Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from December 10 through December 13.


December 11, 2009 – The first flight of the Airbus A400M Atlas. Ever since its first flight in 1954, the Lockheed C-130 Hercules has been the king of tactical airlift, a remarkable workhorse of an aircraft that has been continuously produced for over 60 years. But that record of success didn’t stop aircraft designers from trying to find a replacement for the venerable Herk. Development of the A400M began in 1982 when a consortium of aircraft manufacturers including the French Aérospatiale, British Aerospace, Lockheed and Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm formed a group to develop what was called the Future International Airlifter to replace older the Hercules, as well as the smaller, twin-engine the Transall C-160. The new tactical airlifter would fit somewhere in between the C-130 and the much larger Boeing C-17 Globemaster III strategic airlifter, with the idea being to create an aircraft that could carry a heavier load than the C-130 while still operating from airstrips that cannot be used by the C-17. International politics being what they are, and with competing interests in the requirements of the new aircraft, Lockheed eventually left the group to develop the upgraded C-130J Super Hercules, and other European nations came and went, and the remaining countries were organized under the banner of Airbus Military. One of the first problems Airbus Military faced was the lack of an existing turboprop engine that would provide the necessary performance. After making a request for proposals, the consortium received replies from both Pratt & Whitney Canada with their PW180, and Europrop International with their TP400. As a result of perhaps more European political intrigue, the Europrop engine was selected. The TP400 engine produces 11,000 hp each and provides a maximum speed of 513 mph and a cruising speed of 485 mph.

A view of the A400M showing the counter-rotating propellers

To negate control problems from engine torque, the A400M features counter-rotating propellers, but the opposite rotation direction is not derived by making two different engines. Rather, all the engines turn in the same direction, while propeller direction on two of the engines is reversed through the use of a gearbox. This allows for commonality among all four engines which simplifies maintenance and reduces cost. Airbus Military states that the Atlas has a range of over 5,000 miles at an altitude of 37,000 feet with a maximum payload of 81,000 pounds, or nearly twice that of the C-130J. It also features autonomous cargo loading and unloading which permits cargo transfer to be carried out by a single loadmaster. As with any new, complex aircraft, delays pushed the delivery dates farther and farther back, with initial deployment deferred from 2009 to 2012. The French Air Force completed the first operational mission of the A400M in December of 2013 in support of Operation Serval in Mali, and the British made their first operational flight in 2015 with a mission to RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus. The A400M suffered its first fatal accident in May 2015 when engine mapping software was inadvertently erased and the engines failed to provide power during takeoff. Four employees of Spanish Airbus were killed, and two were seriously injured. A total of 174 aircraft have been ordered so far, with 32 deliveries completed as of December 1, 2016. (Photo by Tim Felce via Wikimedia Commons; Photo by Curimedia via Wikimedia Commons)

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December 11, 1986 – The first flight of the McDonnell Douglas F-15E Strike Eagle. In the late 1960s, the US Air Force began looking for a new fighter to replace the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, a search which ended with the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle. The Eagle was designed from the outset as an air superiority fighter, meaning that it would take command of the airspace over the battlefield and maintain control of it. But the Air Force made sure that the Eagle was strictly an air-to-air platform, and the F-15 Special Projects Office vehemently opposed the idea of the Eagle directly supporting troops on the ground, or taking part in air-to-ground missions, saying, “Not a pound for air to ground.” After all, the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II, arguably one of the greatest ground attack aircraft ever produced, was getting ready to join the Air Force, and took its maiden flight in 1972 along with the Eagle. But in spite of no official support for a ground attack version of the Eagle, McDonnell Douglas worked quietly on an advanced, multi-role version of the Eagle in the hopes that opinions in the Air Force might change. In 1981, the Air Force announced the Enhanced Tactical Fighter program to find a replacement for the General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark. The goal was to develop a fighter that could strike deep into enemy territory without requiring fighter escort or electronic jamming provided by additional aircraft, and would also have the ability to defend itself from aerial attack. General Dynamics responded with the F-16XL, a cranked delta version of their successful F-16 Fighting Falcon, and McDonnell Douglas rolled out the F-15E they had been working on.

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The first production F-15E Strike Eagle

After a two-year evaluation, the Air Force selected the F-15E, which proved to be capable of takeoff weights in excess of 75,000 pounds and had the ability to operate with 16 different weapon configurations. Other factors in the Air Force’s decision were the reduced development costs, future growth potential, and the added safety of two engines. The F-15E is very similar in appearance to the original F-15, but the most apparent difference is the addition of a second seat for the Weapons Systems Officer (WSO) and a darker camouflage pattern. The fuselage was redesigned and strengthened to accept more powerful Pratt& Whitney F100 afterburning turbofan engines, and conformal fuel tanks were added to the sides of the fuselage to extend range. And, unlike other two-seat aircraft with a WSO, such as the Grumman F-14 Tomcat, the rear seat has controls to fly the plane if necessary. The Strike Eagle was introduced in 1988, and soon saw action in the skies over Iraq and Kuwait in Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield, and has gone on to fight in all major operations since. The F-15E remains in production, with over 420 built, and in addition to its service with the US Air Force, the Strike Eagle also flies for the air forces of Israel, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Singapore. (US Air Force photos)


Short Takeoff


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December 10, 1967 – Singer Otis Redding is killed in an air crash. Redding and his band, the Bar-Kays, were traveling from Cleveland, Ohio to Madison, Wisconsin in Redding’s Beechcraft Model 18. While flying in heavy rain and fog, the aircraft crashed into a lake three miles short of the runway at Truax Field in Madision, killing the pilot and six of the seven passengers. The only survivor was band member Ben Cauley. The official NTSB accident report lists the cause of the crash as “undetermined.” (Photo author unknown)


