Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting you caught up on milestones and important historical events in aviation from December 16 through December 18.


December 17, 1963 – The first flight of the Lockheed C-141 Starlifter. Napoleon famously said that an army travels on its stomach, and experience in WWII showed the true potential of the airplane as a means of delivering supplies and materiel to front line troops. By the early 1960s, the US Air Force needed a new, jet-powered transport and cargo aircraft to replace their 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, but without any specific logistic capabilities, such as clamshell doors, it 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, with a range of at least 3,500 nautical miles while carrying a 60,000 pound load. Tactically, the new aircraft must be capable of performing low-altitude air drops of materiel and also drop 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. It was powered by four Pratt & Whitney TF33 turbofans, and the large hold could carry over 70,000 pounds of cargo, and 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. The Starlifter entered service in 1965, and immediately began to have an impact on American operations in Vietnam, carrying troops and supplies to Asia and returning with wounded soldiers. One drawback of the original Starlifter 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 by 23 feet by adding a fuselage section. The new aircraft was designated C-141B. The Starlifter would become one of the longer-serving aircraft in the Air Force inventory, and its retirement in 2006 ended forty-one years of service. A total of 285 C-141s were produced from 1963 to 1968. (US Air Force photo)


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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. First came the jet-powered fighters, 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, Convair Corporation, the Glenn Martin Company, and Boeing all submitted proposals for a traditional, straight-winged aircraft with jet engines added. All were powered by the new General Electric TG-180 turbojet, and Boeing’s design, which they designated the Model 432, had its engines buried in the fuselage to reduce drag. In May of 1945, with WWII drawing to a close, the Allies drove deeper into Germany and began to discover secret German weapons and aircraft facilities, with much of the data from German testing programs falling into Allied hands. One of those locations was an aircraft development site in Braunschweig, where the Germans had been working on swept wing technology. Work was already under way in the US to investigate the benefits of sweeping the wings of an aircraft, the German data verified the benefits of the concept. A Boeing desginer, George Schairer, who was on the American inspection team, called back to Boeing and instructed them to stop work on the new bomber and to begin a redesign to incorporate a swept wing. Based on the German data, a sweep of 35-degrees was incorporated into both the main wing and the tailplane, and the six 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 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. While the B-47 was not supersonic, it was still quite fast, 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. Since it was untouchable by most contemporary fighters, the only defensive armament was a pair of radar-guided 20mm cannons in the tail. 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 built by Boeing, 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 twenty-three are on display around the country. (US Air Force photo)


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December 17, 1935 – The first fight of the Douglas DC-3. 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, 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 a vital, indispensable role in winning WWII. That aircraft is the Douglas DC-3, or, in its military guise, the C-47 Skytrain. By the 1930s, the race was on to develop passenger aircraft to fill the needs of the burgeoning air travel industry. TWA, in competition with United and their Boeing 247, needed a modern airliner of their own, and they approached the Douglas Aircraft Company to build one for them. That resulted in the DC-2 (“DC” stands for “Douglas Commercial”), 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), and began by widening the DC-2 so it could accommodate fourteen to sixteen side-by-side berths. With the berths removed and seats put in their place, the DST could hold 21 seats, and this is the aircraft that received the DC-3 designation. 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 history. For military service, Douglas fitted more powerful engines, strengthened the floor to support military cargo, and removed the seats, replacing them with utility seats that lined the cabin walls. A large door was also added to the side of the plane to facilitate cargo loading and unloading. Skytrains, or Dakotas, as they were called by the British, proved indispensable in flying cargo missions over the Himalayas, they supplied troops in every theater of operations in WWII, 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, and General Dwight D. Eisenhower said that the C-47 was one of the major tools that helped win the war for the Allies. Over 10,000 C-47s were built in a myriad of variants, with still flying today. And while historians keep records of aircraft that have flown for over 50 years, there is every possibility that the rugged and reliable DC-3/C-47 will still be flying after 100 years. (Photo by the author)


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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. 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. (Photo by Oleg V. Belyakov via Wikimedia Commons)


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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 E-1 was fitted with the Hazeltine AN/APS-82 radar in a large radome above the fuselage to track enemy submarines, and entered service in 1958. Eighty-three Tracers were built before being replaced by the Grumman E-2 Hawkeye. (US Navy photo)


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December 17, 1944 – Major Richard Bong becomes the top-scoring American fighter ace of WWII. Bong’s total of 40 enemy kills all came while flying the Lockheed P-38 Lightning in the Pacific Theater, and he was the top scoring US fighter pilot of the war and a recipient of the Medal of Honor for downing eight enemy aircraft while assigned to a non-combat role as a gunnery instructor. Bong was sent home in 1945 as the “ace of aces,” but was killed in August of that year as a test pilot flying a Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star. (US Army photo)


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December 18, 1940 – The first flight of the Curtiss SB2C Helldiver. Developed as a replacement for the Douglas SBD Dauntless, the Helldiver was plagued by handling problems early in its career, leading to an investigation by the Truman Committee. Once its problems were solved, the Helldiver became the primary American dive bomber for the last two years of the war in the Pacific, and had a good combat record. Over 7,000 Helldivers were produced between 1943 and 1945. (US Navy photo)


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