Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from February 9 through February 12.
February 9, 1969 – The first flight of the Boeing 747. Boeing was in the forefront of the burgeoning era of commercial jet aviation in the 1960s, and their 707 airliner was the first to take advantage of the swept wing and podded engine design that they had pioneered with the B-47 Stratojet. But following the introduction of the 707, and the rival Douglas DC-8, airlines clamored for even larger aircraft, as air travel became more and more popular. Juan Trippe, the head of Pan American Airlines, pressed Boeing to develop an airliner that would carry twice as many passengers as the 707, and at greater distances, relying on the newer, more efficient high-bypass turbofan engines. And, just like the 707, which grew out of the Air Force’s requirement for a jet tanker, the 747 finds its roots in a proposal for a military aircraft.
In 1963, the Air Force wanted to develop a new, high-capacity cargo aircraft as part of the CX-Heavy Logistics System (CX-HLS) program. One of the terms of the contract stated that the aircraft must have a door in the nose that could be raised to load cargo. Boeing’s solution was to house the cockpit in a pod above the cargo bay that stretched aft to the front of the wing root, which was set high on the fuselage. Lockheed eventually won the competition with their C-5 Galaxy, but some of what Boeing put into its CX-HLS contender was transferred to their new airliner, though ultimately, the 747 would be a completely new design
In just 28 months, Boeing developed what would come to be known as the Jumbo Jet, and the prototype was rolled out of Boeing’s Everett, Washington facility on September 30, 1968. Boeing had originally considered a fully double-deck airliner, a carry-over from the CX-HLS, but that idea was dropped over concerns for emergency evacuation. However, they retained the idea of the cockpit being placed over top of the fuselage, an arrangement which allowed the entire length of the plane to be filled with passengers. Thus, the 747 gained its classic and signature hump, and the space behind the cockpit was originally envisioned as a lounge without fixed seats. In a hedge against future airliner developments, including the possibility of supersonic transports supplanting large airliners, Boeing purposely developed the 747 so it could carry both passengers and compartmentalized freight.
The initial 747-100 accommodated 366 passengers in a 3-class configuration, but in a single-class configuration it could hold 480, or even up to 550. Later developments of the 747 increased the aircraft’s size and payload. The 747-400, which is the most common variant in service today, has room for 412 passengers in a 3-class arrangement, but can carry as many as 660 at maximum. The latest version, the 747-8, shares the same modern cockpit and engines as the Boeing 787, hence the “8" suffix. The fuselage bubble was extended, and it holds the distinction as the longest passenger aircraft in the world, though the Airbus A380 has a wider wingspan. In its passenger configuration, the 747-8 boosts 3-class accommodation up to 467 passengers. As a freighter, it has a total payload capacity of 308,000 pounds. However, production of the 747-8 has been scaled back, and Boeing only expects to build a total of 136, with two-thirds of those being the 747-8F freighter.
On January 15, 1970, First Lady Pat Nixon christened the first 747 for launch customer Pan Am at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, DC, and that aircraft entered service on January 22, 1970 with an inaugural flight from New York to London. 747s eventually flew for every major American air carrier, and for many more the world over. Boeing held a monopoly on the wide-body airliner market until the arrival of the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 in 1971, but even then, the DC-10 did not have the passenger capacity of the 747. The US military flies the 747 as a command and control aircraft in the E-4 Sentry, and as transportation for the President of the United States as the VC -25, known popularly as Air Force One.
Though the 747 has proven to be extremely successful, the era of the four-engine airliner is coming to a close. Advances in jet propulsion, as well as changing economies of air travel, have made the twin-engine airliner more practical and economical. In January 2018, Delta Airlines became the last major American air carrier to retire its fleet of 747s, while others remain in limited service with airlines throughout the world, though the majority of aircraft still operating are used to haul cargo. Though Boeing’s hedge of making the 747 a cargo hauler wasn’t needed in the 1970s, it has proven to be a savvy move that will keep the 747 in the air for some time to come, long after the passenger variants have been retired from service.
