Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from December 15 through December 18.
December 15, 2009 – The first flight of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. In the modern age of air travel, the battle among airline designers, particularly Boeing and Airbus, has been fought over passenger load and efficiency, with each company seeking ways to fly passengers to distant destinations while using less fuel. A large part of that effort has gone into engine design, and modern high-bypass turbofan engines have become marvels of efficiency. With as many miles per gallon as possible being wrung out of the engines, the other major area that money savings can be found is in the use of new materials for the construction of the aircraft itself, materials that are strong yet light, as weight is one of the great enemies of fuel efficiency.
Boeing began to tackle the problem fuel efficiency back in the late 1990s, when, as the airliner sales market started to cool off, they sought replacement aircraft to bolster sagging sales of their wide-body 747-400 and 767. They considered the 747X, a lengthened version of the 747-400, and even the Sonic Cruiser, a radical delta wing aircraft which offered higher speeds than were obtainable in current aircraft. The radical Sonic Cruiser was eventually abandoned in 2002 in favor of a more traditional design, which would become the 787, but much of what Boeing learned in the development of the Sonic Cruiser, particularly the use of carbon-fiber-reinforced polymers, was put to use on what Boeing now called the Dreamliner. Boeing gave the new airliner the internal designation 7E7, and it was the first production airliner to be built from one-piece, composite sections rather than riveted aluminum. Ultimately, the final breakdown of materials was 50% composite, 20% aluminum, 15% titanium, 10% steel, and 5% other materials.
According to Boeing, the savings in weight for this type of construction, coupled with two new engines, the Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 and General Electric GEnx high-bypass turbofans, made the 787 20% more fuel efficient than the 767 while carrying more passengers. The engines generate from 53,000-74,000 pounds of thrust, and have a massive fan diameter of 9.5 feet. The serrated edges of the engine nacelle, which Boeing calls chevrons, help reduce the noise from the jet exhaust by controlling the way the exhaust mixes with the cooler air bypassing the engine core. The chevrons are so effective that hundreds of pounds of sound-dampening insulation can be removed. Depending on the variant, the 787 can accommodate as many as 440 passengers in a single-class configuration (787-10), and can fly 8,786 miles on a single load of fuel.
The development of such a pioneering airliner as the 787 was plagued with delays. Boeing struggled to get the Dreamliner down to its intended weight, as some parts had to be redesigned with titanium, and other delays in obtaining fasteners and difficulty with the software kept pushing back delivery dates. All told, Boeing lost nearly $30 billion while delivering the first 500 787s. Nevertheless, Boeing had 677 orders for the Dreamliner by 2007, more than any other previous widebody. Following yet more delays, extensive testing, and certification, the first Dreamliner was officially delivered to the 787’s launch customer, All Nippon Airways (ANA), on September 25, 2o11 at the Boeing factory in Everett, Washington, and it entered service the following month. As of September 2017, Boeing had received orders for 1,283 Dreamliners, with 600 delivered. Production delays have pushed back some deliveries, but Boeing has worked hard to streamline the production process, and as of 2018, the company had orders for just over 1,400 787s, and recently rolled out the 787th Dreamliner, which will enter service with China Southern Airlines. Despite the early setbacks, Boeing has begun to turn the corner on the profitability of the 787, and has plans to deliver as many as 14 a month beginning in 2019.
December 15, 2006 – The first flight of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II. Back in the early 1960s, both the US Navy and US Air Force needed to replace aging aircraft, and newly appointed Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, well known for his micromanagement of America’s war efforts in Vietnam, ordered that both branches must pursue a common aircraft in an effort to save money. Even though the two branches had very different requirements, McNamara dictated that the new aircraft, the General Dynamics F-111, would be designed first for the Air Force, and development of a carrier-based version for the Navy would follow. Finding that there was no chance that the F-111 would become a successful naval fighter bomber, the Navy eventually pulled out of the program and went their own way, developing the Grumman F-14 Tomcat.
