Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from January 24 through January 26.
January 26, 1945 – The first flight of the McDonnell FH Phantom. From the Wright Brothers first flight in 1903 to the present day, the technological advances made in aviation have occurred at an amazing pace, and there is nothing quite like a war to speed up innovation even more. WWII was just such an instigator of technological development, a conflict that opened with some air forces still flying biplanes and closed with some air forces flying jet planes. The Germans fielded the world’s first operational jet powered fighter with the Messeschmitt Me 262, followed closely by the British with the Gloster Meteor. The US Army Air Forces followed later with the Bell P-59 Airacomet, but the US Navy was still without a viable jet fighter of their own. They received their first jet fighter with the single engine Vought F6U Pirate in 1946, but it was an abject failure and barely made operational status.
McDonnell was relatively new to military aviation, having started out as an aviation parts supplier before developing their first aircraft, the unsuccessful twin-engined XP-67. Though that aircraft never entered production, the Navy was still impressed with the innovative design, so they approached McDonnell in 1943 to take part in the development of a new carrier-borne jet fighter. Unlike Vought, McDonnell chose to use two engines, placing them at the roots of the two straight wings and angled slightly outboard to avoid heating the fuselage. The large nose, with the cockpit placed ahead of the wing, afforded excellent visibility for the pilot, and also allowed designers to use a tricycle landing gear. This arrangement gave the added benefit of keeping the jet blast off the carrier deck.
The engines were not ready by the time McDonnell finished the prototype, so the Navy commenced ground and taxi tests using a single engine. Those tests went so well that the maiden flight of the Phantom was undertaken with just a single engine, and after the second engine was installed, the Phantom became the first US Naval aircraft to exceed 500 mph. The Navy awarded a production contract to McDonnell for 100 aircraft in 1945, though that number was reduced with the end of the war. But with the pace of development progressing so rapidly, newer, more powerful engines became available, and rather then modifying the Phantom to accept them, McDonnell began developing its successor, the F2H Banshee, two months before the Phantom entered production.
The Phantom entered service with the Navy an Marine Corps in 1947, becoming the first US Navy fighter to successfully take off and land from an aircraft carrier. However, the Phantom was essentially obsolete when it entered service. Its relatively primitive engines limited its range and speed, it was underarmed, and it was incapable of carrying bombs. Following the introduction of the Banshee, the Navy used the Phantom primarily as a trainer for pilots transitioning from propeller aircraft, and they retired it from frontline service in 1949, though it served with Naval Reserve units until 1954. Though the Phantom saw little active service, the Navy did form a demonstration squadron of Phantoms called the Gray Angels, which was made up three flag officers—one admiral and two rear admirals. The group performed on the air show circuit, but was disbanded after just one year following a near miss incident at an air show in Cleveland. (US Navy photo)
January 24, 1975 – The first flight of the Eurocopter AS365 Dauphin, a multipurpose medium helicopter that is currently produced by Airbus Helicopters. Similar in many ways to the commercially unsuccessful Aérospatiale SA 360, the AS365 improves on the earlier design by adding a second engine and other upgraded components. The Dauphin was originally developed by Aérospatiale, but through a series of corporate mergers it was subsequently produced by Eurocopter, and finally Airbus. The Dauphin was introduced in 1978, serves commercial and military operators and remains in production after more than 40 years. More than 1,000 Dauphins have been produced to date. (Photo by Bene Riobó via Wikimedia Commons)
January 24, 1961 – A Boeing B-52 Stratofortress flying a 24-hour alert mission crashes while carrying two nuclear bombs. Known as the Goldsboro crash, the incident occurred when a B-52G based at Seymour Johnson AFB in North Carolina, suffered a fuel leak from a ruptured wing and and, after flying out to sea to burn of fuel, was ordered to return to base. Unable to control the aircraft as it descended, the aircraft commander ordered the crew to eject, and the aircraft eventually broke up, killing two crewmen. A third died after ejecting. Two Mark 39 nuclear bombs separated from the aircraft. One came down in a field and was destroyed. The second, though, parachuted to the ground as designed and landed upright, its parachute snagged on a tree. Of the four arming switches, three were tripped, meaning the bomb was one step away from detonating, though some experts dispute the claim that the weapon was close to detonating. (US Air Force photo)
