Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from February 15 through February 18.
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, 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 an 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. The FAA, which had never certified a composite aircraft, was concerned about the strength of the exotic material, and told Beechcraft to reinforce the fuselage and wing. All of these weight gains eventually 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. Manufacture of various elements of the aircraft was spread around the country, which lead 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, the company started buying up all available aircraft in 2003 and scrapping 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 C-54/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 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 airworthy 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 its 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 18, 1939 – The first flight of the Martin PBM Mariner. From the earliest days of the airplane, the US Navy saw the floatplane and flying boat as vital tools for maritime surveillance, search and rescue, and defense against submarines. (Generally, seaplane is a generic term for a plane that can operate from water. A floatplane is a traditional airplane fitted with floats, while a flying boat is an aircraft with a ship-like hull). With America’s entry into the truly global conflict of WWII, the Navy now had vast reaches of ocean to cover, particularly in the Pacific, a duty that was well-suited to far-ranging flying boats. The Glenn L. Martin Company had a long history of building large aircraft, and their work with flying boats began with the PM-1, a biplane flying boat they produced for the Naval Aircraft Factory. They followed that with production of the Martin P3M, a parasol wing flying boat that had originally been designed by Consolidated. But the P3M’s design still hearkened back to an earlier era with its fabric-covered wing and parasol design, and Martin knew that there was considerable room for improvement to bring the large flying boat into the modern era.
Development of the Mariner began in 1937 with the Model 162, which was intended both as a replacement for the P3M and as a complement to the smaller Consolidated PBY Catalina. Where earlier flying boats had employed the parasol wing to keep the engines clear of ocean spray, Martin designed the Mariner with a distinctive gull wing to raise the engines higher above the water while still enjoying the benefits of the modern cantilever wing. A matching dihedral tail replaced the original flat tail to help reduce tail flutter. To reduce aerodynamic drag during flight, the first Mariners were fitted with retractable wing floats, though later production aircraft reverted to fixed floats, and the final variant, the PBM-5A, was fitted with a retractable undercarriage, making it a true amphibian. Power for the large flying boat came from a pair of Wright R-2600 Cyclone radial engines which gave the Mariner a maximum speed of 210 mph and a range of 2,240 miles. The giant flying boat bristled with eight Browning .50 caliber machine guns for defense against enemy fighters, and it could carry up to 4,000 pounds of bombs or depth charges, or a pair of Mark 13 torpedoes for attacking surface targets.
The Mariner entered service with the Navy on September 1, 1940, where its primary mission was performing Neutrality Patrols in the Atlantic Ocean from bases in the US and Iceland. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into WWII, Mariners performed anti-submarine patrols in the Atlantic and were credited with sinking 10 German U-boats. In the Pacific, PBMs operated from land bases in Saipan, Okinawa, Iwo Jima, and also flew from seaplane tenders operating as floating bases. There they supported Marine landings and carried out reconnaissance, search, and open ocean rescue missions, called Dumbo Missions.
The end of WWII did not mean the end of the Mariner’s service. During the Korean War, Mariner crews performed patrol missions along the Korean Coast, and the big flying boat became the primary long-range search and rescue aircraft for the US Coast Guard. The Mariner was also exported to Britain (who eventually transferred their aircraft to Australia), and the Netherlands, where the Royal Netherlands Navy operated them in Netherlands New Guinea. When production of the Mariner ceased in 1949, Martin had built a total of 1,366 PBMs, and its duties were eventually taken over by the more advanced Martin P5M Marlin, which entered service in 1952.
February 15, 1994 – The first flight of the Eurocopter EC135, a twin-turboshaft civilian helicopter designed by Eurocopter (now Airbus Helicopters) and 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.
February 16-17, 1945 – US Navy Task Force 58 conducts the first carrier-based bombing of Japan since the Doolittle Raid of 1942. From January 1944 through the end of the Pacific War in August 1945, Task Force 58 was the main strike force of the US Navy in operations against the Japanese. Flying 2,761 sorties, aircraft from eleven fleet aircraft carriers and five light aircraft carriers attacked targets in the Japanese capital city of Tokyo and in Tokyo Bay, shooting down 341 Japanese planes and destroying a further 190 on the ground. Several ships were sunk in the bay, and the attack aircraft also damaged an aircraft engine factory. The US lost 60 aircraft in combat, plus a further 28 to non-combat causes.