Despite the difficulties faced by the US military in developing a single platform to satisfy very different requirements, the Pentagon once again embarked on a similar path with the announcement of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) competition in 1993. The goal was to develop a single basic aircraft that would serve the very different missions of the Air Force, Navy and US Marine Corps, as well as the needs of numerous export countries. It was hoped that the new fighter could perform the combined missions of the various aircraft it was slated to replace: the General Dynamics F-16, Fairchild Republic A-10, McDonnell Douglas F/A-18, McDonnell Douglas AV-8B, and British Aerospace Harrier II. The competition for what would become the largest defense contract in history was fought between the Boeing X-32 and Lockheed Martin X-35, and the X-35, which first flew on October 24, 2000, was declared the winner in 2001.
Drawing on elements of their F-22 Raptor, Lockheed included features of stealth technology, integrated avionics, a computerized maintenance management system, and data networking to provide the pilot with unparalleled situational awareness. More than a simple attack plane, the F-35 would be a digital information hub, capable of taking data from both satellites, aircraft, and ground forces and combining it to form a complete picture of the battle space. The use of nanocomposites, specifically carbon nanotube reinforced epoxy, makes the F-35 the first mass-produced aircraft to employ these lightweight yet strong materials. The Lightning II is powered by a single Pratt & Whitney F135 afterburning turbofan engine and, while it is not capable of supercruise, it can maintain a speed of Mach 1.2 for a distance of 150 miles.
To fulfill the varied requirements of the different branches of the military, Lockheed produces the F-35 in three main variants: the F-35A, a traditional fighter-bomber for the Air Force; the F-35B, a short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) version for the Marine Corps; and the F-35C, a fully navalized variant for the US Navy. The Marine STOVL version has a pivoting engine nozzle for hovering, while the same engine powers a forward lift fan through a complex drive shaft. Takeoffs can be performed either vertically or by using a ski ramp, and a test program is underway to determine the feasibility of operating the F-35B from existing helicopter carriers.
The entire F-35 program has been plagued with delays, software development problems and massive cost overruns. By 2014, it was $163 billion over budget and seven years behind schedule. Considering the entire development costs and operating budget for a planned 55 years of service, the F-35 program is projected to cost $1.1 trillion, making it the most expensive weapons program in history. These problems have led some international customers to reduce their commitment to buying the new fighter, but plans are still in the works for 3,146 F-35s to be built and delivered by 2035, with 1,763 ordered for the US Air Fore, 247 for the US Navy, and 733 for the US Marine Corps. The F-35 is also exported to 13 other nations. In spite of continuing problems and systems that were not ready for battle, the Marines declared initial operating capability of the F-35B in July 2015, and the Air Force declared the F-35A combat ready in 2016, and forward deployment of the F-35A has already begun to global hotspots. The Navy’s F-35C is expected to be deployed for the first time in 2o21.
December 17, 1903 – The Wright Brothers make the first powered flight in the world’s first practical airplane. While the Wright Brothers were not the first to fly, Wilbur and Orville were the first to build and fly a heavier-than-air aircraft under its own power and to control the aircraft in flight. After a series of tests of gliders to perfect their designs, the brothers set up shop at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina to make their first attempts at powered flight. Following a failed first attempt on December 14 that resulted in a damaged aircraft, Orville took off on December 17, with Wilbur running alongside, and piloted the Wright Flyter for 12 seconds and covered a distance of 120 feet. Subsequent flights managed distances of 175 feet and 200 feet.
December 17, 1963 – The first flight of the Lockheed C-141 Starlifter. Napoleon (or perhaps Frederick the Great) famously said that an army marches on its stomach, and experience in WWII demonstrated the true value of the airplane as a means of delivering supplies and materiel to front line troops. By the end of the 1950s, the US Air Force required a new, jet-powered transport and cargo aircraft to replace its aging fleet of piston-powered transports such as the C-124 Globemaster II. As a stopgap measure, the Air Force ordered the Boeing C-135 Stratolifter, a cargo variant of the KC-135 aerial tanker, but without any specific logistic capabilities, such as clamshell doors or purpose-built loading ramps, the C-135 was an imperfect solution. In 1960, the Air Force released Specific Operational Requirement 182, which called for an aircraft that could perform both strategic and tactical airlift missions. For the strategic mission, the new airlifter would need a range of at least 3,500 nautical miles while carrying a 60,000-pound load of troops, equipment, or materiel. For its tactical mission, the new aircraft would have to be capable of performing low-altitude air drops of materiel and paratroops. Boeing, General Dynamics and Lockheed responded to the proposal, and the Starlifter was chosen.
