Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting you caught up on milestones and important historical events in aviation from December 26 through December 29.
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 and toward the interception of incoming bombers. Fighters 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. Convair’s goal with the F-106 was to create the ultimate interceptor. The quest for an effective interceptor goes back to 1949, when the Air Force began looking for an interceptor 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 continued work on a more advanced version of the delta wing fighter, at first designating it the F-102B. 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 aircraft 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-P-17 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. And, as a pure interceptor, the F-106 had no internal gun. By 1972, though, 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 a QF-106 target drone. (US Air Force photo)
December 29, 1972 – The crash of Eastern Air Lines Flight 401. As long as there have been aircraft, there have been aircraft crashes. And as passengers airliners got bigger and bigger, carrying more and more passengers, the tragedy of air crashes grew exponentially. Most crash investigations find that pilot error is to blame, or that some malfunction of equipment led to the crash, and recommendations, either to redesign systems or improve procedures are made to prevent future crashes. The crash of Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 was just such an accident, but it started a re-evaluation of flight crew procedures that has had a profound effect on modern airline operations. Eastern 401 was on a regularly scheduled flight from JFK Airport in New York to Miami and carried 176 passengers and crew. The flight crew was highly experienced, and included an Eastern Air Lines technician who was riding in the cockpit. On approach to Miami, the crew experienced a malfunctioning landing gear indicator light, and the entire flight crew became so absorbed in trying to solve the problem that nobody noticed that the autopilot had become disengaged and that the Lockheed L-1011 Tristar was slowly descending towards the ground. The crew was so distracted by the missing indicator light (the gear could have been dropped manually if necessary) that they failed to hear a chime on the engineer’s panel that warned them of their low altitude. By the time they realized their situation, it was too late to correct the flight and the plane crashed into the Everglades ten seconds later, killing ninety-seven passengers and two flight attendants. Among the dead was the pilot, first officer, and engineer. In their final report, the NTSB cited pilot error as the cause of the crash, specifically, “the failure of the flight crew to monitor the flight instruments during the final four minutes of flight, and to detect an unexpected descent soon enough to prevent impact with the ground. Preoccupation with a malfunction of the nose landing gear position indicating system distracted the crew’s attention from the instruments and allowed the descent to go unnoticed.” This was the first of a spate of similar accidents, and in response, the airlines, led by United, developed Crew Resource Managmemt (CRM), a system that helps the crew manage problems and assign tasks, encourages communication between senior and junior crewmen, and creates an atmosphere where junior officers or even cabin crew are empowered to make suggestions or observations situations where, in the past, the captain had the final and only say. CRM has become standard training in the modern cockpit, and that training paid off spectacularly in the Sioux City crash of 1989, when United Airlines Flight 232, a McDonnell Douglas DC-10, lost all hydraulic control. By using the training provided by CRM, Captain Al Haynes and his crew managed to bring the stricken plane down with the loss of 111 lives, while 185 survived. (Photo by Jon Proctor via Wikimedia Commons)
December 29, 1939 – The first flight of the Consolidated B-24 Liberator. Air power came of age in WWI, with both the fighter and the bomber becoming mainstays of modern airwar. One of the leading proponents of bomber theory, Italian general Giulio Douhet, espoused the power of the strategic bomber, saying that the bomber alone could bring about the capitulation of an enemy in war, and many military planners adopted his theories, even though they came to be unfounded in practice in WWII. Between the wars, the Americans in particular began the development of heavy bombers, with the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress becoming America’s most important bomber in the early stages of WWII. In 1938, the year the B-17 entered service, the US Army Air Corps requested that Consolidated Aircraft build the B-17 under license in order to provide enough bombers for the looming war in Europe. But rather than build somebody else’s bomber, Consolidated thought they could do better by designing their own bomber, particularly one that could carry more bombs, and at a greater range, than the Flying Fortress. The B-24 would make use of the Davis wing, a relatively thin wing that was found to have much better laminar flow characteristics than contemporary wings, providing better lift and better high speed performance, though its construction made it more susceptible to damage. It was mounted high on the fuselage of the new bomber, which allowed room for two bomb bays, each of which was the same size as the one in the B-17 and were capable of carrying 8,000 pounds of bombs. The Liberator was also recognizable by its use of a double tail, and while tests showed that a single tail improved handling, all production models of the B-24 were built with the double tail. The single tail was incorporated in the later PB4Y-2 Privateer maritime patrol variant. The Liberator first entered service with the RAF in 1941, where it was used as a bomber, maritime patrol aircraft, and very effectively as a cargo aircraft. Its excellent range made it the first Allied aircraft to regularly fly across the Atlantic ocean. The Liberator entered service with the US late in 1941, and was soon flying in every theater of war in which the US fought, becoming the mainstay of American strategic bombing forces. With nearly 20,000 Liberators built during the war in a host of variants, with over 8,000 built by the Ford Motor Company, the B-24 holds the record for the most-produced heavy bomber in history, the most-produced multi-engine aircraft in history and the most-produced American military aircraft in history. By 1945, most Liberators were retired and scrapped, though the Privateer continued serving into the Korean War. Two airworthy Liberators remain today, one flying with the Commemorative Air Force in Addison, Texas, and the other with the Collings Foundation in Stow, Massachusetts. (US Air Force photo)
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 Sergey Kustov via Wikimedia Commons)
December 27, 1968 – Apollo 8 splashes down in the Pacific Ocean. While Apollo 8 was the second manned mission of the Apollo program, it was the first to leave Earth orbit, reach and orbit the moon, and return safely to Earth. The three-man crew consisted of Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot James Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders, and they became the first humans to see the entire planet Earth, the first to see the far side of the Moon, and the first to witness Earthrise. Apollo 8 blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center on December 21, and paved the way for Apollo 11, which put the first man on the Moon in 1969. (NASA photo)
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)
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, it came too late in the war to affect its outcome. (US Air Force photo)
December 28, 1985 – The first flight of the Fokker 50, a turboprop transport aircraft and successor to the highly successful Fokker F27 Friendship. The F-50 was built from a stretched F27-200, with the most significant difference being more powerful and fuel efficient Pratt & Whitney Canada PW124 engines and an electronic flight and engine management system. The F50 can accommodate up to 62 passengers. A still longer cargo version, the Fokker 60, has also been developed. Produced from 1987 to 1997, a total of 213 of both types have been built, with many remaining in service today. (Photo by AlfvanBeem via Wikimedia Commons)
December 29, 1931 – The first flight of the Grumman FF. Grumman has a long history of providing aircraft for the US Navy and it all started with the FF, Grumman’s first naval fighter and the US Navy’s first fighter with retractable landing gear. The FF featured an enclosed cockpit, all-metal fuselage and fabric covered wings, and the lineage of the FF can be traced all the way forward to the Grumman F4F Wildcat. In addition to American FFs, the Grumman fighter was also produced under license in Canada, where it was known as the Goblin, and in Spain, where it was known as the Delfin (Dolphin). The FF was retired in 1940, just before the outbreak of WWII. (US Navy photo)
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