Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from January 4 through January 7.
January 7, 1942 – The first flight of the Supermarine Seafire. When England entered WWII, the country faced a critical need for a modern, high-performance fighter to operate from their aircraft carriers. As early as 1938, the British government considered adapting the Supermarine Spitfire for carrier operations, but that idea was dropped in favor of production of the much larger Fairey Fulmar. With the Fulmar, the Royal Navy had a rugged, long-range airframe suitable for carrier use, but the aircraft lacked the agility to dogfight with more modern German aircraft. As a result, the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) ended up starting the war with two woefully unfit fighters: the Gloster Sea Gladiator biplane and the Blackburn Roc which, though it first flew in 1938, was simply no match for contemporary German fighters. As a stopgap measure, the British purchased the Grumman F4F Wildcat from the United States, which was known as the Martlet in British service.
Following the success of converting the Hawker Hurricane to naval service, the FAA revisited the idea of converting the Spitfire to carrier service, and existing Spits were modified with an A-frame arrestor hook and a reinforced fuselage. However, the Spitfire’s narrow undercarriage proved unsuited to landing on a moving deck, and the intake scoops under the wings made ditching in the water particularly hazardous. But even with these modifications, and increases in fuselage strength, the result was still not a purpose-built naval fighter. Further refinements continued, but the Seafire became heavier and its performance suffered. Range, which was already relatively short since the original Spitfire was designed as a land-based plane, also suffered. And it wasn’t until the third variant that the Seafire finally received folding wings. During 1942 and 1943, the Seafire gradually replaced the Hurricane in fleet service, and saw its first action during Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa. In the Pacific, the Seafire proved to be a match for the Mitsubishi A6M (Zero), but still not as effective overall as contemporary American fighters that were designed as naval fighters from the beginning.
Unlike many aircraft that were designed before WWII, the Seafire remained with the Royal Navy after the end of the war, but was given a more powerful Rolls-Royce Griffon engine in place of the Merlin. This gave the fighter a significant boost in performance, but created a new problem. Unlike the Merlin, which turned to the right, the Griffin engine swing to the left, and even with full rudder correction on takeoff, the Seafire would move towards, rather than away from, the carrier’s island. This problem was eventually rectified in the definitive Mk 47 variant, which was fitted with a contra-rotating propeller. Mk 47 Seafires saw service as late as the Korean War in 1950, but by the following year all Seafires had been removed from front line service. In all its variants, over 2,300 Seafires were produced.
January 4, 2004 – The Mars Exploration Rover Spirit (MER-A) lands on Mars. Following its launch on June 10, 2003, Spirit was the first of two robotic exploration rovers sent to Mars by NASA. Three weeks after Spirit touched down, its sister rover, Opportunity (MER-B), landed on Mars on January 25, 2004. Originally intended to have a 90-day mission, Spirit operated for an astonishing 2,269 Earth days and covered nearly five miles of the Martian surface. On May 1, 2009, Spirit became stuck in soft soil, and after seven months of attempts 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. Opportunity, also designed for a 90-day mission, was last heard from on June 10, 2018, a remarkable 5,295 Earth days after landing.
January 4, 1996 – The first flight of the Boeing-Sikorsky 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 Comanche was designed to designate targets for Apache helicopters to destroy, but it would also be armed with missiles of its own to engage enemy 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 Comanche prototypes are on display at the United States Army Aviation Museum at Fort Rucker in Alabama.
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 internationally agreed 12-mile limit. The US Navy, in a challenge to Gadaffi’s claim, was operating 80 miles north of the Libyan coast when two Libyan MiG-23 fighters appeared to engage two US Navy Grumman F-14 Tomcats flying from USS John F. Kennedy (CV 67) that were providing air cover for the American fleet. The Tomcats shot down both MiG-23s, killing the Libyan pilots, though Libya made no attempt to rescue the downed airmen. 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.
January 4, 1958 – The death of Sir Alliott Verdon-Roe, a pioneering aviator and the founder of the A.V. Roe Company (Avro). Roe was born on April 26, 1877 and first worked as an engineer for the Merchant Navy, where his interest in flight was reportedly kindled by observing albatrosses in flight. He began his work in the aviation industry as a draftsman before working on his own design for gliders, and Verdon-Roe won a prize in 1907 for one of his aircraft. He built his first full-sized aircraft, the Roe I Biplane, based on this model. On January 1, 1910, Verdon-Roe teamed with his brother Humphrey to found the A.V. Roe Company, better known as Avro. The company’s most successful design of WWI was the Avro 504, of which more than 10,000 were built during a 19-year production run. During WWII, Avro produced England’s principal heavy bomber, the Avro Lancaster, and built the Avro Vulcan jet-powered bomber during the Cold War. In 1948, Verdon-Roe left the company he founded to join with Samuel Saunders to form Saunders-Roe, which functioned until 1953 and was best known for its flying boats before the company was absorbed by Hawker Siddeley.
January 4, 1936 – The first flight of the Vought SB2U Vindicator, the first monoplane dive bomber to serve the US Navy. The Vindicator had an all-metal folding wing, but its fuselage was still of the older fabric-covered tube construction, strengthened by aluminum plate from the nose to the end of the rear cockpit. It carried a single 1,000-pound bomb on a trapeze to clear the propeller, plus additional bombs under the wings. 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 fought 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.
