Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from August 31 through September 3.
August 31, 1956 – The first flight of the Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker. The first and airplane was refueled in midair dates back to the days of the barnstormers, when a daredevil climbed from the wing of one aircraft to another with a can of gasoline strapped to his back. That 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 but, as the US Air Force entered the jet age, it quickly became apparent that propeller-powered aerial tankers 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/transport 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 design, 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 though, at least initially, 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, a significant increase over the 14,900 pounds carried by 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 and became an 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. Starting in 2018, the KC-135 will begin to be replaced by the Boeing K-46 Pegasus, a development of the Boeing 767 airliner.
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, and their struggle for world political and cultural influence began a Cold War that would last for more than forty years. In an 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 believed 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 (D-GA), 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. 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 US was increasing their anti-Soviet military posture while also 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. 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.
Initially, the Russians said nothing about the shoot down, believing that their role could not be proven. Eventually, they admitted to downing the airliner, and alleged that it was part of a planned intelligence gathering mission. They also suggested that the fighter pilots had mistaken the airliner for a Boeing RC-135 reconnaissance plane, one of which actually was operating in the area at the time. 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.
September 2, 1937 – The first flight of the Grumman F4F Wildcat. The Grumman Corporation has a rich history of building rugged fighter aircraft for the US Navy, a tradition that can be traced all the way back to the days before WWII. Their penchant for making reliable aircraft that could take a pounding and still bring their pilots home earned the company the nickname “Iron Works,” and one of the first aircraft to truly live up to that name was the F4F Wildcat, the first in a long line of Grumman Cats.
The Wildcat traces its lineage back to the first biplane fighter that Grumman produced for the Navy, the FF, which was notable as being the first carrier-based fighter to feature a retractable landing gear. Grumman continually developed their tubby fighter, first with the F2F, then the F3F. Though both of those iterations were biplane fighters, the classic F4F high-backed fuselage began to take shape. Even as the F3F was undergoing flight testing, Grumman was looking ahead to their next fighter, which was planned as another biplane. But by that time the Navy had made the decision to adopt a monoplane fighter in the Brewster F2A Buffalo. Still, the Navy placed an order for Grumman’s newest biplane, the G-16, in case the Buffalo didn’t fulfill their needs. The G-16, soon to be called the XF4F-1, turned out to be inferior to the Buffalo, so Grumman went back to the drawing board and redesigned their new fighter as a monoplane with improved wings and tail. They also beefed up the power with a supercharged Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp radial engine. This aircraft was known as the XF4F-3, and the classic Wildcat was born.
Both the US Navy and France placed orders for the new fighter but, when France fell to Germany in 1940, those aircraft were sent to England. There they were known as the Martlet, and what was to become the iconic US Navy fighter of the early Pacific War actually saw its first combat with the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. When war broke out in the Pacific in 1941, the Buffalo, which had been chosen over the Wildcat, proved to be nearly useless against modern Japanese fighters, and it was quickly withdrawn in favor of the Wildcat. Though the Wildcat was also no match for the Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero head-to-head, it was still better than the woefully underperforming Buffalo. The Wildcat’s strong construction, armored cockpit, and self-sealing fuel tanks allowed it to absorb punishment from Japanese fighters and stay in the fight while bringing its pilots home. Special tactics such as the Thach Weave helped keep the Wildcat effective until the more powerful Grumman F6F Hellcat arrived in the Pacific in 1943.
By the end of the war, and despite the Zero’s greater maneuverability, better climb rate, longer range, and effective tactics, the Wildcat—and her well-trained pilots—enjoyed an almost 7:1 kill ratio over the enemy. The Wildcat served the Navy and Marine Corps throughout the war and, with the arrival of the larger Hellcat, Wildcat operations were shifted to smaller escort carriers, with Wildcat pilots providing air cover for amphibious assaults. By the end of production in 1945, nearly 8,000 Wildcats had been built, and it was retired at the end of the war.
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 but 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 reconnaissance 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 and, 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 2018, US president Donald Trump announced his intention to form a Space Force, an entirely independent branch of the US military on par with the other five services.
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.
September 2, 1998 – The first flight of the Boeing 717, a twin-engine, narrow-body commercial airliner first developed by McDonnell Douglas as the MD-95, the final variant of the venerable Douglas DC-9 line. Following the merger of McDonnell Douglas and Boeing in 1997, the MD-95 was rebranded as the Boeing 717, though Boeing had already used 717 as the internal designation of the military version of the Boeing 367-80 that entered service as the C-135 Stratolifter and KC-135 Stratotanker. The 717 entered service in 1999 with AirTran Airways (formerly ValuJet Airlines) as a medium-range airliner for the 100-seat market. When production ended in 2006, a total of 156 had been produced.
September 2, 1949 – The first flight of the de Havilland Venom, a single-seat turbojet-powered fighter-bomber developed from the de Havilland Vampire. The twin-tail boom configuration allowed for a shorter tailpipe behind the engine that took advantage of as much power as the early de Havilland Ghost turbojet could offer. Like the Vampire, the Venom was still built from a composite of wood and metal, but a thinner wing allowed greater speeds, while wingtip fuel tanks increased range. The Venom was introduced in 1952 and was the first British fighter to be fitted with an ejection seat. The Venom served the RAF until 1962, and with the Swiss Air Force until 1983.
