Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from July 1 through July 3.
July 2, 1937 – Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan disappear over the Pacific Ocean while attempting to circumnavigate the globe. The history of aviation has had many important contributors, but for the most part, those contributions were made by men. Not because men were more capable of building or flying aircraft, but simply because society didn’t believe that flying was an appropriate endeavor for women. The Wright Brothers refused to train female pilots (though their sister Katherine rode with Wilbur and became the first American woman to fly in a plane), and the British aviation pioneer Claude Grahame-White went so far as to say, “...women lack qualities which make for safety in aviation. They are temperamentally unfit for the sport.” The fact that Grahame-White saw flying as a sport is telling, but he was not alone in his views. Still, many women fought for their rightful place in aviation, and those pioneering aviatrixes who managed to break through societal barriers gained notoriety that helped create opportunities for those who followed.
Amelia Earhart was smitten with aviation at a young age, and took her first flying lessons in 1921. Soon after, she purchased her first airplane, a Kinner Airster biplane that she named The Canary. She became a celebrity in 1928 as the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, though she did so as a passenger and did no piloting. On arriving in Wales, Earhart told a reporter, “...maybe someday I’ll try it alone.” Four years later, she did just that when she piloted a Lockheed Vega from Newfoundland to Ireland and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross as the first woman to pilot a plane across the Atlantic. Earhart made subsequent solo flights and set numerous records, but she had her heart set on the greatest feat that had not yet been accomplished by a woman: a flight around the world.
Earhart made her first attempt in March 1937 flying westward, but that flight ended in Hawaii after a takeoff crash damaged her aircraft. For her second attempt, she teamed with experienced navigator Fred Noonan, and the pair began an eastward journey with an unpublicized flight from Oakland to Miami in Earhart’s Lockheed Model 10 Electra. Once in Miami, Earhart publicly announced her intention to fly around the world. On June 1, 1937, Earhart and Noonan departed from Miami and made stops in South America, Africa, India, and Southeast Asia before arriving in Lae, New Guinea on June 29 after covering roughly 22,000 miles. The Pacific Ocean was their last big obstacle. There were just two legs to go, from Lae to Hawaii, then Hawaii to Oakland.
The pair departed from Lae on July 2 at midnight GMT and headed for Howland Island, a tiny speck of land 2,556 miles away. The Coast Guard cutter Itasca was on station at Howland to guide them by radio for the final part of their flight. As they approached Howland, Earhart and Noonan made contact with Itasca, but problems with the radio set meant that the crew of Itasca could hear Earhart, but Earhart and Noonan could not hear Itasca. The ship sent out tracking signals, but the fact that Earhart didn’t home in on them indicates that there may have been a problem with the Electra’s direction finder as well. At one point, Earhart radioed, “We must be on you, but cannot see you—but gas is running low.” She requested that Itasca send voice signals so she could take a radio bearing, and the strength of the signal received by the cutter meant that her Electra was very close, yet could not be seen. Earhart’s final transmission indicated that they believed they were near Howland; however, they had likely missed it by as few as five miles. Unable to contact the plane by radio, Itasca sent up smoke signals from the ship’s boilers in hopes that they would be seen, but to no avail. After those few radio calls, Earhart and Noonan were neither seen nor heard from again.
Search efforts lasted until July 19, and despite the best efforts of the Coast Guard and Navy, no trace of Earhart or Noonan, nor the Electra, was ever found. Some believe that Earhart and Noonan simply ran out of fuel and came down in the Pacific. Another theory is that they landed at Gardner Island, now Nikumaroro, an uninhabited coral atoll in the Phoenix Islands, and were stranded there until they eventually died. Others suggest that photographic evidence places Earhart in the Marshall Islands, a prisoner of the Japanese Army, though those claims have largely been discredited. Searchers have also turned up evidence that they claim are parts of Earhart’s Electra, and even a skeleton and a shoe. But the evidence is circumstantial, and the mystery of their disappearance remains unsolved to this day.
