Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting you caught up on milestones and important historical events in aviation from January 2 through January 5.


January 2, 1967 – The National Supersonic Transport program awards a contract to Boeing for its 2707 SST design. By the early 1950s, as the jet engine was revolutionizing passenger aviation, military aviation was exploring the realm of supersonic flight. The next obvious step in the evolution of air travel was to develop a supersonic transport (SST). The Americans, Russians, British and French were all working on developing their own SST, and soon after President John F. Kennedy took office in 1953, he announced what was dubbed Project Horizon, which directed the Federal Aviation Administration to investigate advancements in civil airline design to keep the US competitive with the rest of the world. But when the French and English joined forces and announced their intention to develop Concorde, the Americans realized that they were far behind Europe in development of their own SST. Boeing had been working on their own design since 1952, and by 1958 they had settled on a swing-wing design that would seat about 125 passengers. When the US government announced a competition to select a design, entries were submitted by both Lockheed and Boeing, with Boeing’s variable geometry design being selected over Lockheed’s Concorde lookalike (interestingly, Boeing’s proposal bore a strong resemblance to today’s Rockwell B-1 Lancer supersonic bomber). But America was somewhat late to the supersonic party, and with the more mature development of the European design, as well as a competing design from the Russians in the Tupolev Tu-144, the Americans decided that the only way to compete effectively was to develop a larger and faster SST, one that could travel at speeds up to Mach 3. Once the 2707 reached mock-up, the aircraft showed its true size, being one of the earliest wide-body aircraft to feature two aisles and seven-across seating at its widest section, and capable of accommodating up to 247 passengers in a single-class configuration. But with any aircraft of this size, weight became a serious problem, and the heavy, complex swing-wing design was abandoned in favor of a traditional delta wing. However, despite the glamour of flying at up to three times the speed of sound, the realities of supersonic transport were hard to conquer. Flying that fast meant using enormous amounts of fuel, and in an era when the general public was starting to take a concern in the health of the environment, worries over sonic booms and ozone pollution made SSTs unpopular. In fact, with support from environmental organizations, supersonic commercial flight was eventually banned over the continental US, and some states banned Concorde altogether. By 1971, even with orders for 115 aircraft by 25 airlines, significantly more than those for Concorde, the US Congress cut funding for the American SST. The two Boeing prototypes under construction were never completed, and, in conjunction with a general downturn in the airliner market, Boeing was forced to lay off over 60,000 employees. Despite Concorde’s successful launch, it was never a money maker for European airlines, and there’s every reason to believe that the 2707 would have faced the same economic difficulties. While crossing the Atlantic Ocean in three hours is a great feat, developments in modern jet engine and materials technology have proven that it is far more efficient and economical to travel just shy of Mach 1, though the search for an economical SST continues. (Illustration author unknown)


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January 2, 1989 – The first flight of the Tupolev Tu-204, a single-aisle, twin-engine passenger airliner that is comparable to the Boeing 757 and capable of carrying up to 215 passengers depending on variant and class layout. Designed as a replacement for the Tupolev Tu-154 tri-jet, the Tu-204 features significant innovations over its predecessors, such as fly-by-wire controls, a glass cockpit, supercritical wings and winglets. The Tu-204 was introduced in 1996, and seventy-six have been built, and the aircraft remains in production. (Photo by Oleg Belyakov via Wikimedia Commons)


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January 3, 1963 – The first flight of the Ilyushin Il-62, a narrow-body, long-range airliner developed by Ilyushin as a replacement for the Il-18 turboprop airliner. At the time of its first flight in 1963, the Il-62 the largest airliner in the world, and became the standard long-range Soviet airliner for many years. Many Il-62s remain in service today. Similar to the Vickers VC10, the Il-62 groups its four turbofan engines in pods at the rear. It was also the first pressurized Soviet airliner without a circular cross section, and the first Russian jetliner with six-abreast seating. 292 aircraft were built before production ceased in 1995. (Photo by Dmitry A. Mottl via Wikimedia Commons)


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January 3, 1953 – The first flight of the Cessna 310. The 310 was the first twin-engine general aviation aircraft to be produced by Cessna following WWII, and proved particularly popular with the many air taxi services that arose following the war. Seating six, the 310 was faster and cheaper to operate than its closest rival, the Piper PA-23, and over 6,000 310s were built from 1954 to 1980. The 310 also served the US Air Force as a light utility transport where it was known as the L-27 (later redesignated as the U-3). (Photo by YSSYguy via Wikimedia Commons)


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January 4, 2004 – The Mars Exploration Rover–A (Spirit) lands on Mars. Following its launch on June 10, 2003, Spirit was the first of two robotic exploration rovers sent to Mars by NASA, the other being Opportunity (MER-B). Originally intended to have a 90-day mission, Spirit operated for an astonishing 2,269 Earth days and covered nearly 5 miles of the Martian surface. On May 1, 2009, Spirit became stuck in soft soil, and after seven months attempting to get the rover moving again, NASA declared that it could not be freed. Spirit continued to make stationary observations until contact was lost on March 22, 2010. (NASA illustration)


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January 4, 1996 – The first flight of the Boeing-Sikorski RAH-66 Comanche. Designed as a stealthy complement to the Boeing AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, the Comanche underwent nearly $7 billion of development before being canceled in 2004. The plan was for the Comanche to designate targets for Apache helicopters to destroy, but it would also be armed with missiles of its own to engage armored targets. Two Comanches were built and tested, but the Army decided the money would be better spent upgrading existing helicopters and developing unmanned aircraft. Both Comanches are on display at the United States Army Aviation Museum at Fort Rucker in Alabama. (US Army photo)


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January 4, 1989 – For the second time, US Navy fighters shoot down Libyan fighters over the Gulf of Sidra. Contrary to international convention, Lybian leader Muammar Gaddafi had claimed the entire Gulf of Sidra as Lybian territorial waters, rather than the agreed 12-mile limit. The US Navy, in a challenge to that claim, was operating 80 miles north of Libya when two Libyan MiG-23 fighters appeared to engage two US Navy Grumman F-14 Tomcats that were providing air cover for the American fleet. The Tomcats shot down the two MiG-23s, killing the Libyan pilots, though Libya made no attempt to rescue the downed pilots. The Libyan government claimed that the aircraft were reconnaissance planes, but gun camera footage showed that the fighters were armed with missiles and had locked on to the American fighters. (US Navy photo)


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January 4, 1936 – The first flight of the Vought SB2U Vindicator, the first monoplane aircraft to serve as a dive bomber for the US Navy. The Vindicator served the US Navy, Marine Corps, the French Navy and the Royal Navy (where it was known as the Chesapeake), but was mostly obsolete by the outbreak of WWII. A few Vindicators did fight in the Battle of Midway in 1942, but all were relegated to training duties by 1943. Vought produced 262 Vindicators, and the type was retired in 1945. (US Navy photo)


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January 5, 1995 – The death of Benjamin Robert Rich, the second director of Lockheed’s Skunk Works. Rich succeeded the legendary Clarence “Kelly” Johnson as head of Lockheed’s Advanced Development Programs. Early in his career with Lockheed, Rich worked on the A-12 and SR-71 Blackbird programs, but he is best known as the “Father of Stealth.” Rich championed the development of stealth technology at a time when many inside Lockheed, including the retired Johnson, believed that it was a waste of time. Rich’s team first developed the Have Blue stealth demonstrator, and followed it with the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk, the world’s first operational stealth aircraft. (Photo via Lockheed Martin)


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