Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from December 1 through December 4.
December 1, 2001 – The final flight by Trans World Airlines. The 76-year history one of America’s best-known airlines began 1925, when the US Government awarded a contract to fly mail from Salt Lake City, Utah to Los Angeles, California to a fledgling company called Western Air Express. About a month later, the company carried their first passengers in a Douglas M-1 biplane, though the flight was anything but luxurious. Modern travelers are quick to complain about only getting a bag of peanuts in coach, but those first two passengers spent the eight-hour flight sitting on sacks of US Mail. In 1929, another startup company, Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT), began offering cross-country trips that combined air and rail travel, carrying passengers from New York to California in 51 hours. Clement Melville Keys had hired famed aviator Charles Lindbergh to help develop the transcontinental network, and opened new airports across the country. Then, in 1930, TAT joined with Western Air Express at the urging of the US Postmaster, who wanted to expand air mail routes. The merger brought Lindbergh together with Jack Frye, another early pioneer of aviation who would lead T&WA “The Airline Run by Flyers” through its meteoric rise from 1934-1947.
But a promising future almost ended at birth when T&WA suffered the crash of a wooden-framed Fokker F.10 that claimed the life eight passengers, including famed Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne, and T&WA struggled to overcome the negative press associated with the crash. In order to reassure a public that was already skittish about flying, T&WA needed new, modern aircraft; however, they could not purchase the Boeing Model 247 because Boeing had an exclusive contract to sell the airliner to United Airlines, a subsidiary of Boeing. So Frye turned to the Douglas Aircraft Company, which delivered the DC-1, DC-2, and eventually DC-3 airliners, which far surpassed the Model 247 in capacity and reliability, many of which still fly to this day. By 1934, T&WA was offering transcontinental flights in their new Douglas airliners—with three stops along the way for fuel—for $160, which is nearly $3,000 in today’s money. In 1941, eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes purchased a controlling stake in the company, and oversaw the purchase of the larger and more modern Lockheed Constellation, a four-engine airliner which cut transcontinental flight times to about nine hours. During WWII, T&WA prospered under the leadership of Hughes and Frye, flying millions of miles for the US Army and providing supplies to far flung corners of the globe.
Following the war, TWA became a truly global passenger airline, with Lockheed Constellations and Douglas DC-4s flying to Cairo, Bombay, Ceylon and Manila. But Hughes accused Frye of overextending the airline, and stock prices fell. Frye resigned in 1947, and thus began a revolving door of corporate leadership that continued until the company’s demise. In 1950, the company officially became known as Trans World Airlines in a nod to its global destinations, and Hughes finally brought the company into the jet age with the purchase of 63 Convair 880 airliners. But the delay in adopting the modern jet airliners meant that TWA had lost its competitive edge, and Hughes was removed from the helm of the company.
TWA achieved a few significant firsts, becoming the first airline to hire an African-American flight attendant, and the first to show in-flight movies. In 1969, TWA carried more transatlantic passengers than any other carrier, and it had grown to become the third largest airline in the world by 1972. In the 1980s, TWA had become more of a business interest for investors than a pilot-centered aviation service, though the airline did make perhaps its greatest achievement by carrying more than 50 percent of all transatlantic passengers in 1988. By 1995, though, TWA had entered bankruptcy and, despite an attempt to reinvent itself as a smaller domestic airline, TWA was purchased by American Airlines in 2001. TWA’s final, ceremonial final Flight 220 from Kansas City to St. Louis was flown by TWA CEO William Compton at the controls of a McDonnell Douglas MD-83 (N948TW). The story of one of the world’s greatest global airlines had come to an end with a flight of just 240 miles.
December 2, 1948 – The first flight of the Beechcraft T-34 Mentor. For many years, the North American T-6/SNJ Texan was the primary trainer for US military pilots, as well as many other air forces around the world. Over 15,000 Texans were built following its first flight in 1935, and its rugged design and and adaptability to many different missions made it a tough act to follow. Nevertheless, Walter Beech, who had founded the Beechcraft Aircraft Company in 1932, rolled the dice following WWII and began development of what was dubbed the Beechcraft Model 45 to serve as a replacement for the venerable Texan, even though the US military had expressed no interest in a new trainer, nor did they have the budget for one.
