Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from December 3 through December 6.


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December 4, 1952 – The first flight of the Grumman S-2 Tracker. During World War I, German U-boats (Unterseeboot) prowled the seas virtually undetected and wreaked havoc on both military and civilian shipping. Maritime reconnaissance aircraft patrolled the skies, hoping to catch a glimpse of submarines on the surface, but their role in anti-submarine warfare (ASW) was largely limited to forcing the subs to submerge. Developments in sonar between the wars helped surface ships detect submerged submarines during World War II, but airplanes were still relegated to a strictly reconnaissance or attack role, and were unable to detect submerged submarines on their own. It wasn’t until the development of airborne radar systems that aircraft could take on the role of both finding and destroying enemy submarines, but early detection gear was too large to fit into a single aircraft that could operate from US Navy carriers. The Navy’s initial solution was to split the load between two aircraft, one hunter and one killer. Grumman developed the AF Guardian system of two planes, but clearly, this was just a stopgap measure until a dedicated ASW aircraft could be developed. That aircraft would be the Grumman S-2 Tracker, the first dedicated, all-in-one ASW aircraft in the US Navy. The Tracker was a large, twin engine aircraft powered by two Wright R-1820 Cyclone radial engines mounted on a high wing, an arrangement that allowed for the most space possible inside fuselage. The rear of the large engine nacelles housed sonobuoys that were dropped into the ocean to track submarines. To track the submarines, the crew used an AN/APS-38 radar that was housed in a retractable radome, as well as a magnetic anomaly detector (MAD) boom in the tail that detects tiny variations in the Earth’s magnetic field to snoop out submerged subs. A 70-million candlepower search light was also fitted to the starboard wing.

For attack, the S-2 carried two torpedoes or a single nuclear depth charge, and hard points on the wings could carry rocket pods, depth chargers or four additional torpedoes. The need for the Tracker was so great, and the Navy was so sold on the design, that they ordered two prototypes and fifteen production aircraft at the same time, with the first aircraft entering service in 1954. The Tracker was soon upgraded with modern electronics, and the S-2B received the Jezebel passive long-range acoustic search equipment, which worked in conjunction with Julie, an active acoustic echo ranging detection system that used explosive charges to locate underwater submarines. Further refinements brought the S-2C, which was an enlarged aircraft that could carry yet more electronic snooping hardware, and the S-2D, which had a larger wing, more fuel capacity, and more sonobuoys stored in the engine nacelles. The Tracker was widely exported to western allies, and nearly 1,300 were produced, including approximately 100 that were built under license by de Havilland in Canada, which received the designation CS2F. While the Tracker and its ASW equipment gear proved to be an excellent sub hunter, the aircraft itself was useful in other ways. With the electronic tracking gear removed, the large internal space could also used for cargo, and Grumman developed a variant stripped of all electronics and weapons which was called the C-1 Trader. The Trader performed the Carrier Onboard Delivery role until its replacement by the Grumman C-2 Greyhound. The Tracker was further developed into the E-1 Tracer, the first purpose-built airborne early warning radar aircraft which sported a large radome to track aircraft near the carrier battle group. But the remarkable Tracker wasn’t done yet. In the 1970s, Conair Aerial Firefighting converted surplus Trackers into the Conair Firecat, with all military equipment removed and with the addition of an 870 gallon tank for dropping fire retardant. (Photo author unknown via Pinterest; US Navy photo)