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December 10, 1957 – The first flight of the Aermacchi MB-326. Without the means to produce supersonic aircraft following WWII, Italian designers focused on subsonic training and attack aircraft. The simple design of the MB-326 was both rugged and agile, and proved to be an ideal platform for all phases of jet pilot training. Initial production aircraft were powered by a single Bristol Siddeley Viper turbojet, the MB-326 proved to be an extremely successful design, and, with 800 aircraft produced, the MB-326 alone accounts for 10 percent of all aircraft ever built by Aermacchi. Developed as both a trainer and attack jet, the MB-326 served 16 countries, with the final aircraft being retired by Brazil in 2010. (Photo by Daniel Tanner via Wikimedia Commons)


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December 10, 1955 – The first flight of the Ryan X-13 Vertijet. In order to investigate the feasibility of launching an aircraft vertically from a submarine, designers at Ryan Aeronautical developed the X-13 to test the concept. The aircraft would be required to take off vertically, transition to level flight, then return to hover and land using only the rear engine. Two were built, and the first aircraft was fitted with a tricycle landing gear to test general flight characteristics. Subsequent tests proved that the aircraft could take off and land vertically, and the first takeoff, transition to horizontal flight, and return to vertical landing took place in 1957. While flight tests proved that such an arrangement was possible, the project was canceled for lack of an operational requirement. (US Air Force photo)


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December 10, 1941 – Japanese aircraft sink the Royal Navy battleship HMS Prince of Wales and battlecruiser HMS Repulse. Prince of Wales and Repulse were part of Force Z, a naval squadron sent to intercept Japanese shipping in the waters off Singapore early in WWII. Royal Navy Admiral Sir Tom Phillips, in command of the squadron, decided to sail without air cover, and the ships were attacked by land-based Japanese Navy Mitsubishi G3M and Mitsubishi G4M aircraft carrying a mix of bombs and torpedoes. Both Prince of Wales and Repulse were hit by four torpedoes, and both sank with heavy loss of life. The attack marked the first time in history that air power had sunk capital ships that were actively fighting to defend themselves, and heralded the end of the battleship as the primary weapon of naval surface warfare. (Illustration artist unknown)


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December 10, 1938 – The first flight of the Lockheed Hudson. A development of the Lockheed Model 14 Super Electra, the Hudson was built primarily for the Royal Air Force for use as a coastal reconnaissance aircraft, light bomber and in the anti-submarine warfare role. With the RAF’s initial order of 200 aircraft, the Hudson was the first major production aircraft for the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, and they eventually produced nearly 3,000 Hudsons for the RAF, the Royal Canadian Air Force, the Royal Australian Air Force and the US Army Air Forces. Hudsons served throughout the war in both Europe and the Pacific, and to be very agile fighters in the hands of a skilled pilot. (British government photo)


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December 11, 1913 – The first flight of the Sikorsky Ilya Muromets, a large, four-engine bomber designed by Igor Sikorsky and developed from the earlier Sikorsky Russky Vityaz. Named after a hero from Russian mythology and originally intended as a large passenger aircraft, the Ilya Muromets was developed into a bomber as WWI approached, and, by 1918, 83 bombers had been produced. They were the first aircraft in aviation history to perform heavy bombing missions, group raids, night bombings and photo reconnaissance. In 400 sorties, the Ilya Muromets dropped sixty-five tons of bombs. Following the war, the Muromets returned to its original role of passenger aircraft and mail plane, with the final flight taking place in 1922. (Photo author unknown)


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December 12, 1985 – The crash of Arrow Air Flight 1285, a chartered Douglas DC-8 (N950JW) that was carrying 8 crew members and 248 soldiers of the US Army 101st Airborne Division returning to Fort Campbell, Kentucky after serving in a peacekeeping mission in the Sinai Peninsula. On the final leg of the flight, the DC-8 crashed shortly after takeoff from Gander, Newfoundland, killing all on board. The investigation concluded that the crash was caused by the accumulation of ice on the wings, as well as incorrect weight calculations. However, some investigators dissented, saying that a fire or explosive device likely caused the crash. The accident remains the deadliest single peacetime loss of life in the history of the US Army and the worst crash on Canadian soil. (Photo by Pedro Aragão via Wikimedia Commons)


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December 12, 1979 – The first flight of the Sikorsky SH-60B Seahawk (or Sea Hawk), a navalized variant of the Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk utility helicopter originally developed for the US Army. Developed to replace the Kaman SH-2 Seasprite, the SH-60 shares 83% commonality with its Army predecessor, with the most significant structural difference being a hinged tail for on-deck storage. The Seahawk also differs by the addition of oleo main gear struts, the shifting forward of the tail wheel, and a more powerful engine. Capable of serving from any air-capable ship, the Seahawk is designed for anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, naval special warfare, search and rescue, vertical replenishment and medical evacuation. Further variants have replaced the Sikorsky SH-3 Sea King and Boeing CH-46 Sea Knight. (US Navy photo)


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December 12, 1951 – The first flight of the de Havilland Canada DHC-3 Otter. With the DHC-2 Beaver, de Havilland Canada had built a reputation for rugged aircraft that were capable of taking off from short or unimproved airstrips, and the DHC-3 Otter was designed to be a larger and more powerful aircraft that could perform the same mission. Originally called the King Beaver, the DHC-3 is longer and heavier than the DHC-2, and can seat 10-11 passengers. Originally fitted with a Pratt & Whitney R-1340 geared radial engine, some Otters have been upgraded with a turboprop engine and are known as the Turbo Otter. The Otter is capable of operating from land, from sea with floats, or from snow with skis, and 466 Otters were produced from 1951-1967. (Photo by CanadianBushPilot via Wikimedia Commons)


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