Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from February 16 through February 19.
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 built 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, who called it the P2Y. 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 a more 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 more 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.
A Mariner performs a rocket-assisted takeoffThe 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 and 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 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 19, 1982 – The first flight of the Boeing 757. For whatever reason, February is a very busy month in the history of the Boeing Company. Many of their most iconic aircraft took their maiden flight in the second month of the year, and the list includes the 247, one of the world’s first truly modern airliners, the tri-jet 727, the 737 Classic, the 737 Next Generation, the 747, which was the world’s first wide body, and the 747-8, the largest 747 ever built and the longest commercial airliner in the world. Completing that list of February first flights (though not chronologically) is the 757, Boeing’s largest single-aisle airliner.
By the early 1970s, Boeing had to decide what to do with the 727. The tri-jet had become Boeing’s biggest seller but, with the increasing popularity of air travel, air carriers were now looking for an airliner with more seats, but also one that didn’t sacrifice the 727's ability to operate from shorter runways at smaller airports. At first, Boeing considered revamping the 727, stretching it further than the already-lengthened 727-200, or developing an entirely new airplane, dubbed the 7N7 at the time. Although it would have been cheaper to modify the established 727, airlines were showing greater interest in aircraft equipped with more efficient high-bypass turbofans which provided significant fuel savings over the older low-bypass turbofans that drove the 727. Eventually, with firm commitments from Eastern Air Lines and British Airways, Boeing decided to go ahead with the new airliner in 1978.
For the first time, a Boeing airliner would be powered by engines produced outside the US, as Eastern and British Airways both opted for the Rolls-Royce RB211-535C turbofan. Later, engine production returned to the US when Delta signed on with the 757 and selected Pratt & Whitney engines. Since the 757 was being developed alongside the widebody 767, both jets shared common elements, such as identical two-person flight decks with computerized glass cockpits, and engine management systems which rendered the flight engineer’s position obsolete. By sharing the cockpit designs between the two airliners, pilots who were rated on the 757 could also be qualified to fly the 767, and vice versa. Similar to the process in place at Boeing’s chief competitor Airbus, Boeing farmed out about half of the aircraft’s components to manufacturers across the US, and final assembly took place at Boeing’s facility in Renton, Washington.
The prototype rolled out on January 13, 1982, and the 757 took its maiden flight one week ahead of schedule. Months of testing following, and the 757 performed better than expected. The aircraft had come out 3,600 pounds lighter than projected, and the Rolls-Royce engines burned 3% less fuel than expected, resulting in an 80% improvement in fuel consumption over the 727. Eastern Air Lines made the first commercial flight on January 1, 1983, with British Airways following a month later. Though sales of the 757 were sluggish throughout the 1980s, development of the 757 continued, first with the 757-200PF freighter, followed by the 757-300, a stretched version that can accommodate as many as 295 passengers in a single class configuration, making it the longest single-aisle twin-jet ever produced. The 757 has proven to be a useful and powerful workhorse and, in 1991, in a display of the 757's short field prowess, and in a testament to the power of modern jet engines, a 757 took off from the Gonggar Airport in Tibet at an elevation of 11,621 feet, circled and landed safely, all while flying on a single engine. The 757 has also proven popular as a flying testbed, and the US Air Force has adopted the airliner as the C-32, a VIP aircraft that, among other duties, is used to transport the Vice President of the United States.
With the arrival of the latest versions of the 737 and the 787 Dreamliner, Boeing decided to shutter the 757 production line in 2005 after building 1,050 aircraft. However, the cyclical nature of airliner demand has come back around, and Boeing now finds itself lacking any offerings in the size and range of the 757, and under intense competition from Airbus with their A321LR. Boeing revealed plans in June of 2017 for their yet-to-be named “new midsize airplane,” or NMA, which would fill the gap left by the 757 and likely be named the 797. That aircraft, though, is still at least eight years away, and Boeing has delayed an official announcement about the airliner until 2020.
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 aircraft also damaged a aircraft and 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 fitted 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 17, 1864 – The birth of Hilda Beatrice Hewlett who, in 1911, became the first British woman to earn a pilot license. After attending her first aviation meeting at Blackpool in 1909, Hewlett adopted the pseudonym “Grace Bird” and began studying aeronautics, and later opened a flying school at the Brooklands racing circuit with business partner Gustav Blondeau. Among her pupils was Thomas Sopwith, founder of the Sopwith Aviation Company. Hewlett also taught her son to fly, and he went on to a distinguished career in the military and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in 1915. The company she formed with Blondeau began building Farman, Caudron and Hanriot aircraft, eventually producing more than 800 aircraft and employing 700 workers. Hewlett died in 1943.
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, and 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 by November 2011.
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, B-2 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). In this, the first of five “captive-inactive” flights, the Shuttle was unmanned, and engineers tested 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 their 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 (only nine reached the target), escorted by 14 Hawker Typhoons, took off from Hunsdon Airfield in southeast England and, despite terrible weather, succeeded in breaching the walls of the prison. Of the 717 prisoners, 37 were killed in the raid, and 74 were wounded, but 258 escaped, including 79 Resistance fighters, though two-thirds of the escapees were soon recaptured. Three Mosquitos and two Typhoons were lost, with three pilots killed and three captured. As a reprisal for the raid, the Nazis executed 260 prisoners, and there remains controversy over the necessity of the mission.
February 19, 2002 – The first flight of the Embraer E170, a single-aisle, twin-engined regional airliner produced by Brazilian firm Embraer and the first of the company’s E-Jet family of commercial and business airliners. Launched at the Paris Air Show in 1999, the E170 entered service in 2002 and has been one of the more successful undertakings by Embraer. The E170 features four-abreast seating for up to 78 passengers in a single-class configuration, and its double-bubble fuselage offers enough headroom for passengers to stand in the aisle. A total of 699 E170s, along with its slightly longer E175 variant, have been produced.
February 19, 1965 – The first flight of the Cessna 188, the first in a family of agricultural aircraft that includes the AGwagon, AGpickup, AGtruck, AGhusky, and AGcarryall. Cessna began working on an agricultural aircraft in the 1960s, and borrowed heavily from their Cessna 180 in its design. The single-seat 188 is constructed primarily of aluminum with a strut-braced wing and employs a fiberglass hopper for agricultural chemicals. The series has proven to be wildly successful, and nearly 4,000 AG planes were constructed between 1966-1983. In addition to its agricultural duties, the 188 also serves as a glider and sailplane tug, and is often used to pull advertising banners.
February 19, 1936 – The death of William “Billy” Mitchell. Born December 29, 1879 in France, Mitchell grew up in Wisconsin joined the US Army in 1898 as an infantryman before transferring to the Signal Corps. By the end of WWI, he had risen to command all American air combat units in France and, following the war, Mitchell was a major and vociferous proponent of air power and. In 1921, he organized a landmark demonstration of the effectiveness of air power by using bombers to sink the captured German battleship Ostfriesland, though throughout the orchestrated attacks the Ostfriesland never mounted any defense. As a vehement proponent of strategic bombing, Mitchell espoused the theories of Italian general Giulio Douhet, who advocated that bombers alone would be capable of winning a war by breaking the morale of an enemy’s civilian population. Mitchell’s views had a profound influence on American strategic bombing practices during WWII. He resigned from the Army in 1926 rather than face a court martial for accusing senior commanders of incompetence, though he continued to preach about the power of military aviation, albeit to a less influential audience. Mitchell succumbed to influenza and other ailments at his home in Virginia at age 56.
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