Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from January 27 through January 30.
January 27, 1967 – A fire in the command module of Apollo 1 kills three NASA astronauts. John Glenn was the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth, but he is also famous for a quote that is attributed to him about flying in rockets built by a government agency. While the words often change depending on the source, the spirit is the same, as Glenn questioned the wisdom of launching into space in a vehicle that was built by the lowest bidder. Certainly, spaceflight is an inherently dangerous business. And at the time of the Apollo program in the 1960s, it was entirely new ground for both engineers and astronauts. Though there had been earlier successful spaceflights during the Mercury and Gemini projects, Apollo was the program that would put a man on the Moon and the scale of the program was beyond anything ever attempted. And, with three astronauts onboard, the stakes were higher than they had ever been.
Late in the afternoon of January 27, Command Pilot Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Senior Pilot Edward H. White II, and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee were strapped into their seats inside the Command Module (CM) high atop the unfueled Saturn V rocket. Positioned on their backs in the seats, the astronauts were prepared for a routine series of tests for Apollo 1's planned February 21 launch. This was to be a “plugs out” test, in which the spacecraft was disconnected from all external power supplies to see if it could function on its own internal power. NASA, as well as North American Aviation, which had built the CM, considered the test to be a relatively safe, since the huge Saturn V rocket was unfueled, and all of the pyrotechnic systems had been disabled. The test was also a rehearsal for launch procedures, so the astronauts were sealed inside the command module by means of a three-part hatch, the inner section of which must be removed from the inside in order for the astronauts to exit the module. After the hatch was closed, the capsule was filled with pure oxygen and the countdown began.
But a problem with communications, which left Grissom with a microphone that was stuck open, caused a countdown hold at T-minus 10 minutes, and the astronauts used the time to review checklists while the engineers tried to repair the radios. At 6:30 pm, ground controllers detected a voltage spike, and just 10 seconds later one of the astronauts called out, “Fire!” Ground controllers could hear sounds of movement inside the command module through the open microphone, and more reports of fire inside the capsule. One of the astronauts was heard to say, “We’ve got a bad fire - Let’s get out ....We’re burning up.” The fire, fed by the pure oxygen inside the command module, quickly raced though the cabin, causing the air pressure inside to build up to 29 psi, enough to rupture the module’s inner wall and make it impossible to open the hatch from the inside. When rescuers were finally able to gain access to the capsule, they found Grissom on the floor of the module, and White, whose restraints had been burned through, was found sideways below the hatch, as if he had been trying to open it. Chaffee was still strapped into his seat, since procedure called for him to remain in communication with controllers while White opened the hatch. It took ninety minutes to recover the bodies, as the astronaut’s space suits had melted and fused them to the cabin interior.
Following the accident, Apollo operations were suspended for 20 months while multiple investigations sought the cause of the disaster. As a result of the investigations, NASA redesigned the hatch, and switched back to an oxygen/nitrogen mix for the command module, similar to what they had used during the Mercury flights. It was also discovered that NASA had never carried out any sort of tests to determine how a fire would behave in the enclosed space of the command module when it was filled with pure oxygen. The astronauts suits were also redesigned to make them less susceptible to fire, and other flammable components were removed from the capsule. As for the source of the arc of electricity, its source was never definitely determined, but it was likely frayed wiring near the floor of the capsule. NASA retired the Apollo 1 designation in honor of the crew, and unmanned flights resumed in November 1967 with Apollo 4. Apollo 7 would be the first manned mission, and Apollo 11 successfully reached the moon in July 1969. (NASA photos)
January 27, 1959 – The first flight of the Convair 880. Following WWII, the race was on to build jet-powered civilian airliners, and that race was initially won by the de Havilland Comet, which took its maiden flight in 1949. But that plane was not without its teething problems, and a series of fatal accidents tarnished the image of the Comet and, despite the fact that de Havilland solved the problems with the Comet, it never quite recovered its reputation and sales suffered. Boeing was poised to take advantage of de Havilland’s misfortunes in 1957 with the 707, an airliner developed from the KC-135 Stratotanker aerial refueling platform they designed for the US Air Force. With its swept wing and podded engines, set the 707 standard for airliners of the future. Then Douglas entered the fray a year later with their four-engine DC-8, but last, and unfortunately least, was Convair.
