Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from January 29 through January 31.
January 31, 1958 – The first flight of the North American T-2 Buckeye. If you joined the US Navy to become a Naval Aviator at any time from the late 1950s to 2004, you likely did your primary flight training on the North American T-28 Trojan. The radial-powered Trojan would have helped you master basic flying skills, but if you wanted to be a jet fighter pilot, your next ride was another North American aircraft, the T-2 Buckeye. After developing proficiency in the Buckeye, you would then transfer to fighter aircraft, if you survived the learning process.
While not as fast or as sexy as a jet fighter, the Buckeye was designed with the student pilot in mind. It featured straight wings borrowed from the North American FJ-1 Fury, the Navy’s first operational jet fighter. As opposed to swept wings, straight wings offer better low speed handling characteristics and stability while learning to land on a moving deck. The original Buckeye, the T-2A, was powered by only a single engine, but North American outfitted the T-2B and later variants with two engines, an arrangement that was more common for Naval aircraft where having a second engine acted as an insurance policy while operating over the open ocean. With the T-2C, the Buckeye received a pair of General Electric J85 turbojets that could push the trainer up to a respectable 522 mph. In order to help ease the transition from the propeller powered Trojan, North American made the cockpit of the Buckeye similar enough that it would be familiar to the new pilot, an important selling point for the Navy, with the student and teacher seated in tandem, as they were in the Trojan. And North American also made the Buckeye tough enough to endure the pounding of inexperienced pilots slamming down on the deck for the first time.
Though the original Buckeye was unarmed, it did come with strongpoints under the wings to carry bombs, rockets or gun pods for armament training. Forty Buckeyes were exported to Greece, where they served with the Hellenic Air Force. These aircraft, designated T-2E, were outfitted with six stations under the wings that could carry up to 3,500 pounds of ordnance, and also had extra armor on the fuel tanks to protect them from ground fire.
The 50-year run of the Buckeye came to an end in 2008 when the Navy retired the T-2 from its training duties and replaced it with the McDonnell Douglas T-45 Goshawk, though a handful remained in service for testing duties or to serve as a director aircraft for aerial drones. The final operational flight of the Buckeye took place on September 25, 2015.
January 29, 2010 – The first flight of the Sukhoi Su-57, 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. In May 2018, as many as four Su-57s were deployed to Syria for combat testing, and at least one reportedly launched a cruise missile. Ten prototypes have been built to date.
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 hiring, Warner was promoted to First Officer, and 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.
January 30, 2001 – The death of Johnnie Johnson, CB, CBE, DSO & two bars, DFC. Johnson was a fighter pilot with the Royal Air Force during WWII, and began his service in 1941 flying the Supermarine Spitfire. Over the course of 700 operational sorties Johnson scored 34 individual victories and three 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, Johnson was awarded the Air Medal and Legion of Merit from the United States.
January 30, 1958 – The death of Dr. Ernst Heinkel. Born on January 14, 1888, Heinkel was a German aircraft designer and manufacturer who supplied some of the most iconic German aircraft to serve in 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.
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 piloted the famous first flight on December 17, 1903. Following Wilbur’s death from typhoid fever 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, and finally sold the company in 1915. Orville continued his work in aviation by serving on the board of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics(NACA, the predecessor to NASA) for 28 years. 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 Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in the Bell X-1. The world had gone from first flight to supersonic flight in one man’s lifetime.
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.
January 31, 2011 – The death of Charles Huron Kaman, an American inventor who developed a line of helicopters that are known for their use of dual, intermeshing rotors that counter-rotate, thus eliminating the need for a tail rotor. After working for Igor Sikorsky, Kaman developed his first helicopter, the K-125, and the improved K-225 became the first helicopter powered by a gas turbine engine. Kaman went on to develop more helicopters for the US military, such as the HH-43 Huskie, which flew more rescue missions in Vietnam than any other helicopter. The SH-2 Seasprite, a traditional helicopter design, saw extensive use with the US Navy, and the K-MAX, a medium lift utility helicopter that has also been developed for the US Marine Corps as an unmanned remote control helicopter for resupply missions into dangerous landing zones. Kaman was also a musician, and founded the Ovation guitar company.
January 31, 2002 – The death of Francis “Gabby” Gabreski. Born Franciszek Gabryszewski on January 28, 1919 in Oil City, Pennsylvania, 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 the Korean War, 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. He retired in 1967 at the rank of colonel after 26 years of service having logged more than 5,000 hours in the air, with 4,000 of those flying jets.
January 31, 1966 – The launch of Luna 9, an unmanned spacecraft sent to the Moon as part of Russia’s Luna program to orbit and land on the lunar surface. When Luna 9 made a soft landing on the Moon on February 3, 1966, it became the first spacecraft to touch down safely on any planetary body other than Earth. Once Luna 9 became operational, it beamed back nine images of the lunar surface, including five panoramas. The Russians did not release the images immediately, but British scientists recognized and intercepted the signals being sent from the Moon and published the images around the world. While the only scientific instrument on Luna 9 was a radiation detector, the landing did demonstrate that the surface of the Moon could support a lander.
January 31, 1961 – The launch of Mercury-Redstone 2 with Ham the Chimp on board. As part of the American Mercury space program, Ham, whose name is an acronym for Holloman Aerospace Medical Center at Holloman AFB in New Mexico, was trained to do simple tasks to assess a human’s ability to function safely in space. Ham was launched from Cape Canaveral on a suborbital flight, and he performed his tasks flawlessly before splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean. After his flight, Ham lived for 17 years in the National Zoo in Washington, DC. Following Ham’s death, initial plans were to have his body stuffed and put on display as the Russians had done with their space dogs. However, Ham’s remains, minus his skeleton, were buried at the International Space Hall of Fame at Alamogordo, New Mexico.
January 31, 1958 – The launch of Explorer 1, the first satellite placed in orbit by the United States. Explorer was launched as part of the International Geophysical Year, a project that attempted to open a scientific dialogue between the East and West during the Cold War. Following the successful launch of the Russian satellites Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2, Explorer 1 was launched from Cape Canaveral and was the first spacecraft to confirm the existence of the Van Allen radiation belt. Explorer 1 continued to return useful data for nearly four months until its batteries gave out, and it stayed in orbit until 1970. Explorer 1 was the first of more than 90 missions for the ongoing Explorers series.
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