Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from December 7 through December 10.
December 7, 1941 – Japan launches a surprise attack on US military bases at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. As part of a plan to neutralize the American Pacific fleet to facilitate further Japanese conquest in eastern Asia and the western Pacific, six Japanese aircraft carriers launched a surprise attack on American military facilities at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The attack sank numerous US Navy ships and killed 2,403 Americans, though the vital American aircraft carriers were out to sea and avoided the Japanese bombs and torpedoes. While it was ultimately a strategic failure, the attack gave American President Franklin Roosevelt the justification he needed to bring the US into World War II. The US declared war on Japan the following day, and against Germany on December 11.
For the complete story of the attack on Pearl Harbor, please see This Date in Aviation History: December 7, 1941.
December 9, 1988 – The first flight of the Saab JAS 39 Gripen. In 1979, the Swedish Air Force (Flygvapnet) began a search for a new fighter to replace the Saab 35 Draken and Saab 37 Viggen, both of which had been serving since the mid-1950s and mid-1960s respectively and were beginning to show their age. The Swedish government issued a requirement for a Mach 2 multirole fighter, one that could perform air-to-air (Jakt), ground attack (Attack) and reconnaissance (Spaning) missions. Thus, the new fighter received the JAS prefix to reflect these three roles. After evaluating existing aircraft such as the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon and McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet, the Swedish Parliament decided to forge ahead with a domestically designed aircraft, a project which ultimately cost $15 billion US (roughly twice that in 2018 dollars).
Several Saab designs were considered, but the Flygvapnet ultimately settled on a single engine aircraft with a delta wing, forward canards, and fly-by-wire controls. Like other contemporary jet fighters, the Gripen was designed to be inherently unstable, a condition known as relaxed stability, which requires computer input to the flight surfaces to allow the pilot to maintain control of the aircraft. While it may seem counterintuitive to design an unstable aircraft, it is that very instability that allows it to be extremely maneuverable. Smaller control inputs are required to steer the aircraft, and there is the added benefit of a reduction in drag and an increase in control response. The Gripen also had to work within Sweden’s dispersed basing plan, which spreads fighters to smaller facilities around the country and, in some cases, uses existing roadways for runways. Thus, the Gripen was designed for easy maintenance in the field, and its forward canards, while helping to control the fighter in flight, also provide added lift to aid in short takeoff operations. The Gripen is powered by a single Volvo-Flygmotor RM12 low-bypass afterburning turbofan, a license-built derivative of the General Electric F404-400, the same engine flown in the Hornet. The engine gives the Gripen a top speed of Mach 2, and also allows the fighter to maintain supersonic speeds without the use of an afterburner (supercruise).
The Swedish Air Force placed an initial order for 204 Gripens to be delivered in three tranches, and took delivery of the first fighter in 1993. The first Gripens then entered operational service three years later. The initial single seat version, designated JAS 39A, was armed with a single 27 mm Mauser BK-27 revolver cannon and fitted with eight external hard points for rockets, missiles or bombs. The JAS 39B is a two-seat variant for training and type conversion, though making accommodations for the second pilot required the removal of the gun. The JAS 39C is the NATO compatible version, and can be refueled in flight by NATO tankers. The Gripen NG is a further improved and modernized version, and Saab is also considering a navalized variant. The Gripen remains in production, and about 250 have been built. Saab exports the fighter to seven countries, with others showing interest in obtaining the fighter.
December 7, 1995 – The Galileo space probe arrives at Jupiter. Galileo was launched into space on October 18, 1989 aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis on STS-34. The combination orbiter and entry probe was the first spacecraft to orbit Jupiter, and was designed to study the planet along with several other celestial bodies in our Solar System. The entry probe was released six months before Galileo reached Jupiter and, during its descent, the probe collected data on cloud composition and measured winds of 190 mph. The Galileo orbiter made its own observations and discovered ammonia clouds on Jupiter which confirmed the presence of volcanic activity on Jupiter’s moon Io. It also found evidence of liquid oceans on the moon Europa. Since Galileo may have been carrying bacteria from Earth, the spacecraft was intentionally crashed on Jupiter to avoid any possible contamination of Jupiter’s moons.
December 7, 1972 – The launch of Apollo 17, the final mission of the Apollo program. Mission Commander Eugene Cernan and Lunar Module pilot Harrison Schmitt spent just over three days on the lunar surface, performing three moonwalks and covering 22 miles in the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV), which was left behind on the Moon. Astronaut Ronald Evans remained in lunar orbit as the Command Module pilot. Apollo 17 was the first nighttime launch of an Apollo mission, and the last manned launch of the Saturn V rocket. Apollo 17 also broke the record for the longest manned lunar flight, the longest total time spent exploring the surface of the Moon, the largest return of Moon samples, and the longest time in lunar orbit. Apollo 17 returned to Earth on December 19, 1972.
