Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from December 22 through December 25.
December 22, 1964 – The first flight of the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird. At the height of the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union following WWII, the US desperately needed intelligence Soviet military movements and defense programs. America had launched its first spy satellite, codenamed Corona, in 1959, but satellites, no matter how good their photographic equipment, still could not replace surveillance aircraft for flexibility in targeting and timely response to rapidly developing global hotspots. But advances in surface-to-air missiles had left even the high-flying Lockheed U-2 vulnerable to attack and, in 1957, Lockheed began development of an aircraft that could take over the job of spying on the Soviet Union and its satellite countries, a task which 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 not only fly higher and faster than even the fastest Soviet aircraft, but one that was also more difficult to spot on radar. Lockheed experimented with technologies to reduce the spy plane’s radar signature, and developed aircraft shapes and coatings that served as 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 and fly as high as 80,000 feet, faster than any contemporary fighter aircraft and safe from the surface-to-air missiles of the day. To defend against radar interception, the Blackbird 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. Though designed to spy on the Soviet Union, no Blackbirds ever officially flew across Russia. The majority of surveillance missions were flown over North Vietnam from bases in Japan, and other flights were launched from bases in Europe to probe the northern periphery of the Soviet Union.
But, along with the unsurpassed capabilities of the SR-71 came very high operating costs, and this ultimate spy plane 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 lead up to the 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. The Air Force also claimed that the Blackbird 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.
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. With the advent of aerial refueling, non-stop flights around the world had been become relatively commonplace for military aircraft, and 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. But nobody had ever piloted a plane all the way around the world on a single load of fuel for the simple reason that 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 and record-breaking pilot Dick, and pilot Jeanna Yeager. As the three discussed the idea of circumnavigating the globe without refueling, the basic outline for the world-spanning aircraft was sketched out on a napkin. The Voyager featured two long booms connected by a long, slender wing and forward canards. Room for the pilots in the central fuselage 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. Power was provided by two four-cylinder Continental engines, one in the nose and one in the rear.
The historic flight took off on December 14, 1986 from the longest runway at Edwards Air Force Base in California, and the Voyager, laden with fuel, 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 nine days to complete the journey. When it touched down, the aircraft had just 106 pounds of fuel remaining in the tanks, having burned 98.5% 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.
Now that the non-stop circumnavigation challenge had been met, the only thing left to do was to complete the flight in a shorter time, or make the flight alone. Rutan’s and Yeager’s nine-day record was finally 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. The Voyager is now on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. (NASA photos)
December 23, 1974 – The first flight of the Rockwell B-1 Lancer. Since the dawn of military aviation, air forces have worked continually to improve on earlier designs and introduce new technologies to stay one step ahead of their opponents. But even after the expenditure of millions or even billions of dollars, it’s not unheard of that the mission for which an aircraft was designed simply doesn’t exist any more, especially after a protracted development program. Such was the case for the B-1 Lancer, an aircraft that was developed to replace a bomber that remains in the US Air Force inventory to this day. 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 appeared that the B-52 was 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, high-speed penetration attacks. Following the cancellation of the XB-70 in 1961, numerous studies commenced to develop a new low level bomber, as the B-52, which had been designed for high-altitude strategic bombing missions such as those carried out during WWII, was unsuited for low level penetration. But those initial 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 in the early 1970s, 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 four prototypes, but the program was canceled once again by the Carter Administration in 1977, citing both high costs and the existence of cruise missiles that could be launched from existing B-52s. It was thought that the missiles could 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.
The resurrection 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-1B 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; US Air Force photo; photo by the author)
December 23, 1941 – The first flight of the Douglas C-47 Skytrain. When the airplane arrived as a weapon of war in WWII, it fundamentally changed the way wars are fought. But when compiling lists of “greatest” warplanes, we tend to focus on bombers that pounded enemy cities, 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 helped 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 (or, in US Navy parlance, the R4D) are almost indistinguishable. Internally, the C-47 was strengthened to allow for the handling of heavy cargo, and the seats were removed and replaced with utility seats along the walls that could be folded during cargo operations. 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, played a vital role early in the war by flying supplies over the Himalayas, known to pilots as “The Hump,” to supply Nationalist Chinese forces fighting the Japanese. Later in the war, entire Allied armies were supported by the air in the jungles of southeast Asia by C-47s that delivered supplies to areas that were inaccessible by trucks or other ground transport. In Europe, C-47s 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. Without any exaggeration, 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.
The end of WWII was by no means the end of the road for the C-47. It took part in the Berlin Airlift, served with distinction in the Korean War, and continued its critical role in the Vietnam War, where some C-47s 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 close air support for troops on the ground. 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.
December 24, 1952 – The first flight of the Handley Page Victor. World War II effectively ended in early August 1945 when the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Though it would be three more weeks before the Japanese officially surrendered, the world had entered the age of nuclear weapons. For a while, the US was the only nation that possessed the atomic bomb, though that monopoly did not last long. The Soviet Union detonated their first atomic bomb bomb in August 1949, and England followed suit when they detonated their first atomic bomb in October 1952.