February 9, 1963 – The first flight of the Boeing 727. When the four-engine Boeing 707 entered service in 1958, it opened up the world with transoceanic passenger service. But just a year after the arrival of the 707, airlines identified a need for a short- to medium-haul aircraft that would be capable of operations from smaller airports with shorter runways. United Airlines wanted a new four-engine airliner that could operated from high-altitude airports. After all, their hub in Denver, Colorado sits a mile above sea level. American Airlines wanted an airliner with just two engines that would be more economical to operate, and Eastern Air Lines wanted an airliner with three engines (or at least more than two) because federal regulations at the time limited overwater flights to aircraft with more than two engines (ETOPS). The three-engine 727 was Boeing’s attempt to cater to each airline.
Boeing felt that the solution was to split the difference between two and four engines and develop an airliner with three engines and, to get started, they turned to their tried and true 707. To save development costs, the 727 borrowed the upper fuselage cross-section and cockpit from the 707. The three Pratt & Whitney JT8D low-bypass turbofan engines were mounted on the rear of the aircraft, with the third engine on the aircraft centerline and fed with air through a distinctive S-duct air inlet in the vertical stabilizer. These engines were much louder than newer high-bypass turbofans, and the 727 was one of the loudest airliners in service. It was classified as a Stage 2 by the US Noise Contol Act of 1972, while newer, quieter engines were classified as Stage 3. This meant that operation of the 727 was limited in some high-population areas to certain times of the day or not allowed at all at some airports. Boeing investigated the possibility of modifying the 727 to accept quieter Stage 3 engines, but it would have meant an entire redesign of the aft fuselage. Instead, the JT8Ds were outfitted with hush kits, and other changes to the wings, to help reduce noise.
The original 727-100 accommodated up to 131 passengers, and the later stretched 727-200 increased capacity to as many as 189 passengers in a single-class configuration. Eastern Airlines took delivery of the first 727 on February 1, 1964, and the new airliner became very popular worldwide. The third engine allowed for longer flights over water and internationally, and the extra lifting power provided by the third engine made the 727 popular among freight carriers. With its engines mounted at the rear, the entire wing was available for the use of high-lift devices which allowed the 727 to operate from shorter runways. This made it ideal for smaller regional and more remote airports. And the addition of a built-in retractable stairway at the rear, called an airstair, made it popular at smaller airports with limited infrastructure. The 727-200 Advanced brought more powerful engines for both the passenger airliner and its freighter version which increased the maximum takeoff weight and extended range by 50-percent.
The 727 was operated by airlines of 45 nations and was the first commercial airliner to sell over 1,000 aircraft. It proved popular with start up airlines, and many more purchased the airliner second hand. 727 production lasted from 1963 to 1984, and Boeing built over 1,800 aircraft in three variants. The final 727, a cargo version, was delivered to Federal Express in September 1984. As more economical twin-engine airliners began to take over the market, most airlines began phasing out the 727. Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines both retired their last 727s in 2003, but others soldiered on in both passenger and cargo roles. On January 13, 2019, Iran Aseman Airlines carried out the last passenger flight of the 727 from Zahedan (ZAH) to Tehran’s Mehrabad International Airport (THR).
February 10, 1962 – American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers is exchanged for Soviet KGB spy Rudolf Abel. In the early days of the Cold War, the United States was desperate for timely, accurate intelligence on Russian military plans. By 1960, rudimentary satellite imagery was availble, but it was unreliable, and not at all timely. Since the end of WWII, US aircraft had been probing the edges of the Soviet Union to measure the Russian response, and many American spy planes were shot down. So work began on an aircraft that could fly high above Russia, take pictures of military installations, missile tests, or other high-value assets, then return quickly to have the images analyzed. The Skunk Works at Lockheed, under the direction of Kelly Johnson, produced just what the American government needed in the U-2, an aircraft that was capable of flying at 70,000 feet, immune to interception by enemy aircraft. But as Soviet missile technology improved, the US knew it was just a matter of time before one of their pilots was shot down.
