Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from January 5 through January 8.
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 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 the enemy. To bolster their forces, 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, its narrow undercarriage proved unsuited to landing on a moving deck, and the intake scoops under the wings made water ditchings 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 8, 1944 – The first flight of the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star. Though the jet engine predates WWII, technological advances in engine and aircraft design saw the powerplant mature to the point that it could dependably power an aircraft. The Germans were the first to field a jet-powered fighter with the Messerschmitt Me-262, and the British were close on their heels with the Gloster Meteor. The Americans, however, were much farther behind on jet engine development, so their first efforts in the jet fighter age would be powered by British engines. Nevertheless, the P-80 Shooting Star would emerge as perhaps the best jet fighter of the war period, though it came too late to see combat in that conflict.
The Shooting Star began as a development of the Bell Airacomet, America’s first jet-powered fighter, when Bell was unable to continue its development and the design passed to Lockheed. In just 143 days, Lockheed had redesigned the Airacomet around a de Havilland Goblin turbojet engine, and America’s first operational jet fighter was born. While that engine only provided 2,460 pounds of thrust, the Shooting Star still reached a top speed of 502 mph, the first American aircraft to exceed 500 mph in level flight. Later variants were powered by a General Electric I-40 engine, itself an improvement of another British design, and ultimately produced by Allison as the J33. The Air Force was so impressed with the performance of the sleek new fighter that they immediately ordered 5,000 copies, but that number was reduced to 917 with the end of WWII.
The early Shooting Stars were not without teething troubles, and difficulties with fuel pumps led to a spate of crashes, one of which killed America’s top scoring WWII fighter ace Richard Bong. But once the fuel delivery issues were solved, the P-80, now called the F-80 in the revised Air Force designation system, went on to become an excellent fighter, and the Shooting Star laid claim to the world’s first jet-to-jet aerial victory when it downed a Russian-built MiG-15 in the skies over Korea. Despite that victory, the Shooting Star was no match for the swept-wig MiG, so air superiority duties were turned over to the North American F-86 Sabre, while the F-80 took on ground attack and reconnaissance missions. Though the F-80's days as a jet fighter ended with the Korean War, the two-seat trainer variant, known as the T-33, became America’s first jet-powered trainer and served into the 1980s. A total of 1,715 P/F-80 fighters were produced, but over 6,550 T-33s were built before production ended in 1959.
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 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, and died on January 5, 1941 after bailing out of her Airspeed Oxford over the Thames Estuary when the aircraft ran out of fuel. The crew of HMS Haslemere witnessed the bailout, but she was killed by the ship’s propellers during the rescue attempt.
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 a Vought O2U Corsair. When a unit of Marines was ambushed and 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 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, utilize 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 by staying aloft for 10 days with midair refueling in 1933. 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 8, 1959 – The first flight of the Armstrong Whitworth AW.650/660 Argosy, a post-war, medium transport developed for the RAF and the final aircraft produced by Armstrong Whitworth. Armstrong Whitworth was perhaps best known for the Whitley bomber, which served as a large frontline bomber with the RAF throughout WWII. The Argosy arose from an RAF request for a freighter capable of carrying 25,000 pounds of cargo at a range of up to 2,000 miles. However, the RAF was initially uninterested in Armstrong Whitworth’s design, so the company forged ahead on their own with a civilian version, the AW.650, eventually developing the AW.660 militarized version when the RAF needed to replace their obsolete WWII-era freighters. A total of 74 Argosys were produced.
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