Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from December 24 through December 27.


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 would 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 would not be up to the task and were 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 was experimenting with a delta wing configuration, Victor employed an innovative crescent-shaped wing designed by Handley Page’s aerodynamicist Dr. Gustav Lachmann that was intended to maintain the same limiting Mach number across the entire 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 chin housed the targeting radar, cockpit, 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.

Victor in original anti-flash white paint

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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 their being withdrawn 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 leading to 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)


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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 it was significantly 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-102B 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. The traingular vertical stabilizer of the F-102B was replaced with a larger, 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) which allowed 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.”

A US Air Force Air National Guard F-106A intercepts a Tupolev Tu-95 bomber of the coast of Cape Cod in 1982

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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 a QF-106 target drone. (US Air Force photos)


Short Takeoff


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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)


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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. (NASA illustration)


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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 fifty-five 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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December 27, 1982 – The death of John Leonard “Jack” Swigert. Swigert was born on August 30, 1931 in Denver, Colorado, and was a fighter pilot in the US Air Force and US Air Force Air National Guard, and a civilian test pilot, before joining the NASA astronaut corps in 1966. Swigert replaced astronaut Ken Mattingly as Command Module Pilot on the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, and was slated to be the Command Module Pilot on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, but was removed from the mission after his involvement in the Apollo 15 postage stamp incident when stamps that had been taken aboard Apollo 15 without authorization were offered for sale. After leaving NASA in 1973, Swigert was elected to Congress, but died of respiratory failure before taking office. (NASA photo)


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December 27, 1951 – The first flight of the North American FJ-2/-3 Fury. By the early 1950s, the US Navy was desperate for an effective, swept-wing fighter that could fly from the decks of their carriers and tangle with Russian designs like the MiG-15. Without time to develop a new aircraft, the Navy turned to North American to have them develop a carrier variant of the F-86 Sabre. The Fury had an elongated nose wheel to assist with takeoffs, a strengthened fuselage, and a tail hook added for arrested landings. A total of 741 FJ-2 and upgraded FJ-3s were built, and the type was eventually developed into the FJ-4, an entirely new fighter, though it shared the same basic design. (US Navy photo)


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December 27, 1942 – The first flight of the Kawanishi N1K. The N1K was a superb Japanese fighter of WWII that existed in both a floatplane version (Kyōfū, Allied reporting name Rex), and a land based version (Shiden, Allied reporting name George). The George was considered to be one of the best Japanese fighters of the war, and was notable for its use of a mercury switch that automatically extended the flaps during a turn, making it an excellent dogfighter. The Shiden was a match for most late-war Allied fighters, but despite more than 1,500 being produced, its was introduced too late in the war to affect its outcome. (US Air Force photo)


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December 27, 1919 – The first flight of the Boeing Model 6, a biplane float plane and Boeing’s first civilian design after the Model 1, which had been built for the US Navy. Similar to the Curtiss HS-2L that Boeing had built under license during WWI, the Model 6 (also called the B-1) was powered by a Hall-Scott engine turning a pusher propeller and had accommodations for one pilot and two passengers in a boat-shaped hull. After the war, Boeing was unable to obtain orders for the aircraft due to an abundance of surplus military aircraft, and the single example was sold to Edward Hubbard in 1920, who used the plane to carry airmail between Seattle, Washington and Victoria, British Columbia. After its retirement in 1930, the Model 6 was preserved and put on display at the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle. (Photo author unknown)


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