Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from August 29 through September 1.
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 so much time and money into the development a new large military transport, Douglas hoped to salvage something from their efforts by transforming their new aircraft into a large passenger airliner.
Ever-increasing numbers of passengers on domestic and international air routes indicated a need for larger airliners, and the move to wide-body airliners was the next step in airliner development. In light of the success of the world’s first wide-body airliner, the Boeing 747, 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. Beginning with the work they had done for the Air Force, McDonnell Douglas (the two companies merged in 1967) 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. The DC-10 marked the combined company’s first foray into commercial jet aviation, and the DC-10 became one of the most recognizable tri-jet airliners. In 1968, American Airlines placed an order for 25 aircraft, 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.
But McDonnell Douglas wasn’t the only manufacturer offering a triple-engined wide-body. Lockheed entered the fray with their L-1011 TriStar in 1972, so McDonnell Douglas hoped to entice buyers by offering engine configurations that provided different levels of range and economy based on the needs of the airline. 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. Ultimately, because of delays in production and the higher cost of the Lockheed airliner, the DC-10 far outsold the L-1011. McDonnell Douglas ended up building a total of 386 DC-10s over a twenty-year production run, compared to 250 TriStars.
Early in its service life, the DC-10 garnered a reputation as an unsafe or dangerous aircraft. The airliner suffered a number accidents, 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 McDonnell Douglas wide-body saw its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, and today it is flown primarily as a freighter. Following Boeing’s acquisition of McDonnell Douglas, some DC-1os have been fitted with updated avionics that remove the need for a flight engineer. These aircraft have been rebadged as the MD-10, while a stretched and upgraded version became known as the MD-11. The DC-10 was also converted into an aerial tanker for the US Air Force known as the KC-10 Extender, with a total of 60 being built.
August 30, 1982 – The first flight of the Northrop F-20 Tigershark. When the Northrop Corporation debuted the F-5 Freedom Fighter in 1959, they were bucking a trend. Fighters of the day had become significantly more complex—and expensive—and Northrop’s little hot rod of a fighter set a new standard for capable fighter aircraft that were effective over the battlefield but not prohibitively expensive to operate or to service. The F-5 became an excellent low-cost export for nations friendly to the US, and the diminutive fighter eventually saw service in 31 nations. By the late 1970s, restrictions put in place by the US government prohibited the export of the newest American fighter planes for fear that American technology might fall into enemy hands. So the Air Force initiated the FX program to develop a new, simple, yet powerful fighter to take on the role that had been filled by so well by the F-5.
Both Northrop and General Dynamics responded to the Air Force request. Northrop presented the F-5G, a further modernized and upgraded version of their venerable little fighter. General Dynamics, who was prohibited from exporting the F-16 Fighting Falcon in the same form as the one provided to the US Air Force, offered the F-16/79, a downgraded version of the F-16. At first, it appeared that Northrop might have gotten its timing just right to fulfill the expected windfall of export orders. However, political waffling in the US Congress, along with changed export guidelines, eventually permitted General Dynamics to export the F-16, along with its advanced technology. Northrop needed to improve the F-5G to match the F-16’s performance in the hopes of winning an export contract of its own.
Part of that upgrade took the form of 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 F-20 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 was also fitted with 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 five external hardpoints for a wide range of rockets, missiles and bombs. Ultimately, though, the F-20 proved 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.
August 30, 1952 – The first flight of the Avro Vulcan. With the arrival of the operational turbojet engine by the end of WWII, military planners moved quickly to incorporate the new powerplant into their strategic and tactical bomber fleets. In England, development of new jet aircraft was 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. Handley Page and Avro responded to the specification, with each making a unique aircraft that would eventually complement each other and serve side by side for many years. Handley Page offered their swept-wing Victor, which served as a bomber, reconnaissance aircraft, and aerial tanker until 1993, while Avro developed the delta-winged Vulcan. Along with the Vickers Valiant, these three aircraft became known as the V Bombers, and the types 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 delta wing at a time when their use was still novel and relatively untested. To make sure their bomber would fly, 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. Though that aircraft crashed, killing the pilot, more models of the 707 followed which solved the problems of handling and ultimately resulted in a very stable aircraft. These scale tests continued until 1952, when Avro finally 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 didn’t meet expectations. Those fears proved to be unfounded, and 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 added to further increase range. Though originally designed as a long range nuclear bomber, the Vulcan 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 of 1982, flying an 8,000 mile round trip from tiny Ascension Island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean to bomb Argentine forces fighting on the disputed islands. Avro produced a total of 136 Vulcans from 1956-1965, and they were retired by the RAF in 1984. Seven Vulcans remain as museum pieces or ground demonstrators, and one was airworthy before its final retirement in 2015.