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December 6, 1957 – The first flight of the Lockheed L-188 Electra. Lockheed has a long and rich tradition of building fighters and military transport aircraft, and the mention of the company immediately brings to mind the brilliant P-38 Lightning and the graceful, world-spanning Constellation. The Constellation was Lockheed’s most successful large civilian airliner, but the airliners that followed marked a decline of Lockheed in the civilian market which eventually ended with the L-1011 TriStar and Lockheed’s departure from the civilian airliner market entirely. In the early 1950s, airlines began to show interest in turboprop-powered airliners. Lockheed was caught between the competing interests of American Airlines, who wanted accommodations for 75 passengers and a 2,000 mile range, and Eastern Air Lines, who wanted longer range, a cruising speed of 350 mph, and room for up to 90 passengers. Lockheed had originally designed their CL-310 to meet American’s specifications, but then responded to Eastern’s requirements by lengthening the fuselage and mounting four Allison 501 turboprops, the civilian version of the Allison T56. Lockheed fitted enormous propellers to the engines and gave the CL-310 very short wings, which provided the new airliner with performance that rivaled contemporary jet-powered aircraft. Large Fowler flaps also gave the CL-310 excellent performance on short airfields and at airports in higher elevations. The new airliner, now dubbed the L-188 Electra and the last in the line of Lockheed aircraft to bear the name, was the first large turboprop airliner to be produced in the United States. It entered service with Eastern Air Lines in January 1959, but three fatal accidents in the first year of service raised serious doubts about the safety of the new airliner. As a result of the crashes, the Federal Aviation Administration mandated lower speeds for the L-188 while they investigated the accidents. The cause of two of the crashes was traced to problems with the engine mounts, and a condition known as “whirl mode flutter” in the outboard engines that caused oscillations in the wings that eventually led to the wings shearing off from the aircraft. Lockheed was able to fix the problem by modifying the engine mounts and strengthening the wings, but the L-188 was never quite able to overcome the perception that it was a dangerous aircraft. Coming at the same time as the arrival of the turbojet engine in the civilian airliner market, sales of the L-188 plummeted, and production ended in 1961 after the construction of just 170 aircraft. Lockheed ultimately lost over $100 million on the L-188 in development and modification costs and lawsuits. Though not flown in large numbers, some Electras continued carrying passengers into the 1980s, and many were converted into freighters. And, while Lockheed didn’t find great success with the Electra in the civilian market, the aircraft eventually found a home in the military market. In response to a request in 1957 for a new maritime surveillance and antisubmarine aircraft to replace the Lockheed P2V Neptune and Martin P5M Marlin, Lockheed developed the L-188 into the P-3 Orion, and ultimately built almost 4 times as many Orions as its civilian counterpart. (Photo via Lockheed;


Short Takeoff


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December 3, 2003 – The first flight of the Honda HA-420 HondaJet, the first aircraft developed by Honda Aircraft Company. The HondaJet was designed in Japan and will be built in the United States at Honda’s factory in Greensboro, North Carolina. This first flight was performed by a proof-of-concept aircraft, not a final production model, and Honda announced in 2006 that it would commercialize the new light business jet. In March 2015, the HondaJet received its Provisional Type Certification from the FAA, and the aircraft is currently under production, with the first of approximately 100 orders delivered in December 2015. (Photo by Sergey Ryabtsev via Wikimedia Commons)


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December 3, 1973 – Pioneer 10 returns the first close-up images of Jupiter. Pioneer 10 was launched on March 3, 1972 and reached Jupiter in November 1973, eventually transmitting 500 images as it passed as close as 82,000 miles to the Solar System’s largest planet. The pictures returned by Pioneer 10 were of a higher quality than any image ever taken from Earth, and the photos were displayed back on Earth in real time in a presentation that received an Emmy Award. The photographs allowed scientists to determine that Jupiter is composed mostly of liquid, and scientists could also determine weather patterns on the planet based on observations of Jupiter’s clouds. After passing Jupiter, Pioneer 10 became the first spacecraft to achieve escape velocity from the Solar System, and, if left undisturbed, it will continue towards the star Aldebaran, more than 68 light years away, though it will require more than two million years to reach the star at its current velocity. (NASA photo)