Concurrent with England’s decision to develop nuclear weapons, the British Air Ministry issued requirements for new jet-powered bombers that could carry the large bombs, as the older piston-powered aircraft were not up to the task and had become largely obsolete by the 1950s. Air Ministry specification B.35/46 called for a four-engine, swept-wing jet bomber that could cruise at 580 mph and have a ceiling of at least 55,000 feet, as high-level bombing was still standard practice. The new bomber would have to be able to carry a 10,000 pound “special gravity bomb” at a range of up to 1,700 miles. Three very different operational bombers came out of the request, and they came to be known as the V bombers: the Vickers Valiant, Avro Vulcan and Handley Page Victor.
The Victor was the third in the series, and was ultimately the last to be retired. It was powered by four turbojets housed in the wing roots. The wing itself was a unique design for the time. Where the Vulcan experimented with a delta wing configuration, the Victor employed an innovative crescent-shaped wing designed by Handley Page’s aerodynamicist Gustav Bachmann. The idea behind the unique wing shape was an effort to maintain the same limiting Mach number as the pressure wave moved across the span of the wing. The fuselage was streamlined down to a point at the front, and the heavily swept tailplane featured a distinct dihedral, or upward tilt. The large bulge under the aircraft’s cockpit housed the targeting radar, landing gear, and an auxiliary position for the bomb aimer. The first Victor, the B.1, was powered by four Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire turbojets, while the later B.2 received four Rolls-Royce Conway turbofans which increased the Victor’s maximum speed to 627 mph. The Victor B.1 entered service in 1957, followed by the B.2 in 1961.
Though initially intended as a high altitude bomber, advances in Soviet air defenses required a change in tactics to low-level, high-speed penetration of enemy airspace. While the Victor performed the new mission well, the development of fatigue cracks led to the bombers withdrawal from the strategic bombing role. Remaining Victors, including the B.2R reconnaissance variants, were converted to aerial tankers, with modifications made to the wings to help prevent wing stresses that were causing the fatigue cracks. The more traditional Vickers Valiant was the only of the V bombers to drop live nuclear weapons during testing, but the Victor and Vulcan both played important roles in the Falklands War of 1982. As part of Operation Black Buck, Vulcan bombers flying from England were staged at Ascension Island in the South Atlantic, and the 8,000 mile round trip to the Falklands was made possible with numerous refuelings provided by Victor tankers. Victors also took part in the refueling of coalition aircraft during the Gulf War of 1991, but they were retired in 1993.
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 more 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 four that remain in service with the Russian Air Force. The Il-86 was subsequently developed into the much more modern Ilyushin Il-96.
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 to investigate the viability of aircraft in which the fuselage, rather than wings, 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. Only one HL-10 was produced, and it is on display at the Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
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 positioned 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.
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.
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 Institute, known as TsAGI. On orders from Soviet General Secretary Joseph Stalin, Tupolev was arrested in 1937 on charges of sabotage and 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, it 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. For his life’s work, Tupolev was honored by both the British Royal Aeronautical Society and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and was named a Hero of Socialist Labor on three occasions.
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 delta-wing predecessors, the all-weather interceptor F1 uses a traditional swept wing arrangement, 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.
December 23, 1953 – The unofficial first flight of the Lockheed XFV. Nicknamed the Salmon, likely 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 was designed to land on fixed gear attached to the tailplane. Testing was carried out using traditional fixed landing gear, and the first flight occurred accidentally when Salmon taxied beyond takeoff speed. The official first flight took place on June 16, 1954. The XFV never took off or landed vertically as designed, though a series of transitions from level to vertical flight were carried out before the project was cancelled in 1955.
December 24, 2017 – The first flight of the AVIC AG600. With a wingspan of 127 feet, a length of 121 feet and a maximum takeoff weight of 53 tons, the AG600 is currently the largest amphibious aircraft in the world. Designed with both a flying boat hull and retractable landing gear, the AG600 was built to serve both military and civilian roles, with accommodations for up to 50 passengers or the ability to drop 12 tons of water during firefighting operations. As a military aircraft, the AG600 is planned to provide reconnaissance and search and rescue capabilities with a range of 3,418 miles. The state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China has received 17 orders for the AG600 to date.
December 24, 1937 – The first flight of the Macchi C.200 Saetta, a single-engine fighter produced by Aeronautica Macchi (Aermacchi) that served the Italian Air Force (Regia Aeronautica) throughout WWII. The Saetta (Arrow) had excellent flying characteristics, and its all-metal construction and air-cooled engine made it a rugged fighter ideal for both air-to-air and ground attack missions, though it lacked sufficient power and armament when compared to most contemporary fighters. Still, the C.200 flew more missions than any other Italian fighter, and its pilots achieved a kill-to-loss ratio of 88-15 in fighting over Russia.
December 25, 1968 – Apollo 8 performs the first successful Trans-Earth Injection maneuver to return a manned spacecraft from lunar orbit. Apollo 8 was responsible for a number of firsts that paved the way for the successful manned mission to the surface of the Moon with Apollo 11. One of the most important was the Trans-Earth injection, a 203-second burn of the Service Module that brought the spacecraft into the gravitational influence of the Earth so the astronauts could break free of their orbit of the Moon and put them on a Free return trajectory. The maneuver had first been accomplished by the unmanned Russian probe Luna 16, but this was the first time it had been performed by a manned spacecraft. On December 24, the crew of Apollo 8 read from the Book of Genesis (chapter 1, verses 1-10) while orbiting the Moon. The reading was the most-watched television broadcast ever at the time. Apollo 8 returned to Earth on December 27, 1968.
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