Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from July 15 through July 17.
July 15, 1954 – The first flight of the Boeing Dash 80. At the end of WWII, the turbojet engine was poised to take over as the powerplant of choice for large airliners. However, that change did not take place overnight. After all, technological developments in large piston-powered aircraft during the war had made them relatively safe and reliable, and airlines were reluctant to try something new when the aircraft they had were working just fine. The first step towards commercial jet aviation was taken by de Havilland with their Comet airliner, which first flew in 1949. And though the Comet eventually found a measure of success, it was very much a product of an earlier era, with wings that were swept only on the leading edge and its four engines housed in the wing roots. Boeing, however, was already looking to the future.
Two years before the first flight of the Comet, Boeing capitalized on German research that had been seized near the end of the war. Armed with data on the benefits of swept wings, Boeing designed the B-47 Stratojet bomber for the US Air Force with wings swept back at 35 degrees and engines placed in pods suspended from the wings. In doing so, Boeing set the standard for basic airliner design that remains to this day, and the success of the Stratojet inspired Boeing’s foray into the jet airliner business. The international airliner market was still saturated with piston-powered planes, particularly those built by Douglas Aircraft, and none of the airlines was interested in buying an untested airplane. So Boeing figured that the only way to prove that their airliner concept worked was to build and fly one.
Boeing president Bill Allen took a huge gamble and invested $16 million of the company’s money into the development of a prototype airliner that the company hoped would satisfy the needs of both the airlines and the US Air Force, who was looking for a jet-powered aerial tanker to keep their new jet fighters in the air. Following just two years of development, Boeing rolled out the Model 367-80, or “Dash 80,” from their Renton, Washington factory on May 15, 1954. Since Boeing was pitching the jet to the Air Force, the Dash 80 had large cargo doors and very few windows and, just one week after the first flight, the Air Force ordered 29 aircraft designated as the KC-135 Stratotanker. But Boeing still needed to convince the airlines that they had a winner on their hands. In 1955, Allen invited airline executives to Seattle’s Seafair festival to get a look at the Dash 80. In what has become a legendary stunt, Boeing test pilot Tex Johnston, who was supposed to do a simple fly by, instead performed a barrel roll in the Dash 80. He later told Allen that he was just “selling airplanes.”
But the bold move paid off. Pan Am ordered 20 passenger versions of the Dash 80 after convincing Boeing to widen the new airliner to allow for six-abreast seating (though the company hedged their bets and also ordered 25 jet-powered Douglas DC-8s at the same time, which already boasted six-across seating). Two years later, the Boeing 707 took its maiden flight. Boeing truly had a runaway hit on their hands, and eventually produced just over 800 KC-135s and a little more than 1,000 707s. Only one Dash 80 was ever built, and after production of the tanker and airliner began, it was used as a platform for testing components of the upcoming Boeing 727 tri-jet. Following the Dash 80's retirement in 1970, Boeing donated the aircraft the Smithsonian Institution, and it sat at the aircraft boneyard at Davis Monthan AFB in Arizona for 18 years. But such a historic aircraft deserved a better fate, and it was finally restored by Boeing in 1990 and flown to Washington, DC, where it was enshrined at the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in 2003.
July 16, 1969 – The launch of Apollo 11. By the early 1960s, the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West had become the dominant social and political conflict in the world. US President John F. Kennedy characterized the struggle for world supremacy between Communism and Democracy in a famous speech to a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961 as a “battle...around the world between freedom and tyranny.” While some of those battles were fought in proxy wars, the Space Race provided a stage for the US and Soviet Union to fight for world prestige and technological bragging rights in an ostensibly more peaceful way.
By 1961, the Russians were well ahead of the Americans in the race to space. They were the first to put a satellite into Earth orbit in 1957 with Sputnik 1, and the first to put a man into space when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth on April 12, 1961. Following the Russian successes, President Kennedy sought to galvanize the United States into action and challenged the nation to be the first to put a man on the moon. Though Kennedy and NASA trumpeted the scientific gains from such an achievement, he made it clear in a speech on September 12, 1962 at Rice University in Houston that beating the Russians to the Moon was as much a matter of national security as it was a matter of scientific discovery.
We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war.
