Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting you caught up on milestones and important historical events in aviation from December 19 through December 22.


December 20, 1957 – The first flight of the Boeing 707. Following WWII, and the advent of the turbojet engine, de Havilland was the first to field a jet-powered passenger plane, the Comet. Unfortunately for de Havilland, structural deficiencies led to fatal crashes, and the flying public cooled on the idea of jet transport. But Boeing, and particularly their president at the time, 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. Between 1952 and 1954, Boeing had been working on the swept wing jet airliner that they called the Model 367-80 (known as the Dash 80). It was powered by four Pratt & Whitney JT3C turbojet engines, a civilian version of the same engine that powered the Boeing B-52 Superfortress. Boeing’s original intention was to develop a jet-powered tanker to refuel the new jet fighters, but they also hoped to develop the Dash 80 into a civilian airliner. While Boeing had made its money in military contracts in the past, 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. While the eventual 707 airliner (and KC-135 Stratotanker) looked very similar to its Dash 80 predecessor, they were actually distinctly different aircraft. Airline executives wanted the 707 to be wider to accommodate more passengers, so Boeing added 4 inches to the width of the cabin, 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. Pan Am placed the first order for twenty-five 707s in 1955, becoming the first to operate the new airliner, and they inaugurated their 707 service at National Airport on October 17, 1958 in a ceremony attended by President Dwight Eisenhower. Its first commercial flight took place on October 26 from New York’s Idlewild Airport 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 early Jet Age, and its success helped bring about major advancements in airports and airport infrastructure. Between 1957 and 1994, Boeing delivered 856 707s in a host 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. (Photo by Mike Freer via Wikimedia Commons)


Advertisement

December 21, 1970 – The first flight of the Grumman F-14 Tomcat. By the end of WWII, the aircraft carrier had supplanted the battleship as the primary capital ship of the naval battle group. And while the carrier packed a powerful offensive punch, what the battle group needed was a dominant Fleet Air Defense (FAD) aircraft to intercept incoming enemy aircraft and missiles. In 1961, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara directed the Navy and Air Force to develop a single airplane to serve both branches as part of the Tactical Fighter Experimental (TFX) program, and while the aircraft that came out of that program, the General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark, proved to be a capable aircraft for the Air Force, the naval variant, the F-111B, was not successful and the Navy pulled out of the program. In 1966, the Navy awarded a contract to Grumman, already well known for producing excellent carrier aircraft, to develop their Model 303 design, and by 1968 the requirements were set for a tandem two-seat, twin-engined air-to-air fighter with a maximum speed of Mach 2.2. Based on experience gained in the Vietnam war, the new fighter would be armed with a built-in M61 Vulcan cannon and be capable of providing secondary close air support. But the Tomcat would primarily be a fleet defense aircraft, and was designed around the Hughes AN/APG-71 radar and the AIM-54 Phoenix missile, a system that was able to track and destroy multiple targets at long range. Similar to the F-111, the Tomcat featured wings that could sweep from 68-degrees to 20-degrees based on the needs of the flight profile. The sweep was directed by an internal computer to relieve the workload on the pilot. As the wings retracted, secondary vanes at the front of the wingbox extended to regulate the aircraft’s center of pressure and help control pitch. But in spite of the Tomcat’s stated fleet defense mission, it was also a very capable dogfighter, and in addition to its Phoenix missiles it could also be armed with Sidewinder or Sparrow air-to-air missiles. Replacement of the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II began in 1974, and Tomcats were active in the American withdrawal from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War. The first kills registered by a Tomcat occurred in 1981, when F-14s of VF-41 Black Aces downed two Libyan Sukhoi Su-22 fighters over the Gulf of Sidra. With the withdrawal of the Grumman A-6 Intruder in the 1990s, the Tomcat showed its versatility when the ground attack mission was added to its arsenal, and F-14s took part in attack missions during the Gulf War. The final F-14 combat mission took place in February 2oo5 when Tomcats flying from the USS Theodore Roosevelt dropped bombs over Iraq. The Navy finally retired the Tomcat in 2006, and replaced it with the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, which was seen as a cheaper alternative to modernizing the aging fighter. A small number of F-14As still serve the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force, who received Tomcats during the reign of the Shah. However, to prevent any spare parts being sent to Iran after the fall of the Shah, all remaining Tomcats were scrapped, though a number are still on display around the country. (US Navy photo)


