Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from December 11 through December 13.
December 11, 2009 – The first flight of the Airbus A400M Atlas. Ever since the Lockheed C-130 Hercules took its first flight in 1954, it has been the reigning king of tactical airlift, a remarkable workhorse of an aircraft that has been continuously produced for over 60 years. The Hercules can be found in service with at least 70 countries worldwide, but that remarkable 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 Aérospatiale, British Aerospace, Lockheed, and Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm formed a consortium to develop what was called the Future International Airlifter to replace the Hercules, as well as the smaller, twin-engine the Transall C-160. The new tactical airlifter was planned to 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. 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 could provide the required performance. After making a request for proposals, Pratt & Whitney Canada responded with their PW180, while Europrop International offered their TP400. Following still more European political intrigue, the Europrop engine was selected. The TP400 produces 11,000 hp and the quartet of engines on the A400M provides a maximum speed of 513 mph, with a cruising speed of 485 mph. To compensate for inherent control problems caused by engine torque, the A400M features counter-rotating propellers, but the opposite rotation direction is not derived by making engines that turn in different directions. Rather, all the engines turn in the same direction, and a gearbox is used to reverse the rotation direction of the propeller for one engine on each wing. The inner engines rotate outwards, while the outer engines rotate inwards. Having all the engines turn the same direction allows for commonality among the 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 allows cargo transfer to be carried out by a single loadmaster.
As with any new, complex aircraft, delays pushed delivery dates farther and farther back, with initial deployment deferred from 2009 to 2012. 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. 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. The German Luftwaffe carried out the first transport mission to an active war zone in Afghanistan in 2018. A total of 174 aircraft have been ordered so far, with 56 deliveries completed as of January 2018.
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 superb McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle. The Eagle was designed from the outset as an air superiority fighter, one that could take and hold command of the airspace over the battlefield. 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 one day 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 an aircraft that could strike deep into enemy territory without requiring fighter escort and without electronic jamming provided by additional aircraft. Thus, it would also need the ability to defend itself from aerial attack. General Dynamics responded with the F-16XL, a cranked delta wing version of their successful F-16 Fighting Falcon, and McDonnell Douglas submitted the F-15E they had been working on. 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 from its commonality to the original F-15 fighter, 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 later 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. In addition to its US Air Force service, variants of the Strike Eagle figure prominently in the air forces of Israel, Singapore, Qatar, and South Korea, while Saudi Arabia is the largest export customer, with 70 aircraft in service and an additional 84 on order. It is also rumored that Boeing is working on a so-called F-15X, an upgraded version that would likely contain no stealth features, but would instead focus on avionics and battlefield integration similar to the latest US Air Force fighters such as the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor and Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II. The F-15X is also rumored to support a payload of up to 22 missiles.
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 the hero from Russian mythology, the Ilya Muromets was originally intended as a large passenger aircraft, but was then developed into a bomber as WWI approached. 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. Approximately 85 were produced from 1913-1917.
December 12, 1985 – The crash of Arrow Air Flight 1285, a chartered Douglas DC-8 (N950JW) that was carrying eight 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.
December 12, 1979 – The first flight of the Sikorsky SH-60B Seahawk, a navalized variant of the Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk utility helicopter originally developed for the US Army. Also known as the Sea Hawk, the SH-60B was developed to replace the Kaman SH-2 Seasprite, and it 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. Able to operate 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.
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.
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