Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from December 27 through December 29.


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 commercial airliners got bigger and carried more passengers, the tragedy of air crashes grew exponentially. Barring outside events like terrorist attacks, most crashes are caused by pilot error or some form of equipment malfunction, and investigative and governing bodies such as the National Transportation Safety Bureau and Federal Aviation Administration make recommendations either to improve procedures or redesign systems to prevent future accidents. The crash of Eastern Air Lines Flight 401, however, was found to more of an issue with how the crew failed to work together to solve a problem, and the accident prompted 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 on board a Lockheed L-1011 TriStar (N310EA). The flight crew was highly experienced, and included an Eastern Air Lines technician who was riding along in the cockpit. On approach to Miami, the flight crew lowered the landing gear, but failed to get a green light that indicated that the nose landing gear was down and locked. After requesting a go-around, the crew began to investigate the problem with the gear. In doing so, the entire cockpit crew became so absorbed in trying to solve the problem that nobody noticed that the autopilot had become disengaged and that the airliner was slowly descending. The crew was so distracted by the faulty indicator light (the gear could have been dropped manually if necessary) that they also 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 descent and the plane crashed into the Everglades ten seconds later, killing 97 passengers and two flight attendants. Among the dead was the pilot, first officer, and engineer.

A training video reenactment of the incident prepared by the FAA

In its final report, the National Transportation Safety Board 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 in a spate of similar accidents accidents caused by failure of the flight crew to work together, and the airlines, led by United Airlines, responded by developing Crew Resource Management. CRM is 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 in situations where, in the past, the captain had the only and final 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; NTSB illustration)

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December 29, 1939 – The first flight of the Consolidated B-24 Liberator. During World War I, the first strategic bombing mission was carried out by Germany on August 6, 1914 when a Zeppelin dropped bombs on the city of Liège in Belgium. Though the majority of raids carried out in the war were tactical bombing missions against specific military targets, the development of strategic bombers to attack enemy cities progressed, along with concepts of how large-scale strategic bombing might be used to win future wars. One of the leading proponents of bomber theory following WWI, Italian general Giulio Douhet, espoused the power of strategic bombing, saying that the bomber alone could bring about the capitulation of an enemy in war. Many military planners adopted his theories, particularly Billy Mitchell in the US, though in practice, the results were mixed during the Second World War.

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Consolidated XB-24, the prototype of the B-24 Liberator, in flight.

During the interwar period, the United States began the development of heavy bombers, and the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress became America’s primary bomber in the early stages of WWII. In 1938, the year the B-17 entered service, the US Army Air Corps (USAAC) 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 than the Flying Fortress, and at a greater range. In 1939, the USAAC asked Consolidated to formally propose a new bomber, and Specification C-212 was written to match Consolidated’s design. The B-24 made use of the Davis wing, a relatively thin wing that was found to have much better laminar flow characteristics than contemporary wings. The wing provided 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. Together, the bomb bays were capable of carrying a total of 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.

Liberators flying low to attack the oil refineries at Ploesti, Romania, in 1943

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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. With its excellent range, the Liberator became the first Allied aircraft to fly regularly across the Atlantic ocean. The B-24 entered service with the USAAC 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. Nearly 20,000 Liberators were 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 as 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. Of the nearly 20,000 Liberators produced, only two airworthy examples 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 photos)


Short Takeoff


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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/FJ-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 swept-wing Russian fighters 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 was 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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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 PW125 engines and an electronic flight and engine management system. The F50 can accommodate up to 62 passengers, and 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 Peter Bakema via Wikimedia Commons)


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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)


Connecting Flights


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If you enjoy these Aviation History posts, please let me know in the comments. And if you missed any of the past articles, you can find them all at Planelopnik History. You can also find more stories about aviation, aviators and airplane oddities at Wingspan.