Convair faced the daunting task of trying to break into an established market, and they knew that they had to offer something that Boeing and Douglas couldn’t match. For a company already well known for their supersonic B-58 Hustler strategic bomber, Convair decided that their edge would be speed. The 880 was smaller than the 707, and carried fewer passengers, but it was about 40 mph faster than its rival, and Convair hoped that the speed advantage would appeal to airline customers, especially in the early jet age when speed records were falling seemingly every day, at least in military aviation. The designation 880 came from the advertised top speed of 880 ft/sec, and it was powered by four General Electric CJ805 turbojets, the civilian version of the J79 engine that powered military aircraft such as the B-58, the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter and the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II.
However, the niche market for smaller and faster jets never materialized, and Convair faced some stiff competition. They could not compete with Boeing on cost, because so much of the development expense of the 707 had already been spent in development of the KC-135 aerial tanker. The narrower fuselage of the 880 meant only five-abreast seating where the 707 could accommodate six abreast. And, in the vital area of fuel economy, Convair’s CJ805 turbojets were much thirstier than Boeing’s Pratt & Whitney J57/JT3Cs, so operating costs for the 880 were higher. After only three years, Convair halted production of the 880 after building just 65 aircraft.
In an attempt to answer some of the problems facing the 880, particularly in passenger load, Convair stretched the 880 to create the 990 Coronado, lengthening it by 10 feet and adding space for about 10 more passengers. But only 37 990s were built. By 1975, the last 880 was withdrawn by the major air carriers, and only nine aircraft exist today, none of them airworthy. Perhaps the most famous Convair 880 is the one purchased by Elvis Presley in 1975, which was preserved at his Memphis, Tennessee mansion after his death. Elvis’ plane was put up for sale in 2015, along with his Lockheed JetStar named Hound Dog II, only to be bought back by Elvis Presley Enterprises the following year. (Photo by Jon Proctor via Wikimedia Commons; US Navy photo; photo by RuthAS via Wikimedia Commons; photo by Eduard Marmet via Wikimedia Commons)
January 27, 1939 – The first flight of the Lockheed P-38 Lightning. Lockheed is a name that has become synonymous with cutting edge developments in air and space technology, and you can trace the name of one man throughout much of that company’s storied history: Kelly Johnson. But the brilliant engineer who oversaw the development of the U-2 and the SR-71 Blackbird in the 1950s and 1960s made his first indelible mark on aviation history with another innovative design, an aircraft which would become one of the greatest and most versatile fighters of WWII.
Before the advent of the Lightning, American fighter design had changed little since the earliest all-metal monoplane designs. But Johnston’s P-38 would be twice as big, nearly twice as powerful, and have twice the firepower of any other fighter of its day. The Lightning arose from a request that was designed to circumvent stringent Army Air Corps guidelines for pursuit aircraft that limited them to a single engine and no more than 500 pounds of armaments, including ammunition. The request called specifically for an interceptor (not a fighter) that would have a minimum of 1,000 pounds of armament, excellent high-altitude performance, a maximum speed of at least 360 mph, and the ability to climb to 20,000 ft in just six minutes.
Kelly Johnson, working under Lockheed engineer Hall Hibbard, considered many different configurations for their twin-engine aircraft, including a push-pull arrangment similar to the Dornier Do 335 Pfeil, before settling on a twin boom design. The booms would house the engines, turbo-superchagers and tail, while the pilot and weapons would be housed in a central egg-shaped nacelle. Machine guns and cannons fitted in the nose removed the requirement for synchronized guns firing through the propeller. Other design innovations included a tricycle landing gear, counter-rotating propellers, extensive use of stainless steel construction and flush-riveted aluminum panels.
