Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from February 13 through February 15.
February 15, 1986 – The first flight of the Beechcraft Starship. What would happen if an aircraft company spent years developing and producing the most advanced corporate aircraft of its day, only to have nobody buy it? That is essentially what happened to Beechcraft and parent company Raytheon with the Beechcraft Starship, arguably one of the most futuristic-looking civilian aircraft ever built. In 1979 as Beechcraft began the search for a replacement for its venerable King Air line of twin-engine aircraft. Hoping to combine high speed and light weight, the company envisioned an aircraft that could carry 10 passengers at up to 400 mph while weighing less than 12,500 pounds. What they ended up with was the most advanced private airplane of its time.
Built largely of composites, the Starship was the first business aircraft to have a pressurized passenger compartment built of carbon fiber, and also the first with a glass cockpit. Burt Rutan, known for his visionary designs, refined the initial design of the aircraft, and it featured Rutan’s signature placement of the wing at the rear of the aircraft with a canard at the front, making it the first civilian aircraft to use this configuration. Power for the Starship came from a pair of Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6 turboprops mounted on top of the wing in a pusher configuration. After Rutan produced a 85% scale proof of concept aircraft, development of the full sized aircraft began, but major difficulties quickly arose. Beechcraft had never worked with composites on such a scale, and the first system for fabricating the parts had to be abandoned for a simpler process that ended up adding weight to the aircraft, an increase which necessitated the removal of two seats. The added weight also meant that more powerful engines had to be substituted that were not as fuel-efficient as the ones originally intended. In addition to the weight gains, manufacture of various elements of the aircraft was spread around the country, leading to numerous delays in construction, often months at a time.
As the aircraft ballooned in weight, it also ballooned in price. Initially, the Starship was to sell for $2.7 million dollars. But once it hit the showroom floor, the cost had almost doubled to $5 million dollars, about the same cost as a private jet. And, once the finished planes were delivered, they were plagued by reliability problems that proved difficult to quash or expensive to repair. Following FAA certification of the Starship, Beechcraft sold only 11 aircraft in the first seven years of sales. When production ended in 1995, Beechcraft had completed only 53 aircraft. With no buyers on the horizon, Beechcraft started buying up all available aircraft in 2003 and destroying them, as the cost to keep them in the air had become prohibitive. Today, only five Starships remain registered as active with the FAA. Evergreen Air, who was overseeing the destruction of the aircraft, sold 24 for only $50,000 each, and most of those were being used for parts, though one was returned to flying status.
February 15, 1946 – The first flight of the Douglas DC-6. The period before and during WWII witnessed extraordinary advances in aviation technology, and while the needs of military aviation placed the world on the cusp of the jet age, there was still much more work to be wrung out of the venerable piston engine as designers moved into the civilian market following the war. The US Army had relied on the Douglas C-54 Skymaster, the military version of the Douglas DC-4 as a cargo and personnel workhorse. First flying in 1942, the C-54 served throughout WWII and beyond, but by late in the war, the Army needed a larger strategic airlifter and passenger plane and, more imporatantly, something pressurized, as none of the civilian DC-4s or C-54s had pressurized hulls.
In 1944, the Army commissioned the DC-6 as the XC-112, a longer, pressurized version of the DC-4, and replaced the Pratt & Whitney R-2000 radial engines of the C-54 with more powerful Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp radials. These engines were capable of 2,400 hp each with water injection, and could carry the C-54 at speeds of 315 mph with a range of about 4,000 miles. However, by the time the XC-112 took its maiden flight on February 15, 1946, the war had ended, and the US Army Air Forces rescinded their wartime contract. While this came as a blow to Douglas, they now had a brand new, pressurized airliner they could market to the world. The company undertook the task of converting the XC-112 to civilian specifications, and the civilian DC-6 took its maiden flight on June 29, 1946, with deliveries to American Airlines and United Airlines taking place five months later. The new airliner was not without teething troubles, and the type suffered a series of in-flight fires, one of which caused the crash of United Airlines Flight 608 with the loss of 52 passengers and crew. The crash led to the grounding of the entire DC-6 fleet in 1947. The fault was traced to a fuel vent next to the cabin cooling turbine intake and, once the problem was solved, the airliner returned to service four months later.