The C-141, which had the Lockheed designation Model 300, was designed from the outset as a cargo aircraft, with a high wing that allowed for maximum cargo space and a clamshell door at the rear. Another important feature is a cargo floor that is just 50 inches above the ground, facilitating access to the cargo hold for troops and vehicles. The Starlifter was powered by four Pratt & Whitney TF33 turbofans, and the large hold could carry over 70,000 pounds of cargo. The the C-141 showed its mettle when set a world record for heavy cargo drops with a load of 70,195 pounds. As a personnel carrier, the Starlifter could accommodate 154 troops, 123 paratroops or 80 medevac patients on litters.
Though the Starlifter was large and powerful, one of the drawbacks of the original C-141 was that it tended to fill up with bulky equipment before it reached its cargo weight limit. To address this problem, Lockheed took 270 C-141As and lengthened them 23 feet by adding an additional fuselage section, and the new aircraft was designated C-141B. The Starlifter entered service in 1965 and had an immediate impact on American operations in Vietnam, carrying troops and supplies to Asia and returning with wounded soldiers. During the Gulf War of 1991, Starlifters performed the bulk of strategic airlift missions, transporting 159,462 short tons of cargo and 93,126 passengers over the course of 8,536 missions. The Starlifter became one of the longer-serving aircraft in the Air Force inventory, and its retirement in 2006 ended 41 years of service. A total of 285 C-141s were produced from 1963 to 1968. (US Air Force photos)
The aircraft in the top photo, tail number 66-0177, better known as the Hanoi Taxi, was the aircraft that brought home the first US prisoners of war to be released from North Vietnam. First delivered to the Air Force in 1967, the Hanoi Taxi was the final C-141 to be withdrawn from Air Force service when the Starlifter was retired from active service in 2006. The Hanoi Taxi is now housed at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.
December 17, 1947 – The first flight of the Boeing B-47 Stratojet. By the end of WWII, the race was on to harness the power of the new jet engine in all applications of military flight. The first operational jet fighters had appeared at the end of the war, and a jet-powered bomber was the next logical step. As early as 1943, the US Army Air Forces asked aircraft designers to start looking at a large bomber that would be powered by jets, and, in 1944, North American Aviation, the Convair Corporation, the Glenn Martin Company, and Boeing all submitted proposals for a traditional, straight-winged aircraft with turbojet engines. All were powered by the new General Electric TG-180 turbojet (GE’s designation of the Allison J35), and Boeing’s design, which they designated the Model 432, had its engines buried in the fuselage to reduce drag.
In May 1945, with WWII drawing to a close, the Allies drove deeper into Germany. With the capture of secret German airfields and test facilities, many of the experimental aircraft and data from German testing programs fell into Allied hands. One of these locations was an aircraft development site in Braunschweig, where the Germans had been working on swept wing technology. American engineers had already begun to investigate the benefits of sweeping the wings of an aircraft, but the newly-captured German data verified the benefits of the design. George Schairer, a Boeing engineer who was a member of the American inspection team in Germany, called back to Boeing and instructed them to stop work on the new straight-wing bomber and to begin a redesign to incorporate a swept wing.
Based on the captured German data, a sweep of 35-degrees was incorporated into both the main wing and the tailplane, and the engines were moved from the fuselage to pods under the wings. This configuration of swept wings and podded engines set the standard for large jet aircraft design that remains standard to this day. The thin wing did not allow for traditional landing gear, so a bicycle gear arrangement was employed, with outrigger wheels fitted to the inboard engine pods. Though the B-47 was not supersonic, it was still quite fast for its day, and the Stratojet set a record for transcontinental flight when it crossed the US in less than four hours at an average speed of 698 mph.