Advertisement

December 21, 1964 – The first flight of the General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark. For many years following WWII, the US Air Force followed a doctrine of high-level bombing, similar to what they had done so effectively against Germany and Japan during the war. But in May of 1960, when a Lockheed U-2 spy plane was shot down by a missile over the Soviet Union, it became clear that the high-altitude reach of modern surface-to-air missiles required a change in tactics. The new theory espoused high-speed, low-level attacks where aircraft were harder to detect on radar and SAMs were less effective. Both the Air Force and Navy sought new aircraft that could fulfill this role, and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara believed that one aircraft could serve both branches, even though the two branches had very different requirements. This began the search for a plane to satisfy the requirements of the Tactical Fighter Experimental (TFX) program. The Air Force received proposals from Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed, McDonnell, North American and Republic, but General Dynamics, with its swing-wing F-111, was selected. McNamara dictated that General Dynamics first develop the A model for the Air Force, and follow that with a navalized B model for the Navy. The Aardvark was a very advanced aircraft for its time, featuring variable-sweep wings, afterburning Pratt & Whitney TF30-P-1 turbofan engines, and automated terrain-following radar for low level missions. Though the Air Force had asked for tandem seating, the two-man crew in the F-111 sat side by side in the cockpit, and were provided with an ejection capsule rather than individual ejection seats. Eventually, the Navy decided that the F-111B was unsuitable for carrier operations, and they pulled out of the program to pursue a different aircraft, eventually settling on the swing-wing Grumman F-14 Tomcat. Though designed with a nuclear mission in mind, and capable of carrying a single nuclear missile or nuclear bombs, the F-111 would find a home as a conventional tactical bomber for the Air Force, first seeing action in the skies over Vietnam, and after initial mechanical problems that caused some fatal crashes, the Aardvark eventually flew over 4,000 sorties with only six combat losses. Following the war, F-111s participated in strikes against Libya in 1986 and during the Gulf War in 1991. The final F-111 in the US Air Force inventory, an EF-111 electronic warfare variant, was retired in 1998, though the F-111C served the Royal Australian Air Force until 2010. (US Air Force photo)


Advertisement

December 22, 1964 – The first flight of the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird. In 1957, Lockheed started investigating an aircraft that could take over the job of spying on the Soviet Union from the vulnerable Lockheed U-2. This task became more urgent in 1960 when Francis Gary Powers was shot down by a surface-to-air missile over the Soviet Union while flying a U-2. In addition to developing a plane that flew high and fast, Lockheed also experimented with technologies to reduce the aircraft’s radar signature, the precursor to what we know as stealth technology today. The result of those studies led to the single-seat Lockheed A-12, which first flew in 1962. The A-12 was followed by the SR-71, which offered increased range and more sensors, along with a second crew member to handle the reconnaissance work. And while the lighter and faster A-12 could outperform the SR-71, the Blackbird was a more capable aircraft. Powered by two Pratt & Whitney J58-1 continuous bleed afterburning turbojets, the Blackbird was capable of Mach 3.3 at 80,000 feet. At that speed and altitude, it could not be shot down by the surface-to-air missiles of the day, and it was faster than any contemporary Russian fighter. And in addition to its untouchable flying characteristics, the Blackbird was also the first aircraft to use elements of stealth technology, with rudders canted inwards to reflect radar signals, and a coating of radar-absorbing paint. On radar screens, the SR-71 had a radar cross-section (RCS) of only 10 square meters. As a result, no SR-71 was ever lost to enemy fire. But along with the unsurpassed capabilities of the SR-71 came very high operating costs, and it became a political issue in an era of shrinking budgets and competition for funds. In 1989, the Blackbird was retired from service, even at a time of escalating tensions in the Middle East when it could have performed valuable reconnaissance in the upcoming Gulf War. When the US government realized that it still had a need for the high-flying spy plane, the SR-71 was updated with real-time data transmission capabilities and reactivated in 1993, in spite of stiff opposition from the USAF who said they didn’t have the funds to operate it. They also claimed that it competed with unmanned reconnaissance projects currently underway. After another political battle over funding the aircraft, the SR-71 was permanently canceled in 1998, and the last two airworthy Blackbirds were shifted to NASA for research. The book on the Blackbird was finally closed on October 9, 1999 when the last flying aircraft, an SR-71A (61-7980/NASA 844), landed at Edwards AFB in California and was placed in storage with the other NASA Blackbird. All remaining aircraft (as far we know) are now housed at aviation museums around the country. (US Air Force photo)


Short Take Off


Advertisement

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 at the time, no single carrier-borne aircraft could carry both the radar and the weapons to attack a submarine. So the Guardian consisted of two aircraft, one hunter with the radar equipment (AF-2W), and one killer with weapons (AF-2S). This stopgap measure was effective, though a bit cumbersome, and the Guardian only served five years before being replaced by the Grumman S-2 Tracker. You can read more about the Guardian at Aviation History. (US Navy photo)