August 31, 1956 – The first flight of the Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker. The first midair refueling dates back to the days of the barnstormers, when a daredevil strapped a can of gasoline on his back and climbed from the wing of one aircraft to another. The stunt made for a good show, but it certainly wan’t practical. The earliest successful and even remotely practical experiments with aerial refueling occurred in 1923, when one US Army Air Forces Airco DH-4 biplane refueled another through a hose draped between the two aircraft. During the Cold War, America’s first dedicated strategic tanker, the KC-97, a variant of the Boeing C-97 Stratofreighter, entered service in 1951. However, as the US Air Force entered the jet age, it quickly became apparent that propeller-powered aerial tankers, even when supplemented with turbojets, were not fast enough to keep up with the new jet-powered fighters and bombers.
In 1954, the Air Force announced its intention to procure a modern tanker aircraft to replace the KC-97, and both Boeing and Lockheed competed for the contract. Lockheed proposed the L-193 Constellation II, a design with two rear-mounted engines, while Boeing offered their Model 367-80, better known as the Dash 80, a proof-of-concept aircraft that would later be developed into the 707 airliner. Though the Lockheed design was declared the winner, their aircraft was still on the drawing board while the Dash 80 was already flying and could be delivered two years ahead of the L-193. So the Air Force changed its mind and instead selected the Boeing aircraft, which received the designation KC-135. (Boeing initially gave the aircraft the designation 717, and it actually predates the civilian 707 airliner.) Though the KC-135 and 707 look very similar, the KC-135 is shorter and narrower than its airliner sibling and, at first, they were both powered by the same Pratt & Whitney J57 axial flow turbojet engines. Acting as both an aerial refueler and a cargo plane, the KC-135 could carry more than 31,000 pounds of fuel, more than twice that of the KC-97, and up to 83,000 pounds of combined fuel and cargo.
In the strategic refueling role, the Air Force expected the KC-135 to provide refueling for long-range Strategic Air Command (SAC) bombers such as the Boeing B-47 Stratojet and Boeing B-52 Stratofortress. However, during the Vietnam War, the Air Force (and US Navy and US Marine Corps) learned that having tankers on station near the battlefield could dramatically extend the loiter time of fighters and attack aircraft. Planes that could only spend minutes over a target could now stay aloft for hours with aerial refueling. So the KC-135, which was originally fitted only with the flying boom refueling probe used by Air Force aircraft, was modified to support the probe-and-drogue system in use by the Navy and Marine Corps. With the ability to refuel all types of US fighters, it the Stratotanker became a critically important tactical asset.
The Stratotanker has been continually upgraded throughout its service life, receiving more powerful and fuel efficient engines and improved avionics, and it provides refueling services the world over to this day. In ten years of production from 1955-1965, Boeing built just over 800 KC-135s, and it was exported in small numbers to Chile, France, Singapore and Turkey. The KC-135 is also one of only a small handful of aircraft to log over 50 years of service. Currently, the strategic refueling role has largely been supplanted by the larger McDonnell Douglas KC-10 Extender, while the KC-135 has generally taken on the tactical refueling role. The Stratotanker is scheduled to be replaced by the Boeing K-46 Pegasus, a development of the Boeing 767 airliner, but ongoing delays in that program will keep the tried and tested KC-135 in the air for the foreseeable future.
September 1, 1983 – Korean Air Lines Flight 007 is shot down by Soviet fighters. With the end of WWII in 1945, the United States and the Soviet Union, allies in the fight against Hitler’s Germany, quickly became ideological enemies. The struggle between the two super powers for world political and cultural influence began a Cold War that would lasted more than forty years. In the era before reliable spy satellites, the Soviet Union and America used aircraft to keep watch on each other, and a number of American aircraft were attacked or shot down by Russian fighter jets to keep prying eyes away from Soviet airspace. But even in the modern age of high-powered spy satellites, the Russians remained on edge about aircraft intruding into their airspace, and even went so far as to shoot down a civilian airliner that they claimed was on a covert spy mission.
Korean Air Lines Flight 007 was scheduled Boeing 747 (HL7442) service from New York City to Seoul, South Korea, with a stop in Anchorage, Alaska. Onboard were 246 passengers and 23 crew, along with US Congressman Larry McDonald of Georgia, who was on his way to South Korea for a ceremony recognizing the anniversary of the mutual defense pact signed between South Korea and the US. After departing from Anchorage, Flight 007 was supposed to head towards South Korea on North Pacific (NOPAC) route Romeo 20 (R-20), which would take it within 17.5 miles of Soviet airspace off the Kamchatka Peninsula. However, ten minutes after takeoff, the 747 began to divert from its intended flight path, most likely due to an improperly set autopilot system. The pilots failed to monitor their position, and did not realize that they were on course to cross the southern end of the Kamchatka Peninsula near the city of Petropavlovsk, home to the Soviet Union’s largest Pacific submarine base.
