Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from December 23 through December 26.
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. 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 came from 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. 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 9 days to complete the journey. When it touched down, the Voyager 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.
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. 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. 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 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 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 four prototypes, but the program was canceled once again by the Carter Administration in 1977, citing both the high cost of the program and the existence of cruise missiles that could be launched from existing B-52s and performed 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 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 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 (known to the US Navy as 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 went on to serve in the Korean War, took part in the Berlin Airlift, and served 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 provided combat close air support to 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. (Photo by Adrian Pingstone via Wikimedia Commons; US Air Force photos)
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 a bomb in August 1949, and England followed suit when they detonated their own 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 were 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 subsequently the last to be retired. It was powered by four engines housed in the wing roots, and 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 Lachmann that was intended 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. (Photo author unknown via Tangmere Museum; Photo by Arpingstone via Wikimedia Commons)
December 26, 1956 – The first flight of the Convair F-106 Delta Dart. During the 1950s, the emphasis on fighter aircraft began to shift away from the dogfighting that was so much a part of WWII toward the high-speed interception of incoming enemy bombers. Interceptors were built with an emphasis on speed and long-range air-to-air missiles, with powerful radars that could detect infiltrating enemy aircraft and destroy them before they could get close enough to loose their weapons. The quest for an effective interceptor goes back to 1949, when the Air Force began looking for an aircraft to keep up with advances in Russian bomber design. Planes like the Northrop F-89 Scorpion and North American F-86D Sabre came out of this request, but they were all subsonic. So the Air Defense Command requested an entirely new plane that would enter service by 1954, one that would be flown by a single pilot and be capable of supersonic flight.
One of the early aircraft to be adopted by the Air Force was the Convair F-102 Delta Dagger, but the F-102 was incapable of supersonic flight until its fuselage was redesigned to take advantage of the area rule. Since the redesigned Delta Dagger, designated the F-102A, only just met the Air Force’s requirements, Convair set out to create the ultimate interceptor, using the F-102 as the starting point. However, the redesigned fighter was so drastically different that the Air Force instead gave it a new designation, F-106. Like its predecessor, the F-106 conforms to the area rule formula, and while the two interceptors are almost the same length, the intakes of the F-106 were shortened and outfitted with adjustable inlet ramps to alter the air flow at different speeds. The traingular vertical stabilizer of the F-102 was replaced with a larger, squared off swept stabilizer, and the engine was replaced with an afterburning Pratt & Whitney J75 axial-flow turbojet which provided a 50-percent increase in power. The Delta Dart was equipped with the Hughes MA-1 fire control system, which worked in concert with the ground based Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) to allow ground-based radar operators to steer the F-106 onto its target and fire the missiles automatically. Designed as a pure missile-armed interceptor, the F-106 had no internal gun. By 1972, some F-106As were fitted with a bubble canopy and an M61 Vulcan 20mm rotary cannon. These versions were nicknamed “Six Shooters.”
The Delta Dart provided protection to North America from bases in the continental US, Alaska and Iceland, and, while considered for use in Vietnam, the F-106 never saw actual combat. They did, however, perform countless interceptions of Russian bombers testing US defenses during the Cold War. 342 Delta Daggers were built, and the type was finally retired by the Air National Guard in 1988, with many aircraft ending their life as QF-106 target drones. (US Air Force photos)
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, 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. (Photo author unknown)
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. It 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)
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 and 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. (US Air Force photo)
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. (Photo by Alert5 via Wikimedia Commons)
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. (US Air Force photo)
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. Apollo 8 returned to Earth on December 27, 1968. (NASA illustration)
December 26, 1982 – The first flight of the Antonov An-124, a strategic airlifter built by the Soviet Union and the largest military transport aircraft in the world. The An-124 is similar to the American Lockheed C-5 Galaxy, but its construction allows the rear door to be opened during flight, and it is capable of carrying 25% more cargo than its American counterpart. The An-124 has set numerous records, including a world record flight of 10,881 nautical miles without refueling in 1987. Antonov has completed 55 An-124s, though production was halted in 2014 due to political and military tensions between Russia and Ukraine. (Photo by Eric Prado via Wikimedia Commons)
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