Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from December 28 through December 31.
December 29, 1972 – The crash of Eastern Air Lines Flight 401. There is an age-old axiom that what comes up must come down, and airplanes are, of course, no exception. Unfortunately, crashes are part and parcel with the history of aviation and, as commercial airliners grew in size the capacity, the tragedy of air crashes grew exponentially. Barring outside events like terrorist attacks, most accidents are caused either 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 a situation where the flight crew became so fixated on a problem that they forgot the most important rule of aviation: fly the plane. 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. As the airliner prepared for landing at Miami, the pilots lowered the landing gear, but a green light that was designed to indicate that the nose landing gear was down and locked did not illuminate. The pilot requested a go-around, and 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 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 dangerously low altitude. By the time they realized their dire 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.
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 commercial aviation industry, 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.
December 29, 1939 – The first flight of the Consolidated B-24 Liberator. The first time that bombs rained from the sky in what could be considered a strategic bombing mission was on August 6, 1914, when a German Zeppelin bombarded the city of Liège in Belgium. Though the majority of raids carried out in WWI were tactical bombing missions against specific military targets, the development of strategic bombers to attack enemy cities progressed, along with doctrines 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 potential 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.
The United States fielded its first purpose-built heavy bomber with the Martin MB-1 in 1918, and development of bombers continued during the interwar period and transitioned from fabric-covered biplanes to all-metal monoplanes. The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress became America’s primary bomber in the early stages of WWII, and 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, particularly one that could carry a heavier payload at a greater distance than the Flying Fortress.
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 though 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 proved 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, and became 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 at their Willow Run factory.
At the height of production, one Liberator was completed every hour, a rate that outpaced the Air Corps’ ability to put the bombers into service. 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, 13 remain intact, and only two examples are airworthy. One flies with the Commemorative Air Force based in Addison, Texas, and the other belongs to the Collings Foundation in Stow, Massachusetts.
December 30, 1947 – The first flight of the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15. By the end of World War II, German aviation technology had outpaced that of the Russia and the western allies as the Luftwaffe attempted to field more technologically advanced weaponry in the dying stages of the war. The first operational jet fighter, the Messerschmitt Me 262, appeared in the skies over Europe, and German aircraft designers experimented with rocket power and designed some of the first warplanes with swept wings. As the Allied armies swarmed across Germany in the last months of the war, the victors rushed to capture as much technology–and as many German scientists–as they could. The Russians were able to secure turbojet technology from German engineers, but they were unable to produce a reliable jet engine, so they turned to Britain in the hope of procuring the Rolls-Royce Nene engine. Stalin was convinced that the British would never let them have one but, inexplicably, the British gave the Russians sample engines and even the blueprints for their construction. Now the Russians had a reliable engine, but they still needed a fighter to put it in.
Along with the German technological data for jet engines, the Russians also obtained data regarding the aerodynamics of a swept wing, as well as a number of unfinished German aircraft. One of those was the Focke-Wulf Ta-183, a design for a swept-wing fighter that never entered production. While the Russians have never confirmed the suggestion, it is possible that the Focke-Wulf design had a heavy influence on the MiG-15, with its 35-degree swept wing mounted in the middle of the fuselage and its swept tailplane. The new Russian fighter bore a very strong resemblance to the Ta-183, and it is also likely that captured German technicians helped with its design.
The MiG-15, NATO reporting name Fagot, was originally designed to defend Russia from waves of enemy bombers. For that purpose, it was armed with two 23mm cannons and one 37mm cannon, at a time when contemporary American fighters still carried multiple machine guns for aerial dogfighting. This armament choice put the MiG-15 at somewhat of a disadvantage during the Korean War, when the low rate of fire and low muzzle velocity made it difficult to hit small, maneuverable targets. Still, when the MiG-15 appeared over Korea in 1950, Allied pilots were surprised by the little fighter’s maneuverability. It clearly outclassed American straight-wing designs, and its arrival sparked a flurry of activity in the West to produce a comparable swept-wing fighter. The Americans responded with swept-wing versions of naval fighters such as the Grumman F-9 Cougar, and North American replied with F-86 Sabre. As good as these fighters were, the MiG-15 still enjoyed the advantage of a better climb rate, higher ceiling and better acceleration. It was only the superior training of the American pilots that allowed them to maintain air supremacy over Korea.
The Soviet Union produced a staggering 18,000 MiG-15s, one-third of those built under license in Soviet bloc countries. Over forty nations received export versions of the MiG-15, and it continued serving throughout the Cold War. The basic design was later developed into the more advanced MiG-17 which first flew in 1950. While most MiG-15s have long since been retired, many airworthy examples are in the hands of private owners, and it is still flown by North Korea as a jet trainer.
