Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from July 10 through July 12.
July 10, 1940 – The Battle of Britain begins. WWII in Europe started on September 1, 1939 with the German invasion of Poland, followed by a push into Scandinavia and Northern France the following spring. As German forces spread westward, France fell to the Nazis in the summer of 1940, and the situation was looking decidedly bleak for the British. The British Expeditionary Force fighting in France had been beaten back to the English Channel at Dunkirk, and only through a truly heroic and herculean effort of the Royal Navy and British civilians were the soldiers evacuated from the beaches. Though nearly 240,000 British, French and Belgian troops had been rescued, the Allies were on the run in Europe. On June 22, France officially signed an armistice with Germany, marking the end of the Battle of France. England was now alone to face the Germans in western Europe, and Adolf Hitler turned his sights on the island nation. He knew that as long as England stayed in the war he would not be able to claim complete victory over Europe, nor would he be able to turn his armies fully against Russia in the east. Hitler hoped that he might negotiate peace, but Britain was not interested. Despite the odds, they chose to fight, spurred on by the stirring words of Prime Minister Winston Churchill:
...The Battle of France is over. The battle of Britain is about to begin.... The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world...will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age.... Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”
With Britain resolved to defend their island, the Germans began planning for for a cross-channel invasion, known as Unternehmen Seelöwe (Operation Sea Lion). But before such an invasion could take place, the Luftwaffe needed to achieve air superiority over the RAF. Luftwaffe Air Marshal Hermann Göring was certain that his forces could knock the RAF out of the sky while giving the Wehrmacht time to prepare for an invasion.
The Battle of Britain began on July 10, 1941 (German historians observe different operational dates), and while the battle came to be symbolized by the indiscriminate bombing of London, it opened with attacks against British shipping and ports. One month later, on August 13, the Luftwaffe launched Unternehmen Adlerangriff (Operation Eagle Attack), with three German Luftflotten (air fleets) unleashed against British air bases, radar installations and aircraft factories. Against this onslaught of 2,500 fighters and bombers, the RAF had about 600 fighters. But they weren’t just flown by British pilots. Commonwealth pilots from New Zealand, Australia, Canada, South Africa, and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) fought, as wells pilots from Belgium, France, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and a handful of pilots from neutral America and Ireland. The two main aircraft at the RAF’s disposal were the Hawker Hurricane and the newer Supermarine Spitfire. Generally, the “Spit,” which was the more agile of the pair, tangled with the fighters, while the heavily armed “Hurries” took on the bombers. Both aircraft were superior to the Heinkel He 111s and Junkers Ju 88s ranging over England. German Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters were every bit the match for the British fighters, but long flights from the European continent left them low on fuel with little time to fight. The British also had the advantage of fighting over their home soil, where pilots could land quickly to re-arm and repair their fighters, and the defenders employed a network of coastal radar stations that warned Fighter Command of attacking waves of German planes.
By early September, Göring and his Luftwaffe were destroying British planes faster than they could be replaced, and the RAF teetered on the brink of annihilation. But when some German bombs accidentally fell on London, the British retaliated by bombing Berlin, and an outraged Hitler ordered Göring to shift his attacks from the RAF to London. This proved to be a fateful move. In what was known as The Blitz, German bombers rained their bombs down on British civilians, hoping to break British morale and force the government to the negotiating table. However, all the bombing did was strengthen British resolve to fight, and give the RAF the breathing room it so desperately needed to rest their air crews, rebuild their bases and replace their losses in planes and pilots. In what proved to be a stunning tactical blunder, the Blitz raids only continued to deplete the Luftwaffe while bringing them no closer to eliminating the RAF. As a result, Hitler pushed back the launch date for Operation Sea Lion, and eventually abandoned it altogether.
In a speech to Parliament on August 20, 1940, as the battle was drawing to a close, Winston Churchill praised the RAF for their effort and sacrifice to protect the British homeland:
The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the World War..... Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.
When the Battle of Britain finally ended on October 31, 1940, the RAF had lost 544 pilots against roughly 2,500 Luftwaffe pilots, and more than 40,000 British civilians had been killed. But England would not face the threat invasion again, and for the RAF, and all the defenders and citizens who withstood the German attack, it was indeed their finest hour.
July 12, 1980 – The first flight of the McDonnell Douglas KC-10 Extender. In the earliest days of powered flight up through WWII, an aircraft’s range was limited by the amount of fuel that could be carried on board. Aircraft designed for long range flight had to sacrifice fuselage space for fuel, or carry bulky external fuel tanks. The ideal solution would be to find a way to refuel an aircraft in the air, and experiments in aerial refueling had taken place before the war. The very first instance of aerial refueling occurred in the barnstorming era when a stuntman strapped a tank of fuel to his back and climbed from one plane to another. It was effective, though certainly not practical. One of the earliest attempts at a practical system took place in 1923 when two Airco DH.4 biplanes transferred fuel via a long hose strung from one plane to another. But it wasn’t until 1949 that a truly effective aerial refueling system was devised. The US Air Force demonstrated its potential nonstop with an around-the-world flight by a Boeing B-50 Superfortress that was refueled in the air three times by bombers that had been converted to KB-50 tankers.
