Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from January 17 through January 19.


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. Others point to huge debt incurred by the Iraqi government following the protracted war with Iran. Or perhaps it was simply hubris on the part of a ruthless dictator. Regardless, the invasion brought swift condemnation from all of the world’s major powers and. 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 US, decided that the only solution was to retake Kuwait militarily, launching a two-part operation to liberate Kuwait that began Operation Desert Shield, a massive air assault against Iraqi ground positions, followed by Operation Desert Storm, when ground forces moved into Kuwait and Iraq.

An F-117 Nighthawk drops a laser-guided bomb.

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 US Navy ships and Boeing B-52G Stratofortresses flew all the way from Louisiana to drop their bombs. 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 had been employed in large numbers. Flying over Baghdad, one of the most heavily defended cities in the world, the Nighthawks were completely undetected. The only way the Iraqis knew there were bombers in the air was when something blew up. With extremely accurate laser guided bombs, the Nighthawks were able to destroy almost all of the vital command and control centers in the capital in a single night. The F-117 was so effective, and invisible to Iraqi defenders, that even though it flew only 1-percent of all sorties by coalition forces, its pilots accounted for 40-percent of all bomb damage, and had an astounding 75-percent rate of direct hits. Not one F-117 was struck by enemy fire.

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The true multinational effort of Desert Shield/Desert Storm is illustrated in this formation flight. From left to right: a Qatari Mirage F1, a French Mirage F1, a U.S. Air Force F-16C Fighting Falcon, a Canadian CF-18A Hornet and a Qatari Alpha Jet.

But it wasn’t all stealth fighters doing the work. As part of the more than 1,000 sorties flown that first night, Grumman EF-111A Raven electronic warfare planes 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 its low level maneuvering to avoid the Raven caused the pilot to crash. This marks 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 then continued their mission and dropped 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. Coalition forces had complete control of the battle space, and the campaign to liberate Kuwait took a mere 100 hours. In all, coalition forces lost 52 fixed-wing aircraft (39 lost in combat) and 23 helicopters (five helicopters lost in combat). Iraq by comparisonhad lost 259 aircraft. (US Air Force photo)


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January 19, 1946 – The first flight of the Bell X-1. During WWII, the piston engine reached the zenith of its development, and jet engines became the powerplant of the future. But for aircraft designers, the jets still weren’t fast enough, and the race was on to develop an aircraft that could exceed the speed of sound, even though nobody really knew if it was possible. The British were initially at the forefront of the effort, with Miles Aircraft working with the British Ministry of Aviation to develop a turbojet engine that could reach 1,000 mph and soar to 36,000 feet. While rocket-powered models of the Miles M.52 were built, the ministry canceled the project in favor of development of the English Electric Lightning. However, one significant breakthrough to come out of the M.52 program was the all-moving stabilator. Traditional aircraft used moving elevators fitted to the trailing edge of the horizontal stabilizer. But at supersonic speeds, the elevators could not be moved, so Miles employed a system where the entire horizontal tailplane moved, making control at high speeds possible. This discovery would play an important role in the development of the X-1, and it is an arrangement that is still in use to this day.

The X-1 being loaded under its Boeing B-50 Stratofortress mothership

By 1944, Bell was already working on their own supersonic plane, and the Air Ministry signed an agreement with the US to share data. Bell was allowed to inspect the Miles design, but Bell reneged on the sharing plan, and adopted the stabilator to their own aircraft, which had up to that point employed a traditional tail. The general shape of the two aircraft was similar, but since so little was known about supersonic aerodynamics, Bell designers looked at bullets that were known to travel supersonically. Thus, the X-1 was designed to mimic the shape of a .50 caliber bullet, a shape that was known to be stable at supersonic speeds. Though Miles had planned on a jet engine, the X-1 was built to be powered by a four-chamber rocket motor designed by Reaction Motors that burned ethyl alcohol diluted with water through a liquid oxygen oxidizer.

