Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from February 10 through February 13.


February 10, 1962 – American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers is exchanged for Soviet KGB spy Rudolf Abel. In the early days of the Cold War, the United States was desperate for timely, accurate intelligence on Russian military plans. By 1960, rudimentary satellite imagery was availble, but it was unreliable, and not at all timely. Since the end of WWII, US aircraft had been probing the edges of the Soviet Union to measure the Russian response, and many aircraft were shot down. So work began on an aircraft that could fly high above Russia, take pictures of military installations, missile tests, or other high-value assets, then return quickly to have the images analyzed. The Skunk Works at Lockheed, under the direction of Kelly Johnson, produced just what the American government needed in the U-2, an aircraft that was capable of flying at 70,000 feet, an altitude that made it immune to interception by enemy aircraft. But as Soviet missile technology improved, the US knew it was just a matter of time before one of their pilots was shot down.

Russian Premier Nikita Kruschev examines wreckage from Gary Powers’ U-2 spyplane

On May 1, 1960, Francis Gary Powers, a U-2 pilot flying for the CIA, took off from Pakistan and flew northward to photograph ICBM sites at the Baikonur Cosmodrome and the Plesetsk Cosmodrome before a planned landing in Norway. Thinking the the U-2 could fly with impunity, Powers was flying a predictable route. Soon after takeoff, his aircraft was detected near Chelyabinsk and fighters were sent to intercept it. Try as they might, the fighters were unable to reach the spy plane at its extreme altitude. The Russians launched eight SA-2 Guideline missiles, the first one hitting the U-2, and another downing at least one of the Russian fighters. Powers ejected, but the plane came to earth relatively intact. He chose not to take the poison pill that the CIA provided him with, though its use was optional.

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Powers on trial in the Soviet Union

At first, the US denied that Powers was on a spy mission, saying instead that it was a “weather plane” that had gone off course. But the incident was another blow to already-brittle US-Soviet relations. Powers plead guilty at what was essentially a propaganda show trial. He was convicted of espionage and sentenced of ten years in prison, which included seven years of hard labor. However, Powers served only 21 months of his sentence. On February 10, 1962, Powers was exchanged for KGB spy Rudolf Abel, who had been convicted for espionage in what was known as the Hollow Nickel Case. The prisoner exchange took place on the Glienicke Bridge between East and West Germany, a location that was the site of seven prisoner exchanges during the Cold War. After his release, Powers returned to the US and worked as a Lockheed test pilot until 1970, but was killed in 1977 when the news helicopter he was piloting crashed while covering a brush fire. 

The swap of Powers for Abel was dramatized in the in the 2015 Hollywood film Bridge of Spies. (Photo from Deutsche Presse-Agentur; photo author unknown via ADST; photo author unknown)

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February 11, 1945 – The first flight of the Consolidated Vultee XP (XF)-81. We tend to think of the turbojet engine as a product of the closing stages of WWII. However, the first jet-powered airplane, the Heinkel He 178, took its first flight in 1939. The German Luftwaffe was the first to field a jet-powered fighter with the Messerschmitt Me 262, and it was followed by the British Gloster Meteor, the first Allied jet fighter to enter service. But early American attempts to harness the new jet technology with the Bell P-59 Airacomet were disappointing at best. The turbojet engine was clearly the future of aviation, but jet engine technology of the mid-1940s was still a relatively new field, while propeller technology was reaching its zenith. So designers at Consolidated Vultee (later Convair) decided that it might be possible to combine the two into a hybrid turbojet/turboprop aircraft and enjoy the best of both worlds.

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By the summer of 1944, the Boeing B-29 Stratofortress was flying its first bombing missions against Japan, first from bases in China, then from island bases in the Pacific. However, with bases so far from the Japanese homeland, the US Army Air Forces needed a long-range fighter capable of escorting the bombers to and from the target. A turbojet-only aircraft wasn’t feasible, as early turbojets were notoriously thirsty and had significantly shorter range compared to traditional piston-powered fighters. So Consolidated Vultee took a radical approach to the problem, developing the XP-81 in the hopes of having an aircraft that enjoyed the higher speed of a turbojet but the longer range of a propeller plane. For takeoff and high speed dashes, the XP-81 would rely on an Allison J33 turbojet in the rear of the aircraft, with air fed to it by a pair of intakes mounted high on the center of the fuselage. For long range cruising, a more efficient General Electric TG-100 (later designated T-31) turboprop was mounted in the front and turned a four-bladed propeller.

