Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from January 6 through January 9.
January 6, 1944 – The first flight of the McDonnell XP-67. Since its creation in 1939, the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, and later McDonnell Douglas, has produced some of America’s most iconic military and civilian aircraft, growing rapidly during WWII from its humble beginnings as an aircraft parts supplier. McDonnell’s first foray into aircraft design came with the US Army’s Request for Proposal R-40C, which was intended to encourage American companies to produce technologically advanced or even radical fighter aircraft to keep pace with modern European designs. McDonnell responded to the request with a truly radical twin-engine aircraft that placed the engine in the fuselage behind the cockpit that turned a pair of pusher propellers via a 90-degree shaft and gearboxes. The Army wasn’t particularly impressed with the arrangement, and McDonnell was not chosen as a finalist in the competition. But the Army nevertheless gave McDonnell $3,000 to continue development of their design.
McDonnell returned in 1941 with the redesigned XP-67, a twin-engine interceptor with engines housed in the wings rather than in the fuselage. While that arrangement was more traditional, it was the shape of the XP-67 that was unique. In an attempt to make the aircraft as aerodynamic as possible, McDonnell housed the engines in tapered nacelles that were blended into the wing, and the wing was blended into the fuselage to create a single structure. The resulting shape looked more than just a bit like a bat, and the XP-67 received its unofficial nickname “Bat” or “Moon Bat.” By employing a laminar flow wing design, McDonnell promised a top speed of 472 mph with a gross weight of 18,600 pounds, although the weight soon ballooned to 20,000 pounds. Still, the Army awarded McDonnell $1.5 million to build two prototypes and test the radical interceptor.
Despite the futuristic shape and promises of high performance, the Bat never quite lived up to its billing. The Continental XI-1430 inverted, liquid-cooled V-12 engines, like so many engines of that era, proved underpowered, and engine cooling proved problematic, an issue that was never fully resolved. Flight tests showed that the new fighter flew reasonably well, but its climb rate was unacceptable, and it never reached the top speeds promised. An engine fire during a test flight in 1944 destroyed the single flying prototype, and, since the XP-67 showed no real advances in performance over existing designs, the project was canceled. Fortunately, the setback did not deter McDonnell, and the company followed the XP-67 with the FH Phantom, the first fully jet-powered aircraft to operate from an aircraft carrier and the basis for the extremely successful F2H Banshee. (US Air Force photos)
January 7, 1942 – The first flight of the Supermarine Seafire. As England entered WWII, they faced a critical need for a modern, high-performance fighter to operate from their aircraft carriers. As early as 1938, the government considered adapting the Supermarine Spitfire for carrier operations, but that idea was dropped in favor of the production of the Fairey Fulmar. With the Fulmar, the Royal Navy had a rugged, long-range airframe suitable for carrier use, but it 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 obsolete fighters, the Gloster Sea Gladiator biplane and the Blackburn Roc. 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 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, 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 Griffon engine in place of the Merlin. This gave the fighter a significant boost in performance, but created a new problem. Unlike the Merlin, 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 was eventually rectified in the definitive Mk 47 variant, which was fitted with a contra-rotating propeller. Mk 47 Seafires saw service in the Korean War in 1950, but by 1951, all Seafires had been removed from front line service. In all its variants, over 2,300 Seafires were produced. (UK Government photo; photo by Airwolfhound via Wikimedia Commons; photo by Airwolfhound via Wikimedia Commons)
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, and the Germans were 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-80/F-80 fighters were produced, but over 6,550 T-33s were built before production needed in 1959. (US Air Force photo)
January 9, 1943 – The first flight of the Lockheed Constellation. With its graceful curves, the Lockheed Constellation, nicknamed “Connie,” is arguably one of the most beautiful aircraft ever designed. But the comely Connie started life as a much more plain Jane aircraft, the Lockheed L-044 Excalibur, a run of the mill, four-engine transport that would never enter production. In 1939, the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, the owner of Transcontinental & Western Airlines (which would later become TWA), held a meeting with Jack Frye, the president of T&WA, along with other Lockheed executives. Hughes expressed his desire for a new large passenger airliner, and he felt that the Excalibur wouldn’t meet his needs. So the Lockheed engineers, including Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, who was destined to become one of America’s greatest aviation engineers, went back to the drawing board, and just three weeks later they presented Hughes with the initial plans for the Connie, now designated L-049.
