Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from January 18 through January 21.
January 19, 1946 – The first flight of the Bell X-1. When the first operational jet aircraft arrived over the battlefield in WWII, the greater speeds they offered were harbingers of even higher speeds in the future, and the next milestone of speed was the speed of sound, or Mach 1. Nobody knew what would happen to a plane if it exceeded Mach 1, and some thought it wouldn’t even be possible, that the aircraft would become uncontrollable or even break apart. Initially, the British were at the forefront of the effort to go supersonic, 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. But the turbojet engines of the day could not reach such speeds at high altitude, and while rocket-powered models of the Miles M.52 were built, the ministry canceled the project and developed the the English Electric Lightning instead.
However, one significant breakthrough did come out of the M.52 program. As an aircraft comes close to passing through the sound barrier, shock waves build up on the wings and control surfaces that can render the plane uncontrollable. Traditional aircraft of the day used moving elevators fitted to the trailing edge of the horizontal stabilizer. But at supersonic speeds, the elevators could not be moved. So Miles developed a system where the entire horizontal tailplane moved, making control at high speeds possible. This all-moving elevator, dubbed the stabilator, played an critical role in the development of the X-1, and it is a critical element of supersonic aircraft to this day.
By 1944, Bell was 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 (some prefer to say Bell stole it). Before the meeting with Miles, the Bell aircraft had employed a traditional tail. 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, an object that was known to be stable at supersonic speeds. Though Miles had planned on a jet engine, the X-1 would be powered by a four-chamber rocket motor designed by Reaction Motors that burned ethyl alcohol diluted with water through a liquid oxygen oxidizer. Since little was known at the time about swept wings, the X-1 had traditional straight wings, though they were significantly thinner than those on contemporary piston-powered aircraft.
The maiden flight of the X-1 was a glide test piloted by Bell’s chief test pilot Jack Woolams. 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 bonus should he successfully break 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.
With the exit of Goodlin from the project, flying duties were taken over by USAF Captain Charles “Chuck” Yeager, who flown P-51 Mustangs over Europe and became an ace by downing five enemy aircraft in a single day before becoming a test pilot. It was Yeager who flew the X-1 past the sound barrier for the first time on October 14, 1947. He had broken his ribs in a horse riding accident two days before the flight, but didn’t report the injury for fear that he would be excluded from the flight. Bell engineers rigged a broom handle so Yeager could close the hatch on the airplane. On the day of the historic flight, the X-1, nicknamed Glamorous Glennis in honor of Yeager’s wife, was slung beneath a modified Boeing B-29 Superfortress and then released over Rogers Dry Lake Bed in California. Yeager fired the rocket motor and reached a speed a Mach 1.06 (700 mph) at 45,000 feet, becoming the first pilot and plane to exceed Mach 1 in level flight. In recognition of their feat, Yeager, Bell president Lawrence Bell, and John Stack of NACA all received the Collier Trophy (according to his biography, Yeager kept the trophy in his garage to store nuts and bolts). Bell produced five variants of the X-1, each testing different aspects of supersonic flight, as well as 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.
January 20, 1974 – The first flight of the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon. With the first flight of the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle in 1972, the US Air Force knew they had a winner on their hands, a true air superiority fighter that could take control of the sky over the battlefield and hold on to it. But as good as the F-15 was (and still is), it was also big, and expensive, and the Air Force was concerned that they wouldn’t be able to afford enough of them to counter the hordes of Soviet fighters they would face if the Cold War suddenly became hot. Based on experience with the heavy McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II against more nimble Russian fighters in the previous decade, Air Force Col. John Boyd, along with mathematician Thomas Christie, developed the energy-maneuverability theory (E-M) which showed that a small, lightweight aircraft would suffer the least amount of energy loss while maneuvering, especially when combined with a high thrust-to-weight ratio. Armed with that data, the Air Force announced the Lightweight Fighter program (LWF) and requested proposals for an inexpensive, lightweight, and highly maneuverable aircraft. The request stated that the new fighter must have a high thrust-to-weight ratio, weigh no more than 20,000 lbs, and cost no more than $3 million per copy (the F-15 cost about $5 million in 1972 dollars).