With the arrival of the jet-powered Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker, aerial refueling for the Air Force became a standard practice, but even that aircraft didn’t have the truly global range required for Air Force operations the world over, a lesson learned during operations in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. The Air Force needed a flying gas station with greater range, and even one that could be refueled in the air itself. During the procurement process, the Air Force realized that the best solution might be found by converting existing commercial airliners for use as refueling aircraft. The new tanker would have to be large, so the Air Force evaluated of the Boeing 747, the McDonnell Douglas DC-10, the Lockheed L-1011, all wide-body airliners. They also considered a conversion of the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy strategic airlifter. After quickly dismissing the two Lockheed aircraft, Air Force brass ultimately chose the DC-10, and cited its ability to operate from shorter runways as being a principal factor in the selection.
Although the DC-10 required extensive modifications to fill the role of a military tanker, the KC-10 still retains an 88% commonality with its airliner predecessor. Most of the windows were removed, along with the lower cargo doors, and the McDonnell Douglas Advanced Aerial Refueling Boom (AARB) was added to the rear of the aircraft. This flying boom was a significant upgrade to earlier hose systems, as it allowed the refueler, or “boomer,” to control the refueling probe while the receiving aircraft held station below and behind the KC-10. The Extender also retains the probe-and-drogue system used by the US Navy and its NATO allies. Three bladder-type fuel cells were installed below the main cabin floor and, combined with the KC-10's own fuel stores, it can carry more than 356,000 pounds of fuel, nearly twice the load of the KC-135. The Extender has an operational range of 4,400 miles, and its mission can be extended with its own ability to refuel from another aircraft. In addition to its enormous fuel load, the KC-10's cargo hold can also carry up to 170,000 pounds of cargo or hundreds of troops.
The first of an eventual 60 KC-10 Extenders entered service with Strategic Air Command in 1981 and quickly became a vital asset to the US Armed Forces worldwide. Extenders have flown in support of missions in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, and they provide critical support for long range attack missions or ferrying flights, particularly when countries prohibit aircraft from overflying their sovereign territory. The Royal Netherlands Air Force operates a pair of KDC-10 tankers which were converted from existing airliners rather than purpose-built. Two KDC-10s are also operated by civilian refueling companies who provide their services on contract to the US and other nations. Though there was talk of retiring the Air Force’s fleet of KC-10s in 2015 due to budget constraints, the Extender will remain flying, and will complement the upcoming Boeing KC-46 Pegasus tanker when it enters service to replace aging KC-135s.
July 10, 2013 – The Northrop Grumman X-47B unmanned combat air vehicle lands aboard USS George Washington (CVN 73). In 2000, the US Navy committed to the development of an Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) and awarded contracts for demonstrator aircraft to Boeing and Northrop Grumman. Following its first launch from the USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) on May 14, 2013, the X-47B performed the first autonomous touch-and-go landings three days later and the first arrested carrier landing on July 10. The X-47B also demonstrated autonomous aerial refueling in April of 2015. The X-47 program was followed by development of a Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS), though the Navy is now focusing on an unmanned aerial refueling system with the MQ-25 Stingray.
July 10, 1968 – The first flight of the Mil V-12, a twin-rotor helicopter capable of lifting up to 88,000 pounds and the largest helicopter in the world. After experimenting with a tandem rotor system similar to the Boeing CH-47 Chinook, Mil settled on a transverse system of rotors that eliminated the need for a tail rotor. Power is provided by a pair of Soloviev D-25 turboshaft engines that give the V-12 a top speed of 162 mph. Two aircraft were built, and they set eight world records, four of which still stand today. However, by the time the aircraft was ready for production the Soviet Air Force decided that they no longer needed the gargantuan helicopter and it was never put into serial production.
July 10, 1962 – Launch of Telstar 1. The Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War began when the Russians launched their Sputnik 1 satellite into Earth orbit on October 4, 1957. The earliest satellites simply sent electronic signals back to the ground, but Telstar 1, along with Telstar 2 which launched May 7, 1963, was the first truly utilitarian communications satellite and the first capable of relaying television pictures, telephone calls and facsimile images. It also transmitted the first live television images across the Atlantic Ocean. Both Telstar satellites were launched from Cape Canaveral atop a Thor-Delta rocket, and Telstar 1 beamed its first images back to Earth the day after it launched. Telstar 1 and 2 were followed by a series of more powerful satellites that share only the Telstar name, and the original satellites, no longer functioning, continue to orbit the Earth.
July 10, 1942 – The first flight of the Douglas A-26 Invader, a fast, powerful attack aircraft designed as a successor to the Douglas A-20 Havoc and one that was unusual for having a single pilot for a plane of its size. The A-26 featured a laminar flow wing and was powered by a pair of Pratt & Whitney Double Wasp radial engines which allowed the Invader to carry up to 6,000 pounds of bombs. It was produced in two main versions: one with a plexiglass nose housing a Norden bombsight for traditional bombing missions, and a second with a solid nose armed with up to eight .50 caliber machine guns. Later versions mounted an additional six machine guns in the wings, for a total of 14 forward-firing guns. Delivery of the Invader to the Pacific began in August 1943, then to Europe the following year, where it flew over 11,000 sorties and dropped over 18,000 tons of bombs. After WWII, the Invader saw service in Korea and Vietnam, plus numerous other Cold War conflicts. Almost 2,500 A-26s were produced, and it served until 1980 with the Colombian Air Force.