The Constellation was a truly modern airliner, and featured electric de-icing, hydraulic assisted controls and variable pitch propellers. The wings were patterned after the Lockheed P-38 Lighting, which had been designed by Kelly Johnson. The Connie was also pressurized to allow for high altitude flight, and was powered by a quartet of Wright R-3350 Duplex-Cyclone radial engines. At the time, the Connie was the most expensive airliner ever produced, and Hughes himself funded the purchase of 40 aircraft since T&WA didn’t have the funds to pay for them. But along with the purchase, Hughes got to weigh in on the design, and he brought in famed designer Raymond Loewy to redesign the cabin to his liking.
Production of the Constellation was a tightly held secret, since Hughes didn’t want Pan Am or any other air carriers to know about the new airliner. But the secret was revealed when the US Army came to inspect Lockheed’s production facility a few months before the war. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Lockheed’s production lines became the property of the US government, and production of the Constellation would have to wait until the Army got theirs first. Thus, the first flight of the L-049 Constellation is really the first flight of the Lockheed C-69, which was its military designation. The Army ordered 260 C-69s for cargo and troop transport, and even considered converting it into a bomber. But problems with the engines led to delays that caused the Army to reduce its order to 73 aircraft. Eventually, only 22 C-69s were built, and just 15 were delivered.
Following the war, production returned to the civilian market, with military Connies converted to civilian aircraft. Improvements were made to those already under construction, such as the addition of a luxury interior, more windows, a galley, and crew rest areas, along with better ventilation and heating. And, since the C-69 had already been tested and flown by the Army, Lockheed was far ahead of its competitors, who were still working on their own post-war designs. The first production L-049 flew on July 12, 1945 and was delivered to TWA four months later. The first commercial flight was from New York City to Paris, a trip that took nearly 17 hours with stops in Newfoundland and Ireland for fuel. The Connie proved to be a remarkably adaptable airplane. Future variants to its civilian version added increased speed, passenger space and range, and the improved C-121 Constellation (L-749) joined the Air Force as a transport and cargo aircraft., while the EC-121 Warning Star electronic surveillance variant served the US Air Force into the 1980s. (NASA photo; Photo via San Diego Air & Space Museum; photo by Mike Freer via Wikimedia Commons; US Air Force photo)
January 9, 1941 – The first flight of the Avro Lancaster. In the 1930s, the US and Britain were following different tacks in the development of strategic bombers. The Americans were tending towards four-engine aircraft, while the British, who were concerned with the ability to produce enough engines, put their efforts into twin-engine bombers in the belief that having two very powerful engines was a better arrangement than four smaller ones. In 1936, Avro produced the Manchester, a twin-engine bomber that was powered by two 24-cylinder Rolls-Royce Vulture engines. Despite the promise of these large X-type engines, the Manchester was underpowered and only built in small numbers. But it was the Manchester that provided the basis for the mighty Lancaster that followed.
By 1936, the RAF decided that four engines were indeed better than two. Seeing the results of efforts in the US and Russia, which demonstrated that four smaller engines provided good lifting power as well as better range, the British began work to develop of their own four-engine bomber. Three new heavy bombers came out of this effort: the Handley Page Halifax, the Short Stirling, and the Avro Lancaster. For the Lancaster, Avro chief design engineer Roy Chadwick turned to the Manchester and enlarged it to carry more payload and receive four Rolls-Royce Merlin engines. While not as powerful as the Vulture, the Merlins were more reliable, and would become perhaps the greatest inline engine of the war. The Lancaster also made use of the podded “power-egg” concept developed by the Germans, where entire engines and ancillary equipment could be changed out as a single unit or swapped between comparable aircraft. The first Lancaster prototype featured the twin-lobed tail and stubby vertical stabilizer that was employed on the first Manchesters, but that arrangement was abandoned in favor of removing the third fin and enlarging the lobes. Not only did this improve stability, it also provided a clearer field of fire for the dorsal gunner. Of particular importance to the design of the Lancaster was its enormous bomb bay. With an unobstructed length of 33 feet, the Lancaster was able to carry a wide variety of payloads, including the 12,000-pound Tall Boy and 22,000-pound Grand Slam strategic earthquake bombs developed by British engineer Barnes Wallis.
