Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from December 30 through January 2.


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 advanced weaponry in the dying stages of the war. The first operational jet fighter, the Messerschmitt Me 262, appeared in the skies over Europe, German aircraft designers experimented with rocket power, and designed some of the first warplanes with swept wings. As the Allies overran Germany in the last months of the war, the European allies and Russia rushed to capture as much technology–and German scientists–as they could.

A model of the Focke-Wulf Ta-183

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 that they could procure 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 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 technological data for jet engines, the Russians also obtained data from Germany regarding the benefits of a swept wing (information the Americans also made use of), 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 really admitted it, it is likely 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 the design of the new Russian fighter.

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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, while contemporary American designs 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 in the skies 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 gain air supremacy in Korea.

The Soviet Union produced a staggering 18,000 MiG-15s, one-third of those under license in Soviet bloc countries. Over forty nations received export versions of the MiG-15, and it continued serving throughout the Cold War and was developed into the more advanced MiG-17 which first flew in 1950. While most MiG-15s have long since been retired, it is still flown by North Korea as a jet trainer. (Photo by D. Miller via Wikimedia Commons; Model photo by de:Benutzer:Stahlkocher via Wikimedia Commons; photo author unknown)

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December 30, 1968 – The first flight of the Tupolev Tu-144. Throughout the history of aircraft development, the quest for greater speed was always one of the driving forces for aircraft designers. 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, the next goal was reaching the speed of sound, or Mach 1. 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, while it beat its Anglo-French competitor Concorde into the air by one month, it had a much more checkered career.

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Tu-144 with canards extended

Development of the Tu-144 (NATO reporting name Charger, and more commonly known in the West as Concordski) began in July of 1963 at the same time as the Concorde. And while it bore a strong resemblance to European design, it was a much different airplane. 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 in the design between the two aircraft 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.

Video of the display and crash of the Tu-144 at the Paris Air Show in 1973

Unfortunately, the Tu-144 is perhaps best known for the highly publicized crash of the second prototype in 1973 during a demonstration at the Paris Air Show, killing the crew of six as well as eight on the ground. Accounts differ on what caused the crash. The Russians 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 crowed 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. Still, the Tu-144 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. (NASA photo; Photo by Christian Volpati via Wikimedia Commons)

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January 2, 1967 – The National Supersonic Transport program awards a contract to Boeing for its 2707 SST design. By the early 1950s, as the jet engine was revolutionizing passenger aviation, military aviation was exploring the realm of supersonic flight, so the obvious next step in the evolution of air travel was the development of a supersonic transport (SST). The Americans, Russians, British and French were all working on developing their own SST, and soon after President John F. Kennedy took office in 1953, he announced what was dubbed Project Horizon, which directed the Federal Aviation Administration to investigate advances in civil airline design to keep the US competitive with the rest of the world. But when the French and English joined forces and announced their intention to develop Concorde, the Americans realized that they were far behind Europe in development of their own SST.

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Artist concept of the original Boeing swing-wing SST design

When the US government announced a competition to select a design, entries were submitted by North American, Lockheed and Boeing. Boeing had been working on their own SST since 1952, and by 1958 they had settled on a swing-wing design that would seat about 125 passengers (interestingly, Boeing’s proposal bore a strong resemblance to today’s B-1 Lancer supersonic bomber). Lockheed’s design was nearly identical to the Concorde, and Boeing’s aircraft was selected. However, America was somewhat late to the supersonic party, and with the more mature development of the Concorde, as well as a competing design from the Russians in the Tupolev Tu-144, the Americans decided that the only way to compete effectively was to develop a larger and faster SST, one that could travel at speeds up to Mach 3.

Mock-up of the Boeing 2707 at Boeing’s factory

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Once the 2707 reached mock-up, the aircraft showed its true size, being one of the first wide-body aircraft to feature two aisles, seven-across seating at its widest section, and accommodations for up to 247 passengers in a single-class configuration. But with any aircraft of this size, weight became a serious problem, and the heavy, complex swing-wing design was abandoned in favor of a traditional delta wing. But despite the glamour of flying at up to three times the speed of sound, the realities of supersonic transport were hard to conquer. Flying that fast meant using enormous amounts of fuel, and in an era when the general public was starting to take a concern in the health of the environment, worries over fuel economy, sonic booms and ozone pollution made SSTs unpopular. In fact, with support from environmental organizations, supersonic commercial flight was eventually banned over the continental US, and some states banned Concorde altogether.

By 1971, even with orders for 115 aircraft by 25 airlines, significantly more than those for Concorde, the US Congress cut funding for the American SST. The two Boeing prototypes under construction were never completed, and, in conjunction with a general downturn in the airliner market, Boeing was forced to lay off over 60,000 employees. Despite Concorde’s successful launch, it was never a money maker for European airlines, and there’s every reason to believe that the 2707 would have faced the same economic difficulties. While crossing the Atlantic Ocean in three hours is a great feat, and a luxury for those who could afford it, developments in modern jet engine and materials technology have proven that it is far more efficient and economical to travel just shy of Mach 1, though the search for an economical SST continues. (Illustration authors unknown; Boeing photo)


Short Takeoff


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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 3,000 kilometers. The Flanker is built by two different companies in a myriad of configurations for its international customers, and several have recently been deployed to Syria in support of the Assad regime. (Photo by Sergey Krivchikov via Wikimedia Commons)


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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 the cause was officially listed as unknown, though it was likely caused by a fire started by the recalcitrant cabin heater. (Crash photo author unknown; Nelson photo by anyjazz65 via Wikimedia Commons) 


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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 relief flight, Clemete’s chartered Douglas DC-7 crashed on takeoff from Puerto Rico, killing all on board, and his body was never recovered. Reports indicated that the plane, which was poorly maintained, was also overweight at the time of the crash. Clemente was posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame the following year. (DC-7 photo by Ralf Manteufel via Wikimedia Commons; Clemente photo author unknown)


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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 VC-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 26000 and SAM 27000.(US Air Force photo)


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January 1, 1914 – The first scheduled commercial airplane flight. Though it’s common today for commercial airliners to complete flights of over 9,000 miles, the first scheduled commercial flight had much humbler beginnings. Hoping to cash in on the tourist trade, Florida businessman P.E. Fensler teamed with aircraft builder Thomas Benoist to create the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line and provide service between the two coastal Florida cities. The route covered just 21 miles and took 23 minutes to complete at a cost of $5, and barnstormer Tony Jannus carried former St. Petersburg mayor Abram Pheil on the inaugural flight. After three months of service though the tourist season, the airline closed down and the planes were sold, though 1,204 passengers had made the flight. (University of South Carolina photo)


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January 2, 1989 – The first flight of the Tupolev Tu-204, a single-aisle, twin-engine passenger airliner that is comparable to the Boeing 757 and capable of carrying up to 215 passengers depending on variant and class layout. Designed for Soviet flag carrier airliner Aeroflot as a replacement for the Tupolev Tu-154 tri-jet, the Tu-204 features significant innovations over its predecessors, such as fly-by-wire controls, a glass cockpit, supercritical wings and winglets for increased fuel efficiency. The Tu-204 was introduced in 1996 and remains in production, with 83 aircraft completed to date. (Photo by Oleg Belyakov via Wikimedia Commons)


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.

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