Two companies responded to the request. Northrop submitted the twin-engine YF-17 Cobra, which was an enlarged derivative of their own lightweight F-5E Tiger II, while General Dynamics put forward the single-engine YF-16. To keep costs down, the YF-16 used the same engine that powered the F-15, and as much as 58-percent of the components were interchangeable with other Air Force aircraft. Many of the parts, such as flaperons, stabilators, and landing gear, were reversible, meaning that the parts weren’t specific to one side of the aircraft. The large air intake was positioned below the pilot, and the front landing gear was set behind the intake to limit foreign object debris (FOD) from fouling the engine. The gun was also placed above and behind the intake to prevent the ingestion of muzzle gasses. In another innovation, the pilot’s seat was reclined at 30 degrees and the rudder pedals were raised to allow the pilot to sustain higher G loads. And, rather than a central control stick, the pilot was given a joystick mounted on the right side of the cockpit.
Following the competition with the YF-17, the YF-16 was declared the winner of the LWF competition on January 13, 1975 (the YF-17 would eventually be developed into the F/A-18 Hornet for the US Navy). The F-16 Fighting Falcon (or Viper, as it is sometimes called) was introduced in 1978 and saw its first combat action in the Gulf War of 1991. It has since seen combat in the Balkans, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East, and remains the backbone of the US fighter and ground attack fleet.
Lockheed Martin purchased production rights of the F-16 in 1993 and, while the US Air Force is no longer procuring new F-16s with the arrival of its eventual replacement, the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II, the company is still building new aircraft for foreign customers. Just over 4,600 F-16s have been built to date and exported to 28 countries. After forty years of service, the oldest F-16s have begun the conversion to QF-16 target drones which will be used to train the future generation of fighter pilots. The USAF Thunderbirds demonstration squadron has been flying the F-16 since 1983.
Note: While January 20, 1974 marks the first flight of the YF-16, that flight was entirely unintentional. Test pilot Phil Oestricher was performing a routine taxi test when he experienced roll-control oscillation that caused the wingtips to strike the ground. In a split-second decision, Oestricher chose to take off rather than continue the taxi test and, after a brief six-minute flight, he returned without incident. The official maiden flight took place on February 2.
January 21, 1972 – The first flight of the Lockheed S-3 Viking. Submarines, which prowl the ocean depths to loose their torpedoes against unsuspecting ships, have been a constant menace to surface fleets since World War I. The early diesel-electric submarines spent the majority of their cruise on the surface, but the arrival of the nuclear-powered USS Nautilus (SSN 571) in 1954 signaled a quantum leap in capability over its ancestors, primarily due to the sub’s ability to stay submerged for long periods of time and cover vast distances out of sight beneath the world’s oceans. Once nuclear-powered submarines gained the capability to launch nuclear missiles, the task of finding and destroying enemy subs became of paramount importance.
The year 1954 also marked the arrival of the the Grumman S-2 Tracker, the US Navy’s first purpose-built antisubmarine warfare (ASW) aircraft. But as submarines began diving deeper and moving faster, and more quietly, the Navy issued a proposal in 1967 for a more modern aircraft that would be capable of operating from their carrier fleet. They received proposals from five companies, including a joint proposal from Lockheed and Ling Temco Vought (LTV). The Lockheed offering was chosen as the winner in 1969, and design and production of the S-3 was divided among the partners. LTV, with more experience building carrier aircraft, produced the wings, tail, landing gear, and engine pods, while Lockheed built the fuselage and coordinated the finally assembly and integration of the components. Univac produced the computers and data processing components. Following the success of the Viking prototype’s maiden flight, the Navy allocated additional money to build eight more research and development aircraft, and orders for 179 aircraft quickly followed, such was the perceived need for the Viking.