The B-47 served as the cornerstone of the Strategic Air Command’s nuclear deterrence force until it was replaced by the larger Boeing B-52 Stratofortress,. And, while the Stratojet never saw combat, its reconnaissance variants provided vital surveillance data, as well as electronic intelligence and weather reconnaissance. A total of 2,032 Stratojets were produced, a number that includes 659 that were built under license by Douglas and Lockheed. The final bomber variant, the B-47E, was retired in 1969, while the reconnaissance variant EB-47E served until 1977. No airworthy Stratojets remain today, though 23 are on display around the country.
December 17, 1935 – The first fight of the Douglas DC-3/C-47 Skytrain. Throughout the history of aviation, there have been many great airplanes, but only a few can be counted in the pantheon of the greatest ever. And it seems fitting that, in a world of computers, jet engines, and fly-by-wire controls, one of the aircraft that truly changed the world is an unassuming propeller plane, one that revolutionized the world of air transport, and also played an indispensable role in winning WWII. That aircraft is the Douglas DC-3, or, in its military dress, the C-47 Skytrain.
By the 1930s, aircraft designers were competing to develop larger passenger aircraft to fill the needs of a burgeoning air travel industry. Transcontinental and Western Air (which later became Trans World Airlines, or TWA) was in stiff competition with United and their Boeing 247. To remain viable, the growing company needed a modern airliner of its own. Since Boeing owned United, the manufacturer had an exclusive contract only to sell the 247 to United. So T&WA approached the Douglas Aircraft Company and requested that the company build a new airliner for their own use. That request resulted in the DC-1 (“DC” stands for “Douglas Commercial”), of which a single prototype was built, and the DC-2, an excellent plane in its own right, but one that could still be improved upon. After discussions with American Airlines, Douglas began development of what they called the Douglas Sleeper Transport (DST). They began by widening the DC-2 so it could accommodate 14 to 16 side-by-side berths. With the berths removed and seats put in their place, the DST could hold 21 passengers, and this configuration received the designation DC-3. The DC-3 was an immediate success, crossing the country from west to east in as little as 15 hours (with three stops for fuel). Douglas produced just over 600 DC-3s, but it was the outbreak of WWII that pushed the DC-3 into the record books, and into the annals of aviation history.
For military service, Douglas fitted more powerful Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp 14-cylinder radial engines and strengthened the floor to support military cargo. They removed the seats and replaced them with utility seats that lined the cabin walls and could be folded away. A large door was also added to the side of the plane to facilitate loading and unloading of cargo. The military version received the designation C-47 Skytrain (it was known as the R4D in US Navy service, and the Dakota by the British), and it proved indispensable in flying cargo missions over the Himalayas, and supplied troops in every theater of operations in WWII. It also towed gliders for airborne troops, and flew paratroops into battle.
The C-47 proved to be extremely rugged and easy to maintain in the field, and Allied commanders, particularly in the Pacific, found that entire armies could now be supplied by the air. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of Allied forces in Europe, said that the C-47 was one of the major tools that helped win the war for the Allies. While “only” 607 DC-3s were built, over 10,000 C-47s were produced in a myriad of variants, with many still flying today. And, while historians make note of aircraft that have flown for over 50 years, there is every possibility that some of the rugged and reliable DC-3s and C-47s will still be flying 100 years after their introduction.
December 15, 1944 – The disappearance of Glenn Miller, one of the best-known and most prolific composers and performers of the Big Band Era. Wanting to take part in the war effort during WWII, Miller convinced the US Army to allow him to enlist at age 38 to form a “modernized Army band.” He was given the rank of captain and soon promoted to major. While flying as a passenger on a flight from England to France for a performance, Miller’s Noorduyn UC-64 Norseman disappeared over the English Channel and was never found. The reason for the disappearance was never determined, but a likely cause was engine failure from an iced carburetor. Another theory is that his plane strayed into an area where Allied bombers jettisoned unused bombs into the English Channel while returning to England, but plane spotters said that Miller’s aircraft was not headed into that area the last time it was seen.
