Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from December 21 through December 23.


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 mixture of dive bombers, torpedo bombers and fighters allowed it to attack sea and land targets, while providing cover for the battle group from enemy attacks on the fleet. By the 1960s, the battle group needed a dominant Fleet Air Defense (FAD) aircraft to intercept attacking enemy aircraft and missiles, and, in 1961, US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara directed the US Navy and Air Force to develop a single airplane to serve both branches as part of the Tactical Fighter Experimental (TFX) program. 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 robust carrier aircraft, to develop their Model 303 design to fill the role that was 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. 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. Based on that experience, the new fighter would be armed with a built-in M61 Vulcan cannon and be capable of providing secondary close air support. Even though the Tomcat was armed for dogfighting, its primary role was as a fleet defense aircraft 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. In addition to its Phoenix missiles, the Tomcat could also be armed with Sidewinder or Sparrow air-to-air missiles. Sharing a design feature of the rejected F-111B, the Tomcat had wings that 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 at the front of the wingbox extended to regulate the aircraft’s center of pressure and help control pitch. The Tomcat began to replace the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II in 1974, and Tomcats were active 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, known the “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 carried out bombing 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 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 Tomcats were scrapped rather than put into mothballs, though a number are still on display around the country. (US Navy photo)


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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 the tactics they had used 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 doctrine called for high-speed, low-level attacks to since the aircraft were harder to detect on radar and SAMs were less effective. Both the Air Force and US Navy began looking new aircraft that could fulfill this role, but Defense Secretary Robert McNamara believed that one aircraft could serve both branches, even though the two had very different requirements, and the result was 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 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 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. The F-111 was designed with a nuclear mission in mind and was capable of carrying a single nuclear missile or nuclear bombs, but the F-111 found a niche as a conventional tactical bomber for the Air Force. It first saw 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)


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December 22, 1964 – The first flight of the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird. The US had launched its first spy satellite, codenamed Corona, in 1959, but satellites, no matter how good their photographic equipment, still couldn’t replace surveillance aircraft for flexibility in targeting and rapid response to rapidly developing global hotspots. But rapid advances in surface-to-air missiles left even the high-flying Lockheed U-2 vulnerable to attack, and, in 1957, Lockheed began development an aircraft that could take over the job of spying on the Soviet Union from the U-2. This task became more urgent in 1960 when Central Intelligence Agency pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down by a surface-to-air missile over the Soviet Union while flying a U-2. The US needed a new aircraft that could fly higher and faster than even the fastest Soviet aircraft, and Lockheed experimented with technologies to reduce the aircraft’s radar signature, developing the precursor to what we know today as stealth technology. The result of that development program was 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. 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 continuous bleed afterburning turbojets, the Blackbird could reach Mach 3.3 at 80,000 feet, where it was faster than any contemporary fighter aircraft and could not be shot down by the surface-to-air missiles of the day. To defend against radar interception, the Blackbird was coated was coated with special radar absorbing paint, and its vertical stabilizers were canted inwards to deflect radar signals. Despite its massive size, the SR-71 had a radar cross-section (RCS) of only 10 square meters. With the combination of its speed, ceiling and stealth, 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 the aircraft became a political issue in an era of shrinking budgets and competition for government 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 duties 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 US Air Force 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. (Lockheed photo)


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December 23, 1986 – The Rutan Voyager completes the first non-stop flight around the world without refueling. Aviation history is filled with stories of pilots and aircraft designers who pushed the boundaries of flight, and some of the greatest advances have been made in the quest to fly higher, faster, or farther. Before the historic flight of the Rutan Voyager, the longest non-stop, unrefueled flight took place in 1962, when the crew of a US Air Force Boeing B-52H Stratofortress flew from Okinawa to Spain, a distance of 12,532 miles, or about half way around the world. Clearly, the next feat would be to pilot a plane all the way around the world without refueling, though for many years there was no aircraft that could make such a flight. It would take a truly visionary aircraft designer to create a round-the-world aircraft, and Burt Rutan, well known for his unorthodox and brilliant aircraft designs, was just the person to build it. The idea for a world-circling flight began in 1981 during a lunch meeting with Burt Rutan, his brother Dick, a record-breaking pilot, and pilot Jeanna Yeager. During that meeting, the world-spanning aircraft was sketched out on a napkin. The Voyager featured a forward canard that stretched between twin booms, with the fuselage in centered in between, with a very long, straight wing. Room for the pilots was at a bare minimum, as all available space in the plane was taken up with fuel. The Voyager was built of fiberglass, carbon fiber and Kevlar and weighed only 939 pounds empty. Fully loaded with fuel, its weight increased tenfold to 9,695 pounds. The historic flight took off from the longest runway at Edwards Air Force Base in California in December 14, 1986, and the Voyager required a takeoff run of 14,200 feet to leave the ground. During takeoff, the wingtips scraped the ground, damaging the wings and breaking off the winglets, but engineers decided to continue the flight. Rutan and Yeager were forced to maneuver around bad weather, and had to fly around Libya since they did not have permission to overfly the African nation. The Voyager landed at Edwards Air Force Base on December 23, having taken 9 days to complete the journey. When the Voyager landed, it had just 106 pounds of fuel remaining in the tanks, or a mere 1.5% of the fuel they departed with. Rutan’s and Yeager’s average speed was 115 mph, and the flight covered 26,366 statute miles at an average altitude of 11,000 feet. The Voyager is now on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Now that the nonstop circumnavigation challenge had been met, the only thing left to do was to complete the flight in a shorter time. Rutan’s and Yeager’s nine-day record was broken by adventurer Steve Fosset in another Burt Rutan design, the jet-powered Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer on February 11, 2006. Fosset completed the circumnavigation in a mere 2 days and 19 hours, covering a distance of 25,767 miles. (NASA photo)


