Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting you caught up on milestones and important historical events in aviation from December 2 through December 4.


December 2, 1948 – The first flight of the Beechcraft T-34 Mentor. For many years, the North American T-6/SNJ Texan was the primary aircraft trainer for the US military, as well as many other air forces around the world. Over 15,000 Texans were built over the years, and it was a tough act to follow. But with the advent of the jet engine, and with it, the turboprop, Beechcraft rolled the dice and decided to develop a replacement for the venerable T-6, even though the US military didn’t request one. Walter Beech, the head of Beechcraft, began development of the Model 45, one of which was built with the V-tail used on the Beechcraft Bonanza, though for the Mentor, Beech dropped that in favor of a traditional tailplane to appeal to conservative military brass. The fuselage was narrowed, and a bubble canopy was installed to allow better visibility for the tandem cockpit. The aircraft was also significantly strengthened to hold up under the rigors of military training. When production began in 1953, Beechcraft had settled on the Continental E225 engine, a flat six cylinder engine that offered 225 hp. Beechcraft began with two variants, the T-34A for the US Air Force and the T-34B, which was optimized for carrier operations. Introduction of both variants took place in 1953. But it soon became clear that, with the jet engine taking over most of the powerplants in the US military, that a jet engine version of the Mentor might be required. Again, as an internal project, Beech developed the Model 73 Jet Mentor, with a single jet engine, but the Navy passed on that aircraft, and the Air Force chose the Cessna T-37 Tweet as its primary jet trainer. Production of the T-34 stopped for 15 years, but was restarted at the behest of the US Navy to produce a turboprop powered version, and this aircraft, powered by a Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6 turboprop engine, entered service as the T-34C and remained in service until the 1990s, when it was eventually replaced by another turboprop powered trainer, the Beechcraft T-6 Texan II, a derivative of the Pilatus PC-9. In all, 2,300 Mentors were built throughout the two production runs, and many remain in private hands where they are frequently seen on the air show circuit. (US Navy photo)


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December 2, 1937 – The flight of the Brewster F2A Buffalo. In the years since WWII, the Bewster Buffalo has suffered a reputation as a terrible fighter plane. Short, fat, and ungainly, it was clearly no match for more advanced Japanese designs. However, the Buffalo’s reputation as a bad fighter plane isn’t entirely warranted, as other nations, particularly Finland, flew the Buffalo with great effect. In fact, Finland’s greatest ace, Ilmari Juutilainen, scored 34 of his eventual 94.5 kills while flying a Buffalo against Russian fighters. But for the Americans in the Pacific, it was a much different story. The Buffalo traces its history back to 1935, and the US Navy’s request for a new fighter to replace the Grumman F2F biplane. Two aircraft initially entered the competition. The first was the Grumman XFF-1, a biplane fighter with retractable landing gear (which would later be developed into the F4F Wildcat). The second was the Buffalo, and then the Navy allowed a third aircraft, a navalized version of the Seversky P-35, but the P-35 wasn’t fast enough and was eliminated. The Buffalo was a very modern aircraft by 1930s design standards. It was all-metal with flush-riveted, stressed aluminum construction, split flaps, and hydraulically operated, retractable landing gear. However, it still did not have self-sealing fuel tanks or armor plating to protect the pilot. It’s Wright Cyclone radial engine provided a stout 950 hp, and the Buffalo had an impressive climb rate, but its single-stage supercharger meant that high altitude performance suffered significantly. Armament was provided by a single .50 caliber machine gun and a single .30 caliber machine gun, both mounted in the nose. The F2A-2 attempted to address some of the problems of the early model by providing more armament and a more powerful engine, but the resulting weight gain nullified any performance improvements. The final version, the F2A-3 added improved range and provision for underwing stores, but by now, the Navy and Marine Corps had lost confidence in the Buffalo, and by 1940 it was clear that the F2A was completely outclassed by more nimble Japanese aircraft such as the Mitsubishi A6M and Nakajima Ki-43. Remaining Buffalos were removed from combat following the Battle of Midway and transferred to Navy training squadrons in the US. For the Finns, though, it was quite a different story, where more agreeable weather, better maintenance practices and superior tactics led to the Buffalo being a very effective fighter, particularly during the Continuation War. Just over 500 Buffalos were built, and they ended their service in 1948. (US Navy photo)