December 30, 1968 – The first flight of the Tupolev Tu-144. Throughout the history of aircraft development, one of the driving forces for aircraft designers has been the quest for greater speed. The arrival of the jet engine in World War II pushed the boundaries of speed well beyond what was capable with even the fastest piston-powered aircraft, and in the years immediately following the war, breaking the sound barrier became the next milestone. On October 14, 1947, USAF test pilot Chuck Yeager flew the Bell X-1 beyond Mach 1, and supersonic flight became a standard feature of many fighters and eventually bombers. But it would be more than twenty years before the first supersonic passenger plane took to the skies. That aircraft was the Russian-built Tupolev Tu-144, and though it beat its Anglo-French competitor Concorde into the air by one month, it had a much more checkered career.
Development of the Tu-144 (NATO reporting name Charger, and more commonly known in the West as Concordski) began in July 1963, concurrent with the European Concorde. And while it bore a strong resemblance to European supersonic transport (SST), it had some significant differences. While both SSTs used the aircraft’s fuel as a coolant for the cabin air conditioning system and to cool the hydraulic system, the Tu-144 had a much less advanced system of braking and engine control. This was largely due to the fact that the Soviets were unable to purchase the system used on the Concorde, as trade restrictions prevented the sale of technologies that could be used militarily. Both aircraft employed a delta wing, but the most notable difference was Tupolev’s addition of two retractable “mustache” canards at the front of the fuselage. Since the wing of the Tu-144 was not as advanced as that of the Concorde, the canards helped to improve handling at lower speeds.
Though the Tu-144 won the race against the Concorde by taking its maiden flight first, the Soviet SST is perhaps best known for the highly publicized crash of the second prototype in 1973 during a demonstration at the Paris Air Show, which killed the crew of six as well as eight on the ground. Accounts differ on the reason for the crash. The Soviets claim it was caused by a French Mirage fighter that was trying to photograph the airliner and got too close, while others suggest that the pilots were trying too hard to impress the crowd and flew the aircraft beyond its capabilities. Regardless, the crash was a major embarrassment for both the Soviet government and Tupolev, and set the program back significantly. The Tu-144 finally entered service in 1975, again ahead of the Concorde, but did so by flying mail and other cargo, and didn’t make its first passenger flights until 1977. But a second crash in 1978 led the Russian government to ban its use for further passenger flights, and the Tu-144 ended its passenger career after just 55 commercial flights. Cargo flights continued until 1983 before serious reliability issues and lack of funding ended the program for good. Later in its career, the Tu-144 was used to train pilots in the Soviet Buran space shuttle program, and one was flown by NASA as a supersonic testbed.
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.
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 with 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.
December 31, 1989 – The first flight of the Sukhoi Su-30. Known to NATO as the Flanker, the Su-30 is an all-weather, air-to-air and air-to-surface fighter that employs thrust vectoring for so-called supermaneurverability. The Su-30 is a development of the Sukhoi Su-27, and was primarily developed for export. Powered by pair of Saturn AL-31 afterburning turbofan engines, the Su-30 is capable of Mach 2 in level flight with a range of 1,900 miles. The Flanker is built by two different companies in a myriad of configurations for its international customers, and several have been deployed to Syria in support of the Assad regime.
December 31, 1985 – Musician Ricky Nelson dies in a plane crash. While flying from Guntersville, Alabama to Dallas, Texas, Nelson’s chartered Douglas DC-3 (N711Y) crashed just two miles from the runway after an emergency diversion for smoke in the cabin. The pilots, who survived but were seriously burned, provided differing accounts of the events leading up to the crash, though they both agreed that a gas heater in the cabin had been malfunctioning prior to the crash. The crash caused the deaths of seven of the nine passengers, and though the cause was officially listed as unknown, it was likely caused by a fire that was ignited by the recalcitrant cabin heater.
December 31, 1972 – Baseball star Roberto Clemente dies in a plane crash. Clemente, a right fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates, was well known for charity work in his native Puerto Rico, as well as other parts of Central America and the Caribbean. Following a devastating earthquake in Nicaragua, Clemente organized relief flights to bring supplies to the victims. While accompanying the third flight, Clemete’s chartered Douglas DC-7 crashed into the sea after takeoff from Puerto Rico, killing all on board. His body was never recovered. Reports indicated that the plane, which was poorly maintained and without sufficient crew, was also overweight at the time of the crash. Clemente was posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame the following year.
December 31, 1958 – The first flight of the Boeing C-137 Stratoliner. The USAF purchased a limited number of Boeing 707 airliners, and these were listed in the Air Force inventory as either the C-18 or the C-137. Three aircraft were purchased for VIP transport with the designation VC-137A, and these were eventually given upgraded engines and designated VC-137B. Two of these aircraft were subsequently upgraded to the VC-137C, and these were the first jet-powered presidential aircraft, with tail number SAM (Special Air Mission) 26000 and SAM 27000.
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