Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from August 27 through August 30.
August 27, 1990 – The first flight of the Northrop YF-23. 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 fighter that would take advantage of developments in new construction materials, engines that could provide supercruise, 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 some measure of stealth 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 more 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 and, 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 talk was made about Northrop developing 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 prototype 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 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. But having put all the work into a new large transport, Douglas hoped to salvage something from their development work by transforming their new aircraft into an airliner. With ever increasing numbers of passengers on domestic 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 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 and Douglas in 1967, the DC-10 would mark the company’s first foray into commercial jet aviation. Thought he 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 that would seat 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 would offer 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 lifetime, 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, 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 will remove the need for a flight engineer is ongoing, with the new aircraft being designated the MD-10. 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)
August 30, 1982 – The first flight of the Northrop F-20 Tigershark. When Northrop first flew the F-5 Freedom Fighter in 1959, they were bucking a trend. Fighters had become ever more complex—and expensive—and Northrop’s little hot rod would set the bar for capable fighter aircraft that were effective over the battlefield but not prohibititvely expensive to service or operate. The F-5 became an excellent low-cost export for nations friendly to the US. But by the late 1970s, export restrictions meant that the newest American fighters could not be sent overseas for fear of American technology falling into enemy hands, and the US needed a new simple yet powerful fighter to take on the role that had been filled by the F-5. Thus began the Air Force’s FX program, and both Northrop and General Dynamics responded. Northrop presented the F-5G, a further modernized and upgraded version of their venerable little fighter, and General Dynamics proposed the F-16/79, a downgraded version of the F-16 Fighting Falcon currently in production for the US Air Force. It looked like Northrop might have gotten its timing just right to fulfill the expected windfall of export orders, but political waffling in the US Congress and changing export guidelines eventually allowed General Dynamics to export the F-16, along with its advanced technology, and Northrop needed to improve the F-5G to match the F-16’s performance in the hopes of winning the contract. Part of that was a change in branding. Many still saw the name “F-5" as denoting an inexpensive, second-tier aircraft meant for developing countries. So Northrop lobbied the Air Force to change the designation to F-20, and added the nickname Tigershark. To increase performance, the new F-29 was fitted with the same General Electric F404 afterburning turbofan that was developed for the YF-17, which gave the fighter a 60% improvement in thrust over the F-5G. It also was given updated avionics and the ability to fire beyond-visual-range AIM-7 Sparrow air-to-air missiles, a capability that the F-16 was not able to match. Testing of the new fighter progressed admirably, and the Tigershark proved to be a formidable aircraft, providing at least as much punch as the F-16 but at a significantly lower cost. It’s single engine gave it a top speed of Mach 2, and it was armed with a pair of Pontiac M39A2 cannons in the nose and 5 external hardpoints for a wide range of rockets, missiles and bombs. Ultimately, though, the F-20 would prove to be a case of an excellent aircraft with tragically bad timing. With no support from the US government, changing export restrictions that favored the F-16, and a lack of any international buyers after most opted for the more advanced F-16, the F-20 was eventually canceled in 1986 after only three aircraft had been produced. Two of the prototypes were lost to crashes, and the third now resides at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. (US Air Force Photo)
August 30, 1952 – The first flight of the Avro Vulcan. With the coming of the turbojet engine at the end of WWII, governments moved quickly to incorporate the new powerplant into their strategic and tactical bomber fleets. In England, development of new aircraft was also closely tied to their nascent nuclear weapons program, which began to take shape in 1947. But the British Air Staff was working to stay ahead of the government, and had issued Specification B.35/46 the previous year that called for the creation of a new strategic bomber that would have four jet engines, a cruising speed of 500 knots and a ceiling of at least 55,000 feet. Two aircraft manufactures answered the call, Handley Page and Avro, with each making a unique aircraft that would eventually complement each other and end up serving side by side for many years. Handley Page designed their swept-wing Victor, which would serve as a bomber, reconnaissance aircraft and aerial tanker until 1993, while Avro developed the Vulcan. Along with the Vickers Valiant, these three aircraft would be known as the V Bombers, which reached their heyday in the 1960s before slowly being supplanted by ballistic missiles and smaller aircraft with tactical nuclear munitions. The Vulcan was one of the earliest planes to make use of the new delta wing and, while delta wings would come of age later in the decade of the ‘50s, their use was still novel and untested. To make sure their concept would work, Avro started out with a series of scale models to prove the concept. The first was the single-seat Avro 707 which first flew in 1949. While that aircraft crashed, killing the pilot, more models of the 707 followed which solved the problems of handling and resulted in a very stable aircraft. These scale tests continued until 1952, wen Avro flew their full-sized bomber for the first time. But concerns about the design remained, and the British government ordered the production of the Valiant in the event that the Vulcan was a failure. But those fears proved to be unfounded, as the Vulcan turned out to be an extremely stable and capable aircraft. After ironing out a few remaining issues, the B.1 model entered service in 1956, and the B.2, with a redesigned wing and more powerful engines, entered service in 1960. The Vulcan was originally conceived as a long-range nuclear deterrent, and its range was demonstrated during a round-the-world tour soon after the aircraft entered service. Aerial refueling capabilities were also added to further increase range. While the Vulcan was never called upon to perform its nuclear mission, the bomber was also capable of carrying up to 21,000 lbs of conventional bombs. Vulcans saw their first and only combat action in the Falklands War in 1982, flying from tiny Ascension Island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean to bomb Argentine forces, making an 8,000 mile round trip. Avro produced a total of 136 Vulcans from 1956-1965, and they were retired by the RAF in 1984. (RAF photo)
August 27, 1990 – Blues musician Stevie Ray Vaughan is killed in a helicopter crash. Following a performance with Eric Clapton in East Troy, Wisconsin, the musicians 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, as reported by witnesses. The flight path required the pilot to fly over a 1,000-foot tall 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 and one of the precursors to the modern jet aircraft. 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, the 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 focusing 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 at 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 fuel down onto the audience. 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 a small ramjet engine 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)
August 30, 1984 – The first flight of Space Shuttle Discovery, the third of five Space Shuttles put in service by NASA. Its first flight, STS-41-D, took off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida and returned to Edwards Air Force Base in California six days later after deploying a commercial communications satellite and performing scientific experiments. Discovery would go on to serve for 27 years and spend a total of 365 days in space while completing 39 missions, including the placement of the Hubble Space Telescope into Earth orbit. In all, Discovery traveled 149,000,000 miles and completed 5,830 orbits. Discovery was retired after its final mission in 2011 and is now on display at the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virgina. (NASA Photo)
August 30, 1913 – American inventor Lawrence Sperry successfully demonstrates the first autopilot. Developed by the Sperry Coropration in 1912, the first autopilot was a gyroscopic stabilizing device that hydraulically controlled the aircraft’s elevators and rudder and was capable of keeping a plane level and on a compass course, thus greatly relieving pilot workload on long flights. Lawrence Sperry demonstrated his autopilot in Paris in 1914, flying while holding his hands in the air to show that the autopilot was in fact in control of the aircraft. The first autopilots were used on American military aircraft by 1930 and, in 1947, a US Air Force Douglas C-54 Skymaster made the first transatlantic flight, from takeoff to landing, completely controlled by the autopilot. (Chicago Daily News photo via Wikimedia Commons)
Recent Aviation History Posts
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.