Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from February 26 through February 28.
February 28, 1946 – The first flight of the Republic F-84 Thunderjet. The history of Republic Aviation begins with Alexander de Serversky, a WWI veteran and émigré from Russia who started an airplane factory in the US that bore his name. True to his roots, he hired a number of designers from his home country, one of whom was Alexander Kartveli, a native of Tbilisi, Georgia. When Seversky was forced out as the head of the Seversky Aero Company in 1939, the company reorganized as Republic Aviation. But Kartveli stayed on and became the company’s chief engineer and designed the P-47 Thunderbolt, arguably one of the best fighter-bombers of WWII.
By 1944, Kartveli had begun initial design work on an aircraft that would be powered by the new centrifugal compressor turbojet which had been pioneered separately by Frank Whittle in England and Hans von Ohain in Germany. At first, Kartveli experimented with putting the engine into the fuselage of a P-47, but it proved too bulky, and the concept was abandoned. On September 11, 1944, the US Army Air Forces issued a requirement for a new day fighter powered by the General Electric/Allison J35 axial flow turbojet, a much slimmer engine that was more suited to being placed inside the fuselage of a slender jet. The new fighter was required to have a top speed of 600 mph and to be armed with either six .50 caliber or four .60 caliber machine guns.
The USAAF ordered three prototypes from Republic, the first of which took its maiden flight on February 28, 1946. The second prototype flew six months later and immediately established a new world record speed of 611 mph. Instead of building a third prototype, the Air Force purchased sixteen preproduction YF-84s for testing. Production began in earnest in 1947 with the F-84B, which was fitted with wingtip fuel tanks for increased range as well as an ejection seat. The Air Force received the first Thunderjets in 1947, but teething problems plagued the new fighter. Operational speeds were limited to Mach 0.8 due to problems with control reversal, and acceleration was limited to 5.5g due to wrinkling of the fuselage skin. These problems were exacerbated by a chronic shortage of parts for the Allison engines, and the entire F-84B fleet was grounded in 1948 because of structural failures. The situation looked grim for the Thunderjet, and there was talk of canceling the entire program. Fortunately for Republic, many of the structural problems were already being addressed in the F-84D, which featured thicker, stronger wings, an upgraded and winterized fuel system, and the addition of winglets to the wingtip fuel tanks to eliminate stress on the wings during high G maneuvers.
Despite its initial shortcomings, the F-84 served with distinction in the Korean War. Thunderjets were used as bomber escorts, and though it was outmatched by the Russian-built swept-wing MiG-15, the F-84 scored its first air-to-air victory in 1951, though two other Thunderjets were lost in the encounter. Ultimately, F-84 pilots claimed victories over eight MiG-15s during the course of 86,408 sorties. Armed with bombs and rockets to supplement its machine guns, the Thunderjet became a potent ground attack aircraft, claiming 60% of all ground targets destroyed during the war and dropping 55,586 tons of bombs.
The F-84 was also the first American fighter to be refueled in midair, and modified Thunderjets were used as part of the FICON project (Fighter Conveyor) which explored the use of large bombers to ferry escort fighters attached at the wings or slung beneath the fuselage. The Thunderjet was widely exported to America’s allies, and it was also the first aircraft flown by the US Air Force Thunderbirds demonstration team from 1953-1955. Just over 7,500 Thunderjets of all variants were produced, and its basic design served as the foundation for the swept-wing F-84F Thunderstreak and RF-84F Thunderflash. With the advent of swept-wing fighters, the Thunderjet was retired from frontline Air Force service by the mid-1960s.
February 26, 1979 – Production of the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk ends. With delivery of an A-4M Skyhawk II to Marine Squadron VMA-331, Douglas closed the book on 25 years of production of one of the most versatile attack jets ever to serve the US Navy and Marine Corps. Designed as a replacement for the Douglas AD (A-1) Skyraider, the Skyhawk was a small yet powerful jet capable of delivering both conventional and nuclear weapons and, despite its diminutive size, the A-4 could carry a heavier payload than a B-17 Flying Fortress. Known to its pilots as the Bantam Bomber, Mighty Mite and Scooter, the Skyhawk was also nicknamed Heinemann’s Hot Rod after its designer Ed Heinemann and in homage to its excellent performance. The A-4 entered service in 1956 and first saw combat over Vietnam in 1964. Until the arrival of the LTV A-7 Corsair II, the Skyhawk served as the Navy’s primary ground attack aircraft, though the Marines continued to fly their Skyhawks. After retirement from fleet duty in 1991, the Skyhawk found a new lease on life as an adversary aircraft at the Navy’s Fighter Weapons School (commonly called Top Gun). The A-4 was chosen as the bandit aircraft because of its small size, excellent maneuverability and smokeless trail, often playing the role of the MiG-17. The Blue Angels also flew the Skyhawk from 1974 to 1986, and the last operational A-4s were retired in 2003. When production ended, Douglas had delivered a total of 2,960 copies of the plucky attacker in a host of variants.
February 26, 1937 – The first flight of the Fiat G.50 Freccia, a single-engine fighter flown by the Italian Air Force (Regia Aeronautica) in WWII and Italy’s first single-seat all-metal monoplane. It was also the first Italian aircraft to enter production with retractable landing gear and an enclosed cockpit. The Freccia (Arrow) was powered by a 14-cylinder Fiat A.74 radial engine and, with a maximum speed of 292 mph, was considered quite fast for its day. It was also highly maneuverable, but suffered from a lack of firepower provided by its pair of 12.7mm machine guns. The Freccia first saw service in the Battle of Britain, but it was far outclassed by more modern fighters. They were somewhat more successful fighting in the Mediterranean, but the type found its greatest success in the hands of Finnish pilots, who enjoyed a 33/1 kill ratio against Russian fighters.