January 24, 1961 – The first flight of the Convair 990. In 1959, Convair became the last major manufacturer to enter the civilian jet airliner market with their 880, a four-engine, narrow-body airliner positioned to compete with the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8. However, the 880 was never able to capture much market share due to its smaller size, so Convair addressed the shortcoming by stretching the 880 by 10 feet and creating the 990 Coronado. The new airliner could now seat up to 121 passengers, though still fewer than the 707. Convair bet that both the 880 and 990 would appeal to airlines due to their speed, which was about 40 mph faster than its competitors. However, the penalty for that speed was increased fuel burn, and the airliner never caught on. Only 37 990s were built from 1961-1963. Despite its failure in the commercial market, the 990 remains the fastest non-supersonic airliner ever to enter production, having set a record of speed of Mach .97, or 675 mph, in 1961. (Photo by RuthAS via Wikimedia Commons)
January 24, 1888 – The birth of Dr. Ernst Heinkel, a German aircraft designer and manufacturer who supplied some of the most iconic German aircraft that fought during the Spanish Civil War and WWII. He established the Heinkel Flugzeugwerke in 1922, and after Adolf Hitler came to power in 1934, Heinkel provided many of the aircraft that Hitler used to build up the strength of the Luftwaffe, notably the He 111 medium bomber, which made its debut in the Spanish Civil War and served as the backbone of the German bomber fleet throughout WWII. Heinkel also produced the world’s first turbojet-powered aircraft in the He 178, and the world’s first rocket-powered plane in the He 176. Heinkel died in 1958. (Bundesarchiv photos via Wikimedia Commons.)
January 25, 2004 – The NASA probe Opportunity lands on Mars. Opportunity, also known as Mars Exploration Rover – B, or MER-B, was the second of two exploratory rovers launched by NASA. Opportunity left Earth on July 7, 2003 and landed on Mars three weeks after its partner rover Spirit (MER-A). Though originally scheduled to operate for 92 Earth days, Opportunity continues to roll over the Martian surface and collect data more than 5,000 days after its arrival, nearly 14 years longer than it was designed for, and has covered nearly 28 miles of the Red Planet (Spirit became mired on May 1, 2009 and ceased communicating with Earth on March 22, 2010). Opportunity’s mission is to search for clues to water on Mars, analyze rocks and soil samples, and study geologic processes that led to the formation of the Martian terrain. As of this writing, Opportunity is “sleeping” through its 8th Martian winter, and is scheduled to “wake up” in late March 2018 to continue its mission. (NASA photo)
January 26, 1945 – The first flight of the Miles Aerovan. The Aerovan was conceived as a cargo hauler and multi-purpose aircraft that would be inexpensive to build and fly. Constructed of plastic-bonded plywood, the Aerovan was powered by twin Blackburn Cirrus Major inline engines that produced 150 hp each and could haul 2,800 pounds of cargo or 10 passengers at speeds up to 127 mph. Miles followed with several variants to improve performance. The company had hoped to team up with the Irish firm Short Brothers to develop a variant, but Shorts instead took the basic design of the Aerovan and developed their own plane called the Skyvan. In all, Miles produced 57 Aerovans. (Photo by RuthAS via Wikimedia Commons)
January 26, 1892 – The birth of Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman, the first woman of African American descent to become a pilot, and the first woman of Native American descent to hold a pilot’s license. After becoming interested in flying after WWI, Coleman went to France in 1920 where she earned her license flying a Nieuport biplane because no American pilots would agree to train her. After returning to the US, Coleman flew on the barnstorming circuit, and hoped to establish a flight school for African American women. However, Coleman was killed on April 30, 1926 during a reconnaissance flight for a parachute display the following day. With her mechanic at the controls, Coleman, who was not wearing a seat belt, was thrown from the cockpit following an unexpected dive. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
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