Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from January 15 through January 17.
January 15, 2009 – US Airways Flight 1549 ditches in the Hudson River after bird strikes cripple both engines. The world’s airways can be a crowded place, and when airplanes take to the skies pilots must not only watch out for other aircraft. Planes have to share the skies with the birds who were there first, and bird strikes are a constant danger to aircraft—and birds, it must be said. Bird strikes can cause significant and often expensive damage, though it is rare that a bird strike will bring down a jetliner, in large part because modern jet engines are designed and tested to withstand the ingestion of birds. But rare doesn’t mean never, as the passengers and crew of US Airways Flight 1549 found out.
Flight 1549 was a regularly scheduled flight from New York’s LaGuardia Airport to Charlotte, North Carolina. At the controls of the Airbus A320 (N106US) that day were Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles, along with three flight attendants and 150 passengers. While climbing out of LaGuardia roughly three minutes after takeoff, the Airbus flew through a flock of large Canada geese and both engines abruptly lost power as the airliner passed near the George Washington Bridge over the Hudson River. Skiles was flying the Airbus when it struck the birds at approximately 2,800 feet, and Sullenberger took over the controls while Skiles started the emergency checklist for restarting the engines. Their immediate need was to find a place to land safely, as they quickly lost both altitude and airspeed.
Once alerted to the emergency, ground controllers held all traffic and suggested that the crew return to LaGuardia. Sullenberger quickly assessed the situation and realized that they would never make it back, so he suggested Teterboro Airport in New Jersey. But Teterboro was too far away. Seeing a water ditching as their only hope, Sullenberger calmly told controllers, “We can’t do it. We’re going to be in the Hudson.” As the stricken airliner passed less then 900 feet above the George Washington Bridge, Sullenberger told the passengers to brace for impact and then gently set the A320 down on the surface of the Hudson River off Midtown Manhattan. From bird strike to landing, only three minutes had elapsed.
Despite large holes ripped in the fuselage on impact, the Airbus remained afloat, drifting slowly downstream with the current. Passengers escaped through the overwing emergency exits and waited calmly on the wings for rescue. At the front of the aircraft, other passengers filled exit slides that acted as life rafts when inflated. Ferry boats and other civilian watercraft responded immediately to the ditching, and the first rescue boats arrived four minutes after the plane touched down. Ultimately, all 155 passengers and crew were rescued. Only five were treated for significant injuries, while a few others were treated for hypothermia.
The NTSB investigation determined the probable cause of the accident to be “the ingestion of large birds into each engine, which resulted in an almost total loss of thrust in both engines.” But the report also cited a number of factors that led to the best possible outcome for the plane and its passengers. The flight crew benefited from excellent visibility, and numerous boats on the busy river aided in the swift rescue of passengers. The Airbus also had more safety gear on board than regulations require, and the entire crew exercised excellent crew resource management during the emergency. For their actions, the entire crew received the Master’s Medal of the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators, and NTSB member Kitty Higgins described the landing as “the most successful ditching in aviation history.” The A320 was recovered from the Hudson River and resided in the Carolinas Aviation Museum in Charlotte, North Carolia before the museum’s closure. The museum is currently looking for a new location to house its collection and hopes to reopen in 2022.
January 17, 1991 – Operation Desert Storm begins with a massive air campaign against Iraqi forces in Kuwait and Iraq. It’s difficult to know what Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was thinking when he invaded the tiny nation of Kuwait on Iraq’s southern border on August 2, 1990. Some point to a dispute over slant drilling, with Hussein accusing the Kuwaitis of drilling underneath Iraqi soil from the Kuwaiti side of the border. Others suggest that Hussein was trying to gain riches from Kuwait to offset the huge debt incurred by the Iraqi government following a protracted war with Iran. Or perhaps it was simply hubris on the part of a ruthless dictator. Regardless, the invasion brought swift condemnation from many of the world’s major powers. One day after the invasion, the United Nations passed Resolution 660 calling for the immediate withdrawal of Iraqi troops. When negotiations failed, a coalition of nations led by the United States decided to liberate Kuwait militarily, launching a two-part operation that began with Operation Desert Shield, a massive air assault against Iraqi ground positions. Desert Shield was followed by Operation Desert Storm, when ground forces moved into Kuwait and Iraq.
The air assault began at 2:10 am on the morning of January 17, when Task Force Normandy, a flight of eight Boeing AH-64 Apache attack helicopters led by two Sikorsky MH-53 Pave Low helicopters, destroyed radar sites on the Iraqi border that would have alerted the Iraqi defenses of an impending attack. This was followed with sorties against airfields, radar installations, and Iraqi command and control centers as far north as Baghdad. Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired at the Iraqi capital from ships of the US Navy, and Boeing B-52G Stratofortresses flew all the way from Louisiana to drop their bombs on Iraqi targets.
And while it wasn’t the first time that the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk had flown into battle (two took part in the invasion of Panama in 1989), it was the first time they were employed in large numbers. Flying over Baghdad, one of the most heavily defended cities in the world, the Nighthawks went completely undetected. The only way the Iraqis knew there were bombers in the air was when something blew up on the ground. Employing extremely accurate laser guided bombs, the Nighthawks were able to destroy almost all of the vital command and control centers in the capital on the first night of the campaign. The F-117 was so effective, and invisible to Iraqi defenders, that even though it flew only one percent of all sorties by Coalition forces, Nighthawk pilots accounted for forty percent of all bomb damage, and had an astounding seventy-five percent rate of direct hits. Not one F-117 was struck by enemy fire.