February 27, 1965 – The first flight of the Antonov An-22 Antei, a four-engine cargo and transport aircraft and the world’s largest turboprop-powered aircraft. The An-22, NATO reporting name Cock, is also the first wide-body aircraft developed by the Soviet Union. The An-22 was developed as a strategic airlifter, specifically to deliver airborne troops and their armored vehicles. The An-22 is powered by four Kuznetsov NK-12 turboprops turning contra-rotating propellors and can carry 290 passengers or 80,000 pounds of payload while operating from rough or unimproved airstrips. The An-22 was introduced in 1967 and remains in active service, though it is gradually being replaced by the jet-powered Antonov An-124.
February 27, 1963 – The first flight of the Hughes OH-6 Cayuse, a small helicopter used by the US Army for personnel transport, escort, attack missions, and observation. Developed from a 1960 US Army request for a light observation helicopter (LOH, commonly called “Loach”), the Cayuse was the winner in a competition between Hughes and Fairchild-Hiller, with Hughes awarded a production contract in 1965. When all fixed-wing aircraft were transferred to the US Air Force in 1964, the Cayuse replaced the Cessna O-1 Bird Dog as the Army’s primary reconnaissance aircraft in Vietnam. The OH-6 also set 23 world records for speed, endurance, and time to climb. It remains in production along with its civilian counterpart, the MD 500.
February 27, 1945 – The first flight of the Curtiss XF15C, a prototype mixed-propulsion US Navy fighter that was powered by a Pratt & Whitney R-2800 18-cylinder radial in the front (the same engine used in the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, Vought F4U Corsair and Grumman F6F Hellcat) and an Allis-Chalmers J36 turbojet in the rear (the J36 was an American license-built version of the British Goblin turbojet). Three prototypes were built, and while the arrangement showed promise, rapid advances in jet engine development caused the Navy to lose interest in the mixed-power concept and the project was canceled in 1946. The first airframe was lost to a landing accident, the second was scrapped, and the third is part of the collection of the Hickory Aviation Museum in Hickory, North Carolina.
February 27, 1942 – USS Langley (CV-1, AV-1), the United States’ first aircraft carrier, is attacked by Japanese aircraft and scuttled off the southern coast of Java. Langley was commissioned in 1922 as America’s first aircraft carrier (CV-1), and was recommissioned in 1937 as a seaplane tender (AV-1). At the outbreak of WWII, Langley was stationed off the Philippines, but steamed to Australia to keep ahead of the Japanese advance and to pick up a load of aircraft and pilots. Just before noon on February 27, Langley and her two escort ships came under attack from a flight of 16 Japanese Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” bombers and was struck by five bombs that damaged the ship and killed 16 crewmen. Langley went dead in the water and the crew abandoned ship. To prevent the ship from falling into Japanese hands, the escort ships targeted her with 4-inch shells and two torpedoes, sending the crippled ship to the bottom of the sea. The rescued crew were transferred to the escort ship USS Edsall (DD-219) and cargo ship USS Pecos (AO-6), but most were lost when those ships were sunk two days later while returning to Australia.
February 28, 1959 – The first flight of the Aérospatiale Alouette III, a single-engine utility helicopter developed by Sud Aviation as an enlarged variant of the earlier Alouette II. Principal production of the Alouette III was performed by Aérospatiale, and the helicopter was also built under license in India and Romania. Over 2,000 copies of the Alouette III were produced between 1961-1985, and it remains in production in India. With a crew of two pilots, the Alouette III has space for five passengers and is used primarily for civilian or troop transport and search and rescue (SAR), though a number of variants were developed into helicopter gunships by Romania and South Africa.
February 28, 1949 – The first flight of the Dassault Ouragan, the first French-designed jet fighter to enter production. As an occupied country during WWII, France was largely left out of the rapid wartime development of aircraft. Following the war, designer Marcel Dassault and the Ouragan (Hurricane) were instrumental in reestablishing France as a player in the world of modern aircraft design and production. The Ouragan was powered by a single Rolls-Royce Nene turbojet, had a top speed of 584 mph, and was armed with four 20mm cannons. It could also carry up to 16 rockets or 5,000 pounds of bombs. When it entered service in 1941, the Ouragan replaced the de Havilland Vampire with the Armée de l’Air, and also served in India, Israel and El Salvador.
February 28, 1947 – The crew of a North American F-82 Twin Mustang sets a world record for the longest and fastest flight of a piston-powered fighter. To demonstrate the long distance capabilities of the F-82, US Army Air Forces pilot Captain Robert Thacker, with co-pilot Lieutenant John Ard, flew from Hickam Field in Hawaii to La Guardia Field in New York City in a North American F-82B Twin Mustang nicknamed Betty Jo (they took off on the 27th, but landed on the 28th). The nonstop flight, without aerial refueling, lasted just over 14 hours at an average speed of 342 mph. Thacker’s and Ard’s flight set the world record for the longest non-stop flight by a piston-powered fighter, as well as the fastest non-stop flight by piston-powered aircraft from Hawaii to New York City, both records that still stand to this day. Betty Jo is now on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.
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