The design was indeed radical, but the Army found exactly what it was looking for in the Lightning, and it became the first American fighter to exceed 400 mph, and it was also extremely maneuverable for a fighter of its size. Lockheed had developed the P-38 in secret, using $600,000 of its own money to build it, but the Army was so thrilled with the new fighter that they unveiled it in 1939 in the hopes of setting a transcontinental speed record. Even though the attempt ended in the crash of the prototype, the Army ordered 13 YP-38 prototypes. The first production aircraft were sent to Alaska in 1942, where their excellent range made them ideal for the long distances they needed to cover over the Pacific.
Many Lightnings also operated in the European theater, but it was in the Pacific that the Lightning really found its home. As in Alaska, the P-38's excellent range made it ideal for long overwater flights, and pilots appreciated the added safety of a second engine. In battle, the Lightning was responsible for shooting down more Japanese aircraft than any other Army fighter, and it was a P-38 pilot who was credited with shooting down Japanese general Isoroku Yamamoto, the mastermind of the Pearl Harbor attack. America’s greatest WWII ace, Richard Bong, ended the war with 40 victories, all while flying a P-38. In all, over 10,000 Lightnings were built, and it was the only US fighter to remain in production throughout the war. (F-5 photo via Imperial War Museum; all other photos US Army)
January 28, 1986 – The Space Shuttle Challenger and its crew of seven astronauts is lost in a launch explosion. When the Space Shuttle Challenger lifted of from Kennedy Space Center on a frigid January morning in 1986, all eyes looked heavenward to watch Payload Specialist Christa McAuliffe on her way to becoming America’s first teacher in space. But just 73 seconds later, a leak from one of the Shuttle’s solid rocket boosters (SRBs) ignited the liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen in the Shuttle’s external fuel tank, leading to a catastrophic explosion that destroyed the orbiter and caused the death of the entire crew of seven astronauts. Along with McAuliffe, Challenger carried Shuttle commander Francis Scobee, pilot Michael Smith, and mission specialists Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik and Gregory Jarvis.
Following the explosion, an exhaustive investigation was carried out by the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, also known as the Rogers Commission after its chairman, former Secretary of State and former US Attorney General William P. Rogers. The commission members represented a broad range of disciplines and included former astronauts and pilots, as well as noted physicist Richard Feynman. The final determination of the commission was that the accident was caused by a failure of the O-rings that joined sections of the solid rocket boosters (SRBs) together. With the failure of the O-ring, superheated gases from the rocket motor burned through the skin of the external fuel tank, igniting the mix of hydrogen and liquid oxygen inside.
The SRBs and the O-rings had been designed and built by Morton Thiokol, and it was known that their ability to contain the hot gases from the SRBs could be compromised by cold weather, exacerbated by a flawed design. The temperature during the night before the launch had dipped to 18ºF, well below the 40ºF temperature the O-rings had been certified for. In fact, icicles had formed on the launch tower the morning of the launch. But the commission found that even though NASA and Morton Thiokol knew about the flawed design, and the susceptibility to cold, they determined it to be an acceptable risk and the flight was allowed to take place. Feynman was particularly scathing about the poor risk assessment undertaken by NASA, saying that NASA’s belief in the Shuttle’s reliability was wildly unrealistic.
But the real bombshell for the families of the astronauts, and the nation, was the disclosure that the crew had very likely survived the initial explosion, only to perish when the reinforced crew capsule struck the water at a force of 200g roughly three minutes after the explosion. The crew capsule was recovered from the waters off Cape Canaveral with the bodies of the crew still inside. Four of the astronauts had activated their Personal Egress Air Packs (PEAP) which provide them with a source of oxygen should they need to evacuate the Shuttle, an indication that they had survived the explosion. But Shuttle designers had never allowed for any sort of emergency egress once the spacecraft had taken off. There are no ejection seats on the Shuttle.