At the time, tensions between the US and Russia were at a height not seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. The American government was increasing their anti-Soviet military posture and working on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, popularly referred to as Star Wars) to protect the US from nuclear missiles. The US was also attempting to stage Pershing II ballistic nuclear missiles in Europe that could reach Moscow in just 10 minutes. For its part the US Navy was in the middle of a huge exercise, FleetEx 83, in the north Pacific. Soviet General Secretary Yuri Andropov was convinced that the US was planning a preemptive nuclear strike, and the Russian military was on high alert. Soviet defense radars detected and tracked Flight 007 as it approached Russian airspace, and Sukhoi Su-15 and Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-23 fighters were scrambled to intercept it. After much confusion and discussion among Soviet military brass, the fighter pilots received the order to shoot down the airliner, whether it was civilian or not. One of the Su-15s maneuvered behind the 747 and fired two K-8 air-to-air missiles. The missiles exploded and sent shrapnel into the airliner which damaged the hydraulic systems and caused the cabin to depressurize. The pilots fought to control the plane, but it eventually spiraled into the water near Moneron Island in the Sea of Japan, killing all on board.
At first, the Soviets said nothing about the shoot down, believing that their role could not be proven. Then, when faced with evidence that the airliner had been shot down, they suggested that the fighter pilots had mistaken the 747 for a Boeing RC-135 reconnaissance plane, one of which actually was operating in the area at the time. They eventually admitted to downing the airliner, but they adhered to the argument that it was taking part of a planned intelligence gathering mission.
While all indications are that Flight 007's overflight of the Soviet Union was a simple mistake of navigation, many questions linger over the story of Flight 007. Driven mostly by the inability to find the bodies of the passengers, a host of theories persists, from a purposeful course deviation to monitor the Russian response, to a forced landing in the Soviet Union and the incarceration of the passengers and crew. Others suggest that the shoot down was part of a massive, unreported aerial battle between the US and Russia. Following the disaster, the US, Japan, and the Soviet Union began to cooperate on radar tracking of aircraft in the north Pacific, and President Ronald Reagan announced that the Global Positioning System (GPS) would be made available for civilian use.
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. Plans to develop a larger, two-seat helicopter, the XH-29, were abandoned. Two Little Henrys were built, and the first is displayed at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.
August 29, 1929 – The airship Graf Zeppelin completes a circumnavigation of the globe. Before the arrival of the massive Zeppelin airships, traveling around the world was a complicated undertaking that combined ships, trains, balloons, and anything else Jules Verne might conjure up. The first time the feat was done by air was in 1924, when US Army pilots took 175 days to complete the 26,345 circumnavigation. But carrying paying passengers required a different sort of conveyance. The Graf Zeppelin (LZ-127) was the first to carry passengers on a trip across the Atlantic Ocean in 1928. The following year, on a voyage partly funded by American media mogul William Randolph Hearst, Graf Zeppelin departed Lakehurst, New Jersey on August 8 bound for Friedrichshafen, Germany. The next leg took the airship from Friedrichshafen to Tokyo, then Tokyo to Los Angeles, and then the final leg ended back at Lakehurst three weeks later having covered 20,651 miles. By far the most successful of the passenger airships, Graf Zeppelin flew all across Europe, the Middle East, South America, and across the North Pole. Following the Hindenburg disaster, Germany retired its airships, and Graf Zeppelin was scrapped and its metal frame was used to construct aircraft for the German war effort.
August 30, 1984 – The first flight of Space Shuttle Discovery, the third of five Space Shuttles placed in service by NASA. Discovery’s 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 went on to serve for 27 years and spent a total of 365 days in space over the course of 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 before its retirement in 2011. The orbiter is now on display at the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virgina.
August 30, 1983 – Guion “Guy” Bluford becomes the first African American to fly in space. Born on November 22, 1942 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Bluford obtained a degree in aerospace engineering from Pennsylvania State University and a master’s degree and PhD in aerospace engineering from the US Air Force Institute of Technology. As a fighter pilot, Bluford flew 144 combat missions in Vietnam and served as a flight instructor before being selected for the NASA astronaut corps in 1979. Bluford flew in space for the first time onboard the Space Shuttle Challenger on STS-8, the first Shuttle mission to both launch and land at night. With three other flights on STS-61-A, STS-39 and STS-53, Bluford spent a total of 688 hours in space. He retired from NASA in 1993, and was inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame in 1997 and the United States Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2010.