The Lancaster entered service with RAF Bomber Command in March 1942 with a mine-laying mission near the Heligoland Bight and a bombing mission over the German city of Essen. It soon became the principal nighttime bomber in use by the RAF and the RCAF, and, by 1945, Lancasters had dropped 618,378 US tons of bombs over the course of 156,000 sorties. Though the Lancaster was a rugged aircraft, only 35 managed to complete more than 100 missions, and the longest surviving Lancaster, which completed 139 missions, was retired and scrapped in 1947. In addition to its role as a nighttime area bomber, the Lancaster also took part in precision daylight raids, including dropping the Tall Boy and Grand Slam bombs, the largest non-nuclear bombs deployed until 2017, against German U-boat pens. Lancasters were also modified to carry Barnes Wallis’ bouncing dam buster bombs during Operation Chastise, which attacked dams in the Ruhr Valley in an attempt to destroy German power generation, industrial water use and farm production.
While the Lancaster made a name for itself as a potent bomber, it also performed as a test bed for nascent turbojet engines and early turboprop engines. After the war, the Lancaster was used to ferry prisoners of war back to the British Isles, and continued in Canadian service until 1963. It was also developed into a transatlantic passenger and mail plane known as the Lancastrian. Lancastrians also took part in the Berlin Airlift, and one took part in a 1945 mission to locate the Magnetic North Pole. The Lancaster was further developed into the larger Avro Lincoln, which replaced the Lancaster and was the last piston-powered bomber flown by the RAF. A total of 7,377 Lancasters were built in England and Canada, the most of any British heavy bomber. (Photo by Ronnie Macdonald via Wikimedia Commons; UK Government photo; RAF photo; Canadian Government photo)
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), or 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. The USS George Washington (SSBN-598) became the first ballistic missile submarine and carried sixteen Polaris A-1 missiles. Forty more SSBNs were launched from 1960-1966, and the Polaris was removed from service in 1996. (US Navy photo)
January 7, 1947 – The death of Helen Richey. Born in 1909, Richey was a pioneering aviatrix and the first woman to be hired as a commercial airline pilot in the US. Richey obtained her pilot’s 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 flew 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. (Photo via the Pittsburgh Post Gazette)
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. (Photo by RuthAS via Wikimedia Commons)
January 9, 1963 – The first flight of the Hawker Siddeley HS 121 Trident, a short- to medium-range airliner and the first to feature a third engine on the fuselage centerline. While the Trident’s design was unique for its era, political infighting in the British government over what form the new airliner would take delayed delivery until after the appearance of the Boeing 727, a similar tri-jet configuration, and seriously hampered sales of the new airliner. Seating up to 140 passengers depending on variant, the Trident flew for the airlines of eight nations, as well as the militaries of China and Pakistan. By the time the Trident ceased production, only 117 had been built, while Boeing would eventually complete over 1,800 727s. (Photo by Christian Volpati via Wikimedia Commons)
January 9, 1951 – The first flight of the Tupolev Tu-85. On four different occasions in 1944, US Boeing B-29 Superfortress bombers attacking Japan were forced to make an emergency landing in Russia. Rather than return the bombers, the Soviets kept them and Tupolev made exact duplicates which were designated Tu-4. The Tu-85 (NATO reporting name “Barge”) was a greatly enlarged variant of the Tu-4, being nearly 50% heavier and having almost twice the range, though still without the necessary range to attack the US from Russia. After the B-29 proved susceptible to attack by more modern MiG-15 fighters over Korea, the Russians halted development of the Tu-85 after two prototypes, choosing instead to develop the Tu-95 which remains in service today. (Photo authors unknown)
January 9, 1900 – The birth of Richard Halliburton. The 1930s was a wild era of barnstorming, exploration and daredevilry, and one of the more famous daredevils was Richard Halliburton (at left in photo). Halliburton initially found fame after swimming the length of the Panama Canal while paying a toll of just 39 cents, and was the first to climb Mt. Fuji in winter. His contribution to aviation history stems from an epic, round-the-world flight in a modified Stearman C3-B named Flying Carpet with pilot Moye Stephens (eventual co-founder of Northrop Aviation) at the controls. Halliburton called it “one of the most fantastic, extended air journeys ever recorded,” taking 18 months and covering 33,660 miles while visiting 34 countries. Halliburton died (presumed) in 1939 while attempting to cross the Pacific Ocean from Hong Kong to San Francisco in a Chinese junk. (Photo author unknown)
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