By 1949, the DC-6 was flying all over the world, with United Airlines providing service to Hawaii, and other carriers making flights to and from Europe and South America. Upgrades to the engines provided more power, and the DC-6B was enlarged to accommodate up to 89 passengers. With America’s entry into the Korean War, the Air Force once again needed a large transport to ferry troops overseas. The aircraft finally entered military service as the C-118 Liftmaster, and the Air Force purchased 100 from Douglas. The US Navy followed suit and purchased 65, where it was designated the R6D until 1962, when a uniform aircraft designation system was adopted by the US military. The Air Force also modified one DC-6 into the VC-118, a presidential transport with 25 seats and 12 beds. A VC-118, nicknamed The Independence, served as President Harry S. Truman’s personal aircraft until he left office in 1953, and another served President John F. Kennedy until 1962.
With the addition of a rear cargo door, the DC-6 became a popular civilian freighter, and some still serve in this role today, mostly in bush operations in Alaska and Canada, where their rugged construction and powerful engines make them ideal for operations from unimproved airfields. One notable flying DC-6 is owned by Red Bull energy drink mogul Dietrich Mateschitz, and the last DC-6 to come off the production line and the last in the world to still carry passengers, remains in use with Namibia Commercial Aviation.
February 15, 1932 – The first flight of the Martin B-10. The history of the Glenn L. Martin Company dates back to 1912, when founder Glenn Luther Martin began building military training aircraft in California, then bombers for the US Army during the First World War. The large biplane Martin MB-1 was the first purpose-built bomber produced for the US Army, and its development began a long lineage of large military aircraft that continued during the inter-war years and through WWII, where Martin’s company produced the B-26 Marauder for the US Army Air Forces, the Martin Maryland for the French and British, as well as large flying boats for the US Navy. But one of his earliest successes was with the revolutionary B-10 bomber, a highly advanced aircraft for the time. With its all-metal construction, enclosed cockpits and rotating gun turrets, the B-10 would serve as the template for future bomber designs.
Development of the B-10 began as the Model 123, a private venture by the Martin Company. The Model 123 was a large, twin-engine airplane with open cockpits, an internal bomb bay, and retractable landing gear. Upon delivery to the Army, the aircraft became the XB-907 and, after favorable testing, the Army returned the aircraft to Martin for improvements. The redesigned bomber, now dubbed the XB-10, would be the first all-metal monoplane bomber flown by the Army. Improvements made in the XB-10 included full NACA cowlings on the engines that replaced the Townend rings of the Model 123, more powerful engines, an increased wingspan, and an enclosed nose turret. Already, speeds were approaching 200 mph. Still more changes followed, including canopies for all crew members, upgraded engines, and the reduction of the crew from four to three. The Army now had a truly modern bomber on their hands, one that could even outrun contemporary Army pursuit planes. Once the B-10 became operational, it rendered all other bombers obsolete.
The B-10 entered service with the Army in 1934 and was soon flying with bomber groups in the US, the Panama Canal Zone, and the Philippines. For coastal patrol duties, a number of B-10s were outfitted with floats for water operation. Once the orders were filled for the US Army, Martin was free to export their bomber, and B-10s were sold to Argentina, China, the Philippines, Russia, Siam and Turkey. The Netherlands alone purchased 121 bombers. Despite its groundbreaking design, rapid developments in aircraft design soon outpaced the B-10 and, by the outbreak of WWII, it was already obsolete. Martin attempted to update the B-10 to compete in a 1934 US Army Air Corps competition for a new long-range bomber, but the B-10 lost the competition to the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and Douglas B-18 Bolo, which was actually inferior to the older B-10. Of the nearly 350 aircraft built, only one survives today, a B-10 that had originally been exported to Argentina in 1938. Argentina donated the bomber to the US in 1970, and it is now on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.
February 13, 2019 – NASA declares that the Mars rover Opportunity is dead, ending a 15-year mission to explore Earth’s closest neighbor. Opportunity, known officially as Mars Exploration Rover B, was launched on July 7, 2003 and was expected to operate for 90 Earth days. Instead, the plucky rover ran for 15 years and and traveled 28 miles, capturing 217,594 images and returning a trove of data on Martian geology and atmospheric conditions, as well as evidence of historic water on the surface. Opportunity’s sister rover Spirit, or MER-A, with a similar mission on the opposite of the planet, became mired in 2009 and lost communications with Earth the following year. Opportunity was most likely the victim of sandstorms that coated the rover’s solar panels with dust and dirt, making it impossible for the rover to wake up and charge its batteries. Following 835 unsuccessful attempts to make contact, NASA declared the rover dead. Another rover, Curiosity, landed on Mars in 2012 and continues to explore the Red Planet, while NASA prepares to launch the Mars 2020 rover in July 2020.