August 30, 1969 – The first flight of the Tupolev Tu-22M, a long-range supersonic land and maritime bomber. The swing wing Tu-22M, NATO reporting name Backfire, is powered by a pair of Kusnetsov NK-25 turbofans and is capable of a maximum speed of Mach 1.8. The Backfire was developed from the notoriously poor Tupolev Tu-22 and first became known to the West through satellite photos taken in 1970. It was unveiled in 1980 and began flying simulated attack missions against NATO naval forces. The Backfire made its first combat appearance over Afghanistan in 1987, and more recently flew in support of the Syrian government in 2015, missions which continue to this day, though it continues to suffer from poor construction and maintenance difficulties. A total of 497 were built from 1967-1997.
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. The system was capable of keeping an airplane level and on a compass heading, thus greatly relieving pilot workload on long flights. Lawrence Sperry demonstrated his autopilot in Paris in 1914 when he piloted the plane 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.
August 31, 1969 – World heavyweight champion boxer Rocky Marciano dies in a plane crash. Marciano had retired from professional boxing in 1955, having gone undefeated in his career and successfully defending his title six times. The day before his 46th birthday, Marciano, along with Frankie Farrell, son of boxer Lew Farrell, were passengers in a Cessna 172 (N3149X) flown by pilot Glenn Belz. Belz was a relatively novice pilot, with only 231 total flying hours and just 35 hours of night flying. While traveling from Chicago to Des Moines, Iowa at night and in poor weather conditions, Belz, who did not possess an instrument flight training certification, tried to land at a small airfield near Newton, Iowa. The Cessna struck a tree two miles short of the runway, killing all three on board. The National Transportation Safety Board cited the pilot’s inexperience and the continued use of visual flight rules (VFR) in instrument flight conditions (IFR).
August 31, 1965 – The first flight of the Aero Spacelines Super Guppy, a wide-body, oversize cargo carrier and successor to the Aero Spacelines Pregnant Guppy. The Super Guppy was built on the fuselage of a Boeing C-97J Turbo Stratocruiser, the military version of the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser airliner. Upgraded Allison T56 turboprop engines allowed the Super Guppy to carry a load of 54,000 pounds at 300 mph, and it was used notably for transporting large sections of the Apollo spacecraft. Only one Super Guppy was built before further developments led to the Super Guppy Turbine, of which four were built.
August 31, 1958 – The first flight of the North American A-5 Vigilante, an all-weather, carrier-borne, supersonic nuclear strike aircraft designed for the US Navy to replace the Douglas A-3 Skywarrior. Despite its intended role as a nuclear bomber, the Vigilante performed predominately in the role of conventional tactical strike, and in the reconnaissance role as the RA-5C, seeing extensive action in the Vietnam War. With a crew of two, the Vigilante was one of the largest aircraft ever to operate regularly from a US carrier, and was retired in 1979 as multi-role fighters took over its reconnaissance and strike missions.
August 31, 1947 – The first flight of the Antonov An-2, a jack-of-all-trades biplane produced in large numbers by the Soviet Union. Over 18,000 copies of this rugged, single-engine biplane have been built since production began in 1947. When production ceased in 2001, it marked the end of a 54-year production run surpassed only by the Lockheed C-130 Hercules. The An-2 saw combat during the Korean War, but it exists today in a host of variants for all manners of reconnaissance, utility, agricultural top dressing, and survey work, just to name a few of its uses. Antonov further developed the biplane into the An-3, with a turboprop engine replacing the radial engine, though only 25 were built.
September 1, 1982 – The United States Air Force Space Command is formed. With the coming of the Space Age, and the widespread deployment of intercontinental ballistic missiles, early warning of an enemy strike was of critical importance. This role was originally carried out by the Tactical Air Command, and other aspects of space launch and satellite operation had been handled by the Air Force Systems Command. These were combined to form a major command whose mission has since expanded in the age of the computer “to provide resilient and affordable space and cyberspace capabilities for the Joint Force and the Nation.” In 2019, the US formally established the Space Force as a coequal branch of the United States Armed Forces.
September 1, 1948 – The first flight of the Saab J-29, Sweden’s second turbojet fighter following the Saab 21R and the first Western European fighter to be built with a swept swing following WWII. Nicknamed Tunnan (Barrel), the J-29 was, despite its ungainly appearance, a highly effective and agile fighter that served the Swedish Air Force for over 25 years before its retirement in 1976. The J-29 was powered by a single license-built de Havilland Ghost turbojet, known as the Svenska Flygmotor RM 2B, that gave it a maximum speed of 660 mph, and it was armed with a four 20mm cannons as well as rockets or air-to-air missiles. A total of 661 were produced from 1948-1956, and it was retired in 1976.
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