Early XP-81 with Packard Merlin engine in the nose

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The Army Air Forces ordered two prototype aircraft for testing, and the maiden flight took place on February 11, 1945. However, as was often the case with cutting-edge designs, engine development lagged behind the construction of the airframe, and the XF-81's turbojet engine was ready while the turboprop was still under development. In an effort to get flight testing started, the XP-81 was fitted with the nose section of a North American P-51D Mustang housing a Packard V-1650 Merlin V-12 engine. After about 10 hours of flight testing, the aircraft was returned to Consolidated to have its new turboprop fitted, and the XP-81 gained the distinction of being the first American aircraft to fly under turboprop power. However, the new turboprop did not produce anywhere near as much horsepower as Consolidated had hoped. In fact, the T-31 only managed a mere 200 hp more than the Merlin, and the XP-81 showed practically no improvement in performance with the turboprop.

Consolidated had hoped that, with the combined power of both engines, the XP-81 would be capable of a maximum speed of 507 mph and have a cruising speed of 275 mph with just the turboprop. The large fighter held 811 gallons of fuel, and range was calculated to be 2,50o miles, nearly twice that of the Lockheed P-38 Lightning. But by the time flight testing had been completed, the islands of Saipan and Guam had been captured, and the USAAF no longer had a need for such a long-range escort fighter. The order for 13 XP-81s was canceled, though testing of the two prototypes continued until 1947. Both aircraft were then relegated to a bombing range where they served as photo reconnaissance targets. Fortunately, the two prototypes were not broken up for scrap, nor were they destroyed by bombs, and they are currently in storage at the National Museum of the United States Air Force awaiting restoration.

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The US Navy would make their own attempts at hybrid power with the Ryan FR Fireball, an unfortunately named aircraft that actually entered production and service, though it was far from successful, and the piston engine was intended only as an insurance policy against the unreliable early turbojets. Other traditional propeller aircraft supplemented their piston engines with jets to achieve more speed or lifting power. And the Republic XF-84H went the other way, adding a supersonic propeller to the front of an F-84F Thunderstreak. But, as jet and turboprop technology matured, the idea of the hybrid fighter was eventually left behind. (US Air Force photos; illustration author unknown)


Short Takeoff


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February 10, 1967 – The first flight of the Dornier Do 31. In the early 1960s, German aircraft manufacturer EWR (Entwicklungsring Süd) began work on the EWR VJ 101, a project to develop a supersonic VTOL jet fighter, and the Do 31 was intended as a VTOL support aircraft for the fighter. The design employed a total of 10 engines: two vectored thrust Pegasus engines mounted in inboard nacelles, and four Rolls-Royce RB162 lift engines in a nacelle mounted at the end of each wing. The first prototype was built for level flight only, but the third prototype employed all 10 engines and made its first hovering flight in November 1967, and the first transition to forward and backward flight in December 1967. The Do 31 became the world’s only VTOL cargo aircraft, but the project was canceled in 1970. (Photo by Ralf Manteufel via Wikimedia Commons)


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February 11, 2008 – The death of Frank Piasecki, an engineer and pioneer in the development of tandem rotor helicopters well as the creator of the concept of a compound helicopter which uses vectored thrust from a ducted propeller (VTDP). Piasecki founded the Piasecki Helicopter Corporation in 1940 and produced the PV-2, the second successful helicopter in the US after the Sikorsky VS-300. He followed that with a series of tandem rotor helicopters, including the H-21 Shawnee, which served in Vietnam as a troop transport until 1964. By 1956, Piasecki was ousted from the company he founded, so he started a new company called Piasecki Aircraft (his former company became Vertol, and was eventually sold to Boeing). Currently, Piasecki Aircraft is working on the X-49 Speedhawk, a Sikorsky YSH-60F Seahawk, that was modified to use a VTDP tail to achieve higher speeds than a traditional helicopter. (Photo author unknown)


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February 11, 2000 – The death of Jacqueline Auriol, a pioneering French aviatrix. Born in 1917, Auriol aided the French Resistance during WWII, earned her pilot license in 1948, and performed as a stunt flier and test pilot. After earning her military pilot license in 1950, Auriol qualified as one the first female test pilots, and became one of the first women to break the sound barrier. She went on to set five world speed records in the 1950s and 1960s. Auriol is a four-time winner of the prestigious Harmon Trophy for outstanding accomplishments in aviation, and a founding member of the Académie de l’air et de l’espace. (Photo by Sieg94 via Wikimedia Commons)