July 11, 1979 – Skylab re-enters Earth’s atmosphere. Skylab was an orbiting space station that was placed into Earth orbit on May 14, 1973. The first manned mission to the station launched on May 25, 1973, and was planned primarily to repair damage suffered during the station’s launch. Two subsequent missions were flown to place crews on the station to carry out scientific experiments in microgravity. Skylab orbited Earth 2,476 times, and the third mission, Skylab 4, set a new record for time in space when the astronauts remained on board for 84 days. NASA planned to use the Space Shuttle, then under development, to boost Skylab to a higher orbit and keep it functioning, but delays in the Shuttle program made that impossible. When Skylab re-entered the atmosphere, parts of the station landed in the Pacific Ocean and on western Australia, but no injuries were reported from falling debris.
July 12, 1979 – The death of Georgy Mikhailovich Beriev. Beriev was born on February 13, 1903 in present-day Tbilisi, Georgia. A student of both shipbuilding and aircraft engineering at the Leningrad Polytechnic Institute, Beriev is best known as the designer of numerous amphibious aircraft. He founded the Beriev Aircraft Company in 1934 and received the Stalin Prize for development of the Beriev Be-6, which was designed for maritime patrol and attack. While most designers stopped making amphibious aircraft with the transition to jet engines, Beriev developed a number of innovative jet-powered amphibians, including the Be-40 Albatros and Be-200 Altair, and pilots flying his seaplanes have set 228 aviation world records for the type.
July 12, 1966 – The first flight of the Northrop M2-F2, the second of three NASA aircraft designed to investigate the feasibility of wingless aircraft. Without wings, the shape of the aircraft itself, called a lifting body, provides the lift. It was thought that by eliminating conventional wings it would also eliminate the drag that comes with them. During the 1960s and 1970s, lifting bodies were a primary area of research into their use as small manned spacecraft. Eventually, the Air Force lost interest in the project, and NASA turned its efforts to the Space Shuttle. The M2-F2 was a development of the earlier M2-F1, and sixteen unpowered glide tests were carried out before the aircraft was modified into the M2-F3 which was capable of supersonic flight.
July 12, 1957 – President Dwight Eisenhower becomes the first US president to fly in a helicopter. Today, flying in a helicopter is a routine practice for the US president. But in 1957, helicopters were still relatively new and not deemed safe enough for presidential travel. With Cold War concerns over the ability to evacuate the president from the White House by road, the Secret Service deemed the helicopter to be the best solution, and President Eisenhower made the first presidential flight in a US Air Force Bell 47J Ranger from the White House to the presidential retreat at Camp David. Today, transporting the president by helicopter is an everyday occurrence, and it is now the responsibility of US Marine Corps helicopter squadron HMX-1.
July 12, 1929 – The first flight of the Dornier Do X, a huge, 12-engine flying boat built by Claude Dornier and the largest, heaviest, and most powerful flying boat in the world at the time. Built in Switzerland in order to circumvent the restrictions of the Treaty of Versailles, the Do X was powered by twelve Curtiss V-1570 Conqueror V-12 engines in a combined push-pull configuration and had a top speed of 131 mph. The Do X could accommodate up to 100 passengers, and set a world record for its day when it carried 169 passengers and crew, a record that stood for 20 years. However, Dornier had trouble finding customers for his giant flying boat, and only three were ever built.
July 12, 1921 – The death of Harry George Hawker, an Australian aviation pioneer, chief test pilot for Sopwith during WWI, and founder of Hawker Aircraft. Born on January 22, 1889, Hawker began his career as an auto mechanic in England before starting work with Sopwith as a mechanic. He convinced them to teach him to fly, and Hawker soloed after just three lessons. Following the liquidation of Sopwith Aircraft in 1920, Hawker teamed with Thomas Sopwith to start a new company, H.G. Hawker Engineering. However, Hawker died soon after in the crash of his Nieuport Nighthawk, but his company continued. Through a series of acquisitions and mergers it became Hawker Siddeley, though it continued to make aircraft with the Hawker name. These included some of the most important and iconic aircraft of WWII, particularly the Hurricane and Typhoon.
July 12, 1910 – The death of Charles Stewart Rolls. Charles Rolls is best known to aviation and automotive history as one half of the famed Rolls-Royce Limited manufacturing company, which he formed with Henry Royce in 1906. But Rolls, born on August 27, 1877, was also a pioneering aviator, first in ballooning then in airplanes. Rolls purchased a Wright Flyer Model A in 1909 and, while not the first to cross the English Channel, he was the first to make the crossing and then return immediately, thus also becoming the first to cross the Channel flying eastward. Unfortunately, Rolls also achieved another, more infamous first, when he became the first Briton to die in an airplane accident following the crash of his Wright Flyer in 1910.
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.