On May 1, 1960, Francis Gary Powers, a U-2 pilot flying for the CIA, took off from Pakistan and flew northward to photograph ICBM sites at the Baikonur Cosmodrome and the Plesetsk Cosmodrome before continuing north for a landing in Norway. Thinking that the U-2 could fly with impunity, Powers was flying a predictable route. Soon after takeoff, his aircraft was detected near Chelyabinsk and fighters were sent to intercept it. Try as they might, the fighters were unable to reach the spy plane at its extreme altitude. The Russians launched eight SA-2 Guideline missiles, one of which felled a Soviet fighter. Another struck the U-2. Powers ejected, but the plane came to earth relatively intact. He chose not to take the poison pill that the CIA provided him with, though its use was optional.
At first, the US denied that Powers was on a spy mission, saying instead that it was an errant “weather plane.” But it was impossible to maintain the ruse, and the incident was another blow to already-brittle US-Soviet relations. Powers plead guilty at what was essentially a propaganda show trial and was convicted of espionage. He was sentenced of ten years in prison, which included seven years of hard labor. However, Powers served only 21 months of his sentence. On February 10, 1962, Powers was exchanged for KGB spy Rudolf Abel, who had been convicted for espionage in what was known as the Hollow Nickel Case. The prisoner exchange took place on the Glienicke Bridge between East and West Germany, a location that was the site of seven prisoner exchanges during the Cold War. After his release, Powers returned to the US and worked as a Lockheed test pilot until 1970, but was killed in 1977 when the news helicopter he was piloting crashed while covering a brush fire. The swap of Powers for Abel was dramatized in the 2015 Hollywood film Bridge of Spies.
February 9, 1977 – The death of Sergey Ilyushin, a Soviet aircraft designer and founder of the Ilyushin Design Bureau. Ilyushin was born in 1894, the youngest of 11 children, and son of a factory laborer. He served in WWI in the infantry before volunteering for an aviation unit, where he worked as a mechanic. In 1921, Ilyushin entered the Zhukovsky Air Force Engineering Academy where he received a degree in engineering and went to work at the Central Aerodynamic Institute, known as TsAGI. There he worked with famed aircraft designers Nikolai Polikarpov and Andrei Tupolev, and designed the Il-2 Sturmovik and Il-4 bomber, both of which saw extensive service in WWII. Following the war, Ilyushin concentrated on the development of passenger aircraft, the most successful being the Il-18 turboprop airliner and Il-62 passenger jet.
February 9, 1972 – The first flight of the Boeing E-3 Sentry. Better known as AWACS, an acronym for Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C), the Sentry is derived from the Boeing 707 and provides surveillance, command and control of military assets in the air and on the ground, and coordinates communications between the various forces in the combat theater. The Sentry was developed in the late 1960s to replace the Lockheed EC-121 Warning Star, which was based on the Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation. After entering service with the USAF in 1977, the Sentry has flown during all major US military conflicts, and has also been exported to France, Britain, and Saudi Arabia. The Sentry also flies under the flag of the North Atlatic Treaty Organization (NATO), with 13 aircraft based in Luxembourg. A total of 70 Sentries were built between 1977-1992.
February 10, 1967 – The first flight of the Dornier Do 31. In the early 1960s, German aircraft manufacturer EWR (Entwicklungsring Süd) began work on the EWR VJ 101, a project to develop a supersonic VTOL jet fighter, and the Do 31 was intended as a VTOL support aircraft for the fighter. The design employed a total of 10 engines: two vectored thrust Pegasus engines mounted in inboard nacelles, and four Rolls-Royce RB162 lift engines in a nacelle mounted at the end of each wing. The first prototype was built for level flight only, but the third prototype employed all 10 engines and made its first hovering flight in November 1967, and the first transition to forward and backward flight in December 1967. The Do 31 became the world’s only VTOL cargo aircraft, but the project was canceled in 1970.