July 1, 1976 – The National Air and Space Museum opens in Washington, DC. Part of the Smithsonian Institution, the NASM holds the largest collection of historic aircraft and spacecraft in the world and, with 7.4 million visitors in 2016, it is the 2nd most-visited museum in the world and the most visited museum in the US. The NASM was originally established in 1946 as the National Air Museum, and today it displays some of the most important aircraft in the history of aviation, including the Wright Flyer, the Spirit of St. Louis, the Bell X-1, and the North American X-15, as well as spacecraft such as the Friendship 7 capsule and the Apollo 11 command module. In addition to its collection in Washington, DC, the NASM operates the Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration and Storage Facility in Maryland and the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport that houses pieces of the museums’s vast collection that do not fit in the building on the Washington Mall.
July 1, 1973 – The death of Laurens Hammond. Hammond is not a prominent name in aviation history, as he is best known for his invention of the Hammond Organ, the Hammond electric clock, and the Novachord, the world’s first polyphonic music synthesizer. Born on January 11, 1895, Hammond served as an engineer in WWI and worked as an inventor after the war. During WWII, he developed bomb and missile guidance systems, and was awarded patents for infrared and light-sensing bomb guidance systems. He also developed a new gyroscope that was less sensitive to the cold of high altitude, as well as controls for a gliding bomb, the forerunner of the modern guided missile.
July 1, 1933 – The first flight of the Douglas DC-1, the first model of the DC (Douglas Commercial) airliner series that found its greatest success with the later DC-3. Development of the DC-1 began in 1931 after the high-profile crash of a Fokker F.10 trimotor that suffered a structural failure which was traced to its wooden wings. With Boeing selling its successful Model 247 exclusively to United Airlines, TWA approached Douglas to build an all-metal airliner for them. Though only one DC-1 was built, rigorous testing showed it to be significantly superior to the aircraft it was meant to replace, and it formed the basis for the improved DC-2, which entered service with TWA in 1934 and saw nearly 200 built. Just over 600 DC-3s were built, while more than 10,000 of its military derivative, the C-47, were built.
July 1, 1912 – The death of Harriet Quimby. Born on May 11, 1875, Quimby became the first woman to earn a pilot’s license in the United States in 1911, and her exploits were an inspiration to many women of her day who railed against male-dominated society. Quimby was hired as a spokesperson by the Vin Fiz Company, and became the first woman to fly across the English Channel in 1912, a feat that was unfortunately overshadowed by news of the sinking of the Titanic just one day later. Quimby and her passenger were killed during a flight when, for unknown reasons, her Blériot XI monoplane suddenly pitched forward, ejecting them both at an altitude of 1,500 feet. Ironically, the plane came to earth relatively undamaged.
July 2, 1959 – The first flight of the Kaman SH-2 Seasprite, an all-weather, high-speed helicopter designed to fulfill the role of anti-submarine warfare, search and rescue, light cargo transport, and liaison. The single main rotor was a design departure for Kaman, a company best known at the time for their dual, intermeshing rotor designs that eliminated the need for a tail rotor. The original Seasprite was powered by a single General Electric T58 turboshaft engine, but when the SH-2 entered service in 1962, it was quickly found to lack sufficient power. In response, Kaman added a second turboshaft engine, with both engines housed in external pods. Nearly 200 Seasprites were produced, and they served primarily with the US Navy and the Royal New Zealand Air Force. The US Navy retired the Seasprite in 1993.
July 2, 1943 – Lt. Charles Hall becomes the first African-American pilot to shoot down a German plane in WWII. A native of Brazil, Indiana, Hall flew with the 99th Pursuit Squadron and was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen. The 99th was deployed in support of the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943, and Hall’s squadron was tasked with escorting a flight of Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers in an attack on Castelvetrano in southwestern Sicily. When the flight was attacked by Focke-Wulf Fw 190s, Hall turned his Curtiss P-40 Warhawk to intercept the attackers and downed one, the first of three victories he scored in service with the 99th. After returning to the US, Hall reached the rank of major in the US Air Force before his retirement in 1967. Hall died in 1971.
