Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, highlighting milestones, important historical events and people in aviation and spaceflight from August 26 through August 29.
August 26, 1959 – The first VC-137 enters service. In 1943, President Franklin Roosevelt became the first US President to travel on an airplane for official government business when he flew from the US to Casablanca on the Moroccan coast for a war strategy meeting with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. President Roosevelt made the trip in a Boeing 314 flying boat named the Yankee Clipper. Following the Clipper, Roosevelt flew in a Douglas C-54 Skymaster named the Sacred Cow when he went to the Yalta Conference, President Truman used Douglas DC-6 named Independence, and President Eisenhower flew in two different Lockheed VC-121 Constellations named Columbine II and Columbine III. But it wasn’t until 1959 that the White House entered the jet age with the arrival of the VC-137, a modified Boeing 707-120 airliner. The story goes that Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was dismayed by the visuals of the President of the United States arriving for a summit with the Russian president in a propeller-driven Constellation while his Russian counterpart arrived on a jet. In an era of Cold War competition, such one-upmanship could not be allowed. So Dulles (the man for whom the international airport in Washington, DC is named) pressed the Air Force to upgrade the President’s plane to something more modern—and more impressive. Near the end of Eisenhower’s term, the Air Force ordered three 707s for VIP travel, the first being designated Special Air Mission (SAM) 970, and the others 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 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 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 the newer VC-137C, it 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 now on display at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington. (Photo author unknown; photo by Kral Michal via Wikimedia Commons)
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 new construction materials, engines that could provide super cruise and vectored thrust, and, perhaps most importantly, stealth technology. While stealth doesn’t make an aircraft invisible, it does reduce its radar signature so that it can be difficult to detect, and stealth technology was first demonstrated brilliantly by the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk. 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 proposed the YF-23 Black Widow II (the second prototype was dubbed Gray Ghost due to its lighter paint scheme), which placed greater emphasis on stealthy design but saved weight and complexity by eliminating thrust-vectoring. Along with its stealthy design, 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. During an extensive testing and evaluation program, the YF-23 proved to be stealthier and faster than the YF-22, while the YF-22 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. (US Air Force Photo)
August 29, 1970 – The first flight of the McDonnell Douglas DC-10. In the 1960s, the US Air Force started looking for a large logistical aircraft as part of its CX-HLS program to replace the turboprop-powered Douglas C-133 Cargomaster and to provide a larger strategic airlifter to complement to the Lockheed C-141 Starlifter. Douglas began design studies to fulfill the Air Force request in 1967, but Lockheed was the eventual winner of that competition with their C-5 Galaxy. Having put all the work into a new large transport, Douglas hoped to salvage something from their development efforts by transforming their new aircraft into an airliner. With ever-increasing numbers of passengers on domestic and international air routes, the move to wide-body airliners was the next step in airliner development. Following the success of the Boeing 747, the world’s first widebody airliner, American Airlines announced a specification in 1966 for an airliner that would be somewhat smaller than the 747 and capable of operations from shorter air strips while still maintaining a similar range and payload. Following the merger of McDonnell Aircraft and the Douglas Aircraft Company in 1967, the DC-10 marked the combined company’s first foray into commercial jet aviation. Though the DC-10 has become one of the most recognizable tri-jet airliners, McDonnell Douglas initially considered a four-engine, double-decker arrangement before settling on a wide-body single-deck configuration with three engines and accommodations for about 400 passengers. In 1968, American Airlines placed an order for 25 of the new airliners, followed by United Airlines with 30 orders and an option for 30 more. The first DC-10s entered service with American on August 5, 1971, and with United Airlines two weeks later.
With a similar tri-jet in production by their competitors at Lockheed, the L-1011, McDonnell Douglas hoped to entice buyers by offering different engine configurations that offered different levels of range and economy. The DC-10-10 model was considered the domestic version, while the DC-10-30 and DC-10-40 models were targeted at longer range international customers. Early in its service life, the DC-10 garnered a reputation as an unsafe or dangerous aircraft. The airliner suffered a number accidents with the early versions of the aircraft, including the crash of American Flight 191 in Chicago which claimed 273 lives and remains the single worst aviation accident in the United States. But continuous upgrades and improvements eventually put the DC-10 on par with other airliners for safety and reliability. The DC-10 saw its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, with an eventual 366 being produced from 1968-1988, though it is now used primarily as a freighter. A program to replace the cockpit with modern avionics that removes the need for a flight engineer is ongoing, with the new aircraft designated the MD-11. The DC-10 was also converted into a tanker configuration for the US Air Force, where it is known as the KC-10 Extender, with a total of 60 being built. (Photo by JetPix via Wikimedia Commons; San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive)
August 26, 2012 – Ron Akana retires as the longest-serving flight attendant in history. Born in 1928 in Honolulu, Hawai’i, Akana 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 Korean War. After spending his entire career with United, Akana retired after a flight from Denver to Kauai having logged 200 million airmiles and having crossed the Pacific Ocean 10,000 times. (Photo by Jeremy Papasso via Boulder Daily Camera)
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 4-8 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. (Photo by Alan Radecki via Wikimedia Commons)
August 26, 1975 – The first flight of the McDonnell Douglas YC-15, an unsuccessful entrant into the US Air Force competition of 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. (Photo by Steve Fitzgerald via Wikimedia Commons)
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. Vaughan, along with three members of Clapton’s entourage, 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 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, listing weather conditions as a contributing factor. (Vaughan photo by Scott Newton via Wikimedia Commons; Bell 206B photo—not accident aircraft—by Arpingstone via Wikimedia Commons)
August 27, 1940 – The first flight of the Caproni Campini N.1, an experimental aircraft powered by 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” but is more commonly called a “motorjet.” Two prototypes were built, and one is on display at the Italian Air Force Museum near Rome. (Photo author unknown)
August 27, 1939 – The first flight of the Heinkel He 178, the world’s first practical turbojet-powered aircraft. The engine was developed by Hans von Ohain at the same time as, but separate of, work being done in England by Frank Whittle, and was first demonstrated in 1937. Heinkel received little support for his private venture from the German Air Ministry, as they were 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. (US Air Force Photo)
August 28, 1988 – Three aircraft from the Italian Air Force demonstration team Frecce Tricolori crash during an air show at Ramstein Air Force Base. During the Flugtag 88 air show, ten Italian Aermacchi MB-399 PAN trainer aircraft were performing a “pierced heart” maneuver in which two crossing groups of aircraft are split by a single aircraft flying a perpendicular course towards the crowd. As the planes crossed, the solo aircraft struck two others in the formation, raining debris and burning fuel onto the audience below. Sixty-seven spectators were killed, along with the three Italian pilots, and 346 were injured. Germany declared a three-year moratorium on public air shows, and new rules were put in place dictating greater viewing distances and banning maneuvers that were directed towards the crowd. Video of the accident can be seen here. (Photo author unknown via crashdehabsheim.net)
August 29, 1947 – The first flight of the McDonnell XH-20 Little Henry, an experimental light helicopter developed for the US Air Force. Unlike traditional helicopters of the time that were powered by piston engines, the Little Henry was powered by small ramjet engines placed at the end of each of the two rotor blades. Even though the XH-20 flew successfully, the ramjet engines were found to be noisy and burned large amounts of fuel, and plans to develop a larger, two-seat helicopter, the XH-29, were abandoned. Two Little Henrys were built, and the first is currently displayed at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (US Air Force photo)
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