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December 3, 1944 – The rescue of survivors from the destroyer USS Cooper (DD-695). While on a mission to intercept Japanese supply ships near the Philippine Islands, the Cooper was torpedoed by a Japanese destroyer and sunk with the loss of. 191 crewmembers. 168 were rescued, including 56 who were loaded into a single US Navy Consolidated PBY Catalina belonging to Patrol Bombing Sqn VPB-34 and commanded by Lt. Joe Frederick Ball. For his actions in rescuing a record number of victims, Ball received the Navy Cross. The citation reads in part: [Ball] carried out the entire rescue with consummate skill and with total and repeated disregard for his personal safety, remaining on the water for almost an hour with many enemy planes in the vicinity, and repeatedly taxiing his plane well within point-blank range of guns on the enemy-held coastline and of two enemy warships, in his effort to pick up survivors. When his plane could hold no more, he was forced to make a run of three miles in order to get off the water. A second PBY recovered 48 survivors. (US Navy photo) 


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December 4, 1991 – Pan American Airways ceases operations, 63 years after its founding. Better known as Pan Am, the company was started by the US in 1927 as a shell company to counter the German-owned Colombian carrier SCADTA. Under the leadership of Juan Trippe, Pan Am grew rapidly by aggressively buying small airlines and expanding mail and passenger routes in South America. By 1937, Pan Am was providing Sikorsky S-42 seaplane service to Europe, and had started pushing westward from the US to Hawaii and the Far East, flying the Boeing 314 Clipper and the pressurized Boeing 307 Stratoliner. Following WWII, Pan Am continued to expand its routes as it entered the jet age, and was the launch customer for both the Boeing 707 and Boeing 747. At its peak in the 1960s, Pan Am carried 6.7 million passengers and served 86 countries on every continent except for Antarctica. By the 1970s, the oil crisis led to higher fuel prices and lower travel, and Pan Am found themselves in massive amounts of debt, particularly over the acquisition of new aircraft. After attempting to acquire domestic airlines and selling off major portions of its assets, the remainder of the company was purchased by Delta Airlines. Pan Am’s final fight was Boeing 727 service from Barbados to Miami. (San Diego Air and Space Museum photo)


The Gemini 7 capsule, as seen from Gemini 6A

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December 4, 1965 – The launch of Gemini 7, the fourth manned flight of the Gemini program and the 12th manned American space flight. Astronauts Frank Borman and Jim Lovell circled the Earth 206 times and remained in orbit for 14 days. The primary goal of the mission was to act as a passive target for a rendezvous in space with Gemini 6A, which was launched 11 days after Gemini 7. Gemini 6A astronauts Walter “Wally” Schirra and Thomas Stafford maneuvered to within one foot of Gemini 7, and could have docked had the two spacecraft been fitted with docking equipment. After the rendezvous, Borman and Lovell spent three more days in space with little more to do than read books to pass the time, and returned to Earth on December 18. (NASA photo)


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December 4, 1955 – The death of Glenn L. Martin, an early American aviation pioneer who founded his own aircraft company in 1912. Born on January 17, 1886 in Macksburg, Iowa, Martin’s first successful aircraft was the Martin MB-1, a large biplane bomber that served in WWI. Martin went on to create many successful aircraft during WWII, notably the B-26 Marauder and the Maryland bombers, as well as large flying boats such as the PBM Mariner and the JRM Mars. Following the war, Martin found success in the aerospace industry, building the Vanguard rocket, the first American rocket built specifically for orbital launch. Martin followed the Vanguard with the Titan series of larger rockets. In 1961, a merger formed Martin-Marietta, and that company eventually merged with Lockheed to form Lockheed Martin in 1995. (Photo via San Deigo Air and Space Musem)


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December 4, 1912 – The birth of Gregory “Pappy” Boyington. Boyington began his military flying career as an aviation cadet in the US Marine Corps Reserve before resigning his commission to fly with the American Volunteer Group, better known as the Flying Tigers, fighting for Nationalist China against the Japanese. Returning to the USMC in 1942 at the rank of major, Boyington became famous as the commander of VMF-214, better known as the Black Sheep, a squadron flying the Vought F4U Corsair in the Pacific. In January 1944, Boyington tied the record of famed WWI ace Eddie Rickenbacker with 26 kills, but was then shot down and ended the war as a POW. Following the war, Boyington received the Navy Cross and the Congressional Medal of Honor for his service, and died in 1988 at the age of 75. (Photo author unknown)


