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 9.
December 9, 1988 – The first flight of the JAS 39 Gripen. In the late 1970s, the Swedish Air Force (Flygvapnet) began a search for a new fighter to replace the Saab 35 Draken and 37 Viggen, both of which had been serving since the mid-1950s and mid-1960s respectively and were beginning to show their age. In 1979, 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, hence the JAS prefix for the new fighter. 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, though development ultimately cost $15 billion dollars (US). Several Saab designs were considered, but the Flygvapnet ultimately settled on a single engine aircraft with a delta wing and forward canards, fly-by-wire controls. Like other modern jet fighters, the Gripen was designed with inherent instability, known as relaxed stability, which requires computer input to the flight surfaces to help the pilot maintain control of the aircraft. While it may seem counterintuitive to design an unstable aircraft, the result is an aircraft that is 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 the fighters to smaller facilities around the country and, in some cases, uses existing roadways for runways. Thus, the Gripen is easy to maintain 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 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 batches, and took delivery of the first fighter in 1993, with the first of the new fighters entering service in 1996. The JAS 39A was the initial single seat version, and was armed with a single 27 mm Mauser BK-27Revolver cannon and 8 external hard points for rockets, missiles or bombs. The JAS 39B is a two-seat variant for training and type conversion, but 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 aircraft. The Gripen NG is a further improved and modernized version, and Saab is also considering a navalized variant. In addition to its home country, the Gripen is exported to seven other countries, with a host of other countries showing interest in obtaining the fighter, and the fighter remains in production. (Photo by Milan Nykodym via Wikimedia Commons; photo by Tim Felce via Wikimedia Commons)
December 7, 1995 – The Galileo space probe arrives at Jupiter. The Galileo spacecraft was carried into space aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis on STS-34 which launched on October 18, 1989. The combination orbiter and entry probe was the the first spacecraft to orbit Jupiter, and was designed to study the planet Jupiter along with several other bodies in our Solar System. Galileo’s probe was released 6 months before Galileo reached Jupiter and, during its descent, the probe collected data on cloud composition and measured winds of 190 mph. Galileo made its own observations, finding ammonia clouds on Jupiter, confirming volcanic activity on Jupiter’s moon Io, and finding evidence of liquid oceans on Europa, among others. 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. (NASA Illustration)
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. The Command Module pilot was Ronald Evans. 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. (NASA photo)
December 7, 1942 – The first flight of the Bell P-63 Kingcobra, a larger and improved version of the 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 Russia’s most successful fighters. (San Diego Air and Space Museum photo)
December 7, 1941 – Japan launches a sneak attack on US military bases at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. As part of a strategy to neutralize the American Pacific fleet to permit further Japanese conquest in east Asia and the western Pacific, six Japanese aircraft carriers launched a sneak attack on American military facilities at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The attack killed 2,403 Americans and, while it was ultimately a strategic failure, it gave American President Franklin Roosevelt the justification he needed to bring the US into World War II.
For the complete story of the attack on Pearl Harbor, please see This Date in Aviation History: December 7, 1941.
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. Seeing no combat action, 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, where he completed the first transcontinental supersonic 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. Glenn resigned from NASA in 1964 to pursue a career in politics, and served as a US Senator from Ohio from 1974-1999. At the age of 77, Glenn returned to space on October 29, 1998 as a Payload Specialist onboard Space Shuttle Discovery during STS-95, making Glenn the oldest person to fly in space. (NASA photo)
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 7,300 were ultimately built. The Army also revisited the JetRanger, eventually adopting it as the OH-58 Kiowa. (Photo author unknown)
December 8, 1945 – The first flight of the Bell 47, a single-engine light helicopter and the first helicopter to be certified for civilian operation. The 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. 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 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 have been built, a number which includes aircraft built under license in Japan, Italy and England. (Photo by FlugKerl2 via Wikimedia Commons)
December 9, 1970 – The death of Artem Mikoyan, a Russian aviation designer of Armenian descent who partnered with Mikhail Gurevich to design many of the most important Soviet military aircraft of the Cold War and beyond. Mikoyan designed his first airplane while attending the Zhukovsky Air Force Engineering Academy, from which he graduated in 1936. By 1939, he 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. (MiG-17F photo by the author; Mikoyan photo author unknown via Wikimedia Commons)
December 9, 1951 – The first flight of the Fiat G.80, a tandem jet trainer and the first true jet aircraft designed in Italy. The fighter was powered by a single de Havilland Goblin turbojet, and Fiat built two prototypes, 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. (Photo by Aldo Bidini via Wikimedia Commons)
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