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December 23, 1974 – The first flight of the Rockwell B-1 Lancer. In the never-ending search for better and more capable military aircraft, air forces occasionally spend millions of dollars on a plane that they don’t really need, or one that doesn’t really have a mission. Such was the case for the B-1, an aircraft that was developed to replace a bomber that remains in the US Air Force inventory. During the course of the Lancer’s development, its mission changed, it was canceled, then resurrected, and it now serves admirably in a role for which it was not initially conceived. Work on a new Mach 2 bomber began in the 1960s as a replacement for the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress when it looked like the B-52 might be entering its twilight as a long-range bomber for the Strategic Air Command. Initially, the Air Force hoped to procure the North American B-70 Valkyrie, but advances in Soviet anti-aircraft missile technology negated the high flying, high speed advantages of the Mach 3 bomber, and Air Force doctrine shifted to low altitude penetration. Following the cancellation of the XB-70 in 1961, numerous studies commenced to develop a new bomber, as the B-52 was unsuited to the low level missions the new bomber was expected to perform. But those studies produced no viable aircraft, and the entire program was defunded by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in 1968. The program was then resurrected by President Richard Nixon, and the Rockwell design, which featured four engines and a variable sweep wing for both low level and high altitude high speed missions, was selected as the B-1A. Rockwell produced 4 prototypes, but once again, the program was canceled by the Carter Administration in 1977 citing both the high cost of the program and the existence of cruise missiles that could perform a similar mission for much less money. But the whole point of the long and tortuous development program was to create a manned system, and the on-again, off-again bomber program was once again raised from the dead, this time in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan, who was seeking to build up US military forces to counter the Soviet Union. But the resurrection also gave Rockwell a chance to revisit the design, and the newly christened B-1B differed from its predecessor with a payload increased to 74,000 pounds, improved radar, and a reduced radar cross section (RCS), changes that also led to a reduction of the maximum speed to Mach 1.2. The B-1B entered service in 1985 and saw its first combat during Operation Desert Fox in 1998. The capability of dropping highly accurate JDAM bombs, coupled with an excellent loiter time over the battlefield, make the B-1 an indispensable tool for the Air Force in the ongoing war in Afghanistan and the fight against ISIS in Syria. Though the B-52 keeps flying, and may actually reach the century mark of service, the B-1B is expected to keep flying until at least the 2030s, when it is slated to be replaced by the planned Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider Long Range Strike Bomber. (Photo by the author)


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December 23, 1941 – The first flight of the Douglas C-47 Skytrain. When we think of airplanes that had a profound affect on war, we usually start listing bombers that pounded enemy cities or destroyed armies on the ground, or fighters that wheeled and turned over the battlefield, fending off attacking bombers or engaging in dogfights against enemy fighters. But it would not be hyperbole to say that the humble Douglas C-47 played an equal, or perhaps even more important, role in winning WWII for the Allies than any bomber or fighter. The Skytrain, or Dakota as it was known to the British, began its storied career as the DC-3 commercial airliner, which first flew in 1935. The DC-3 would help usher in the age of the passenger airliner, but, for all its success, it was the military version that would have the greatest impact on world history. Externally, the DC-3 and C-47 (and the Navy variant, which is called the R4D) are almost indistinguishable. The two aircraft are almost exactly the same size, but the C-47 was strengthened to allow for the handling of heavy cargo, the seats were removed and replaced with utility seats along the walls that could be folded during cargo operations, and a large door was added to the rear side of the fuselage so cargo could be loaded and unloaded. Skytrains, or “Gooney Birds” as they were affectionately called, were a vital factor early in the war as they flew supplies over the Himalayas, known to pilots as “The Hump,” to supply Chinese forces fighting the Japanese. Later in the war, entire Allied armies were supported by the air in the jungles of southeast Asia, bringing supplies to areas that were inaccessible to trucks or other ground transport. C-47s also dropped vital supplies for the beleaguered and surrounded forces in Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, and towed gliders and carried paratroops in airborne assaults like Operation Market Garden. But the Skytrain is perhaps best known for its role in the predawn hours of D-Day, June 6, 1944, when an armada of Skytrains and Dakotas, arrayed in consecutive V-formations nine planes wide in a line that stretched 300 miles, carried nearly 20,000 airborne troops into Normandy to help clear the way for the invasion forces that would arrive after sunrise. The end of WWII was by no means the end of the road for the C-47. It would go on to serve in the Korean War, take part in the Berlin Airlift, and serve in the Vietnam War, where some were modified into flying gunships designated AC-47. The gunships, nicknamed “Spooky” or “Puff the Magic Dragon” carried three 7.62mm mini guns and ten .30 caliber Browning machine guns for ground attack and to provide combat air support. More than 10,000 C-47s were produced, and many are still in use today. The rugged airframe has withstood the test of time, and some continue to fly with upgraded turboprop engines. And there is every reason to believe that the airplane that helped revolutionize air travel and helped win a war will still be flying 100 years after it first took to the skies. (US Air Force photo)


