Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from December 17 through December 20.


December 17, 1963 – The first flight of the Lockheed C-141 Starlifter. Napoleon (or maybe Frederick the Great) famously said that an army marches 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 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, 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 and materiel. Tactically, 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, and the C-141 set a world record for heavy cargo drops with a load of 70,195 pounds.

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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 by 23 feet with the addition of a 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, is better known as the Hanoi Taxi, and 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 then Starlifter was retired from active service in 2006. The Hanoi Taxi is now housed at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, shown in the background of the 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. Following the development of jet-powered fighters, 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 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 and began to discover secret German weapons and aircraft facilities, and much of the data from German testing programs fell 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, and the German data verified the benefits of the concept. A Boeing engineer, George Schairer, who was on the American inspection team in Germany, 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 engines were moved from the fuselage to pods under the wings, a configuration of swept wings and podded engines that 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. 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 4 hours at an average speed of 698 mph.

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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. (US Air Force photos)


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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 guise, 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 (later to become Trans World Airlines, or TWA) was in stiff competition with United and their Boeing 247, and the growing company needed a modern airliner of their own. Since Boeing was in an exclusive contract with United, T&WA approached the Douglas Aircraft Company to build a new airliner of their own. That request 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 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 history.

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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. The military version received the designation C-47 Skytrain (it was known as 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. Over 10,000 C-47s were built 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 the rugged and reliable DC-3/C-47 will still be flying 100 years after its introduction. (Photo by Bill Larkins via Wikimedia Commons; US Air Force photo)


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December 20, 1957 – The first flight of the Boeing 707. Following WWII, and the advent of the turbojet engine, the de Havilland Aircraft Company produced the DH 106 Comet in 1949, the world’s first jet-powered passenger plane. Unfortunately for de Havilland, structural deficiencies in the Comet led to fatal crashes, and the flying public cooled on the idea of jet transport as the Comet was pulled from service to address the problems. Despite the difficulties faced by the Comet, Boeing, and particularly the company president, William Allen, were undeterred. They believed so firmly in the future of jet aviation that they were willing to stake their company on developing a new jet airliner, spending $16 million of their own money, nearly all the profit they earned from production of WWII aircraft. With their earlier work on the B-47 Stratojet, Boeing had learned a great deal about the aerodynamic benefits of the swept wing, and, between 1952-1954, they had been working on a swept wing jet airliner that they called the Model 367-80 (known as the Dash 80). The Dash 80 shared the same 35-degree wing sweep of the Stratojet and the B-52 Superfortess, and was powered by four Pratt & Whitney JT3C turbojet engines, a civilian version of the same engine that powered the B-52. The impetus for development of the Dash 80, which took its maiden flight on July 15, 1954, was to provide the US Air Force with a jet-powered aerial tanker, but Boeing also hoped to develop the Dash 80 into a civilian airliner. Boeing had made its money in military contracts in the past, and there was no guarantee of a market for a civilian jetliner. Their last venture, the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser, had lost money until the US Air Force adopted it as the C-97 Stratofreighter. So Boeing took the Dash 80 on a sales tour to tout its capabilities, and in one famous demonstration, test pilot Tex Johnston performed a barrel roll with the large airliner in a show of the airliner’s capabilities. While the 707 airliner and KC-135 Stratotanker looked very similar to their Dash 80 predecessor, they were actually distinctly different aircraft.

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Airline executives wanted the 707 to be wider to accommodate more passengers, so Boeing added 4 inches to the width of the fuselage, giving it the largest cabin of any airliner flying at the time. The 707 also had more than 100 windows, which allowed the airlines to arrange the seating in any way they wished, offering flexibility in passenger load. The original 707-120 could seat a maximum of 189 passengers, but a typical arrangement allowed for 110 passengers. With an order placed for twenty-five 707s placed in 1955, Pan Am became the launch customer for the 707, and inaugurated their 707 service at National Airport on October 17, 1958 in a ceremony attended by President Dwight Eisenhower. Pan Am made their first commercial flight on October 26 from New York’s Idlewild Airport (currently John F. Kennedy International) to Paris, with a stop for fuel in Gander, Newfoundland. Following that first flight, the 707 went on to become the most popular airliner of the 1950s and 1960s, and became an icon of the early Jet Age. Its success also helped bring about major advancements in airports and airport infrastructure. Between 1957 and 1994, Boeing delivered 856 707s in a handful of variants to fit the specific needs of their customers. Today, the US Air Force still flies their KC-135 tankers, but there are no 707s remaining on commercial routes. The final operational 707 belonged to Iran’s Saha Airlines, which closed the book on the 707 with a final flight in April 2013. (Photo by clipperarctic via Wikimedia Commons; Photo by Nikiforov Konstantin 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), 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, and 83 were produced before being replaced by the Grumman E-2 Hawkeye. (Photo author unknown)


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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 2 victories, earning him the Silver Star, and in July 1943 he shot down 4 Japanese fighters over Lae, New Guinea, earning him the Distinguished Flying Cross. While assigned to non-combat role as a gunnery instructor, Bong downed 8 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. (US Army photo)


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December 17, 1903 – The Wright Brothers make the first 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 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. After deciding who would take the controls on the first flight with the toss of a coin, Orville took off, with Wilbur running alongside, and flew the aircraft for 12 seconds and traveled 120 feet. Subsequent flights managed distances of 175 feet and 200 feet.

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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 wide-body A300, 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, 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. (Photo by Don-vip via Wikimedia Commons)


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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 for the US Army 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 solved, the Helldiver became the primary American dive bomber for the last two years of the war in the Pacific, and had an excellent combat record, 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. (US Navy photo)


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December 19, 1945 – The first flight of the Grumman AF Guardian, the first purpose-built airborne anti-submarine warfare (ASW) system. Since early radar systems were so large, no single carrier-borne aircraft of the day could carry both the radar and the weapons to attack a submarine. So the Guardian consisted of two aircraft, one hunter (AF-2W) with the radar equipment, and one killer (AF-2S) with weapons. Though cumbersome, this stopgap measure was effective, and the Guardian only served five years before being replaced by the Grumman S-2 Tracker, the first dedicated all-in-one carrier-borne ASW platform. (US Navy photo)

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December 20, 1944 – The Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) organization is disbanded. The WASPs were an organization of women pilots who trained to ferry aircraft during WWII. Started by famed aviatrix Jackie Cochran, the WASPs had over a thousand members in its heyday, each woman pilot freeing up a male pilot for combat duty. After training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, the WASPs were stationed around the country and, by the end of the war, flew 60 million miles of operational flights ferrying aircraft from factories to ports of embarkation. They also towed targets for live fire gunnery practice and carried flew cargo missions inside the US. Thirty-eight WASPs died, all in accidents, though none were afforded military honors at their burial. (US Air Force photo)


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