But it wasn’t all stealth fighters doing the work. More than 1,000 sorties were flown that first night, including Grumman EF-111A Raven electronic warfare planes that escorted McDonnell Douglas F-15E Strike Eagles to bomb Iraqi airfields. During that mission, one of the Ravens scored a kill against an Iraqi Dassault Mirage F-1 when the Mirage’s pilot crashed while maneuvering to avoid the Raven. This marked the only time an F-111 achieved an aerial victory over an opponent. US Navy fighters and attack aircraft also took part in the action and, in one instance, two McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornets, on their way to attack Iraqi oil fields, dispatched two Iraqi MiG-21 fighters before continuing to the target and dropping their bombs. Though the bulk of combat missions were flown by the US, British Tornado and Jaguar fighters played an important role in attacking air fields and ground targets. French Jaguars and Mirage F1s also pressed the ground attack, while Mirage 2000 fighters provided cover for the bombers. Canadian forces flying the CF-18 Hornet took part in escort and ground attack missions.
The air campaign continued until February 23 and, by the time the Coalition ground forces entered Kuwait, the much vaunted Iraqi air force had either been completely destroyed or fled, and command of Iraqi troops was virtually impossible. In a lightning “hail Mary” sweep through southern Iraq led by tank-busting A-10 Thunderbolt II attack aircraft, Coalition forces surrounded and cut off the Iraqi army. Retreating Iraqi forces were decimated by aerial attacks by Coalition aircraft on the so-called Highway of Death, killing anywhere from 2,000-10,000 Iraqi invaders. Operation Desert Storm had taken a mere 100 hours to liberate Kuwait. In all, Coalition forces lost 52 fixed-wing aircraft (39 in combat) and 23 helicopters (five lost in combat), with 46 pilots and crew killed or missing. Though some Iraqi pilots chose to flee to Iran rather than fight, the Iraqi air force lost 259 aircraft, while as many as 12,000 soldiers were killed along with an estimated 3,000 civilians.
January 15, 1950 – The death of Henry Harley “Hap” Arnold. Born in 1886 in Gladwyne, PA, Arnold was an American aviation pioneer who took flying lessons from the Wright Brothers, was one of the world’s first military pilots, and was one of the first three rated pilots in the history of the US Air Force. During WWI, Arnold oversaw the expansion of the US Army Air Service, and was a student of strategic bombing proponent Billy Mitchell. During WWII, Arnold served as Commanding General of the US Army Air Forces, was the only Air Force general to hold a five-star rank, and the only general to hold a five-star rank in two different U.S. military services (US Army Air Forces and the US Air Force).
January 15, 1943 – The first flight of the Vultee XP-54, nicknamed Swoose Goose, one of the radical designs that came out of the US Army’s R-40C request for aircraft that pushed the boundaries of aircraft design at the time. Originally designed as a heavily armed, high speed fighter, lackluster performance from the underpowered engine caused the concept to be changed to that of a heavily armed interceptor. The XP-54 featured a unique nose that could be raised or lowered depending on whether the machine guns or cannon, with its lower muzzle velocity, was being fired. Two prototypes were built before the project was canceled.
January 15, 1937 – The first flight of the Beechcraft Model 18, a light, twin engined aircraft produced by Beech from 1937 to 1970, a production run that set a world record for its time. During WWII, more than 4,500 Beech 18s saw service with the US Army Air Forces where it was designated the C-45 Expeditor, AT-7 Navigator and AT-11 Kansan, and the US Navy, where it was known as the UC-45J Navigator and the SNB Kansan. More than 90-percent of Army Air Forces bombardiers and navigators trained in the Beech 18. Following the war, the Beech 18 became a popular executive aircraft, served as a small airliner, and was used in all manner of testing and commercial flying. More than 9,000 were built during its 23-year production run, and many still fly today, with some even being used for aerobatics.
January 16, 1969 – The docking of Soyuz 4 and Soyuz 5, the first time that two spacecraft docked in space and transferred crew from one ship to the other. Soyuz 4, piloted by a single cosmonaut, blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on January 14. Soyuz 5 blasted off one day later with a crew of three cosmonauts. All four cosmonauts were flying on their first mission into space. Soyuz 4 and 5 successfully docked on January 16 and, on the 65th orbit of the Earth, two cosmonauts from Soyuz 5 performed a space walk to transfer to Soyuz 4, as a docking tube had not yet been developed. Soyuz 4 and 5 returned to Earth on January 17 and 18 respectively. The Americans had made their first successful docking in orbit on July 19, 1966 during Gemini 10, when the crew docked with an unmanned Agena Target Vehicle.
January 17, 1963 – The first flight of the Short SC.7 Skyvan, a 19-seat, twin turboprop utility aircraft developed by Short Brothers (Shorts) of Northern Ireland. The SC.7 was inspired by the Miles Aerovan, and the impetus for developing the Skyvan came about when Miles Aircraft approached Shorts with the idea of developing the Aerovan. Shorts went about building their own aircraft instead, though the two designs do share certain similarities. The Skyvan’s cavernous fuselage makes it ideal for cargo hauling and skydiving, and it was later developed into the Short 330 and 360 which were used as commuter airliners. A total of 153 Skyvans were produced between 1963-1986.
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