Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from February 27 through March 1.
February 27, 1910 – The birth of Clarence “Kelly” Johnson. The history of aviation boasts a long list of distinguished individuals who played a critical role in the field of aviation, whether it be aircraft design, piloting, or breaking records. Among that pantheon of pioneers, some names stand out above the rest, and one of those is Clarence “Kelly” Johnson,one of the most influential and successful aircraft design engineers of all time. Best known for his work at the Lockheed Corporation, Johnson was responsible for some of the world’s most iconic aircraft, including the P-38 Lightning, the Constellation airliner, P-80 Shooting Star, the F-104 Starfighter, the U-2, the A-12, and the SR-71 Blackbird. To have just one of those classic aircraft on one’s resume would be enough to fill out a career.
Johnson first showed a precocious skill at aircraft design when he won a prize for designing an aircraft when he was just 13 years old. He began his illustrious 50-year career with Lockheed in 1933, when he joined the company after obtaining a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Michigan. His first job was as a tool designer earning $83 a month. Johnson first caught the eye of Lockheed executives when he brought their attention to an instability in the Lockheed Model 10 Electra which he had discovered while performing wind tunnel tests on the twin-engine airliner in graduate school. Johnson proposed a successful fix to the instability problem by suggesting an H tail to replace the traditional stabilizer of the prototype, and his bosses took note. He was then promoted to the rank of aeronautical engineer.
Johnson served in many roles as he worked his way up through Lockheed. He served as a flight test engineer, stress analyst, aerodynamicist, and weight engineer, and after just five years he became a chief research engineer. During WWII, German advances in the area of jet aviation had the US Army Air Forces on the back foot, and they were hard pressed to develop their own high performance jet fighters. Johnson said that he could develop a jet fighter in just six months, a promise he made good on when Lockheed introduced the Shooting Star, America’s first operational jet fighter, in January of 1944 after only 143 days of development (the Shooting Star was a development of America’s first jet fighter, the Bell P-59 Airacomet). In spite of the remarkably short development time, the Shooting Star was too late to see actual combat in WWII, though it would go on to serve with distinction in the Korean War.
Johnson’s rise through the Lockheed Corporation continued after the war, and by 1952 he had become the chief engineer of Lockheed’s Burbank plant, and was appointed Vice President of Research and Development in 1956. In 1958, Johnson was named Vice President of Advanced Development Projects (ADP), a position that would garner Johnson his greatest notariety when the ADP became known as the Skunk Works. Here, Johnson and his team of engineers created many of the aircraft for which he is best known: the supersonic F-104 Starfighter, the high-flying U-2 reconnaissance plane, and the untouchable SR-71 Blackbird. For his work on the F-104 and SR-71, Johnson was awarded two Collier Trophies, an individual feat matched only by another of America’s great aviation pioneers, Glenn Curtiss. Johnson’s other honors and awards are too numerous to mention. Kelly Johnson retired from Lockheed in 1975, though he continued to work as an advisor to his successor, Ben Rich. Johnson died on December 21, 1990 at the age of 80.
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 Russian 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 and 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 the 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 small wings 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 over 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 and the rapid pace of aircraft development, the Thunderjet was retired from frontline Air Force service by the mid-1960s.
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 and, along with its civilian counterpart, the MD 500, remains in production.
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 with the loss of 16 crewmen. Langley went dead in the water and the crew abandoned ship. To prevent the ship from falling into Japanese hands, the escorts targeted her with 4-inch shells and two torpedoes, sending the crippled ship to the bottom. 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 development of aircraft. 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 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.
March 1, 2002 – The launch of the Space Shuttle Columbia on STS-109, the last successful mission of Columbia. STS-109 marked the 27th flight of Columbia and the 108th mission of the Space Shuttle program. The flight was the first for Columbia after undergoing a 2.5 year modification program, and the mission was highlighted by the installation of a new camera, new solar arrays, and a new power unit on the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), the third of five Hubble servicing missions. STS-109 was also the final successful flight of Columbia. The orbiter was lost on February 1, 2003 during STS-107 when it broke apart while reentering Earth’s atmosphere after a piece of insulation foam damaged the wing during launch. Columbia burned up in the atmosphere with the loss of all seven astronauts.
March 1, 1966 – The Soviet space probe Venera 3 crash lands on Venus. The Soviet Venera program was a series of space probes launched between 1961 and 1984 to study the planet Venus. Venera 3 (the lander is the small, cone-shaped portion at the top of the spacecraft) was launched from Baikonur, Kazakhstan on November 16, 1965, and its mission was to land on the surface of our solar system’s second planet to study magnetic fields, cosmic rays, solar plasma and micrometeorites. Unfortunately, radio contact with the probe was lost during landing, and the spacecraft most likely crashed. Nevertheless, the probe has the distinction of being the first manmade spacecraft to impact the surface of another planet.
March 1, 1948 – The first flight of the Curtiss-Wright XF-87 Blackhawk, a prototype all-weather fighter/interceptor developed by the Curtiss-Wright Corporation as a successor to the Northrop P-61 Black Widow. Curtiss-Wright initially proposed a twin-engine jet fighter, but the Air Force rejected their proposal because the engines weren’t powerful enough for the 32,000-pound airframe. So Curtiss-Wright altered their plans to meet the new Army requirement and added two more engines. Flight tests showed the Blackhawk to be an acceptable aircraft, though the first engines were underpowered, and the Blackhawk suffered from buffeting that was never entirely solved. Following an upgrade to more powerful General Electric J47 turbojets, the XF-87 showed promise, and the USAAF placed orders for 57 aircraft, but the Blackhawk ultimately lost out to the Northrop F-89 Scorpion. Only two prototypes were built, and the loss of the Army Air Forces contract led to the demise of Curtiss-Wright.
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