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December 5, 1945 – Five Grumman TBM Avenger torpedo bombers disappear in an area known as the Bermuda Triangle. Flight 19 was a routine navigation and bombing training mission that departed from NAS Fort Lauderdale. The Avengers were scheduled to fly east, drop some bombs, fly north, then turn for home. The lead pilot reported an inoperative compass, and the planes became lost. The Navy presumes that they headed out to sea, ran out of fuel, and crashed, killing the 14 crewmen. Two Martin PBM Mariner seaplanes were sent to look for the missing Avengers, and one exploded in midair, killing the 13-man crew. The disappearance of Flight 19 has often been touted as an example of mysterious disappearances in the area of the Bermuda Triangle, and the planes have never been found. (US Navy photo)


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December 6, 1993 – The first flight of the Bombardier 415, an amphibious water bomber used to fight fires. The 415 is a scooper aircraft, meaning that it can land on the surface of the water, scoop up a planeload of water, then take off and drop it where needed. A development of the Canadair CL 215, an earlier radial-engine powered aircraft, the 415 is powered by two turboprop engines and can scoop to to 1,620 US gallons of water at a time. The 415 is known as the Super Scooper, and has entered service in nine countries, with ninety delivered worldwide. Older CL 215 aircraft are also being retrofitted with new turboprop engines as the CL-215T. (Photo by Maarten Visser via Wikimedia Commons)


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December 6, 1991 – The first flight of the Dornier 328, a turboprop commuter airliner originally produced by Dornier Flugzeugwerke and later by Fairchild Dornier after Fairchild Aircraft acquired the company in 1996. The international consortium produces the 328 in Germany but conducts sales from their offices in San Antonio, Texas. The 328 is powered by two Pratt & Whitney Canada PW119B turboprops and entered service in 1993. It currently flies for small airlines in 15 countries, serves in the military surveillance and search and rescue roles, and is flown by the US Air Force Special Operations Command as the C-146A Wolfhound. A jet-powered derivative, known as the Fairchild Dornier 328JET, first flew in January 1998. (Photo by Marek Ślusarczyk via Wikimedia Commons)


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December 6, 1944 – The first flight of the Heinkel He 162. In 1944, Germany launched a desperate program to develop jet powered fighters to combat the waves of Allied bombers flying over Germany. The Emergency Fighter Program produced a number of prototypes, one of which was the Heinkel 162, named the Volksjäger, or People’s Fighter. Built primarily of wood and powered by a single BMW 003 axial flow turbojet mounted on the top of the fuselage, the He 162 was the fastest of the first jet designs of the war and found success against both bombers and fighters. However, like most of the German jet fighters, it was a case of too few aircraft coming too late to have a significant effect on the war’s outcome. (Photo via San Diego Air and Space Museum)


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December 6, 1928 – North American Aviation is founded. Though not a pilot or aircraft designer, financier Clement Melville Keys originally founded North American Aviation (NAA) as a holding company to manage interests in various other airlines and aircraft companies, but the Air Mail Act of 1934 forced Keys to make NAA its own manufacturing company. During WWII, NAA became one of the preeminent builders of warplanes, including the iconic P-51 Mustang, the B-25 Mitchell bomber and the T-6 Texan trainer. In the 1950s, NAA produced America’s first great swept-wing jet fighter in the F-86 Sabre, and worked with experimental aircraft such as the X-15 and XB-70 Valkyrie. For the US space program, NAA manufactured the Apollo Command Service Module and built the second stage of the Saturn V rocket. In 1967, NAA merged with Rockwell-Standard, to become North American Rockwell, which changed its name to Rockwell International the following year, and the company ceased to exist in name following a merger with Boeing in 1973. (Photo by the author)


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