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The X-1A in flight

Test flights of the X-1 began with the maiden flight of the X-1 piloted by Bell’s chief test pilot Jack Woolams, a glide test. Woolams completed nine flights before his death while practicing for an air race, and the test flights were taken over by another Bell test pilot, Chalmers Goodlin, who made a further 26 flights, including the first powered flight on December 9, 1946. Interservice squabbling, and a demand from Goodlin for a $150,000 should he breaking the sound barrier, resulted in the project being taken over by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the predecessor to NASA, who planned to use the data obtained from the X-1 for future supersonic aircraft development.

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USAF Captain Charles “Chuck” Yeager took over flying duties, and he piloted the X-1 past the sound barrier for the first time on October 14, 1947 (Yeager had broken his ribs in a horse riding accident just before the flight, but he didn’t report the injury, fearing that he would be excluded from the flight. Bell engineers rigged a broom handle so Yeager could close the hatch on the airplane). The aircraft, nicknamed Glamorous Glennis in honor of Yeager’s wife, was dropped from a modified Boeing B-29 Superfortress and reached a speed a Mach 1.06 (700 mph), becoming the first pilot and plane to exceed Mach 1 in level flight. For the flight, Yeager, Bell president Lawrence Bell, and John Stack of NACA were all awarded the Collier Trophy (according to his biography, Yeager would keep the trophy in his garage to store nuts and bolts). Bell produced five variants, each testing different aspects of supersonic flight and materials and systems for the manufacture and control of high-speed aircraft. The final variant, the X-1E, reached a speed of Mach 2.21 in 1958 with test pilot John B. McKay at the controls. (NASA photo)


Short Takeoff


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January 17, 1963 – The first flight of the Short SC.7 Skyvan, a 19-seat, twin turboprop utility aircraft developed by Short Brothers of Northern Ireland (usually called simply Shorts). The SC.7 was inspired by the Miles Aerovan, and the idea 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. (Photo by Adrian Pingstone via Wikimedia Commons)


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January 17, 1886 – The birth of Glenn L. Martin, an early American aviation pioneer who founded his own aircraft company in 1912. His first successful aircraft was the Martin MB-1, a large biplane bomber that served in WWI. He went on to create many successful aircraft during WWII, notably the B-26 Marauder and the Maryland bombers, as well as large flying boats such as the PBM Mariner and the JRM Mars. Following the war, Martin found success in the aerospace industry, building the Vanguard rocket, the first American rocket built specifically for orbital launch. Martin followed the Vanguard with the Titan series of larger rockets. Following his death in 1955, the company merged with American-Marietta Corporation to form Martin-Marietta in 1961, and that company eventually merged with Lockheed to form Lockheed Martin in 1995. (Photo via San Deigo Air and Space Musem)


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January 18, 1982 – Four USAF Thunderbirds are lost in a crash during practice. Since the Thunderbirds began performing air shows in 1953, three Thunderbird pilots have been lost during an air show. But training accidents have claimed 18 lives, including an entire four-ship flight of Northrop T-38 Talons that crashed into the ground at the Thunderbirds’ Indian Springs, Nevada training area. The team was practicing a line-abreast loop when the lead pilot, Maj. Tom Lowry, experienced a jammed stabilizer that caused him to fly into the ground. The other pilots, following standard procedure, were fixed on the leader, and not looking forward. The four planes hit simultaneously, instantly killing all four pilots. After an 18-month hiatus from performing, the Thunderbirds transitioned back to frontline fighters and returned to the show circuit flying the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon. (US Air Force photo)


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January 18, 1957 – Three USAF Boeing B-52B Stratofortresses complete the world’s first non-stop circumnavigation of the earth in a jet-powered aircraft. In a mission dubbed Operation Power Flite, five USAF B-52s from the 93rd Bombardment Wing (three, plus two spares) departed from Castle AFB in California on a flight that was as much about propaganda as it was about testing operational capabilities. With aerial refuelings provided by Boeing KC-97 tankers, the flight covered 24,235 miles and was completed in 45 hours and 19 minutes. The commander of the lead aircraft Lucky Lady III, Lt. Col. James Morris, had previously been copilot of Lucky Lady II, a Boeing B-50 Superfortress that circumnavigated the globe in 1949. Strategic Air Command General Curtis LeMay presented the B-52 crews with the Distinguished Flying Cross upon their return. (US Air Force photo and map)


