Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from December 4 through December 6.
December 4, 1991 – After 63 years of service, Pan American Airways ceases operations. Following the First World War, the aviation and airline industries grew at a rapid pace, as fledgling commercial airlines began to stretch their tendrils further and further across the globe. But as the airlines grew, their mission became as much about spreading national influence abroad as it was hauling passengers and mail to far flung destinations. And in the years immediately after WWI, the encroachment of foreign carriers was seen as a threat to national security.
In 1919, the government of Germany joined with Colombia to form the world’s second airline, the Sociedad Colombo Alemana de Transportes Aéros (SCADTA, or Colombian-German Air Transport Partnership). SCADTA’s stated mission was to carry mail from Bogota to the US via Panama, but the United States government was none too keen on having such heavy German influence over the first airline in the Americas, which they felt could threaten the vital canal gateway between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. In response to this perceived threat, US Army Air Corps Major Henry H. “Hap” Arnold and Major Carl Spaatz, both of whom would go on to play significant roles in the Second World War, created a shell company known as Pan American Airways on March 14, 1927. With US government support, Pan Am soon had exclusive contracts to carry mail to Central and Latin America, making sure that no other American companies would outbid them. Thus began a 63-year history of Pan Am being the practical, though not official, flag-carrier airline of the US, and its blue globe logo became as much a symbol of the United States abroad as the Stars and Stripes.
Under the leadership of Juan Trippe, Pan Am grew rapidly by aggressively buying small airlines and expanding mail and passenger routes in South America. In 1937, Pan Am began providing Sikorsky S-42 seaplane service to Europe, and had started pushing westward from the US to Hawaii and the Far East with aircraft such as the Boeing 314 Clipper, which made the world’s first transatlantic passenger flight, and the Boeing 307 Stratoliner, the first pressurized airliner to enter commercial service. Pan Am also became the first airline to complete a circumnavigation of the globe with paying passengers.
Following WWII, Pan Am undertook modernization of its fleet, and soon became a leader in the innovation of the airline industry. As the world entered the jet age, Pan Am inaugurated its first transatlantic jet service in 1958 as the launch customer for the Boeing 707, and later served as the launch customer for the Boeing 747, the world’s first wide-body airliner. Pan Am was also an industry leader in its use of computerized reservation services, teaming with IBM to develop the PANAMAC system that was housed in their iconic Manhattan skyscraper, the largest office building in the world at the time. At Pan Am’s peak in the 1960s, the airline carried 6.7 million passengers and served 86 countries with stops on every continent except Antarctica.
But in the 1970s, the oil crisis led to higher fuel prices, and passenger numbers dropped. Pan Am found themselves in massive amounts of debt, particularly over the acquisition of new aircraft. The company declared bankruptcy on January 8, 1991, becoming the third US carrier to close its doors in the face of economic hardship and competition from other airlines. After attempting to acquire domestic airlines and selling off major portions of its assets, the remainder of the company was purchased by Delta Air Lines. Pan Am’s final fight was made by a Boeing 727 named Clipper 436, with service from Barbados to Pan Am’s original home base of Miami. Before landing, the crew performed a fly-by down the Miami runway as a tribute to one of America’s most storied and historic airlines.
December 4, 1952 – The first flight of the Grumman S-2 Tracker. During World War I, submerged German U-boats prowled the seas virtually undetected and wreaked havoc on both military and civilian shipping. Maritime reconnaissance aircraft patrolled the skies in hopes of catching a glimpse of a submarine on the surface, but the airplane’s 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 took on the role of both finding and destroying enemy submarines, but early detection gear was too large to fit into a single aircraft and still be capable of operating 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 was the Grumman S-2 Tracker, the first dedicated, all-in-one ASW aircraft in US Navy history.
The Tracker was powered by two Wright R-1820 Cyclone radial engines mounted on a high wing, an arrangement that allowed for the most unobstructed space possible inside the fuselage. The rear of the large engine nacelles housed sonobuoys that were dropped into the ocean to locate submerged submarines. For tracking, the crew relied on 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 detected 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 carried rocket pods, depth charges, 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 15 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. Jezebel worked in conjunction with an active acoustic echo ranging detection system, codenamed Julie, 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, aircraft 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 be 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 (COD) role until the arrival of the Grumman C-2 Greyhound in 1966. The Tracker was further developed into the E-1 Tracer, the first purpose-built airborne early warning (AEW) 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 replaced by an 870 gallon tank for dropping fire retardant. Power for the Firecat comes from a pair of turboprop engines. The US Navy retired their Trackers by 1976, but a handful of aircraft remain in service with the Argentine and Brazilian Navies.
