Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from December 8 through December 11.
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, and 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 modern jet fighters, the Gripen was designed with inherent instability, 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 the aircraft 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 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-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, 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 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 11, 2009 – The first flight of the Airbus A400M Atlas. Ever since its first flight in 1954, the Lockheed C-130 Hercules has been the king of tactical airlift, a remarkable workhorse of an aircraft that has been continuously produced for over 60 years. The Hercules can be found in service with at least 70 countries worldwide, but that remarkable record of success didn’t stop aircraft designers from trying to find a replacement for the venerable Herk.
Development of the A400M began in 1982 when a consortium of aircraft manufacturers including Aérospatiale, British Aerospace, Lockheed and Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm, formed a group to develop what was called the Future International Airlifter to replace the Hercules, as well as the smaller, twin-engine the Transall C-160. The new tactical airlifter was planned to fit somewhere in between the C-130 and the much larger Boeing C-17 Globemaster III strategic airlifter, with the idea being to create an aircraft that could carry a heavier load than the C-130 while still operating from airstrips that cannot be used by the C-17. International politics being what they are, and with competing interests in the requirements of the new aircraft, Lockheed eventually left the group to develop the upgraded C-130J Super Hercules, other European nations came and went, and the remaining countries were organized under the banner of Airbus Military.
One of the first problems Airbus Military faced was the lack of an existing turboprop engine that could provide the required performance. After making a request for proposals, Pratt & Whitney Canada responded with their PW180, while Europrop International offered their TP400. Following still more European political intrigue, the Europrop engine was selected. The TP400 produces 11,000 hp and the quartet of engines on the A400M provides a maximum speed of 513 mph, with a cruising speed of 485 mph. To compensate for inherent control problems caused by engine torque, the A400M features counter-rotating propellers, but the opposite rotation direction is not derived by making engines that turn in different directions. Rather, all the engines turn in the same direction, and a gearbox is used to reverse the rotation direction of the propeller for one engine on each wing. The inner engines rotate outwards, while the outer engines rotate inwards. Having the engines all turn the same direction allows for commonality among all four engines, which simplifies maintenance and reduces cost. Airbus Military states that the Atlas has a range of over 5,000 miles at an altitude of 37,000 feet with a maximum payload of 81,000 pounds, or nearly twice that of the C-130J. It also features autonomous cargo loading and unloading which allows cargo transfer to be carried out by a single loadmaster.
As with any new, complex aircraft, delays pushed delivery dates farther and farther back, with initial deployment deferred from 2009 to 2012. The A400M suffered its first fatal accident in May 2015 when engine mapping software was inadvertently erased and the engines failed to provide power during takeoff. Four employees of Spanish Airbus were killed, and two were seriously injured. The French Air Force completed the first operational mission of the A400M in December of 2013 in support of Operation Serval in Mali, and the British made their first operational flight in 2015. The German Luftwaffe carried out the first transport mission to an active war zone in Afghanistan in 2018. A total of 174 aircraft have been ordered so far, with 56 deliveries completed as of January 2018.
December 11, 1986 – The first flight of the McDonnell Douglas F-15E Strike Eagle. In the late 1960s, the US Air Force began looking for a new fighter to replace the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, a search which ended with the superb McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle. The Eagle was designed from the outset as an air superiority fighter, one that could take command of the airspace over the battlefield and maintain control of it. But the Air Force made sure that the Eagle was strictly an air-to-air platform, and the F-15 Special Projects Office vehemently opposed the idea of the Eagle directly supporting troops on the ground, or taking part in air-to-ground missions, saying, “Not a pound for air to ground.” After all, the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II, arguably one of the greatest ground attack aircraft ever produced, was getting ready to join the Air Force, and took its maiden flight in 1972 along with the Eagle. But in spite of no official support for a ground attack version of the Eagle, McDonnell Douglas worked quietly on an advanced, multi-role version of the Eagle in the hopes that opinions in the Air Force might one day change.
In 1981, the Air Force announced the Enhanced Tactical Fighter program to find a replacement for the General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark. The goal was to develop a fighter that could strike deep into enemy territory without requiring fighter escort or electronic jamming provided by additional aircraft, and would also have the ability to defend itself from aerial attack. General Dynamics responded with the F-16XL, a cranked delta wing version of their successful F-16 Fighting Falcon, and McDonnell Douglas submitted the F-15E they had been working on. After a two-year evaluation, the Air Force selected the F-15E, which proved to be capable of takeoff weights in excess of 75,000 pounds and had the ability to operate with 16 different weapon configurations. Other factors in the Air Force’s decision were the reduced development costs from its commonality to the original F-15 fighter, future growth potential, and the added safety of two engines.
The F-15E is very similar in appearance to the original F-15, but the most apparent difference is the addition of a second seat for the Weapons Systems Officer (WSO) and a darker camouflage pattern. The fuselage was redesigned and strengthened to accept more powerful Pratt& Whitney F100 afterburning turbofan engines, and conformal fuel tanks were later added to the sides of the fuselage to extend range. And, unlike other two-seat aircraft with a WSO, such as the Grumman F-14 Tomcat, the rear seat has controls to fly the plane if necessary.
The Strike Eagle was introduced in 1988, and soon saw action in the skies over Iraq and Kuwait in Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield, and has gone on to fight in all major operations since. In addition to its US Air Force service, variants of the Strike Eagle figure prominently in the air forces of Israel, Singapore, Qatar, and South Korea, while Saudi Arabia is the largest export customer, with 70 aircraft in service and an additional 84 on order. It is also rumored that Boeing is working on a so-called F-15X, an upgraded version that would likely contain no stealth features, but would instead focus on avionics and battlefield integration similar to the latest US Air Force fighters such as the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II. The F-15X is also rumored to support a payload of up to 22 missiles.
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, 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. 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 have been 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 rearmament plan for the German Navy (Kriegsmarine), the Graf Zeppelin-class carriers were originally planned as a mix of 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 for target practice in 1947 in the Baltic Sea.
December 9, 1995 – The death of Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan. The son of a school teacher and a construction engineer, Corrigan was born on January 22, 1907 in Galveston, Texas and worked for Ryan Aviation. There 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, after 18 hours of flying, arrived in Ireland on July 18, 1938. 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. Corrigan died in 1955.
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, 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, through maneuvering the jet to grab an attachment cable proved 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. Royal Navy Admiral Sir Tom Phillips, in command of the squadron, 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.
December 11, 1913 – The first flight of the Sikorsky Ilya Muromets, a large, four-engine bomber designed by Igor Sikorsky and developed from the earlier Sikorsky Russky Vityaz. Named after the hero from Russian mythology, the Ilya Muromets was originally intended as a large passenger aircraft, but subsequently developed into a bomber as WWI approached. They were the first aircraft in aviation history to perform heavy bombing missions, group raids, night bombings and photo reconnaissance. In 400 sorties, the Ilya Muromets dropped sixty-five tons of bombs. Following the war, the Muromets returned to its original role of passenger aircraft and mail plane, with the final flight taking place in 1922. Approximately 85 were produced from 1913-1917.
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