Short Takeoff


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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)


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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 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. An investigation alleged that two Libyans, working on the orders of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, had planted the bomb that destroyed the aircraft. Folloiwng United Nations sanctions against Libya, Gaddafi turned the two men over 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 and died in 2012. (UK Government photo)


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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 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)


Earthrise photo taken by astronaut William Anders

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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 along the route 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. (NASA photo)


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December 21, 1936 – The first flight of the Junkers Ju 88, a twin-engined multi-role bomber introduced to the Luftwaffe at the outbreak of WWII. The Ju 88 was designed as a Schnellbomber (fast bomber) that was intended to be able to outrun enemy fighters and 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 successful types. It served not only as a bomber, but also as a dive bomber, night fighter with the addition of the Lichtenstein radar, torpedo bomber, and 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. (Bundesarchiv photo via Wikimedia Commons)


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December 22, 1976 – The first flight of the Ilyushin Il-86, the first wide-body airliner to be produced by the Soviet Union. The introduction of the Il-86 was intended to coincide with the Summer Olympics held in Moscow in 1980, but a protracted 10-year development program failed to reach that goal. Though much of the technology in the Il-86, including the Kuznetsov NK-86 turbofans, was reminiscent of the 1960s, the Il-86 went on to serve for more than 30 years as a safe and reliable airliner, suffering no fatal accidents during its service life. A total of 106 were produced, and all have since been retired except for a small number that still serve the Russian Air Force. It was subsequently developed into the much more modern Ilyushin Il-96. (Photo by Dmitry Terekhov via Wikimedia Commons)


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December 22, 1966 – The first flight of the Northrop HL-10. Along with the Northrop M2-F2, Northrop designed the HL-10 as part of the experimental heavy lifting bodies program run by NASA during the 1960s which investigated the viability of aircraft in which the fuselage provided the lift necessary for flight. The HL-10 was carried aloft by a Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, and, after separation, a rocket engine powered the lifting body during flight tests. Over the course of 37 test flights, the HL-10 reached a top speed of Mach 1.86 and a maximum altitude of 90,030 feet. HL-10 project engineer Dale Reed formulated a plan to fly the HL-10 into space using launch hardware left over from the canceled Apollo program, but that plan never came to fruition. The single HL-10 produced is on display at the Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California. (NASA photo)


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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 North American 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)


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December 22, 1945 – The first flight of the Beechcraft Bonanza. Introduced in 1947, the Bonanza remains in production today, and this continuous 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)


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December 23, 1972 – The death of Andrei Tupolev, a pioneer in Russian aviation and the designer of over 100 aircraft. From 1929 until his death in 1972, Tupolev was the leading designer at the Central Aerohydrodynamic Institut, known as TsAGI. Tupolev was arrested on charges of espionage, but released in 1941 to continue his work, which included the reverse engineering of an American Boeing B-29 Superfortress, designated the Tu-4, which was the first Soviet aircraft capable of dropping a nuclear weapon. Tupolev is perhaps best known for his design of the Tu-95 bomber, known to the NATO as the Bear.(Photo author unknown)


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December 23, 1966 – The first flight of the Dassault Mirage F1. Developed as a successor to the Dassault Mirage III/5 series of fighters, the F1 entered service with the French Armée de l’Air in 1974, and remained France’s main frontline interceptor until the introduction of the Mirage 2000 in 1982. Unlike its predecessors, the all-weather interceptor F1 uses a traditional swept wing arrangement rather than a delta wing, and was produced in both one-and two-seat versions, as well as a reconnaissance variant. The F1 was exported to 13 countries, and was retired by the French in 2014, though it remains in service with a handful of nations. More than 720 F1s were produced between 1969 and 1992. (US Air Force photo)


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December 23, 1953 – The unofficial first flight of the Lockheed XFV. Nicknamed the Salmon, probably after Lockheed chief test pilot Herman “Fish” Salmon who performed the flight tests, the XFV was a vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) fighter that was designed to land and take on its tail with the intention of operating from the decks of ships to provide protection for oceangoing convoys. The XFV was powered by a 5,332 hp Allison YT40 turboprop engine that drove three-bladed contra-rotating propellers. The tail was a disitinctive cruciform pairing of two V-tails, and the fighter landed on fixed gear attached to the tailplane. Testing was carried out using traditional fixed landing gear, though a series of transitional flights were carried out before the project was cancelled in 1955. (US Air Force photo)


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