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January 18, 1911 – Eugene Ely makes the first landing on a ship. After succesfuly taking off from the USS Birmingham (CL-2) in Hampton Roads two months earlier, Ely, with the help of Glenn Curtiss and at the urging of the US Navy, made the first landing on a ship, touching down his Curtiss Model D Pusher on the USS Pennsylvania (ACR-4) moored in San Francisco Bay. A 120-foot temporary deck was built on the ship, outfitted with ropes tied to sandbags to provide a crude arresting system. While thousands of spectators watched, Ely performed a flawless landing and, after lunch with the captain of the Pennsylvania, the ship was turned into the wind and Ely took off for the return flight to the Tanforan Race Track where he had taken off earlier in the day. (Photo via the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum)


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January 19, 2006 – The launch of the New Horizons interplanetary space probe. The New Horizons probe was launched by NASA to perform the first flyby of the dwarf planet of Pluto, and to return close-up pictures to Earth for the first time. Part of the NASA’s New Frontiers program, which also includes study of Jupiter and Venus, New Horizons became the first spacecraft to explore Pluto when it arrived on July 14, 2015 after a nine-year journey. following its flypast of Pluto, New Horizons has maneuvered for a flyby of object 2014 MU69 in the Kuiper belt, and NASA expects the probe to arrive on January 1, 2019. (NASA photos)


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January 19, 1991 – Eastern Air Lines is dissolved. Following the Air Mail scandal of 1930, Eastern was one of the “Big Four” airlines (Eastern, American, TWA, United) created by the US government to handle passenger travel separately from air mail delivery. Led at first by WWI fighter ace Eddie Rickenbacker, Eastern enjoyed a near monopoly of the air routes on the East Coast, particularly between New York and Florida, into the 1950s. But by the late 1970s, Eastern struggled with labor disputes and high debt under the leadership of former astronaut Frank Borman, and the company was eventually taken over by Frank Lorenzo in 1985, who moved many of the company’s assets to his other airlines, Continental and Texas Air. Following more labor disputes and a strike in 1989, Lorenzo liquidated the storied airline in 1991 after 64 years of continuous operation. (Photo by Ruth AS via Wikimedia Commons)


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January 19, 1956 – The first flight of the Supermarine Scimitar. The Scimitar began as part of a study to develop a fighter with no undercarriage that would land on a sprung rubber deck. After the Royal Navy abandoned that idea, Supermarine developed the aircraft into a more traditional fighter called the Type 508. That aircraft was subsequently developed into the Scimitar, with the Royal Navy ordering 100 aircraft but changing its role from a fighter to a low level strike aircraft capable of delivering nuclear weapons. Ultimately, only 76 Scimitars were produced, and a high accident rate, including the death of Commander John Russell due to an arrester wire failure that was filmed by Pathé News, led to its replacement by the de Havilland Sea Vixen and Blackburn Buccaneer. (Photo by TSRL via Wikimedia Commons)


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January 19, 1950 – The first flight of the Avro Canada CF-100 Canuck. The Canuck, known affectionately to its pilots as “Clunk,” was the only domestically-produced Canadian fighter to enter mass production. Its all-weather capability, powerful engines and radar, short takeoff roll and high rate of climb made the Canuck an ideal interceptor, a role which it filled for the RCAF throughout the Cold War. It was called on to patrol the vast reaches of North America as part of NORAD to intercept Russian bombers on reconaissance missions, and was so ruggedly built that initial estimates of a 2,000 hour lifespan actually turned out to be 20,000 hours in frontline use. After its introduction in 1952, nearly 700 Canucks were produced before it was replaced by the the McDonnell CF-101 Voodoo. The Canuck was finally retired in 1982. (Canadian Department of National Defence photo)


Connecting Flights


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If you enjoy these Aviation History posts, please let me know in the comments. And if you missed any of the past articles, you can find them all at Planelopnik History. You can also find more stories about aviation, aviators and airplane oddities at Wingspan.

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