Following the disaster, Shuttle flights were suspended for 32 months while NASA and Morton Thiokol worked to completely redesign the Shuttle’s SRBs. Based on the findings of the Rogers Commission, NASA also created the Office of Safety, Reliability and Quality Assurance to address shortcomings in the Shuttle program and allow for more oversight of launch procedures. Another of the commission’s finding was that the pressure to do as many launches as possible was unrealistic and may have led to shortcuts in safety. Shuttle missions eventually resumed with the launch of Shuttle Discovery on September 29, 1988. Unfortunately, the Shuttle program would suffer the loss of another crew on February 1, 2003 when the Shuttle Columbia broke up while re-entering the atmosphere. Despite these tragedies, the Shuttle program ultimately completed 133 successful missions before it was shuttered in 2011 following the final flight of the Shuttle Atlantis. (NASA photo)
January 27, 2002 – The Boeing 737 becomes the first jetliner in history to amass more than 100 million flying hours. Boeing delivered its first production 737-100 to Lufthansa on December 28, 1967 in a ceremony at Boeing Field in Seattle and, by 1987, it had become the most-ordered jetliner in commercial history, a record it holds to this day. In 2012, the 737 became the first commercial airliner to surpass 10,000 orders and, as of 2014, Boeing was building 42 737s a month at their factory in Washington, with plans to increase production to 52 per month by 2018. With constant upgrades and modernization, the 737 has remained in production and has been manufactured continuously since 1967, with almost 8,900 produced to date. (Photo by the author)
January 27, 1989 – The death of Thomas Sopwith. Born on January 18, 1888 in Kensington, London, Sopwith was an early aviation pioneer who is perhaps best known for the design of the Sopwith Camel, one of the dominant fighter aircraft of WWI. Sopwith first became interested in aviation when he witnessed John Moisant fly passengers across the English Channel in 1910, and soon learned to fly himself. With Fred Sigrist, Sopwith created the Sopwith Aviation Company in 1912 and produced more than 18,000 aircraft for Britain during WWI, including 5,747 Sopwith Camels. For his efforts, Sopwith was awarded the CBE in 1918. Sopwith Aviation went bankrupt following the war, so Sopwith started a new company with his chief test pilot Harry Hawker, and Sopwith became chairman of Hawker Aircraft. Following the nationalization of the aircraft industry, Hawker Aircraft became Hawker Siddeley, and Sopwith stayed with the company as a consultant until 1980. (US Library of Congress photo)
January 27, 1973 – A ceasefire agreement between the United States, North Vietnam, and South Vietnam ends US participation in the Vietnam War. By the end of the Vietnam War, the US Air Force had flown 5.25 million sorties over Southeast Asia, losing 2,251 aircraft. Of that number, 1,737 were lost to hostile action. The 21 aircraft carriers of the US Navy conducted 86 war cruises, losing 859 aircraft, with just over a third of those being operational losses. The Marine Corps lost a total of 463 fixed and rotary wing aircraft, while the US Army lost over 5,000 helicopters. The vast majority of all aircraft were shot down by anti-aircraft artillery (AAA). Approximately 6,600 pilots of all branches were killed. The last American fixed wing pilot lost was LCDR Harly Hall, a Navy F-4 Phantom II pilot who was shot down over the Demilitarized Zone on January 27, 1973. The last rotary-wing pilot lost was 2LT Richard Vandegeer, who crashed during the Mayaguez Incident on May 15, 1975. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
January 28, 1919 – The birth of Francis “Gabby” Gabreski. Born Franciszek Gabryszewski, Gabreski was the top scoring American ace in Europe in WWII, where he flew the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt and recorded 28 victories before ending the war as a German POW. After WWII, Gabreski served in Korea, where he scored 6.5 kills flying a North American F-86 Sabre, bringing his all-time total to 34.5 and making him one of seven US pilots to become an ace in both wars. After Korea, Gabreski served 15 more years in the USAF and commanded three different fighter wings. When he retired in 1967 at the rank of colonel after 26 years of service, Gabreski had logged more than 5,000 hours in the air, with 4,000 of those flying jets. (US Army photo)