September 2, 1942 – The first flight of the Hawker Tempest, an improved version of the Hawker Typhoon fighter-bomber. The Tempest benefited from a more powerful engine and a new laminar flow wing to become a formidable attack aircraft. The Tempest was one of the most powerful fighters of the war, and possessed particularly good low-level performance. It was powered by a single Napier Sabre liquid-cooled 24-cylinder engine that developed around 3,000 hp, had a top speed of 432 mph, and was armed with four 20mm Mark II Hispano cannons and up to 1,000 pounds of bombs or rockets. Introduced in January 1944, just over 1,700 Tempests were produced, and it was retired following the war.
September 2, 1925 – The crash of the rigid airship USS Shenandoah, the first of four rigid airships purchased by the US Navy. Shenandoah (ZR-1) was based on the German Zeppelin LZ 96 and was the first airship to be filled with helium rather than more flammable hydrogen. Shenandoah took its maiden flight on September 4, 1923 and performed the first transcontinental flight in July 1924. On September 2, 1925, Shenandoah set out from Lakehurst, New Jersey for a promotional flight across the Midwest. While flying through a line of thunderstorms over Ohio, the airship was lifted by a violent updraft above the pressure limits of its gas bags and broke apart. Fourteen members of the 29-man crew were killed. Thousands of Ohioans came to view the crash site, and widespread looting of the hulk took place, with critical instruments stolen that could have helped with the investigation into the crash. Nevertheless, the crash led to changes in operating procedures, better weather forecasting, and the strengthening of future airships.
September 2, 1910 – Blanche Stuart Scott makes the first solo airplane flight by a woman in the United States. An adventurer at heart, Scott was the second woman to drive an automobile across the United States, and her notoriety led to an offer of flying lessons from American aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss. Scott went on to become a professional pilot and made her debut with the Curtiss exhibition team as the first woman to fly at a public event, earning her the nickname “Tomboy of the Air.” After gaining fame as a stunt pilot, Scott was the first American woman to make a long-distance flight of 60 miles, and also became a test pilot for Glenn Martin. She retired from flying in 1916 because she was upset by an American public that seemed obsessed with air crashes rather than flying achievements, as well as the lack of opportunity for women pilots.
September 3, 2017 – Astronaut Peggy Whitson returns to Earth after setting an endurance record for American astronauts. With the culmination of her third long-duration mission aboard the International Space Station (ISS), Whitson ran her total number of days spent in space to 665, breaking astronaut Jeff Williams’ previous record of 534 days of total time in space. Whitson made her first trip to the ISS in 2002 and stayed for 184 days, then returned in 2008 for a 191-day stay. On her third trip she spent 289 days in space. At age 57, Whitson is the world’s oldest spacewoman and the first to command the ISS twice. She has spent more then 53 hours performing spacewalks, the most of any female astronaut. In 2009, Whitson became the first woman to be appointed chief of the astronaut office, a position she held until 2012. While Whitson’s record is for accumulated days in space, the record for the longest single stay in orbit belongs to cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov, who spent 437 days on the Russian space station Mir.
September 3, 1982 – The first flight of the Beechcraft 1900, a 19-passenger twin-turboprop regional airliner and one of the most popular small airliners ever produced. The 1900 was developed from the Beechcraft Super King Air and was designed with all-weather flight capabilities, as well as the ability to operate from short runways. Power comes from a pair of Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6 turboprops which give the 1900 a top speed of 518 mph. When production ended in 2002, Beechcraft had built nearly 700 aircraft, and it remains in service with over 80 civilian operators and numerous military operators, including the US Air Force, where it is known as the C-12J.
September 3, 1981 – The first flight of the British Aerospace 146, a short-haul regional airliner manufactured from 1978-2001 by British Aerospace. The 146 is powered by four Textron Lycoming ALF 502 turbofan engines mounted on pods under a high cantilever wing and can accommodate up to 112 passengers depending on configuration. The 146 entered service in 1983 and became very popular at city airports, where it takes advantage of its short-field performance and quiet operation. Nearly 400 copies of the 146 were produced, and it continues to serve worldwide as an airliner and cargo aircraft, including some that have been converted for aerial firefighting duties.
September 3, 1948 – The loss of Silverplate Boeing B-29 Superfortress The Great Artiste. The two Silverplate Boeing B-29 Superfortresses that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Enola Gay and Bockscar, are well known to history. But they weren’t the only aircraft of that type to make those historic flights. On each mission, the bombers were accompanied by two other Silverplate B-29s, one with photographers and the other with measuring instruments. The Great Artiste (44-27353) was the only B-29 to fly on both atomic missions. Built at the Glenn L. Martin Plant, The Great Artiste flew conventional bombing missions before the nuclear raids of August 1945, but during a polar navigation training mission after the war it developed engine trouble after takeoff from Goose Bay, Labrador and overran the runway on landing and was seriously damaged. Despite its historical significance, The Great Artiste was scrapped in 1949.
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