new transcontinental speed record in her Lockheed Vega 5B by completing the 2,448 mile journey in 19 hours 5 minutes, a record she would break the following year. Earhart, along with navigator Fred Noonan, disappeared on July 2, 1937 while attempting to fly around the world.
August 25, 2012 – The death of Neil Armstrong. Born on August 5, 1930 near Wapakoneta, Ohio, Armstrong took his first flight at age five on board a Ford Trimotor. After beginning an engineering degree at Purdue University at age 17, Armstrong joined the US Navy, where he flew the Grumman F9F Panther in Korea. Armstrong then served as a test pilot before joining the astronaut program, where he was selected as Command Pilot for the Gemini 8 mission in 1966 which performed the first successful docking in space. In 1967, Armstrong was chosen along with 17 other astronauts to form the crews for the Apollo missions that would eventually take astronauts to the Moon. Armstrong was tapped as the commander of Apollo 11, the mission that put the first human footprint on the lunar surface. Uttering the famous words, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind,” Armstrong set foot on the Moon at 2:56 UTC on July 21, 1969. He retired from NASA following that flight, and became a college professor and businessman before his death in 2012 at age 82.
August 25, 1995 – The first flight of the Airbus A319, a narrow-body, short-to-medium-range airliner that was developed from the Airbus A320. A shorter version of the A320, the A319 was developed based on a request by Steven F. Udvar-Házy of International Lease Finance Corporation (IFLC) and was intended to provide direct competition to the Boeing 737. Though it carries slightly fewer passengers than the A320, it has the same fuel capacity, thus the range is extended up to 3,700 nautical miles with the addition winglets (called Sharklets by Airbus). Just under 1,500 A319s have been produced, and it is in service with over 100 operators worldwide.
August 26, 2012 – Ron Akana retires as the longest-serving flight attendant in history. Born in 1928 in Honolulu, Hawai’i, Akana responded to an advertisement placed by United Airlines in 1949 to fill a steward position. A college student at the time, Akana said that his main reason for joining United was the opportunity to fly to the mainland. His first flight on a Boeing 377 Stratocruiser began a 63-year run of service, with only a two-year interruption from 1950-1951 to serve in the military during the Korean War. When Akana retired following a flight from Denver to Kauai after spending his entire career with United, he had logged 200 million airmiles and crossed the Pacific Ocean 10,000 times.
August 26, 2002 – The first flight of the Eclipse 500, a small, six-seat business jet and the first in a new class of Very Light Jet (VLJ). Previously called microjets, VLJs are approved for single-pilot operation and seat four to eight passengers with a maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of under 10,000 pounds. The Eclipse 500 is based on the Williams V-Jet II which was designed by Burt Rutan and is powered by a pair of Pratt & Whitney Canada PW610F turbofans that give it a maximum speed of 425 mph and a range of nearly 1,300 miles. Eclipse Aviation entered bankruptcy in 2008 due to a lack of funding, and production stopped at 560 aircraft. After liquidation, Eclipse Aerospace took over, and development of a more advanced Eclipse 550 is underway.
August 26, 1975 – The first flight of the McDonnell Douglas YC-15, an unsuccessful entrant into the US Air Force competition to procure a jet-powered replacement for the Lockheed C-130 Hercules. McDonnell Douglas competed against the Boeing YC-14 for the Air Force contract, but neither aircraft was selected. The YC-15 featured advances such as a supercritical wing to reduce drag and increase lift, along with externally blown flaps to improve low-speed performance. Only two YC-15 prototypes were built and, while it failed to enter production, many elements of its design served as the basis for the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III following McDonnell Douglas’ merger with Boeing in 1997.
August 27, 1990 – Blues guitatist Stevie Ray Vaughan is killed in a helicopter crash. Following a performance with Eric Clapton in East Troy, Wisconsin, Vaughan and members of his band boarded four helicopters to take them to Chicago’s Meigs Field. Accompanied by three members of Clapton’s entourage, Vaughan boarded a Bell 206B JetRanger and the pilot took off, despite haze, fog and low clouds in the area. The flight path required the pilot to fly over a 1,000-foot high ski hill, but the helicopter struck the hill approximately 50 feet from the summit, killing all on board. The National Transportation Safety Board cited pilot error as the cause of the crash, and listed weather conditions as a contributing factor.
August 27, 1940 – The first flight of the Caproni Campini N.1, an experimental aircraft powered by a mortorjet, a precursor to the modern jet engine. The N.1 was incorrectly credited by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) as the first jet-powered aircraft to take flight, as news of an earlier flight by the Heinkel He 178 had not been widely reported. However, the N.1 was not a true jet, as it used a standard aircraft engine to turn the compressor in an arrangement Caproni called a “thermojet.” Two prototypes were built, and one is on display at the Italian Air Force Museum near Rome.
August 27, 1939 – The first flight of the Heinkel He 178, the world’s first practical turbojet-powered aircraft. First demonstrated in 1937, the engine was developed by Hans von Ohain at the same time as, but separate from, work being done in England by Frank Whittle. Heinkel received little support from the German Air Ministry for his private venture, as the government was more focused on development of traditional piston engines being made by BMW and Junkers. The He 178 featured a metal fuselage with high-mounted wooden wings and retractable landing gear, though the gear remained fixed during flight tests. Despite the promise of the new powerplant, only one airframe was built by Heinkel, and it was destroyed in an Allied air raid in 1943.
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