Based largely on the Beechcraft Bonanza, the Model 45 went through three design concepts, one of which employed the Bonanza’s signature V-tail, though in the end, Beech adopted a traditional tailplane to appeal to conservative military brass. The Bonanza fuselage was narrowed, and a bubble canopy was installed to allow better visibility for the tandem cockpit. The aircraft was also significantly strengthened to hold up under the rigors of military training. Power for the Mentor came from a Continental E225 flat six-cylinder engine that offered 225 hp, and production of two main variants began in 1953: the T-34A for the US Air Force, and the T-34B for the US Navy, which was optimized for carrier operations. Both versions entered service in 1953.
But with the jet engine becoming the primary powerplant for military aircraft, Beechcraft began another internal project to develop the T-34 into a jet trainer. This resulted in the Model 73 Jet Mentor, which was powered by a single Continental J69 turbojet. However, when the Navy passed on the Jet Mentor and the Air Force chose the Cessna T-37 Tweet as their jet trainer, the Jet Mentor was abandoned after construction of just a single prototype. The piston-powered T-34 remained in service, though initial production halted in 1959.
But the idea of a jet-powered Mentor never quite died, and T-34 production was restarted in 1973 at the request of the US Navy for a turboprop powered variant. This aircraft, powered by a Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6 turboprop engine, was designated the T-34C and remained in service until the 1990s, when the T-6 Texan name reappeared with the Beechcraft T-6 Texan II, a derivative of the Pilatus PC-9. In all, more than 2,300 Mentors were built throughout the two production runs, and many remain in private hands where they are frequently seen on the air show circuit.
December 2, 1937 – The flight of the Brewster F2A Buffalo. History remembers and lionizes the great fighters of the Second World War, aircraft such as the North American P-51 Mustang or the Supermarine Spitfire, powerful and nimble fighters that clawed enemy aircraft from the skies, helped the Allies win the war, and are still revered today for their performance and beauty. The Brewster Buffalo, however, does not hold such a place in the pantheon of great fighters, and, in the years since WWII, the Buffalo has come to be regarded as a failure, a symbol of obsolescent technology and poor design. However, that scorn is not entirely warranted.
The story of the Buffalo began in 1935, when the US Navy requested a new fighter to replace the Grumman F2F biplane. They accepted three entrants into the competition for a production contract: the Buffalo, the Grumman XFF-1, a biplane fighter with retractable landing gear which would eventually be developed into the F4F Wildcat, and a navalized version of the Seversky P-35, which was quickly eliminated for its lack of speed. By the design standards of the 1930s, the Buffalo was a truly modern aircraft. It boasted all-metal, flush-riveted, stressed aluminum construction, split flaps, and hydraulically operated retractable landing gear. It’s Wright R-1820 Cyclone radial engine provided a stout 950 hp, and the Buffalo had an impressive climb rate for its day, though its single-stage supercharger severely limited its high altitude performance. The Buffalo also lacked self-sealing fuel tanks or armor plating to protect the pilot, features that became standard on later American fighters. Armament was provided by a single .50 caliber machine gun and a single .30 caliber machine gun, both mounted in the nose.
The first variant, the F2A-2, attempted to address some of the shortcomings of the F2A by providing increased armament and a more powerful engine, but the resulting weight gain nullified any performance improvements. The final version, the F2A-3, added improved range and provision for underwing stores, but the Navy and Marine Corps had already lost confidence in the Buffalo. By 1940 it was clear that the Buffalo was completely outclassed by more nimble Japanese aircraft such as the Mitsubishi A6M Zero and Nakajima Ki-43 (Oscar), and the remaining Buffalos were retired from combat following the Battle of Midway and transferred to Navy training squadrons in the US mainland. British experience with the Buffalo in Malaya and Burma was little better, with aircraft prone to oil leaks that fouled windscreens and speeds well under Brewster’s billing. Still, four Commonwealth pilots managed to become aces in the Buffalo early in the war.
Despite the difficulties faced by American and Commonwealth pilots, the Buffalo fared much better elsewhere, particularly in the hands of Finnish pilots, who liked the Buffalo and flew it with great effect. The export model was known as the B-239, and Finland’s greatest ace, Ilmari Juutilainen, scored 34 of his eventual 94.5 kills while flying a Buffalo against Russian fighters. Cooler weather, better maintenance practices and superior tactics allowed greater success for the plucky fighter, and it served with distinction during the Continuation War. Just over 500 Buffalos were built, and they ended their service in 1948.
December 4, 1991 – Pan American Airways ceases operations, 63 years after its founding. Following the First World War, the aviation and airline industries grew at a rapid pace, as fledgling commercial airlines began to stretch their tendrils further and further across the globe. But as the airlines grew, their mission became as much about spreading national influence abroad than just hauling passengers and mail. And some governments worried that the encroachment of foreign carriers could be a threat to national security.