The S-3 was powered by a pair of General Electric TF34 high bypass turbofans that give the Viking excellent range and loiter time while hunting for submarines. It carries a crew of four (three officers plus one enlisted), with the pilot and copilot/tactical coordinator in the front seats and the tactical coordinator and sensor operator in the back. For hunting submarines, the Viking was equipped with an AN/APS-116 sear search radar, forward looking infrared (FLIR), up to 16 sonobuoys that could be dropped to detect submarines underwater, and a magnetic anomaly detector (MAD) boom that could track subs based on changes to the Earth’s magnetic field caused by the passage of the submarine. Unlike the earlier S-2 or Lockheed P-3 Orion, the Viking crew could share data between their screens and combine sensor information, making the 4-man crew as effective as a 12-man Orion crew. Once a sub was detected, the Viking crew could call on nearly 5,000 pounds of bombs, torpedoes, depth charges, or missiles at their disposal. Anti-shipping missiles could also be fitted.
The Viking became operational in 1974 and immediately began their sub hunting duties to detect enemy ballistic missile submarines and protect the carrier battle group. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the subsequent breakup of the Warsaw Pact, the threat of Russian submarines was greatly reduced. Most of the Viking’s sub hunting gear was removed and the S-3's role became primarily sea surface search and anti-surface warfare. With the retirement of the KA-6D Intruder tanker, the S-3B became the primary aerial tanker for the fleet. The S-3 saw service in the 1991 Gulf War and the Iraq War, but by 2009 the Navy announced the retirement of the Viking from carrier service, and its role was taken over by other fixed wing aircraft already in the Navy’s arsenal. A total of 188 Vikings were produced from 1974-1978, and the final Viking was retired from Navy service on January 11, 2016.
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. Lt. Col. James Morris, the commander of the lead aircraft Lucky Lady III, had previously been copilot of Lucky Lady II, a Boeing B-50 Superfortress that circumnavigated the globe nonstop in 1949. Upon their return, Strategic Air Command General Curtis LeMay presented the B-52 crews with the Distinguished Flying Cross.
January 18, 1911 – Eugene Ely makes the first landing on a ship. After succesfuly taking off from 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 when he put his Curtiss Model D Pusher down on 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 Pennsylvania, Ely took off for the return flight to the Tanforan Race Track near San Francisco where he had taken off earlier in the day.
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 Pluto and to return close-up pictures to Earth of the farthest planet from the Sun for the first time. Part of the NASA’s New Frontiers program, which also includes the 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 maneuvered for a flyby of object 2014 MU69 in the Kuiper belt, the farthest object from the Sun ever visited by a spacecraft. New Horizons photographed the snowman-shaped object on January 1, 2019.
January 19, 1991 – Eastern Air Lines is dissolved. Following the Air Mail scandal of 1930, Eastern became 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 into the 1950s, particularly between New York and Florida. 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.
January 19, 1956 – The first flight of the Supermarine Scimitar. Development of 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, and Royal Navy ordered 100 aircraft but changed 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.
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. The CF-100 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 and retired in 1982.
January 20, 1959 – The first flight of the Vickers Vanguard, a short- to medium-range turboprop airliner. An enlarged version of the successful Vickers Viscount, the Vanguard was a victim of bad timing, as it was introduced at just about the same time as new jet-powered airliners, and sales suffered as a result. After ten years of service, Vickers introduced a cargo version called the Cargolifter, and that variant saw relatively good success, with older airliner versions subsequently converted to the cargo configuration. Forty-four Vanguards were produced, and the last was retired in 1996.
January 20, 1930 – The birth of Edwin Eugene “Buzz” Aldrin. An engineer and astronaut, Aldrin was the pilot of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module and performed the first manned landing on the lunar surface. After Neil Armstrong made his “giant leap for mankind,” Aldrin became the second man to set foot on the Moon. Before NASA, Aldrin graduated from West Point and served in Korea as a fighter pilot, where he flew the North American F-86 Sabre on 66 combat missions and shot down two MiG-15 fighters. Prior to his Apollo 11 mission, Aldrin flew the final Gemini mission with Jim Lovell and performed a 2 hour and 20 minute spacewalk. Aldrin left NASA in 1971 to become the Commandant of the US Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards AFB, and retired from the military the following year.
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