February 11, 2008 – The death of Frank Piasecki, an engineer and pioneer in the development of tandem rotor helicopters well as the creator of the concept of a compound helicopter which uses vectored thrust from a ducted propeller (VTDP). Piasecki founded the Piasecki Helicopter Corporation in 1940 and produced the PV-2, the second successful helicopter in the US after the Sikorsky VS-300. He followed that with a series of tandem rotor helicopters, including the H-21 Shawnee, which served in Vietnam as a troop transport until 1964. By 1956, Piasecki was ousted from the company he founded, so he started a new company called Piasecki Aircraft (his former company became Vertol, and was eventually sold to Boeing). Currently, Piasecki Aircraft is working on the X-49 Speedhawk, a Sikorsky YSH-60F Seahawk, that was modified to use a VTDP tail to achieve higher speeds than a traditional helicopter.
February 11, 2000 – The death of Jacqueline Auriol, a pioneering French aviatrix. Born in 1917, Auriol aided the French Resistance during WWII, earned her pilot license in 1948, and performed as a stunt flier and test pilot. After earning her military pilot license in 1950, Auriol qualified as one the first female test pilots, and became one of the first women to break the sound barrier. She went on to set five world speed records in the 1950s and 1960s. Auriol is a four-time winner of the prestigious Harmon Trophy for outstanding accomplishments in aviation, and a founding member of the Académie de l’air et de l’espace.
February 11, 1976 – The death of Alexander Martin Lippisch. Lippisch was born in 1894 in Munich, Germany, and became one of the world’s leading aerodynamicists and aeronautical engineers. He was one of the earliest designers to work with delta wings and flying wings, and also made important discoveries in the area of ground effect. Lippisch was active during WWII, designing high-speed fighters for the Luftwaffe, including the Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet, the war’s only operational rocket-powered fighter. Lippisch was brought to America following the war, where his work with delta wings influenced early Convair designs such as the XF-92.
February 12, 2001 – The NEAR Shoemaker spacecraft becomes the first spacecraft to land on an asteroid. The Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous robotic space probe, whose name was them appended with Shoemaker in honor planetary scientist Eugene Shoemaker, was launched on February 17, 1996 and sent to study the near-Earth asteroid 433 Eros. After first orbiting the asteroid, the space probe landed on the comet on February 12, 2001. The mission was launched to gain up-close data on the composition of the asteroid and, following a gentle touchdown on the surface of Eros, the spacecraft continued to transmit data to Earth until February 28, 2001.
February 12, 1973 – US Air Force Lockheed C-141 Starlifter Hanoi Taxi brings the first US prisoners of war home from Vietnam. The United States became involved in the Vietnam War in 1955, and over the course of more than seventeen years of conflict nearly 600 American military personnel were taken prisoner. The vast majority were US Air Force, Marine, and Navy pilots who were shot down on missions over the North or areas of the South held by Communist troops. The Paris Peace Accords, signed on January 27, 1973 officially ended the war, and the repatriation of American POWs began the following month. On February 12, 1973, three Lockheed C-141 Starlifters landed in Hanoi while one McDonnell Douglas C-9 Nightingale was sent to the former South Vietnam. The first group of freed prisoners left Hanoi aboard a C-141 nicknamed Hanoi Taxi, the first of 54 missions flown by Starlifters to return 591 American POWs. The last POWs departed Vietnam on April 4, 1973. The Hanoi Taxi is now on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Ohio.
February 12, 1935 – The crash of the rigid airship USS Macon (ZRS-5). Macon and her sister ship USS Akron (ZRS-4) were rigid airships flown by the US Navy for reconnaissance and as flying aircraft carriers. Akron crashed during a thunderstorm on April 4, 1933 with the loss of 73 members of its 76-man crew, the second loss of a US Navy dirigible after USS Shenandoah (ZR-1). While returning from fleet maneuvers, Macon encountered a thunderstorm near Point Sur, California and was damaged by wind shear. The commander ordered that ballast be discharged, and Macon climbed to nearly 5,000 feet before beginning a 20-minute descent to the Pacific Ocean. Based on lessons learned from the crash of Akron, all of the crewmen were wearing life jackets, and only two were lost. Nevertheless, sealed the fate of the dirigible in Navy service, though the use of non-rigid blimps continued into the 1960s.
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