December 16, 1994 – The first flight of the Antonov An-70. Developed in the 1980s to replace the Antonov An-12, the An-70 is the first large aircraft to be powered by propfan engines, a jet engine in which one or more stages of the turbine fan is outside the engine cowling. The Soviet government originally intended to build as many as 160 An-70s in factories in both Russia and Ukraine, but the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to the cancellation of the project. Only two prototypes were built, the first of which was lost in a mid-air collision in 1995. There were plans to resurrect the project, but Russia declared in 2015 that they had no intention of procuring the An-70.
December 16, 1990 – The death of Douglas Campbell, America’s first fighter ace. At the outbreak of WWI, the United States lagged behind the rest of Europe in the development of military aircraft, and many Americans went overseas to fly for the British and French. By 1917, the first fully American squadrons arrived in France, though they were still flying French aircraft. One of the first to see action was the 94th Aero Squadron, better known as the Hat in the Ring. When the US entered the war in 1917, Campbell dropped out of Harvard and joined the US Army, where he learned to fly in a Curtiss Jenny. Campbell took part in the 94th’s first combat patrol alongside famed aviators Eddie Rickenbacker and Raoul Lufbery, and scored his first victory in an aircraft armed with only a single machine gun rather than the customary two. Campbell became the first US aviator to become an ace while flying for an American unit, and ended the war with six victories, earning the Distinguished Service Cross and Croix de Guerre.
December 16, 1960 – Two airliners collide over Staten Island, New York. In what has become known as the Park Slope plane crash, United Airlines Flight 826, a Douglas DC-8 (N8013U) carrying 84 passengers and bound for Idlewild Airport (later JFK International) collided with TWA Flight 266, a Lockheeed L-1049 Super Constellation (N6907C) carrying 44 passengers also en route to Idlewild. All but one passenger were killed on the two airliners, as well as six people on the ground. The sole survivor, 11-year-old Steven Baltz, died the next day from complications caused by inhalation of burning jet fuel. Using information from the flight recorders (commonly known as “black boxes”) for the first time since their use was mandated in 1957, investigators found that a faulty VHF transmitter contributed to the United crew’s overshooting their holding point, which caused it to cross paths with the TWA flight. The loss of 134 people was the world’s deadliest crash until 1968, when a US Air Force Lockheed C-130 Hercules was shot down over South Vietnam, killing 155, mostly South Vietnamese civilians, being evacuated from the Battle of Kham Duc.
December 17, 2017 – The first flight of the Bell V-280 Valor, a tiltrotor aircraft being developed for the US Army by Bell Helicopter and Lockheed Martin. The Valor was selected in 2013 as a technology demonstrator for the Army’s Future Vertical Lift program which seeks replacements for the UH-60 Black Hawk, AH-64 Apache, CH-47 Chinook, and OH-58 Kiowa. While bearing a resemblance to the V-22 Osprey, the major difference with the Valor is that only the gearbox rotates to the vertical, rather than the entire engine nacelle as with the Osprey. Other design elements include a V tail, a carbon fiber reinforced polymer wing for weight reduction, and triple-redundant fly-by-wire controls. In the event of engine failure, one engine is capable of turning both props. The Valor will have a crew of four, room for 14 troops, and, as its designation indicates, a top speed of 280 knots.
December 17, 1956 – The first flight of the Grumman E-1 Tracer. A development of the Grumman C-1 Trader, which was designed for carrier onboard delivery (COD), and itself a variant of the Grumman S-2 Tracker, the Tracer was the first purpose-built carrier-borne airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft. The original E-1 was fitted with the Hazeltine AN/APS-82 radar in a large radome above the fuselage to track enemy aircraft, and had the critical capability of being able to separate targets from the background of the ocean’s surface. The Tracer entered service in 1958 with the understanding that it was only an interim design before a more modern aircraft could be developed. A total of 83 were produced before the type was replaced by the Grumman E-2 Hawkeye.
