Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from January 31 through February 2.


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 than 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 was 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.

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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.

A T-2E Buckeye in Greek service

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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. September 25, 2015. (US Navy photos; photo by Jerry Gunner via Wikimedia Commons)


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February 1, 2003 – The loss of Space Shuttle Columbia. The Space Shuttle first went to space in 1981 and, over the course of 30 years of operation, Shuttles carried out 135 missions and spent almost 1,323 days in space. A total of 355 astronauts from 15 different countries traveled on board five different Shuttles throughout the program, and before the launch of Columbia on January 16, 2003, only one Shuttle, Challenger, had been lost, though the accident claimed the lives of seven astronauts. Though safety procedures were improved after the loss of Challenger, spaceflight remains an inherently dangerous undertaking, and the Shuttle program would suffer another devastating loss 17 years after Challenger when Columbia broke apart during re-entry.

This photo, taken during launch, shows the location of the foam debris that broke off and damaged the Shuttle’s wing

Space Shuttle Columbia launched on January 16, 2003 on STS-107, the 113th flight of the Space Shuttle program, with a crew of seven: Shuttle Commander Rick Husband, pilot William McCool, and Mission Specialists David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, Laurel Clark, and Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut. During the launch of previous Shuttles, it was not uncommon for pieces of the foam insulation covering the external fuel tank to break off, sometimes hitting the orbiter and, in all previous launches, the foam didn’t cause significant damage to the Shuttle. But when Columbia launched on that January morning, a large piece of insulation broke off the external tank and struck the left wing of the orbiter, making a hole in the leading edge of the wing. It was not until Columbia was in orbit that a routine review of launch footage revealed the foam strike, but it was impossible to ascertain the extent of the damage. Shuttle engineers on the ground requested that the Department of Defense provide imagery of the Shuttle in orbit that might have indicated the extent of the damage, but NASA managers blocked those requests. And it was highly risky for the astronauts to assess the damage themselves. On this mission, Columbia did not carry the Canadarm remote manipulator arm, and assessing the wing would have required an unplanned spacewalk. And even then, the astronauts would have had to make a patch out of materials on hand, and there was no procedure for that, nor any assurance of success.

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An enlarged photo of Columbia taken as it passed over New Mexico. The damaged wing is visible, as well as debris streaming off the spacecraft.

At the time NASA took the position that warning the astronauts of the damage would do no good, since there was nothing that could be done about it. If the damage was determined to be catastrophic, there was no way to rescue the astronauts in space. Returning to Earth was the only option, though the investigation following the disaster did find that the Shuttle Atlantis could have been readied for a rescue mission, but even then, there were questions of risking another crew on an untried mission.

Debris from the disintegrating orbiter appears as a red and orange streak in this weather radar image.

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After completing its 15-day mission, Columbia and the crew began re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere. The leading edges of the wings reached a temperature of more than 2,800º F as the orbiter reached a speed of Mach 24.1, and as superhot atmospheric gases entered the damaged wing the orbiter began to break up. As re-entry continued over Texas and Louisiana, Columbia finally broke up completely and pieces of the Shuttle were found over a huge swath of east Texas and west Louisiana, as well as body parts of the crew. But, even as the Shuttle was coming apart, the investigation found that pilot William McCool, a US Naval Aviator and test pilot, was starting up the Auxiliary Power Unit in an attempt to manually fly the Shuttle to a safe landing.

A large pice of debris from Columbia’s main engines was found in Fort Polk, Louisiana.

Following the loss of Columbia, Shuttle missions were put on hold for two years, and construction of the International Space Station was halted. The foam insulation on the external fuel tank was redesigned, and many of the large pieces that had been prone to breaking off in the past were removed. NASA instituted inspections of the Shuttle once it reached orbit, and a designated rescue mission was made ready in the event that severe damage was found. The final 22 Shuttle missions were flown to the ISS so the crew could wait there for rescue if damage during launch rendered the orbiter unsafe for re-entry. Only one mission was undertaken that didn’t go to the ISS, and that was flown to make repairs on the Hubble Space Telescope. (NASA photos; radar image via NOAA)

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Short Takeoff


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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 Korea 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. (Kaman photo via National Air & Space Museum Archives; HH-43 photo via US Air Force)


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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. (Photo by Русский: Вадим Кондратьев via Wikimedia Commons)


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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. (NASA photo)


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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. (NASA photo)


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February 2, 2001 – The first flight of the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper, a development of the earlier General Atomics MQ-1 Predator which was only designed to perform aerial surveillance. With the Reaper, the US Air Force now has the capability to perform both surveillance and attack missions either through remote piloting or autonomous flight. The Reaper is larger and heavier than the Predator and can carry up to 2,400 pounds of external stores, including Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, GBU-12 Paveway laser guided bombs, and GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM). The Air Force is also testing the ability to carry Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. The Reaper has flown against targets in Iraq and Afghanistan, serves with NASA as a research aircraft (where it is called Altair), and with the Department of Homeland Security for border reconnaissance. (US Air Force photo)


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February 2, 1944 – The first flight of the Republic XP-72, an interceptor that was a development of the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. The XP-72 was powered by a supercharged Pratt & Whitney R-4360 Wasp Major four-row radial engine, the same one that saw widespread use in large cargo aircraft and bombers. After the maiden flight was made with a standard four-bladed propeller, the XP-72 was fitted with a contra-rotating propeller and the interceptor displayed exceptional performance. The Army initially ordered 100 aircraft, but by this late stage in the war the US no longer needed a high-altitude interceptor and, with the advent of jet-powered fighters on the horizon, the Army canceled the order. Only two XP-72s were built. (Photo via San Diego Air & Space Museum)


Connecting Flights


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If you enjoy these Aviation History posts, please let me know in the comments. And if you missed any of the past articles, you can find them all at Planelopnik History. You can also find more stories about aviation, aviators and airplane oddities at Wingspan.

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