In 1919, the government of Germany joined with Columbia to form the world’s second airline, the Sociedad Colombo Alemana de Transportes Aéros (SCADTA, or Colombian-German Air Transport Partnership). SCADTA wanted to carry mail from Bogota to the US via Panama, but the United States government was none too keen on having such heavy German influence over the first airline in the Americas, which they felt could threaten the vital canal gateway between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. So US Army Air Corps Major Henry H. “Hap” Arnold and Major Carl Spaatz, both of whom would go on to play significant roles in the Second World War, created a shell company known as Pan American Airways on March 14, 1927. With US government support, Pan Am soon had exclusive contracts to carry mail to Central and Latin America, making sure that no other American companies would outbid them. Thus began a 63-year history of Pan Am being the practical, though not official, flag-carrier airline of the US, and its blue globe logo became as much a symbol of the United States as the US flag.
Under the leadership of Juan Trippe, Pan Am grew rapidly by aggressively buying small airlines and expanding mail and passenger routes in South America. In 1937, Pan Am began as providing Sikorsky S-42 seaplane service to Europe, and had started pushing westward from the US to Hawaii and the Far East with aircraft such as the Boeing 314 Clipper, which made the world’s first transatlantic passenger flight, and the pressurized Boeing 307 Stratoliner, the first pressurized airliner to enter commercial service. Pan Am also became the first airline to complete a circumnavigation of the globe with paying passengers.
Following WWII, Pan Am undertook modernization of its fleet, and soon became a leader in the innovation of the airline industry. As the world entered the jet age, Pan Am inaugurated its first transatlantic jet service in 1958 as the launch customer for both the Boeing 707, and later served as the launch customer for the Boeing 747, the world’s first wide-body airliner. Pan Am was also an industry leader in its use of computerized reservation services, teaming with IBM to develop the PANAMAC system that was housed in their iconic Manhattan skyscraper, the largest office building in the world at the time. At Pan Am’s peak in the 1960s, the airline carried 6.7 million passengers and served 86 countries with stops on every continent except Antarctica.
But in the 1970s, the oil crisis led to higher fuel prices and lower travel, and Pan Am found themselves in massive amounts of debt, particularly over the acquisition of new aircraft. The company declared bankruptcy on January 8, 1991, becoming the third US carrier to close its doors in the face of economic hardship and competition from other airlines. After attempting to acquire domestic airlines and selling off major portions of its assets, the remainder of the company was purchased by Delta Air Lines. Pan Am’s final fight was made by a Boeing 727 named Clipper 436, with service from Barbados to Pan Am’s original home base of Miami. Before landing, the crew performed a fly-by down the Miami runway as a tribute to one of America’s most storied and important airlines.
December 4, 1952 – The first flight of the Grumman S-2 Tracker. During World War I, submerged German U-boats prowled the seas virtually undetected and wreaked havoc on both military and civilian shipping. Maritime reconnaissance aircraft patrolled the skies in hopes of catching a glimpse of a submarine on the surface, but the airplane’s role in anti-submarine warfare (ASW) was largely limited to forcing the subs to submerge. Developments in sonar between the wars helped surface ships detect submerged submarines during World War II, but airplanes were still relegated to a strictly reconnaissance or attack role, and were unable to detect submerged submarines on their own. It wasn’t until the development of airborne radar systems that aircraft took on the role of both finding and destroying enemy submarines, but early detection gear was too large to fit into a single aircraft that was capable of operating from US Navy carriers. The Navy’s initial solution was to split the load between two aircraft, one hunter and one killer. Grumman developed the AF Guardian system of two planes, but clearly, this was just a stopgap measure until a dedicated ASW aircraft could be developed. That aircraft was the Grumman S-2 Tracker, the first dedicated, all-in-one ASW aircraft in the US Navy.
The Tracker was a large, twin engine aircraft powered by two Wright R-1820 Cyclone radial engines mounted on a high wing, an arrangement that allowed for the most unobstructed space possible inside the fuselage. The rear of the large engine nacelles housed sonobuoys that were dropped into the ocean to locate submerged submarines. For tracking, the crew relied on an AN/APS-38 radar that was housed in a retractable radome, as well as a magnetic anomaly detector (MAD) boom in the tail that detected tiny variations in the Earth’s magnetic field to snoop out submerged subs. A 70-million candlepower search light was also fitted to the starboard wing. For attack, the S-2 carried two torpedoes or a single nuclear depth charge, and hard points on the wings carried rocket pods, depth charges, or four additional torpedoes.