January 29, 2010 – The first flight of the Sukhoi PAK FA, a fifth generation fighter under development by Sukhoi as part of the Perspektivny Aviatsionny Kompleks Frontovoy Aviatsii program to develop a new, high-technology fighter for Russian Frontal Aviation. The successor to the Mikoyan MiG-29 and Sukhoi Su-27, the prototype is known as the T-50 and is the first operational Russian fighter to employ stealth technology. The T-50 will be used in both the air superiority and ground attack roles and, like the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, its closest Western competition, the T-50 will feature supercruise and supermaneuverablilty. Ten prototypes have been built to date, and production aircraft will bear the designation Su-57. Though the fighter has not yet entered wide service, at least two were deployed briefly in 2018 for evaluation during the Syrian Civil War. (Photo by Alex Beltyukov via Wikimedia Commons)
January 29, 1973 – Frontier Airlines hires Emily Howell Warner, the first woman to command a passenger airliner. Though not the first woman to fly as a commercial pilot, Warner became the only woman working as a pilot for a major airline when she was hired by Frontier in 1973. Within six months of her hire, Warner was promoted to First Officer, and she became the first female member of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) in 1974. In 1976, Warner became the first woman captain, commanding a de Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otter. Warner was also the first woman to command an all-female crew. When Frontier went out of business in 1986, Warner went to work as captain of a UPS Boeing 737, and also flew the Douglas DC-8. In 1990, she left UPS to work for the Federal Aviation Administration. Warner was elected to the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2014. (Photo via National Air and Space Museum Archives)
January 30, 2001 – The death of Johnnie Johnson, CB, CBE, DSO & two bars, DFC, a fighter pilot with the Royal Air Force during WWII. Johnson entered the war in 1941 flying the Supermarine Spitfire, and over the course of 700 operational sorties he scored 34 individual victories and 3 probable shared victories. He was also credited with damaging a further 10 Luftwaffe aircraft, as well as destroying one on the ground. His tally of victories made him the highest scoring Allied fighter ace versus the German Luftwaffe of WWII. He continued flying in Korea in the Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star, though he scored no further victories. For his service in Korea, he was awarded the Air Medal and Legion of Merit from the United States. (UK government photo)
January 30, 1948 – The death of Orville Wright. Along with his brother Wilbur, Orville Wright is credited with helping to design and construct the world’s first successful powered and controlled airplane, and the first to achieve sustained heavier-than-air flight. After the toss of a coin, it was Orville who made the famous First Flight on December 17, 1903. When Wilbur died unexpectedly in 1912, Orville took over the work of securing patents for their creation, further developing their flying machine, and marketing it to the US military, though he sold their company in 1915. Orville served on the board of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, the predecessor to NASA) for 28 years, and on April 19, 1944, Orville took his last ride in an airplane, a Lockheed Constellation piloted by Howard Hughes. During the flight, Wright commented that the wingspan of the Connie was longer than his first flight. Orville’s death came soon after the first supersonic flight, marking an incredible span of aircraft development from the first flight to breaking the sound barrier in the lifetime of one man. (US Library of Congress photos)
January 30, 1933 – The first flight of the Curtiss T-32 Condor II, a biplane airliner and bomber that was also used by the US Army as an executive transport. Production aircraft were outfitted as 12-passenger luxury night sleeper transports and served with Eastern Air Transport and American Airways. The US Army Air Corps purchased two Condors which received the designation YC-30, and one was fitted with extra fuel tanks and took part in the United States Antarctic Service Expedition, Admiral Richard Byrd’s third exploration of the Antarctic. Curtiss also produced eight armed bomber versions which were exported, and a cargo version for Argentina. Curtiss produced a total of 45 Condor IIs. (US Air Force photo)
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