Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from December 19 through December 21.
December 20, 1957 – The first flight of the Boeing 707. The de Havilland Aircraft Company ushered in the future of commercial aviation when their DH 106 Comet airliner took to the skies on July 27, 1949 as the world’s first jet-powered passenger plane. Unfortunately for de Havilland, however, structural deficiencies in the Comet led to three fatal crashes, and the flying public cooled on the idea of jet transport when the Comet was pulled from service to address the problems. Despite the difficulties faced by de Havilland, 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, and spent $16 million of their own money, nearly all the profit they earned from production of WWII aircraft, in the development of a jet airliner.
Boeing had learned a great deal about the aerodynamic benefits of the swept wing with their earlier work on the B-47 Stratojet. Armed with that experience, the company began working on a swept wing jet 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 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. That project culminated in the KC-135 Stratotanker. But Boeing also hoped to develop the Dash 80 into a civilian airliner, though at the time there was no guarantee of a market such an aircraft. Boeing’s last commercial venture, the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser, had lost money until the US Air Force adopted it as the C-97 Stratofreighter. And cautious airline executives were in no hurry to turn their backs on the tried and true piston engines that had carried America though the war. 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 to show of fits capabilities. Airline executives were duly impressed, and work progressed on the 707.
While the 707 airliner and KC-135 looked very similar to their Dash 80 predecessor, they were actually distinctly different aircraft. Airline executives wanted the 707 to be wider to accommodate more passengers, so Boeing added four inches to the diameter 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 and offered flexibility in passenger load. The original 707-120 seated a maximum of 189 passengers, but a typical arrangement allowed for 110 passengers. Following flight tests, the first 707 entered passenger service with launch customer Pan American as the Clipper Constitution.
Pan Am had placed an order for 25 airliners in 1955, 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 flight with paying customers 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 airport design 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, many with updated engines, 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.
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. It’s dive bombers and torpedo bombers allowed the carrier to attack both sea and land targets, while fighters provided protection for both the attack aircraft and for the battle group. And when long-range anti-ship missiles came to be, particularly those that could be fired from hundreds of miles away by an aircraft, protecting the carrier became critical.
By 1960, the US Navy began the search for a Fleet Air Defense (FAD) aircraft to intercept attacking enemy aircraft and missiles. In 1961, US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara directed the Navy and US Air Force to develop a single aircraft that would serve both branches as part of the Tactical Fighter Experimental (TFX) program. While the aircraft that eventually 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, did not fit the specialized requirements of the Navy. So the Navy pulled out of the program and forged ahead on their own. They turned to Grumman, who already had a rich history of producing robust carrier aircraft.
In 1966, the Navy awarded Grumman with a contract to develop their Model 303 design to fill the fleet defense role that was originally intended for the F-111. 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. Like the F-111, the new fighter was also fitted with variable-sweep wings that could be extended for low-speed flight and takeoff/landing or swept back for high speed flight. The Tomcat’s wings could sweep from 68-degrees to 20-degrees based on the needs of the flight profile, and the sweep was directed by an internal computer to relieve the workload on the pilot. As the wings retracted, secondary vanes located at the front of the wingbox extended to regulate the aircraft’s center of pressure and help control pitch.
During the Vietnam War, the Navy discovered that the emphasis on missile weaponry over guns put their fighters at a disadvantage over Russian-built fighters that still relied on machine guns and cannons. Drawing on that experience, Grumman’s new fighter was armed with a built-in M61 Vulcan cannon for both aerial dogfighting and close air support for troops on the ground. But with defense of the fleet as its primary mission, the Tomcat’s gun was more of a last ditch weapon. The F-14 was designed around the AIM-54 Phoenix missile and the Hughes AN/APG-71 radar, a combination that was able to track and destroy multiple targets at long range. In addition to its Phoenix missiles, the Tomcat was also armed with Sidewinder or Sparrow air-to-air missiles for close and medium range combat.
The Tomcat began to replace the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II in 1974, and took part in the American withdrawal from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War. The first aerial victories registered by an F-14 occurred in 1981, when Tomcats of VF-41 “Black Aces” downed two Libyan Sukhoi Su-22 fighters over the Gulf of Sidra. With the withdrawal from service of the Grumman A-6 Intruder in the 1990s, the Tomcat demonstrated its versatility when the ground attack mission was added to its arsenal, and F-14s carried out tactical bombing missions and close air support during the Gulf War.
The final F-14 combat mission took place in February 2oo5 when Tomcats flying from the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) dropped bombs over Iraq. The Navy finally retired the Tomcat in 2006 after 32 years of service and replaced it with the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, which was seen as a less expensive alternative to modernizing the aging F-14. 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 spare parts being sent to Iran after the fall of the Shah, all remaining American Tomcats were scrapped rather than put into mothballs, though a number are still on display around the country.
December 21, 1964 – The first flight of the General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark. In the years immediately following WWII, the US Air Force continued the doctrine of high-altitude bombing they had carried out against Germany and Japan during the war. But in May 1960, the Russians used a surface-to-air missile (SAM) to shoot down a high-flying Lockheed U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union, and it suddenly became clear that altitude alone was no protection against interception. A change of tactics was in order. The new doctrine called for high-speed, low-level attacks, since low-flying aircraft were harder to detect on radar, and SAMs were less effective because they had less time to lock on a target.