Following President Kennedy’s declaration that America would be first to the Moon, NASA began working on the technological means to get there. With Project Mecury, NASA put the first American, Alan Shepard, into space. Shepard was followed by John Glenn, another Mercury astronaut and the first American to orbit the Earth. Mercury paved the way for Project Gemini, which carried two astronauts and put the US ahead of the Russians for good in the race to the Moon. The Apollo program which followed was the most ambitious yet, and the first flight of an unmanned Apollo rocket took place in 1966. The first manned flight was to have been Apollo 1 the following year, but a fire in the Command Module during testing on February 21, 1967 killed the three astronauts onboard. Following modifications to the spacecraft, Apollo 7 carried the first Apollo astronauts into space on October 11, 1968, and subsequent missions served to test systems for the voyage and landing. On May 22, 1969, the Lunar Module of Apollo 10 came within 50,000 feet of the lunar surface.
Apollo 11 was the fifth manned mission of the program, and was launched atop the mighty three-stage Saturn V rocket, which propelled the Apollo Command/Service Module and Lunar Module into orbit around the Moon. Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins began orbiting the Moon on July 19, and completed 30 orbits before Armstrong and Aldrin descended to the Moon’s surface on July 20 while Collins remained in orbit in the Command Module. The Lunar Module, piloted by Armstrong, touched down on the Moon at 20:17:40 UTC on Sunday, July 20. After completing the landing checklist, Armstrong made the first of two momentous radio calls: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”At 02:39 UTC on Monday July 21, 1969, Armstrong descended the Lander’s ladder and placed the first human footprint on the Moon. As he did so, he made the second historic radio call: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Aldrin followed Armstrong down the ladder, and the pair spent about two-and-a-half hours exploring the area around the Lander while collecting roughly 48 pounds of rocks and other lunar material. The astronauts also planted an American flag on the Moon as a symbol of American achievement, a potent symbol that carried a message of victory in the Space Race but also a tacit sense of American ownership of the Moon. The Russians eventually abandoned their attempts to reach the Moon, and instead focused their efforts on maintaining a manned presence in Earth orbit.
After roughly 22 hours on the Moon’s surface, Armstrong and Aldrin climbed back aboard the Lunar Module and blasted off for a rendezvous with Collins and the Command Module. The three astronauts then turned back toward Earth, and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24. There would be five more Apollo missions that reached Moon and planted five more American flags. The ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, while it did not land on the Moon, safely returned the astronauts to Earth. The final flight of the Apollo program was Apollo 17 in 1972. After Apollo 17, the remaining Apollo hardware was used for the Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz projects.
July 17, 1989 – The first flight of the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit. Though the B-2 looks like something from the pages of science fiction, the flying wing is really nothing new. Experiments with flying wing designs began as far back as 1910, and American Jack Northrop experimented with long-range flying wing bombers during WWII, first with the Northrop YB-35, which took its maiden flight in 1946, and then with the jet-powered YB-49 the following year. Though the flying wing idea, which sought to remove the drag produced by the fuselage of a traditional aircraft, failed to catch on at the time—or was killed for political reasons—it was not forgotten.
In 1979, the US Air Force initiated the Advanced Technology Bomber (ATB) program to find a replacement for the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress which had been in service for 24 years. The new bomber would take advantages of advances in stealth technology which, while not making the aircraft invisible to radar, would make it practically undistinguishable from other radar clutter. The original concepts of stealth technology had been developed by Lockheed, and they proved the viability of an “invisible” aircraft with the super-secret Have Blue program. They followed that with the successful development of the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk, which first flew in 1981. Stealth had become a reality, and it would become an integral element of any future bomber or fighter development program.
As the ATB program progressed, the Air Force took proposals from defense contractors for the new bomber and narrowed their selection down to proposals from Northrop/Boeing, codenamed “Senior Ice,” and Lockheed/Rockwell, whose project was codenamed “Senior Peg.” Both groups suggested a flying wing design and, in October 1981, the Air Force selected Northrop’s entry. Unlike the flat, faceted shapes of the earlier Have Blue and F-117 designs, advances in computer-aided design in the 1980s now allowed for similar radar deflection capabilities with a curved surface, called continuous curvature. This concept was first tested on Northrop’s Tacit Blue aircraft, which itself looked like something a science fiction author would have dreamt up.