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December 4, 1952 – The first flight of the Grumman S-2 Tracker. Following WWII, the US Navy needed a more effective way to combat the submarines that menaced their fleets. Since antisubmarine warfare (ASW) equipment was so large in those early days, the Navy’s initial solution was to split the load between two aircraft, one hunter and one killer. Grumman developed the AF Guardian system of two planes, but clearly, this was just a stopgap measure until a dedicated ASW aircraft could be developed. That aircraft would be the S-2 Tracker, the first dedicated, all-in-one ASW aircraft in the US Navy. The Tracker was a large, twin engine aircraft powered by a pair of radial engines mounted on a high wing, an arrangement that allowed for the most possible space inside fuselage. Sonobuoys that could be dropped into the ocean to track submarines were housed in the rear of the engine nacelles. Internally, the S-2 could carry two torpedoes or a single nuclear depth charge, and hard points on the wings could carry rocket pods, depth chargers or four additional torpedoes. To track the submarines, the crew used an AN/APS-38 radar that was housed in a retractable radome, as well as a Magnetic Anomaly Detector boom in the tail that detects tiny variations in the Earth’s magnetic field to snoop out submerged subs. A 70-million candlepower search light was fitted to the starboard wing. The need for the Tracker was so great, and the Navy was so sold on the design that they ordered two prototypes and fifteen production aircraft at the same time, with the first aircraft entering service in 1954, and the aircraft was soon upgraded with modern electronics. The S-2B received the Jezebel passive long-range acoustic search equipment, which worked in conjunction with Julie, an active acoustic echo ranging detection system that used explosive charges to locate underwater subs. The S-2C was an enlarged aircraft that could carry yet more electronic snooping hardware, and the S-2D had a larger wing, more fuel capacity, and more sonobuoys stored in the engine nacelles. The Tracker was widely exported to western allies, and nearly 1,300 were produced, including approximately 100 that were built under license by de Havilland in Canada and received the designation CS2F. With all the electronics stripped out, the S-2 served flew in the role of Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD) as the C-1 Trader. (US Navy Photo)


Short Take Off


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December 2, 1993 – The launch of Space Shuttle Endeavour on STS-61, the first mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). The HST was launched in 1990, but faulty optics from an incorrectly ground mirror caused distorted images. In one of the most complex Shuttle missions to date, the seven specially trained astronauts performed five extended extra-vehicular activity (EVA) periods to replace the High Speed Photometer with the COSTAR corrective optics package, install the new Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2, replace four gyroscopes, and upgrade the computers. The HST was then boosted to a higher orbit. NASA considered the mission a complete success when Hubble began transmitting some of the sharpest images of the cosmos ever taken. Four additional servicing missions were flown, the last in 2009. (NASA photo)


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December 2, 1945 – The first flight of the Bristol Type 170 Freighter. The 170 was originally created as a measure to keep Bristol employees working while the huge, and ultimately unsuccessful, Bristol Brabazon was under development. Placement of the cockpit above the cargo hold helped accommodate as large a payload as possible, and clamshell doors at the front facilitated cargo transfer. An all-passenger variant, called the Wayfarer, was also developed, as well as a car ferrying version that allowed passengers to bring their cars along on trips to the Continent. Bristol built 214 aircraft, and they served numerous civilian and military carriers around the world. (Photo by RuthAS via Wikimedia Commons)


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December 3, 2003 – The first flight of the Honda HA-420 HondaJet, the first aircraft developed by Honda Aircraft Company. The HondaJet was designed in Japan and will be built in the United States at Honda’s factory in Greensboro, North Carolina. This first flight was performed by a proof-of-concept aircraft, not a final production model, and Honda announced in 2006 that it would commercialize the new light business jet. In March 2015, the HondaJet received its Provisional Type Certification from the FAA, the penultimate step to final certification and customer delivery. Honda hopes to complete final certification by the end of 2015. (Photo by Sergey Ryabtsev via Wikimedia Commons)


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December 3, 1944 – The rescue of survivors from the destroyer USS Cooper (DD-695). While on a mission to intercept Japanese supply ships in Ormoc Bay near the Philippine Islands, the Cooper was torpedoed by a Japanese destroyer and sunk. 191 crewmembers were lost, but 168 were rescued, including 56 who were loaded into a single US Navy Consolidated PBY Catalina belonging to Patrol Bombing Sqn VPB-34 and commanded by Lt. Joe Frederick Ball. For his actions, Ball received the Navy Cross. The citation reads in part: [Ball] carried out the entire rescue with consummate skill and with total and repeated disregard for his personal safety, remaining on the water for almost an hour with many enemy planes in the vicinity, and repeatedly taxiing his plane well within point-blank range of guns on the enemy-held coastline and of two enemy warships, in his effort to pick up survivors. When his plane could hold no more, he was forced to make a run of three miles in order to get off the water. A second Catalina rescued 48 survivors at one time. (US Navy photo)


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December 4, 1955 – The death of Glenn L. Martin, early American aviation pioneer who founded his own aircraft company in 1912. His first successful aircraft was the Martin MB-1, a large biplane bomber that served in WWI. Martin went on to create many successful aircraft during WWII, notably the B-26 Marauder and the Maryland bombers, as well as large flying boats such as the PBM Mariner and the JRM Mars. Following the war, Martin found success in the aerospace industry, building the Vanguard rocket, the first American rocket built specifically for orbital launch. Martin followed the Vanguard with the Titan series of larger rockets. In 1961, a merger formed Martin-Marietta, and that company eventually merged with Lockheed to form Lockheed Martin in 1995. (Photo via San Deigo Air and Space Musem)


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December 4, 1912 – The birth of Gregory “Pappy” Boyington. Boyington began his military flying career as an aviation cadet in the US Marine Corps reserve, before resigning his commission to fly with the American Volunteer Group, better known as the Flying Tigers, fighting for Nationalist China against the Japanese. Returning to the USMC in 1942 at the rank of major, Boyington became famous as the leader of VMF-214, a squadron flying the Vought F4U Corsair in the Pacific. In January 1944, Boyington tied the record of famed WWI ace Eddie Rickenbacker with 26 kills, but was then shot down and ended the war as a POW. Following the war, Boyington received the Navy Cross and the Congressional Medal of Honor for his service. Boyington died in 1988 at the age of 75.


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