Both the Air Force and US Navy began looking for an aircraft that could fulfill this new role, but Defense Secretary Robert McNamara believed that one aircraft could serve both branches, even though the two had very different requirements. The Tactical Fighter Experimental (TFX) program was initiated by McNamara in 1961 to find an aircraft for both services. The Air Force received proposals from Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed, McDonnell, North American and Republic. 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 B model modified for use by the Navy. With no experience building carrier aircraft, General Dynamics teamed with Grumman to develop the F-111B, but significant delays, and the Navy’s decision to change from a bomber to a fleet defense fighter with dogfighting capabilities, led the Navy to pull out of the F-111 program and pursue a different aircraft, eventually settling on the swing-wing Grumman F-14 Tomcat.
The Aardvark (a nickname that wasn’t made official until 1996) was a very advanced aircraft for its time, and was the world’s first production aircraft to employ variable-sweep wings. It was powered by two afterburning Pratt & Whitney TF30-P-1 turbofan engines that gave it a top speed of Mach 2.5 and a combat radius of over 1,300 miles. In keeping with the low-level penetration mission, the F-111 had an automated terrain-following radar that reduced the pilot workload during low level missions. Though the Air Force had asked for tandem seating in the cockpit, the two-man crew in the F-111 sat side by side, which allowed both the pilot and the radar operator to share the radar screen. The seating arrangement also allowed for the use of an ejection capsule rather than individual ejection seats.
The F-111 was designed with the nuclear mission in mind and was capable of carrying a single nuclear missile or nuclear bombs, but the Aardvark found a niche as a conventional tactical bomber for the Air Force, and could carry a wide range of ordnance to suit the particular mission. The F-111 first saw action in the skies over Vietnam and, after initial mechanical problems that caused some fatal crashes were worked out, the Aardvark ultimately 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 EA-111 electronic warfare variant, was retired in 1998, though the F-111C served the Royal Australian Air Force until 2010.
December 19, 1945 – The first flight of the Grumman AF Guardian, the first purpose-built airborne anti-submarine warfare (ASW) system. Due to the large size of early radar systems, no single carrier-borne aircraft of the day could carry both the radar to detect a submarine and the weapons to attack it. 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 nevertheless proved effective, but 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.
December 20, 1944 – The Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) 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, WASPs had flown 60 million miles ferrying aircraft from factories to ports of embarkation. They also towed targets for live fire gunnery practice and flew cargo missions inside the US. Thirty-eight WASPs died, all in accidents, though none were afforded military honors at their burial. It wasn’t until 2016 that legislation was passed by Congress that finally authorized their burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
December 21, 2017 – The death of Bruce McCandless II, an American astronaut and the first man to “walk” untethered in space. The son of Bruce McCandless, a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient for his service in the Pacific in WWII, McCandless II graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1958 before serving as an active duty fighter pilot and instructor. He was the youngest member of NASA Astronaut Group 5, and served as the CAPCOM for the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon. Later, he served as a backup pilot for the first Skylab mission and CAPCOM for Skylab 3 and Skylab 4. McCandless finally went to space as a mission specialist on board the space shuttle Challenger on STS-41-B on February 3, 1984, where he made the first flight of the Manned Maneuvering Unit, which he had helped develop during his time with Skylab. McCandless went to space a second and final time on board the shuttle Discovery on STS-31 in 1990 which placed the Hubble Space Telescope into Earth orbit.
December 21, 1990 – The death of Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, the one-time 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 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.
December 21, 1988 – Pan Am Flight 103 is destroyed by a bomb over Lockerbie, Scotland. Pan Am Flight 103 was a regularly scheduled flight from Frankfurt to Detroit via London and New York. After departing from London Heathrow, the Boeing 747 (N739PA) was destroyed by a bomb that had been placed in the forward cargo hold. The crash killed all 270 passengers and crew, as well as 11 people on the ground. Investigators alleged that two Libyans, working on the orders of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, had planted the bomb that destroyed the aircraft. Following United Nations sanctions against Libya, Gaddafi turned over the two men for trial in the Netherlands, and one, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, was found guilty of 270 counts of murder and imprisoned for life. In 2003, Gadaffi accepted responsibility for the attack and paid compensation to the families of the victims, and al-Megrahi was freed from prison in 2009 on compassionate grounds after a diagnosis of prostate cancer. He died in 2012.
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, Mriya’s 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 An-225 was built. A second aircraft was under construction but abandoned due to lack of funding and no commercial interest. However, the Russian government has expressed interest in completing the second Mriya and developing it into a midair launch platform.
December 21, 1968 – The launch of Apollo 8. Overshadowed by Apollo 11, the mission that landed the first man on the Moon on July 20, 1969, Apollo 8 had its own set of important milestones that paved the way to the first lunar landing. Astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell (commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission) and William Anders were the first humans to leave Earth orbit, the first to see the planet Earth in its entirety, the first to make a direct observation of the far side of the Moon, and the first to witness Earthrise. After a 3-day flight, the astronauts made 10 orbits of the Moon and made a Christmas Eve broadcast to the Earth during which they read from the Book of Genesis. Apollo 8 returned to Earth on December 27.
December 21, 1936 – The first flight of the Junkers Ju 88, a twin-engined multi-role bomber that entered service with the Luftwaffe at the outbreak of WWII. The Ju 88 was designed as a Schnellbomber (high speed bomber) that was intended to be capable of outrunning enemy fighters and would not require fighter protection of its own. Though this concept wasn’t entirely successful in practice, the Ju 88 nevertheless served throughout the war and was one of the Luftwaffe’s most effective bombers. In addition to its service as a bomber, it also served as a dive bomber, a night fighter with the addition of the Lichtenstein radar, a torpedo bomber, and a reconnaissance aircraft. Late in the war, in a program called Mistel, unmanned Ju 88s were loaded with bombs and mated to a manned fighter that flew both aircraft to the target, whereupon the Ju 88 was released. More than 15,000 Ju 88s were produced during the war.
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