When the stealthy B-2 arrived, the sharp angles and flat panels of the F-117 were replaced by a gracefully rounded fuselage centered in a wing swept at 34.74 degrees. And, at 172 feet, the B-2's wingspan matches that of the earlier Northrop flying wings. Four General Electric F-118 turbofans buried deep inside the fuselage give the Spirit a maximum speed of Mach 0.95, and the B-2 can carry an estimated 50,000 pounds of nuclear or conventional weapons inside two internal bomb bays. The radar cross-section (RCS) of the Spirit is just 1.1 square feet for an aircraft with a wing area of over 5,000 square feet. By 1989, it is estimated that the US had spent $23 billion developing the new bomber.
Though the B-2 was originally conceived as a deep penetration bomber, meant to fly undetected into the Soviet Union to deploy nuclear weapons, the Spirit saw its first action in 1999 as part of Operation Allied Force in the former Yugoslavia and became the first US warplane to deploy the JDAM satellite-guided bomb. B-2s saw additional action in Iraq and Afghanistan and, during Operation Enduring Freedom, B-2s flew from Whiteman AFB in Missouri to bomb targets in Afghanistan, a 40 hour flight with aerial refueling. The B-2 has also flown missions against ISIS militants in Libya and Syria. A total of 21 Spirits have been built since they entered service in 1997 (one was lost to a crash in 2008), but the Air Force plans to retire them by 2032 to make way for their replacement by the Northrop B-21 Raider.
July 15, 1975 – The launch of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. As a symbol of the policy of détente pursued by the US and the Soviet Union beginning in 1969, the Test Project was the first joint space program initiated by the two Cold War adversaries. Both the Apollo and Soyuz capsules launched on the same date and rendezvoused in space, with the three astronauts and two cosmonauts joining hands and passing between the two docked spacecraft. The crews then carried out joint scientific experiments. The ships remained docked for 44 hours before separating and returning safely to Earth. Today, Russia and the United States continue their partnership in space aboard the International Space Station.
July 15, 1942 – The US Army Air Forces flies its first supply mission from India to China over the Himalayas. In the early days of the fight against Japanese expansion in Asia and the Pacific, the only way to resupply Nationalist Chinese and Allied troops fighting in China was by flying over the eastern Himalayan Mountains, which pilots referred to as “The Hump.” The dangerous and arduous supply missions, flown first by Douglas C-47 Skytrains and later by the untested Curtiss C-46 Commando, eventually ferried 650,000 tons of supplies against the loss of 594 aircraft and nearly 1,700 personnel.
July 15, 1916 – William Boeing founds the Pacific Aero Products Company, the forerunner of the Boeing Airplane Company. After finding success in the lumber industry, Boeing turned his attention to aircraft and went into business with George Westervelt. The pair founded the Pacific Aero Products Group and built their first aircraft, the Model 1. With America’s entry into WWI, Boeing changed the name to Boeing Airplane Company and built 50 aircraft for the US Navy. Following the war, Boeing concentrated on commercial aircraft, and built an airmail operation that eventually became United Airlines. William Boeing left the aviation business in 1937, but the company he founded went on to become one of the largest manufacturers of civilian and military aircraft in the world.
July 16, 1999 – The death of John F. Kennedy, Jr, the only surviving son of US President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. Kennedy departed Essex County Airport in New Jersey in his Piper PS-32R Saratoga (N9253N) for a flight along the Connecticut coastline to Martha’s Vineyard, but the plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, killing Kennedy along with his wife Caroline Bessette and her sister Lauren. The National Transportation Safety Board cited the probable cause as pilot error, saying that Kennedy likely became disoriented while flying over water at night. Kennedy was not qualified for instrument flight conditions and, while conditions at the time did not require IFR flying, other pilots cited the lack of a visual horizon due to hazy conditions.
July 16, 1965 – The first flight of the North American Rockwell OV-10 Bronco, a lightweight, STOL aircraft developed for the US Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps for observation, forward air control, helicopter escort, armed reconnaissance, gunfire spotting, utility, and ground attack. Despite its diminutive size, the Bronco can carry up to 6,000 pounds of external stores, as well as paratroops or stretchers, and its turboprop engines allow for at least three hours of loiter time over the battlefield. The Bronco first saw service with the US Marine Corps in Vietnam, and has since served both the US Air Force and US Navy. In civilian use, the Bronco has served NASA and as a firefighting aircraft, and military versions have recently returned to the skies over Afghanistan and Syria in the fight against ISIS.