The need for the Tracker was so great, and the Navy was so sold on the design, that they ordered two prototypes and 15 production aircraft at the same time, with the first aircraft entering service in 1954. The Tracker was soon upgraded with modern electronics, and the S-2B received the Jezebel passive long-range acoustic search equipment. Jezebel worked in conjunction with Julie, an active acoustic echo ranging detection system that used explosive charges to locate underwater submarines. Further refinements brought the S-2C, which was an enlarged aircraft that could carry yet more electronic snooping hardware, and the S-2D, which had a larger wing, more fuel capacity, and more sonobuoys stored in the engine nacelles. The Tracker was widely exported to western allies, and nearly 1,300 were produced, including approximately 100 that were built under license by de Havilland in Canada, aircraft which received the designation CS2F.
While the Tracker and its ASW equipment gear proved to be an excellent sub hunter, the aircraft itself was useful in other ways. With the electronic tracking gear removed, the large internal space could be used for cargo, and Grumman developed a variant stripped of all electronics and weapons which was called the C-1 Trader. The Trader performed the Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD) role until the arrival of the Grumman C-2 Greyhound in 1966. The Tracker was further developed into the E-1 Tracer, the first purpose-built airborne early warning radar aircraft which sported a large radome to track aircraft near the carrier battle group. But the remarkable Tracker wasn’t done yet. In the 1970s, Conair Aerial Firefighting converted surplus Trackers into the Conair Firecat, with all military equipment removed and replaced by an 870 gallon tank for dropping fire retardant. The US Navy retired their Trackers by 1976, but a handful of aircraft remain in service with the Argentine and Brazilian Navies.
December 1, 1977 – The first flight of Have Blue, the code name for Lockheed’s proof of concept aircraft that demonstrated the capabilities of stealth aircraft design and developed manufacturing techniques and design elements that would be used on the production Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk. Unlike all previous aircraft that had been designed by aeronautical engineers, primary design of Have Blue was performed by electrical engineers who helped created the faceted shape that deflected radar signals and reduced the aircraft’s radar cross-section. Two test aircraft were built, and both were lost to crashes, though both pilots survived. Despite the mishaps, Have Blue was deemed a success, and led to the follow on program code named Senior Trend that resulted in the F-117.
December 1, 1941 – The Civil Air Patrol (CAP) is activated. Originally envisioned in the 1930s as a civilian complement to America’s military flying branches, the CAP was officially activated by Administrative Order 9 when it was signed by New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, Director of the Office of Civilian Defense. During WWII, CAP pilots flew surveillance missions to spot German U-boats off the American coast, and eventually located 173 enemy submarines and sank two. After the war, the CAP became the civilian auxiliary of the US Air Force, though it lost its offensive capabilities. Today, CAP pilots provide search and rescue services, disaster and humanitarian relief, and assist the US government with border patrols and drug interdiction. They are also instrumental in the education of new pilots, and help experienced pilots obtain Federal Aviation Administration ratings.
December 1, 1932 – The first flight of the Heinkel He 70 Blitz (lightning), a high-speed mail and passenger aircraft designed by Siegfried and Walter Günter of the Heinkel Flugzeugwerke to replace the slower Lockheed Vega and Lockheed Orion. Powered by a single BMW VI water-cooled V-12 engine, the Blitz captured a total of eight world speed records in its day, and Deutsche Luft Hansa operated the He 70 as a mail and passenger plane from 1934-1937 with accommodations for four passengers. During the Spanish Civil War, the He 70 was pressed into service as a fast reconnaissance bomber, but its lack of self-sealing fuel tanks and magnesium construction made it dangerously susceptible to fire. While the He 70 was not suited for duty in WWII, its elliptical wing and other design features found their way into the Heinkel He 111 twin-engine medium bomber.
December 2, 1993 – The launch of Space Shuttle Endeavour on STS-61, the first mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). The HST was launched into Earth orbit in 1990, but faulty optics from an incorrectly ground mirror resulted in distorted images. In one of the most complex Shuttle missions ever, seven specially trained astronauts performed five extended extra-vehicular activity (EVA) periods to replace the High Speed Photometer with the COSTAR corrective optics package, install the new Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2, replace four gyroscopes, and upgrade the computers. The HST was then boosted to a higher orbit. NASA considered the mission a complete success when Hubble began transmitting some of the sharpest images of the cosmos ever taken. Four additional servicing missions were flown, the last in 2009.