December 7, 1942 – The first flight of the Bell P-63 Kingcobra, a larger and improved version of the earlier Bell P-39 Airacobra. While the P-39 was one of the principal US fighters at the start of WWII, its lack of a turbo-supercharger hampered its high altitude performance. Development of the P-63 was meant to address that deficiency, and the Kingcobra was also redesigned with a second supercharger as well as a laminar flow wing. The US Army Air Forces showed little interest in the Kingcobra, so the majority of the 3,000 aircraft produced were sent to Russia under the Lend-Lease act, where they fought with great effectiveness, and the Kingcobra proved to be one of the most successful fighters flown by Russia.
December 8, 2016 – The death of John Glenn. Born on July 18, 1921 in Cambridge, Ohio, Glenn enlisted in the US Army Air Corps following the attack on Pearl Harbor. When he saw no combat action with the Army, Glenn transferred to the US Navy, where he flew the Vought F4U Corsair on 59 combat missions over the Pacific. During the Korean War, Glenn flew 149 combat missions in the North American F-86 Sabre, and became a test pilot after the war, and completed the first supersonic transcontinental flight in a Vought F8U Crusader. Glenn was selected as one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts in 1959, and became the first American to orbit the Earth on February 20, 1962 in Friendship 7. He resigned from NASA in 1964 to pursue a career in politics, and served as a US Senator from Ohio from 1974-1999. On October 29, 1998, at the age of 77, Glenn returned to space as a Payload Specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery during STS-95, making Glenn the oldest person ever to fly in space.
December 8, 1962 – The first flight of the Bell YOH-4, the prototype of the Bell 206 JetRanger. The Bell 206 JetRanger has become one of the most ubiquitous general aviation helicopters in the world, but it began as a failed bid to provide the US Army with a light observation helicopter (LOH). After losing out to the Hughes OH-6 Cayuse for the LOH contract, and with an eye toward civilian sales, Bell redesigned what was arguably an unattractive aircraft, while also enlarging the cabin to carry more passengers in greater comfort. The newly designed and much more aesthetically pleasing Bell 206A first flew in January 1966, and Bell eventually produced 7,300 JetRangers. The Army also revisited the JetRanger, adopting it as the OH-58 Kiowa.
December 8, 1945 – The first flight of the Bell Model 47, a single-engine light helicopter and the first helicopter to be certified for civilian operation. The Model 47 was designed by Arthur Young and based on the Bell Model 30. One of the key innovations of the Model 47 was the use of a weighted stabilizer bar under the main rotor that helped improve rotor stability during flight by keeping the rotor disk in a consistent plane of rotation. The Model 47 is instantly recognizable by its bubble-shaped canopy with room for two and open tube construction, but later models received a larger, enclosed cabin with room for four. The Model 47 entered service with the US Army in 1946 as the H-13 Sioux, and saw extensive action in the Korean War, notably as a medevac helicopter. More than 5,600 were built, a number which includes aircraft built under license in Japan, Italy and England.
December 8, 1938 – Germany launches Graf Zeppelin, the first of four planned aircraft carriers. Part of Germany’s Plan Z for rearming the German Navy (Kriegsmarine), the Graf Zeppelin-class carriers were originally planned as a hybrid carrier and cruiser, with guns capable of engaging other surface warships, though the Kriegsmarine never truly decided how the ships would be used or what exactly their mission would be. Arguments between the Kriegsmarine and the Luftwaffe, a shortage of workers, a lack of interest from Adolf Hitler, and a shift in emphasis to submarines at the outbreak of WWII doomed the carrier project, and the order was cut to just two ships. Ultimately, only the lead ship was built, and though trials were carried out it never entered service. Hitler grew critical of the Kriegsmarine’s performance in general, and all work on German capital ships was halted. Graf Zeppelin became a Soviet prize at the end of the war, and was sunk in the Baltic Sea as target practice in 1947 .
December 9, 1995 – The death of Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan. Corrigan was born on January 22, 1907 in Galveston, Texas and worked for Ryan Aviation. While at Ryan he helped Charles Lindbergh construct the Spirit of St. Louis, and then hoped to emulate Lindbergh and make his own transatlantic flight. However, his application to the Bureau of Air Commerce was rejected because they said his aircraft was unsound for such a trip. Undaunted, Corrigan first flew from California to New York’s Floyd Bennett Field. After filing a flight plan for a return to California, Corrigan instead headed east across the Atlantic Ocean and arrived in Ireland on July 18, 1938 after 18 hours in the air. Corrigan claimed that he never intended to make the flight, and that navigational errors, obscured landmarks, and a faulty compass led to his wrong-way flight. Corrigan was only lightly punished by aviation officials, and he became a celebrity, with ticker tape parades in both New York and Chicago.