January 5, 2018 – The death of John Young, an American aeronautical engineer, US Naval Aviator, test pilot, and astronaut. Young was born in San Francisco, California, on September 24, 1930 and began flying with the US Navy as a helicopter pilot in 1954 before transferring to jets, flying Grumman F-9 Cougars from USS Coral Sea (CV 43) and Vought F-8 Crusaders from USS Forrestal (CV 59). Young joined NASA in 1962 as part of Astronaut Group 2 and was the first member of his group to fly in space when he joined Gus Grissom in the first manned flight of the Gemini program in 1965. During his time with the space agency, Young made six space flights including Gemini 3 and Gemini 10, Apollo 10, where he became the first man to orbit the Moon alone, and Apollo 16, where he drove the Lunar Roving Vehicle on the Moon. His flights aboard two Apollo missions made Young one of only three astronauts who have flown to the Moon twice. He made the first of two flights aboard the Space Shuttle as commander of the maiden flight in 1981, making him the only astronaut to fly in four different classes of spacecraft: Gemini, the Apollo Command/Service Module, the Apollo Lunar Module, and the Space Shuttle. Young’s retirement from NASA in 2004 after 42 years of service marked the end of the longest career of any NASA astronaut. His logbook contains more than 15,275 hours of flying time in all manner of powered aircraft (more than 9,200 hours in Northrop T-38 Talon alone), and 835 hours in spacecraft logged over the course of six space flights.
January 5, 1995 – The death of Benjamin Robert “Ben” Rich. Born on June 18, 1925 in Manila, Philippines, Rich began working with Lockheed as a thermodynamicist before succeeding the legendary Clarence “Kelly” Johnson as head of Lockheed’s Advanced Development Programs, better known as the Skunk Works. 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 and money. 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. Rich retired from Lockheed in 1990, and died of cancer in Ventura, California.
July 5, 1941 – The death of Amy Johnson (CBE). Born on July 1, 1903 in Yorkshire, England, Johnson was a pioneering British aviatrix and the first female pilot to fly alone from England to Australia, making the 11,000-mile flight in a de Havilland DH.60 Gipsy Moth named Jason. In 1931, she made another historic flight from London to Moscow with copilot Jack Humphreys in a record time of 21 hours, and made other record-setting flights from England to India and from England to South Africa. During WWII, Johnson served as a pilot for the Air Transport Auxiliary. On her final flight, Johnson bailed out of her Airspeed Oxford over the Thames Estuary when the aircraft ran out of fuel. The crew of HMS Haslemere witnessed the bailout and attempted a rescue, but Johnson was killed when she was struck by the ship’s propellers.
January 6, 1928 – USMC aviator 1st Lt. Charles F. Schilt rescues Marines from a besieged town in Nicaragua and is awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions. During the so-called Banana Wars of 1912-1933, when the United States intervened in the affairs of Caribbean and Central American countries, the US twice occupied Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. Lt. Schilt, one of the first Marine Corps aviators, was assigned to Marine Observation Squadron 7 (VMO-7) as a reconnaissance pilot flying the Vought O2U Corsair. When a unit of Marines became trapped in the city, Lt. Schilt volunteered to land on a crude runway and, over the course of ten flights under enemy fire, he evacuated 18 wounded Marines, brought in a replacement commander, and delivered critical medical supplies. Schilt went on to become the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps for Aviation, and retired from the Marine Corps in 1957 at the rank of General before his death in 1987 at age 91.
January 7, 1960 – The first launch of the Polaris missile. The United States, along with Russia, utilized what is known as the nuclear triad, which is the ability to attack their enemies with nuclear weapons from three sources: aircraft, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and submarines. The US was the first to drop an atomic bomb from an airplane during WWII, and they followed that with the Atlas land-based ICBM in October of 1959. To complete the triad, the Polaris, a two-stage, solid fuel rocket that could be launched from a submerged submarine, entered service in 1961. USS George Washington (SSBN-598) was the first ballistic missile submarine and carried sixteen Polaris A-1 missiles. Forty more SSBNs were launched from 1960-1966, and the Polaris was finally removed from service in 1996.
January 7, 1947 – The death of Helen Richey. Born in 1909, Richey was a pioneering aviatrix and the first woman in the United States to be hired as a commercial airline pilot. Richey obtained her pilot license at age 20 and, with the help of pilot Frances Marsalis, she set an endurance record in 1933 by staying aloft for 10 days with midair refueling. She also competed in air races, toured with Amelia Earhart, and set an altitude record of over 18,000 feet. In 1934, Richey was hired by Central Airlines of Pennsylvania, where she piloted a Ford Trimotor, though she was eventually forced to quit her job by the all-male pilot’s union. Richey was also the first woman to be certified as an airmail pilot, and one of the first women to serve as a flight instructor. She died in 1947 of an apparent overdose, and her death was ruled a suicide.
January 7, 1785 – The first aerial crossing of the English Channel. Before the arrival of the airplane, the first forays into air travel were made by balloons, and France served as the center of balloon development in the mid- to late-18th century. Jean-Pierre Blanchard was an early French balloon pioneer, and made his first flight in a hydrogen balloon in 1784. Blanchard moved his ballooning operations to England where he met American John Jeffries, and the pair set to making flights together. Blanchard and Jeffries performed the first flight ever across the English Channel when they flew from Dover Castle to Guînes, a flight that took about 2.5 hours. For the successful flight, Blanchard was awarded a pension by the King of France, and he went on to become the first to fly a balloon in Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, and Germany.
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