December 2, 1976 – The first flight of the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft. Though NASA originally considered using the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy to transport the Space Shuttle, they instead chose to modify a Boeing 747-100 airliner for the task, since the airliner employed a low wing and the C-5 would have to remain the property of the US Air Force. The first SCA (N905NA) was acquired from American Airlines in 1974, and a second (N911NA) was acquired from Japan Airlines in 1988 as a spare after the Challenger disaster. Modifications included the addition of mounting points for the Shuttle, a strengthened fuselage, improved avionics, more powerful engines, and the addition of vertical stabilizers at the end of the horizontal stabilizers for added control when the Shuttle was mounted. The SCA participated in glide tests of the original Shuttle Enterprise (OV-101), and ferried Shuttles from landings in California back to the launch site in Florida. Both SCAs were retired in 2012 at the end of the Space Shuttle program.
December 2, 1945 – The first flight of the Bristol Type 170 Freighter. The 170 was originally created as a measure to keep employees of the Bristol Aeroplane Company working while the huge and ultimately unsuccessful Bristol Brabazon was under development. Placement of the cockpit above the cargo hold helped accommodate as large a payload as possible, and clamshell doors at the front facilitated cargo loading and unloading. An all-passenger variant was developed, called the Wayfarer, as well as a car-ferrying version that allowed passengers to bring their cars along on trips to the European Continent. Bristol built 214 Freighters between 1945-1958, and they served numerous civilian and military carriers around the world.
December 3, 2003 – The first flight of the Honda HA-420 HondaJet, the first aircraft developed by Honda Aircraft Company. The HondaJet was designed in Japan and manufactured in the United States at Honda’s factory in Greensboro, North Carolina. The maiden flight was performed by a proof-of-concept aircraft, not a final production model, and Honda announced in 2006 that it would commercialize the new light business jet. In March 2015, the HondaJet received its Provisional Type Certification from the FAA, and the aircraft is currently under production, with the first of approximately 100 orders delivered in 2018.
December 3, 1973 – Pioneer 10 returns the first close-up images of Jupiter. Pioneer 10 was launched on March 3, 1972 and reached Jupiter in November 1973. The probe eventually transmitted 500 images as it passed as close as 82,000 miles to the Solar System’s largest planet. The pictures returned by Pioneer 10 were of a higher quality than any image ever taken from Earth, and were displayed back on Earth in real time in a presentation that received an Emmy Award. The photographs allowed scientists to determine that Jupiter is composed mostly of liquid, and scientists could also discern weather patterns on the planet based on observations of Jupiter’s clouds. After passing Jupiter, Pioneer 10 became the first spacecraft to achieve escape velocity from the Solar System and, if left undisturbed, it will continue towards the star Aldebaran, more than 68 light years away, though it will require more than two million years to reach the star at its current velocity.
December 3, 1944 – The rescue of survivors from the destroyer USS Cooper. While on a mission to intercept Japanese supply ships near the Philippine Islands, USS Cooper (DD 695) was torpedoed by a Japanese destroyer and sunk with the loss of 191 crewmen. 168 were rescued, including 56 who were loaded into a single US Navy Consolidated PBY Catalina belonging to Patrol Bombing Squadronn VPB-34 and commanded by Lt. Joe Frederick Ball. A second PBY recovered 48 survivors. For his actions in rescuing a record number of victims, Ball received the Navy Cross. The citation reads in part:
[Ball] carried out the entire rescue with consummate skill and with total and repeated disregard for his personal safety, remaining on the water for almost an hour with many enemy planes in the vicinity, and repeatedly taxiing his plane well within point-blank range of guns on the enemy-held coastline and of two enemy warships, in his effort to pick up survivors. When his plane could hold no more, he was forced to make a run of three miles in order to get off the water.
December 4, 1965 – The launch of Gemini 7, the fourth manned flight of the Gemini program and the 12th manned American space flight. In the longest mission to date, astronauts Frank Borman and Jim Lovell remained in orbit for 14 days and circled the Earth 206 times. The primary goal of the Gemini 7 was to act as a passive target for a rendezvous in space with Gemini 6A, which was launched 11 days after Gemini 7. Gemini 6A astronauts Walter “Wally” Schirra and Thomas Stafford maneuvered to within one foot of Gemini 7, and could have docked had the two spacecraft been fitted with docking equipment. After the rendezvous, Borman and Lovell spent three more days in space with little more to do than read books to pass the time. The pair returned to Earth on December 18.
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