July 2, 1900 – Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin flies the first rigid airship. Count Zeppelin first expressed his ideas about building rigid airships in 1874, likely inspired by his time in the US observing the balloon camp of Thaddeus Lowe during the Civil War. After a stint in the military, Zeppelin devoted all of his time to the development of a rigid airship, and he built and flew the first rigid airship, LZ 1, from a floating hangar on Lake Constance in southern Germany. Constructed using a cylindrical metal framework covered with cotton cloth and lifted by 17 gas cells made from rubberized cotton, the LZ 1 was small by later standards, and carried just five passengers. The first of three flights covered a distance of 3.7 miles in 17 minutes before a malfunction led to a forced landing. But Zeppelin started a revolution of airship design and, by 1914, his airships had transported over 37,000 passengers on over 1,600 flights without incident.
July 3, 1988 – The US Navy cruiser USS Vincennes shoots down Iran Air Flight 655 over the Persian Gulf. While operating in the Persian Gulf to protect civilian shipping during the Iran-Iraq War, the US Navy Ticonderoga-class cruiser USS Vincennes (CG-49) detected an Iran Air Airbus A300 (EP-IBU) operating in Iranian territory on a scheduled route. Despite the fact that the airliner was issuing squawks that identified it as a civilian aircraft, the crew of Vincennes believed it to be an Iranian Grumman F-14 Tomcat on an attack mission and shot the airliner down with two missiles, killing all 290 passengers and crew. The US never officially apologized for the incident, though it did formally express regret and paid $62 million dollars to the families of the victims. In 1989, a pipe bomb detonated in a van driven by the wife of Captain William Rogers III, the commanding officer of Vincennes at the time of the attack, though no evidence was ever found to determine that the act was in retaliation for Iran Air incident. Rogers’ wife was unhurt.
July 3, 1948 – The first flight of the North American AJ (A-2) Savage, a large, hybrid-powered nuclear bomber designed to operate from US Navy carriers. The Savage was the heaviest carrier aircraft ever put in service at the time, and was powered by two Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp radial engines in the wings and one Allison J33 turbojet in the rear, though the turbojet was only intended for use during takeoff and high-speed attack runs. The Savage entered service in 1950, but it was cumbersome to operate onboard the carriers. The size of the aircraft hampered deck operations, and folding the wings one at a time by hydraulic pump was a slow process. The Savage also served as an aerial tanker and reconnaissance aircraft, and a few were pressed into aerial firefighting duties. A total 140 were built, and the A-2 was retired in 1960. The sole remaining example is on display at the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Florida.
July 3, 1937 – The first flight of the Dornier Do 24, a three-engine German flying boat built by Dornier Flugzeugwerke for maritime patrol and search and rescue. Dornier developed the Do 24 to meet a requirement from the Dutch navy to replace the Dornier Do J Wal (Whale) that had been introduced in the same role in 1923 for service in the Dutch East Indies. The all-metal, parasol wing Dornier 24 entered service in November 1937 and, according to Dornier records, the flying boat was credited with as many as 12,000 rescues during its time in service. It was also used used as a maritime attack aircraft, and was responsible for the sinking of the Japanese destroyer Shinonome on December 17, 1941. A total of 279 were produced between 1937-1945, and one remains airworthy today, with its radial engines replaced by modern turboprops.
July 3, 1936 – The first flight of the Short Empire. The decade of the 1930s is often referred to as the Golden Age of Aviation, a time when flying of all types became more popular and the demand for passenger travel increased sharply. With the British Empire stretching around the globe, flying boats became a popular way for passengers to reach far-flung destinations. The Short Empire was developed by the Irish company Short Brothers (known popularly as Shorts) mostly at the behest of Imperial Airlines to fly routes from England to Australia and the African and Asian colonies. The Empire was powered by four Bristol Pegasus radial engines and had a top speed of 200 mph with a range of 760 miles. The Empire entered service in 1937 with a flight from England to Egypt, and Shorts eventually built 42 of the flying boats. The Empire flew with Imperial Airways (later British Overseas Airways Corporation), Qantas of Australia, Teal of New Zealand, and the Royal Air Force. Empires served through WWII before their retirement in 1947.
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