February 13, 2002 – The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) takes over airport security from the Federal Aviation Administration. Prior to the creation of the TSA, aviation security was handled by private contractors hired by the airports or the airlines. Following the terrorist attacks against the US on September 11, 2001, the TSA was created as part of the Aviation Transportation and Security Act to place airport security under federal jurisdiction. The TSA employs 51,000 Transportation Safety Officers (TSO) who screen travelers at all types of transportation centers in the US, though their primary mission is airport security. 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.
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 supporting 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 killed, captured or missing in action. Despite 864,000 tons of bombs dropped during more than 300,000 sorties, Rolling Thunder was ultimately unsuccessful.
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 Allies claimed that the bombing of the city was necessary, saying Dresden was a rail and transportation hub, and its destruction would stop German troops from mobilizing against advancing Russian forces. The bombing 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 war ended just three months later.
Kurt Vonnegut, an American author famous for his novel Slaughterhouse Five, served as an infantryman and was captured in 1944. Transported to Dresden, he was present during the bombing. Upon his release, he wrote a letter to his parents that documents his harrowing travels as a prisoner, and his experiences as a POW in the devastated city following the bombing.
February 14, 1955 – The first flight of the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21. The MiG-21, NATO reporting name Fishbed, is the most-produced supersonic fighter in history with over 11,000 built between 1959-1985. Notable for its delta wing and traditional tailplane, the MiG-21 was designed principally as a simple, rugged air superiority fighter, and it served as the principal low-level air combat fighter flown for the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc allies. Comparable to the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter or Northrop F-5 Freedom Fighter, the MiG-21 was continuously upgraded throughout its service life, and was also built under license by China. The Fishbed was widely exported, serving historically in 45 countries, and it is still flown by the air forces of 17 nations.
February 15, 1994 – The first flight of the Eurocopter EC135, a twin-turboshaft civilian helicopter designed by Eurocopter (now Airbus Helicopters) fitted with digital flight controls and certified for instrument flight rules (IFR) operation. Development of the EC135 began in the 1970s with the Mo 108 by Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm (MBB) in partnership with Aérospatiale, prior to the creation of Eurocopter. After a lengthy development, the EC135 finally entered service with the Deutsche Rettungsflugwacht (air rescue service) in 1996. Widely exported, the EC135 was responsible for roughly 25% of all emergency medical flights around the world in 2013. More than 1,220 have been produced, and the EC135 has also been developed into a multipurpose military helicopter as the Eurocopter EC635.
February 15, 1970 – The death of RAF Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding. Born on April 24, 1882 in Scotland, Dowding, known as by his nickname “Stuffy,” served as the head of RAF Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain, and played a vital role in the defense of the British homeland as the Luftwaffe attempted to destroy the RAF ahead of a planned German invasion of England. In addition to directing defensive fighters against German bombers, Dowding helped develop the world’s first comprehensive air defense system, incorporating Chain Home radar stations, Royal Observer Corps ground observation posts, the use of telecommunications to coordinate defenses, and a system of information processing to handle reports of incoming bombers. Dowding stepped down from his position on November 24, 1940, largely over his unwillingness to adopt the Big Wing system of defense over his own system. He retired from the RAF two years later.
February 15, 1949 – The first flight of the Breguet Deux-Ponts, a double-deck transport aircraft built by Breguet Aviation of France after WWII (Deux-Ponts translates as double-deck, but that was only the nickname of the aircraft, and not its official designation). In service, the Deux-Ponts bore the official designation 761, 763 or 765 depending on the engines that were fitted, and the airliner normally accommodated 59 passengers on the upper deck and 48 on the lower deck, though it was capable of carrying 135 passengers in a high density configuration. A total of 20 were built, but the arrival of the Sud Aviation Caravelle jetliner in 1959 rendered the Deux-Ponts obsolete, though it was not fully retired until 1971.
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