Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting you caught up on milestones and important historical events in aviation from December 23 through December 25.


December 23, 1974 – The first flight of the Rockwell B-1 Lancer. Sometimes, it seems like air forces are searching for a plane that they don’t really need, or one that doesn’t really have a mission. Such is the case for the B-1, an aircraft that was developed to replace a bomber that is still in our inventory, whose mission changed, was canceled, resurrected, and 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. With 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 McNamara in 1968. The program was then resurrected by President 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. Four prototypes were produced, but once again, the program was canceled by the Carter Administration in 1977 citing 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 designers a chance to revisit the design, and the newly christened B-1B differed from its predecessor with a payload increased to 74,000 pounds and improved radar and a reduced radar cross section (RCS), a change that 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, and has continued to be a valuable asset in the war in Afghanistan and the continuing fight against ISIS in Syria. 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 modern Air Force. 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 expected to be replaced by the planned 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 in the sky, fending off attacking bombers or engaging in dogfights against enemy fighters. But it would not be hyperbole to say that the 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 usher in the age of the passenger airliner, but for all its success, it was the cargo 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, and 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 by 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 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 fly in the Vietnam War, where some were modified into flying gunships designated AC-47. These planes carried three 7.62mm miniguns for ground attack and were nicknamed “Spooky” or “Puff the Magic Dragon.” 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 are even being upgraded with 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)


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December 23, 1990 – The Boeing VC-25, tail number 29000, enters service with the US Air Force, the second Boeing 747 modified to transport the US President and act as an airborne command post (the first carries tail number 28000 and first flew in May of 1987). The VC-25 was developed to replace the earlier VC-137 that was based on the Boeing 707. Unlike a standard 747, the VC-25 is fitted with living quarters and meeting rooms for the president and his staff, a galley that can provide up to 100 meals at one sitting, a medical suite, aerial refueling capabilities, and undisclosed protective countermeasures. (US Air Force photo)


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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 wing arrangement rather than a delta wing, and was produced on both one-and two-seat versions, as well as a reconnaissance variant. Exported to thirteen countries, the F1 was retired by the French in 2014, but remains in service with a handful of nations. More than 720 F1s were produced between 1996 and 1992. (Photo by KGyST via Wikimedia Commons)


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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 VTOL fighter that was designed to land and take vertically on its tail and was intended to operate from the decks of ships to provide security for oceangoing convoys. Developed from a 1948 proposal, the XFV was powered by a 5,332 hp Allison YT40-A-14 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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December 24, 1952 – The first flight of the Handley Page Victor. The third and final of the British V-bombers (the others were the Vickers Valiant and Avro Vulcan), the Victor was designed to be a part of England’s fleet of nuclear armed bombers, but fatigue cracks airframe led to the end of its low-level nuclear mission in 1968. With the loss of its nuclear mission, and with other aircraft that could carry out both the nuclear and conventional role, many Victors were converted to aerial refueling platforms and saw service in the Falklands War in 1982 and the Gulf War of 1991. Eighty-six Victors were produced, and the type was finally retired by the RAF in 1993. (Photo author unknown)


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December 24, 1937 – The first flight of the Macchi C.200, a single-engine fighter produced by Aeronautica Macchi (Aermacchi) that served the Italian Air Force (Regia Aeronautica) throughout WWII. The C.200 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 attack missions, though it lacked sufficient power and armament when compared to 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. (US Air Force photo)


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