February 16, 1944 – The first flight of the Curtiss SC Seahawk, a scout seaplane developed by Curtiss to replace the Curtiss SO3C Seamew and the Vought OS2U Kingfisher. The seaplanes were armed with two .50 caliber machine guns as well as hardpoints for bombs, and accommodation was made for a single stretcher to be carried behind the pilot. Even before the prototypes took their maiden flight, the US Navy ordered 500 aircraft. Seahawks were delivered to overseas units with regular landing gear, then had the floats installed in the field. The Seahawk’s long development meant that it didn’t enter service until 1944, and didn’t see action until June 1945, just two months before the end of the war. The Seahawk was quickly replaced by helicopter scouts, and no examples remain today.
February 18, 2010 – Andrew Joseph Stack, III crashes his airplane into IRS offices in Austin, Texas. Following a long-running dispute with the IRS, and currently undergoing an audit over the IRS’s claims that he failed to report income, Stack wrote a list of his grievances, set fire to his home, then drove to the Georgetown Municipal Airport north of Austin. From there he took off in his Piper Dakota, which investigators believe may have been loaded with drums of fuel, and crashed the plane into the Echelon I building in north Austin which contained an IRS office with 190 employees. The crash killed Stack and one IRS employee, Vernon Hunter, and injured 13 others, two seriously. The attack cost the IRS nearly $40 million dollars to upgrade security at offices around the country, and led to debate over taxpayer rights and tax protest policies. The Echelon I building was repaired the following year.
February 18, 1981 – The death of Jack Northrop, an American industrialist and aircraft designer who founded the Northrop Corporation in 1939. Born in 1895, Northrop is perhaps best known for his work on flying wing aircraft, designing the YB-35 and YB-49 bombers for the US Air Force. Though his flying wing designs were never adopted, Northrop’s concepts were eventually vindicated with the development of the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit flying wing stealth bomber, which first flew in July 1989. Following the failure of the YB-49, a despondent Northrop took almost no part in his company. But shortly before his death, Northrop Grumman designers allowed him to see the top secret plans and hold a scale model of the new bomber. Northrop, ill and unable to speak, reportedly wrote, “Now I know why God has kept me alive for 25 years.”
February 18, 1977 – The first flight of the Space Shuttle Enterprise atop the Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA), the first of five “captive-inactive” flights with an unmanned Shuttle to test the flight characteristics of the mated aircraft. The rear of the Shuttle was covered with an aerodynamic tail cone to reduce the effects of drag and turbulence on the SCA’s horizontal stabilizer, which was fitted with tip fins for added stability. The Boeing 747-123 used as the first SCA was originally delivered to American Airlines in 1970 before being purchased by NASA for use in wake vortex studies, and it would eventually receive the official white and blue NASA livery. NASA operated two SCAs to transport the Shuttle from landing sites back to the Kennedy Space Center for its next launch. Following the end of the Shuttle program, SCA N911A was used for spare parts to support the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) and its Boeing 747SP. It was eventually placed on display in Palmdale, California. N905NA (shown above) was used to transport the retired Shuttles to locations around the country before being placed on display at Space Center Houston with the mockup Shuttle Independence on its back.
February 18, 1944 – The Royal Air Force carries out Operation Jericho, an audacious, low-level mission flown by the RAF into German-occupied France in an effort to free prisoners of war from Amiens Prison by using bombs to breach the walls. Many of the prisoners held there were members of the French Resistance or political prisoners, along with two Allied intelligence officers. Eighteen RAF de Havilland Mosquito bombers took off from Hunsdon Airfield in southeast England (only nine reached the target) escorted by 14 Hawker Typhoons, and, despite terrible weather, the bombers succeeded in breaching the walls of the prison. Three Mosquitos and two Typhoons were lost, with three pilots killed and three captured. Of the 717 prisoners, 37 were killed in the raid, and 74 were wounded, but 258 escaped, including 79 Resistance fighters. However, two-thirds of the escapees were soon recaptured. As a reprisal for the raid, the Nazis executed 260 prisoners, and controversy remains to this day over the necessity of the mission.
If you enjoy these Aviation History posts, please let me know in the comments. You can find more posts about aviation history, aviators, and aviation oddities at Wingspan.