July 16, 1948 – The first flight of the Vickers Viscount, a medium range, pressurized airliner and the first airliner in the world to employ turboprop engines. Development of the Viscount resulted from the work of the Brabazon Committee, a group founded to promote civil aviation in England following WWII. The Viscount entered service with British European Airways (BEA) in 1953 and became one of the most popular and successful post-war transport and cargo aircraft, with 160 aircraft ordered by only the second year of operations. A total of 445 were produced from 1948-1963, and the type was last flown in 2008.
July 17, 2014 – Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is shot down over eastern Ukraine. Just four months after the unexplained disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 over the southern Indian Ocean, Malaysian Airlines was again hit with tragedy when a Boeing 777-200ER (9M-MRO) was shot down by an antiaircraft missile over war-torn eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 passengers and crew. Much argument and acrimony remains over who is responsible for firing the Russian-made Buk missile. The Ukrainian government blames separatists backed by Russia, while the separatists blame the Ukranian government. Both sides in the ongoing conflict have the weapons necessary to bring down an aircraft cruising at 33,000 feet. Despite an investigation by the Dutch government, it may never be ascertained who fired the missile that destroyed the airliner, though an international team of investigators have pointed the finger firmly at Russian forces operating in the area, and four suspects were officially named in June 2019, three of whom have direct ties to Russian intelligence or security services.
July 17, 1996 – A midair explosion destroys TWA Flight 800. TWA 800, a Boeing 747-131 (N91339), was a regularly scheduled flight from New York to Rome that exploded in midair shortly after takeoff from John F. Kennedy Airport, killing all 230 passengers and crew. No distress call was made prior to the explosion, and cockpit conversations appeared to be normal, except that just before the explosion the captain remarked about a “crazy fuel flow indicator.” In one of the most exhaustive investigations ever carried out, as much debris as could be found was brought to the surface and assembled in a hangar in Calverton, NY. After a four-year investigation, the final NTSB report pointed to the likely cause being the explosion of a fuel/air mixture in the center fuel tank that was ignited by an undetermined short circuit. Despite this explanation, conspiracy theories abound to this day, one of the most persistent being that the airliner was shot down by a missile fired either by the US Navy or by terrorists in a boat or on shore. However, evidence for these theories remains circumstantial.
July 17, 1939 – The first flight of the Bristol Beaufighter, a multi-role fighter-bomber designed during WWII as a development of the Bristol Beaufort torpedo bomber. Originally conceived as a heavy fighter, the Beaufighter was subsequently developed into a night fighter and maritime strike and ground attack aircraft. Entering service at almost the same time as the first airborne radar sets, the Beaufighter’s large nose could accommodate the bulky radar sets of the time, and its heavy armament of four 20 mm cannons made it ideal to defend against German bombers. The Beaufighter also served RAF Coastal Command and in the Pacific, and flew as late as 1948 for the Israeli Air Force. Nearly 6,000 Beaufighters were produced from 1940-1946.
July 17, 1938 – Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan departs from Floyd Bennett Field and flies to Ireland. Corrigan worked as an aircraft constructor in San Diego before taking up flying. Inspired by Charles Lindbergh’s solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean 1937, Corrigan decided to emulate the feat, though he failed to get permission for the attempt. After filing a flight plan for California, Corrigan took off westward from Floyd Bennett Field in New York and then turned his Curtiss Robin monoplane east and flew instead to Ireland. After landing, Corrigan claimed that a navigational error led to his wrong-way flight, but his plane was found to be modified to carry extra fuel for the journey. Corrigan never admitted that his mistake was intentional, and he and his plane returned to the US on the steamship SS Manhattan.
July 17, 1914 – The first flight of the Vickers F.B.5, a two-seat pusher biplane and the first purpose-built fighter plane ever produced. Known familiarly as the Gunbus, the F.B.5 was powered by a single Gnome Monosoupape 9-cylinder engine which gave it a top speed of 70 mph and was armed with a single 7.7mm Lewis gun in the forward observer’s cockpit. The F.B.5 entered service in November 1914 and pilots claimed the first victory over a German Etrich Taube monoplane. By 1915, the F.B.5 equipped the world’s first dedicated fighter squadron. The Gunbus was very quickly outclassed by newer German designs, and was retired to serve as a trainer. A total of 224 were built.
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