December 6, 1957 – The first flight of the Lockheed L-188 Electra. Lockheed has a long and rich tradition of building fighters, military transport aircraft, and civilian airliners. The mention of the company immediately brings to mind the brilliant P-38 Lightning and the graceful, world-spanning Constellation. The Connie was Lockheed’s most successful large civilian airliner, but the commercial aircraft 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 1950s, airlines began to show interest in turboprop-powered airliners as a more effective and economical way to harness the power of the jet engine. Lockheed was caught between the competing interests of American Airlines, who wanted accommodation 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 turboprop-powered 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. Enormous propellers attached to the engines mounted on very short wings 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 newly dubbed L-188 Electra, the last in the famous line of Lockheed aircraft to bear the name, was the first large turboprop airliner produced in the United States.
The L-188 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. Following 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, specifically a condition known as “whirl mode flutter” in the outboard engines which caused oscillations in the wings that eventually caused the wings to shear off from the fuselage. Lockheed was able to fix the problem by modifying the engine mounts and strengthening the wings, but the L-188 was never able to overcome the public 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, 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 with the military. In response to a 1957 request 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 nearly four times as many Orions as its civilian counterpart.
December 4, 1965 – The launch of Gemini 7, the fourth manned flight of the Gemini program and the 12th manned American space flight. In the longest mission to date, astronauts Frank Borman and Jim Lovell remained in orbit for 14 days and circled the Earth 206 times. The primary goal of the Gemini 7 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. The pair returned to Earth on December 18.
December 5, 1969 – The death of Claude Dornier. Originally named Claudius, Dornier was born in Kempten im Allgäu in Bavaria on May 14, 1884, the son of a French wine importer (hence his French name). After graduating from the Technical University of Munich in 1907, Dornier went to work for Luftshiffbau Zeppelin in 1910 and caught the eye of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, who appointed Dornier as his personal scientific advisor. Dornier’s work in metallurgy led to the development of the Zeppelin-Lindau D.I, the first stressed-skin, all-metal aircraft to enter production. Dornier founded his own company, Dornier Flugzeugwerke, in 1914, where he produced some of the iconic aircraft flown by the Luftwaffe in WWII, such as the Do 17 “Flying Pencil” and the Do 335 Pfeil (Arrow).
December 5, 1955 – The death of Glenn L. Martin. Born on April 17, 1886 in Macksburg, Iowa, Martin was an early American aviation pioneer who founded his own aircraft company in 1912. His first successful aircraft was the Martin MB-1, the first purpose-built bomber to serve the United States Army Air Service. The Glenn L. Martin Company went on to create many successful aircraft during WWII, notably the B-26 Marauder and Maryland bombers, as well as large flying boats such as the PBM Mariner and the JRM Mars. Following the war, Martin’s company found success in the aerospace industry with the Vanguard rocket, the first American rocket built specifically for orbital launch. Martin followed the Vanguard with the Titan series of larger rockets. Following Martin’s death in 1955, his company merged to form Martin-Marietta, and that company eventually merged with Lockheed in 1995 to form Lockheed Martin.
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 on Florida’s Atlantic coast. The Avengers were scheduled to fly east, drop their 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 all 14 crewmen. But that wasn’t the end of the tragedy. Two Martin PBM Mariner seaplanes were sent to look for the missing Avengers, and one exploded in midair, killing the 13-man crew. The missing aircraft were never found, and the disappearance of Flight 19 has often been touted as an example of mysterious disappearances in the area of the Bermuda Triangle.
December 6, 1993 – The first flight of the Bombardier 415, an amphibious water bomber used to fight fires. The 415 is a scooper aircraft that can land on the a suitably large lake or river and fill its tanks as it skims along the surface, then take off and drop the water 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 up to 1,620 US gallons of water at a time. Known as the Super Scooper, the 415 has entered service in nine countries, with 90 delivered worldwide. Older CL 215 aircraft are also being retrofitted with new turboprop engines as the CL-215T.
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.
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 early 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 arriving too late to have a significant impact on the war’s outcome.
December 6, 1928 – North American Aviation is founded. Though neither a pilot nor 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. However, 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, such as the iconic P-51 Mustang, the B-25 Mitchell medium 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.
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.