Advertisement

December 20, 1944 – The disbanding of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs). 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, each one 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 they had flown 60 million miles of operational flights ferrying aircraft from factories to ports of embarkation. They also towed targets for live fire anti-aircraft practice and carried out cargo missions. Thirty-eight WASPs died, all in accidents. (US Air Force photo)


Advertisement

December 21, 1993 – The first flight of the Cessna Citation X, a long-range, medium-sized business jet developed from the Cessna 650 Series. The Citation X features a glass cockpit, powered controls, a fuselage that takes advantage of the area rule for transonic flight and room for twelve passengers. It is powered buy two Rolls-Royce/Allison AE 3007C or 3007C1 turbofan engines and has a top speed of Mach .935, which Cessna claims makes the Citation X is the fastest civilian aircraft in the world. (Photo by Konstantin von Wedelstaedt via Wikimedia Commons)


Advertisement

December 21, 1990 – The death of Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, the former head of Lockheed’s Advanced Development Projects, better known as the Skunk Works, and one of the most influential and successful aircraft design engineers in American history. His work for Lockheed produced some of the world’s most iconic aircraft, including the P-38 Lightning, the P-80 Shooting Star, America’s first operational jet fighter, and the F-104 Starfighter, America’s first supersonic jet fighter. As head of the Skunk Works, Johnson oversaw the development of the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, the A-12, and the remarkable SR-71 Blackbird, the first production aircraft to exceed Mach 3. Among his other achievements, Johnson was twice awarded the prestigious Collier Trophy. (US Government photo)


Advertisement

December 21, 1988 – The first flight of the Antonov An-225 Mriya, the longest and heaviest airplane ever constructed, possessing the largest wingspan of any operational aircraft in service. Its wingspan is only exceeded by the Hughes H-4 Hercules (“Spruce Goose”). The Mriya has a maximum takeoff weight of 640 tons, and holds the absolute world records for a single item payload of 418,834 pounds and an airlifted total payload of 253,820 pounds. Originally developed as a carrier for the Soviet Buran space shuttle program, only one was built, though a second aircraft was under construction but abandoned due to lack of funding or commercial interest. However, the Russian government has expressed interest in completing the second Mriya and developing it into a midair launch platform. (Photo by Ralf Manteufel via Wikimedia Commons)


Advertisement

December 22, 1949 – The first flight of the North American F-86D Sabre. The F-86D, commonly called the “Sabre Dog” or “Dog Sabre,” was a transonic, all-weather interceptor that served the US Air Force from 1951 until its retirement in 1961. Derived from the earlier F-86 Sabre, the F-86D was actually much larger, had a more powerful engine, and was fitted with a Hughes AN/APG-36 radar in a nose cone above the air intake. Despite its resemblance to the earlier Sabre, the D model shared only 25% commonality with its smaller sibling. The F-86D was the first US Air Force fighter to have an all-missile and rocket armament, and the first all weather interceptor to have a single pilot. A total of 2,847 F-86Ds were built. (US Air Force photo)


Advertisement

December 22, 1945 – The first flight of the Beechcraft Bonanza. Introduced in 1947, the Bonanza remains in production today, and this continuous production run is the longest of any aircraft in history. Beechcraft has built more than 17,000 Bonanzas of all variants. One of two all-metal general aviation aircraft to emerge after WWII (the other being the Cessna 195), the Bonanza was a relatively advanced aircraft for its day, and featured a system that connected the yoke and rudder controls allowing novice pilots to execute coordinated turns using just the yoke. The Bonanza also pioneered the use of a V-tail in civilian aviation, though crashes by less skilled pilots led Beechcraft to offer a traditional tail configuration beginning in 1959. (Photo by Juergen Lehle via Wikimedia Commons)


Advertisement

December 22, 1941 – The first flight of the Fairey Firefly, a carrier-borne fighter and strike aircraft that joined the British Fleet Air Arm late in WWII. The two-seat Firefly was designed to replace the Fairey Fulmar, and while it was a significant upgrade to the earlier aircraft, the Firefly came too late to have an impact in WWII. However, the Firefly continued serving well into the mid-1950s as an attack aircraft and in the anti-submarine warfare (ASW) role. Just over 1,700 Fireflys were produced, and the type was retired in 1956. (Photo by Paulmaz via Wikimedia Commons)


Recent Aviation History Posts


Advertisement


If you enjoy these Aviation History posts, please let me know in the comments. And if you missed any of the past articles, you can find them all at Planelopnik History.

Advertisement