December 9, 1970 – The death of Artem Mikoyan. Born on August 5, 1905 in present-day Armenia, Mikoyan partnered with Mikhail Gurevich to design many of the most important Soviet military aircraft of the Cold War. He designed his first airplane while attending the Zhukovsky Air Force Engineering Academy, from which he graduated in 1936. By 1939, Mikoyan had teamed with Gurevich to form the Mikoyan-Gurevich design bureau (MiG), and while their wartime designs were mostly unsuccessful, their post-war jet aircraft made them famous, beginning with the swept-wing MiG-15 and including many more advanced designs to counter Western militaries. Mikoyan twice received the Soviet Union’s highest award, the Hero of Socialist Labor.
December 9, 1951 – The first flight of the Fiat G.80, a tandem jet trainer and the first true jet aircraft designed in Italy. Fiat built two prototypes powered by a single de Havilland Goblin turbojet, followed by three production aircraft. However, the Italian Air Force found the G.80 to be unsuitable for operations and did not accept them. In hopes of securing a NATO contract, Fiat followed the G.80 with the G.82, which had an enlarged fuselage, a more powerful Rolls-Royce Nene 2/21 turbojet, and wingtip fuel tanks. However, the competition was cancelled, and the G.82 was cancelled as well after just six aircraft had been built.
December 10, 2019 – A de Havilland Beaver becomes the world’s first electrically-powered commercial aircraft. The DHC-2 Beaver has been plying the skies as one of the world’s great bush planes since 1942 powered by a radial engine. In more recent years, some Beavers have been converted to use a turboprop engine. Now, a Beaver operated by Harbour Air of Canada has lifted off using an electric engine built by MagniX that generates 750 horsepower. Using lithium ion batteries pioneered by NASA, the Beaver currently has only 15 minutes of flight time, with a 25-minute reserve, and the cabin can’t hold passengers because it is filled with batteries that bring the aircraft to its maximum takeoff weight. However, as battery design matures, Harbour Air plans to convert its entire fleet to electric power.
December 10, 1967 – Singer Otis Redding is killed in an air crash. Redding and his band, the Bar-Kays, were traveling from Cleveland, Ohio to Madison, Wisconsin in Redding’s Beechcraft Model 18. While flying in heavy rain and fog, the aircraft crashed into a lake three miles short of the runway at Truax Field in Madision, killing the pilot and six of the seven passengers. The only survivor was band member Ben Cauley. The official NTSB accident report lists the cause of the crash as “undetermined.”
December 10, 1957 – The first flight of the Aermacchi MB-326. Without the means to produce supersonic aircraft following WWII, Italian designers focused on subsonic training and attack aircraft. The simple design of the MB-326 was both rugged and agile, and proved to be an ideal platform for all phases of jet pilot training. Initial production aircraft were powered by a single Bristol Siddeley Viper turbojet, and the MB-326 proved to be an extremely successful design, with 800 aircraft produced. In fact, the MB-326 alone accounts for 10 percent of all aircraft ever built by Aermacchi. Developed as both a trainer and attack jet, the MB-326 served 16 countries, with the final aircraft being retired by Brazil in 2010.
December 10, 1955 – The first flight of the Ryan X-13 Vertijet, an experimental, vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) jet designed by Ryan Aeronautical to test the concept of a fighter that could be transported and launched from a submarine. The aircraft would be required to take off vertically, transition to level flight, then return to hover and land using only the rear engine. Two were built, and the first aircraft was fitted with a tricycle landing gear to test general flight characteristics. Subsequent tests proved that the aircraft could take off and land vertically, and the first takeoff, transition to horizontal flight, and return to vertical landing took place in 1957, though maneuvering the jet to grab an attachment cable proved quite difficult. While flight tests proved that such an arrangement was possible, the project was canceled for lack of an operational requirement.
December 10, 1941 – Japanese aircraft sink the Royal Navy battleship HMS Prince of Wales and battlecruiser HMS Repulse. Prince of Wales and Repulse were part of Force Z, a naval squadron sent to intercept Japanese shipping in the waters off Singapore early in WWII. Squadron commander Admiral Sir Tom Phillips decided to sail without air cover, and the ships were attacked by land-based Japanese Navy Mitsubishi G3M and Mitsubishi G4M aircraft carrying a mix of bombs and torpedoes. Both Prince of Wales and Repulse were hit by four torpedoes, and both sank with heavy loss of life. The attack marked the first time in history that air power had sunk capital ships that were actively fighting to defend themselves, and heralded the end of the battleship as the primary weapon of naval surface warfare.
December 10, 1938 – The first flight of the Lockheed Hudson. A development of the Lockheed Model 14 Super Electra, the Hudson was built primarily for the Royal Air Force for use as a coastal reconnaissance aircraft, light bomber, and in the anti-submarine warfare role. With the RAF’s initial order of 200 aircraft, the Hudson was the first major production aircraft for the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, and they eventually produced nearly 3,000 Hudsons for the RAF, the Royal Canadian Air Force, the Royal Australian Air Force, and the US Army Air Forces. Hudsons served throughout the war in both Europe and the Pacific, and also proved to be agile fighters in the hands of a skilled pilot.
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