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February 11, 1976 – The death of Alexander Martin Lippisch. Lippisch was born in 1894 in Munich, Germany, and became one of the world’s leading aerodynamicists and aeronautical engineers. He was one of the earliest designers to work with delta wings and flying wings, and also made important discoveries in the area of ground effect. Lippisch was active during WWII, designing high-speed fighters for the Luftwaffe, including the Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet, the war’s only operational rocket-powered fighter. Lippisch was brought to America following the war, where his work with delta wings influenced early Convair designs such as the XF-92. (Bundesarchiv photo via Wikimedia Commons)


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February 11, 1920 – The birth of Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr, a USAF fighter pilot and the first African American to attain the rank of four-star general. James served as a flight instructor for the 99th Pursuit Squadron of the Tuskegee Airmen, but saw no combat in WWII. In Korea, James flew 101 combat missions in the North American P-51 Mustang and Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star, and then flew 78 combat missions in Vietnam. Most of those missions were in the dangerous areas of Hanoi and Haiphong Harbor, and included one mission he led whose pilots claimed seven MiG-21 kills, the highest for a single mission in the war. After achieving the rank of General, James was named commander in chief of NORAD, where he held operational command of all strategic aerospace defenses of the US and Canada. James died of a heart attack on February 25, 1978, just three weeks after his retirement from the US Air Force. (US Air Force photo)


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February 12, 2001 – The NEAR Shoemaker spacecraft becomes the first spacecraft to land on an asteroid. The Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous robotic space probe, whose name was them appended with Shoemaker in honor planetary scientist Eugene Shoemaker, was launched on February 17, 1996 and sent to study the near-Earth asteroid 433 Eros. After first orbiting the asteroid, the space probe landed on the comet on February 12, 2001. The mission was launched to gain up-close data on the composition of the asteroid and, following a gentle touchdown on the surface of Eros, the spacecraft continued to transmit data to Earth until February 28, 2001. (NASA illustration)


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February 13, 2002 – The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) takes over airport security from the Federal Aviation Administration. The TSA was created as part of the Aviation Transportation and Security Act following the terrorist attacks against the US on September 11, 2001. The TSA employs over 57,000 Transportation Safety Officers (TSO) who screen travelers at all types of transportation centers in the US, though their primary mission is airport security. Prior to the TSA, aviation security was handled by private contractors hired by the airports or the airlines. Now, the TSA is housed under the Department of Homeland Security and, in addition to checkpoint screening agents, the TSA employs Federal Air Marshals, Transportation Security Inspectors, and canine explosive detection teams. (TSA photo)


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February 13, 1965 – US President Lyndon B. Johnson authorizes Operation Rolling Thunder, a sustained campaign of aerial bombardment against North Vietnam that lasted more than three years. Following Johnson’s authorization, the first bombs were dropped on March 2, 1965. The prolonged campaign attempted to boost South Vietnamese morale, stop the North Vietnamese government from its support of Communist rebels in the south, destroy the transportation system of North Vietnam, and prevent the flow of war materiel into the south. American and South Vietnamese aircraft faced dogged and sophisticated resistance to the attacks, and over 900 aircraft were lost, resulting in the death of 255 US Air Force pilots with 222 captured, while the US Navy and Marine Corps suffered 454 pilots who were killed, captured or missing in action. Despite 864,000 tons of bombs dropped during over 300,000 sorties, Rolling Thunder was ultimately unsuccessful. (US Air Force photo)


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February 13, 1945 – Allied bombers begin the bombing of Dresden. On the first night of the raid, 800 RAF bombers dropped 650,000 incendiary devices mixed with 8,000 and 4,000 pound high explosive bombs. On the second night, 1,300 US bombers escorted by 900 fighters attacked the city, followed by 1,100 more US bombers the third night. All told, more than 3,900 tons of high explosive bombs and incendiary devices were dropped on the city. The attack resulted in a firestorm that gutted over six square miles of the city and killed as many as 25,000 civilians. A further 300,000 were injured and 27,000 homes were destroyed. At the time, the city was filled with refugees fleeing the advance of Russian troops, adding to the civilian toll. The Allies claimed that the bombing of the city was necessary, saying Dresden was a rail and transportation hub, and its destruction was necessary to stop German troops from mobilizing against advancing Russian soldiers. The war ended just three months later. (Photo from Deutsche Fotothek‎ via Wikimedia Commons)


Connecting Flights


Author’s note: While the Connecting Flights section is usually reserved for other Wingspan articles, I felt it was appropriate to provide a link to this letter written by American author Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut, author of Slaughterhouse Five, was a POW in WWII, captured during the Battle of the Bulge, and was at Dresden after the city was bombed. He was eventually released, and wrote this letter to his parents, who only knew that he was missing in action.

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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.