December 17, 1944 – Major Richard Bong becomes the top-scoring American fighter ace of WWII. One of America’s most highly decorated fighter pilots, Bong amassed a total of 40 victories over Japanese aircraft in the Pacific Theater, all of which he scored while flying the Lockheed P-38 Lightning. In September 1942, Bong scored his first two victories, earning him the Silver Star, and in July 1943 he shot down four Japanese fighters over Lae, New Guinea, earning him the Distinguished Flying Cross. While assigned to non-combat role as a gunnery instructor, Bong downed eight enemy aircraft, earning him the Congressional Medal of Honor. Bong was sent home in 1945 to sell war bonds as the “ace of aces,” but was killed in August of that year while flying as a test pilot in a Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star.
December 18, 1972 – The beginning of the Linebacker II bombing campaign in Vietnam. As the war in Vietnam ground to its bloody conclusion in 1974, elements of the US Seventh Air Force and US Navy Task Force 77 carried out a bombing campaign of “maximum effort” to bomb targets in the North Vietnamese capital city of Hanoi, as well as the strategic Haiphong harbor, with the goal of forcing the North Vietnamese government to return to peace negotiations. Over the course of 11 days, the bombings, also known as the Christmas Bombings, were carried out by over 2,000 US aircraft, including more than 200 Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bombers, in the heaviest aerial bombardment since WWII. B-52s flew 741 sorties and dropped 15,237 tons of ordnance on industrial, military, and antiaircraft missile sites, with an additional 5,000 tons of bombs dropped by Navy and Air Force fighter bombers. Sixteen B-52s were lost, while North Vietnam claimed 1,624 civilian casualties. Though the bombing was popular with supporters of the war, the effectiveness of the missions was questionable, and President Nixon said the bombings amounted to “zilch.”
December 18, 1970 – Airbus Industries is formally established. In an effort to compete with American aircraft manufactures Boeing, McDonnell Douglas and Lockheed, Airbus was formed by an agreement between French Aerospatiale, German Deutsche Airbus, British Hawker Siddeley and Dutch Fokker. The first aircraft developed by the group was the A300, the world’s first twin-engine wide-body, which took its maiden flight in October 1972. Since then, Airbus has gone on to produce the world’s first digital fly-by-wire airliner in the A320, as well as the world’s largest airliner in the double-decker A380, and delivered their 10,000th aircraft, the composite A350 XWB, in October 2016. Airbus has assembly facilities in France, Germany, Spain, China, England and the United States, and has diversified into military aircraft, corporate jets, air traffic management, and aircraft components.
December 18, 1940 – The first flight of the Curtiss SB2C Helldiver, a dive and torpedo bomber developed for the US Navy as a replacement for the Douglas SBD Dauntless, and as a dive bomber for the US Army known as the A-25 Shrike. The Helldiver was considerably larger than the Dauntless, and featured heavier armament and an internal bomb bay. Early in its development, the Helldiver was plagued by structural deficiencies and poor handling, leading to loss of export customers and an investigation by the Truman Committee. Once its problems were mostly solved, the Helldiver became the primary American dive bomber for the last two years of the war in the Pacific, though the difficulties with the Helldiver’s development caused Curtiss to lose favor with the US military. Over 7,000 Helldivers were produced between 1943 and 1945, and the final Helldivers were retired by the Italian Air Force in 1959.
December 18, 1919 – The death of John Alcock. Born on November 5, 1892, Alcock received his pilot license in 1912 and began his career as a race pilot for the Sunbeam Motor Car Company. Alcock joined the Royal Naval Air Service at the outbreak of WWI, and received the Distinguished Service Cross for downing two enemy aircraft while piloting a Sopwith Camel, though he ended the war as prisoner after ditching his Handley Page bomber in the sea. Following his release at the end of the war, Alcock became a test pilot for Vickers, and gained fame when he and fellow pilot Arthur Brown became the first to cross the Atlantic Ocean, flying a modified Vickers Vimy bomber from St. John’s, Newfoundland to Clifden, Ireland, a voyage of 1,980 miles that took more than 16 hours. Alcock was killed in 1919 in the crash of his Vickers Viking on his way to an aviation expo in France.
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