Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from July 16 - July 19.
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 political and social struggle in the world, and US President John F. Kennedy characterized it 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 real shooting wars, the Space Race came to be a potent symbol of that struggle and, by 1961, the Russians were far ahead. They had been the first to put a satellite, Sputnik 1, into earth orbit in 1957, and were the first to put a man, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, into Earth orbit on April 12, 1961. President Kennedy’s speech six weeks after that historic flight galvanized the nation into action, and set the goal of being the first nation 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 of America’s intent to go to the Moon, NASA began working on the technological means to get us there. Project Mecury, which was currently underway and carried a single astronaut to space, was followed by Project Gemini, which carried two astronauts into space and put the US ahead of the Russians for good in the race to the Moon. The Apollo program would be the most ambitious yet, and it made its first flight of an unmanned rocket in 1966. Development and testing progressed, and the first manned flight was to have been Apollo 1, but a fire in the Command Module during testing on February 21, 1967 killed the three astronauts onboard. The first manned flight, Apollo 7, would take place the following year. Apollo 11 was the fifth manned mission of the program, with the four previous missions used to test systems for the voyage and landing, with Apollo 10 coming within 50,000 feet of the lunar surface. Apollo 11 launched atop the mighty three-stage Saturn V rocket, which carried the Apollo Command/Service Module and Lunar Module into orbit around the Moon. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins arrived at the Moon on July 19, and completed 30 orbits before Armstrong and Aldrin descended to the Moon’s surface on July 20. 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, and Aldrin radioed to Earth, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” After making preparations for leaving the Lander, Armstrong descended the ladder on July 21 to become the first human to set foot on the Moon, where he spoke the now-famous words, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Armstrong and Aldrin spent about 2-and-a-half hours exploring the area around the Lander and collecting about 48 pounds of rocks and other lunar material. They also planted an American flag on the Moon as a symbol of American achievement, the first of an eventual six that would be placed by subsequent Apollo missions. But that flag, and the five flags planted on subsequent missions, also carried tacit sense of ownership and victory in the race to the Moon. The Russians eventually abandoned their attempts to reach the Moon, focusing instead on their efforts to maintain a manned presence in Earth orbit.
After roughly 22 hours on the Moon’s surface, Armstrong and Aldrin returned to the Command Module and the three astronauts returned to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24. There would be six more Apollo missions to the Moon, including the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission which did not land on the Moon yet 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. (NASA photos)
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 nothing new. Jack Northrop began experimenting with long-range flying wing bombers in the years after WWII, first with the Northrop YB-35 and then with the jet-powered YB-49. Though the concept never caught on—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 venerable Boeing B-52 Stratofortress and to take advantages of advances in stealth technology, which, while not making an aircraft invisible to radar, would make aircraft practically undistinguishable from other radar clutter. Lockheed was the first to take advantage of stealth, proving the concepts and putting it into practice with the super-secret Lockheed Have Blue program. They followed that with the successful development of the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk, which first flew in 1981. Stealth had finally become a reality, and it would become an important element of any new bomber under consideration. As the ATB program progressed, the Air Force took proposals from defense contractors for a new bomber and narrowed their selection down to proposals from Northrop/Boeing, codenamed “Senior Ice,” and a team from Lockheed/Rockwell 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 shape of the earlier Have Blue and F-117 design, advances in computer design in the 1980s now allowed for similar radar deflection capabilities in a curved surface. Gone were the sharp angles and flat panels, replaced by a rounded fuselage centered in a wing swept at 34.74 degrees. And not only does the B-2 resemble the earlier Northrop flying wings, it shares the same wingspan with the YB-49. 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 about 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 spent $23 billion developing the new bomber. Despite its original mission avoiding detection while penetrating deep into the Soviet Union to deliver a nuclear weapon, the B-2 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. A total of twenty-one Spirits have been built since they entered service in 1997 (one was lost to a crash in 2008), and the Air Force expects them to serve until 2058, only eighteen years longer than the B-52s they were meant to replace. (US Air Force photo)
July 19, 1989 – United Airlines Flight 232 suffers complete hydraulic failure over Iowa following engine failure. Statistically, commercial aviation is one of the safest forms of transportation in the world. Considering the number of flights every day the world over, and the number of passengers carried, fatal accidents are exceedingly rare. This safety record is made possible by rigorous maintenance and highly trained crews. But one of the most important advances in aviation safety came with the adoption of Crew Resource Management (CRM) which arose out of two significant accidents: The Tenerife airport disaster in 1977, and the crash of United Airlines Flight 173 in 1978. In the first, two fully-loaded Boeing 747s collided on a foggy runway when the captain of one airliner refused to listen to the tower or his co-pilot, and in the second, the cockpit crew became so engrossed with solving a problem with the landing gear that they failed to monitor their fuel levels. The plane simply ran out of fuel and crashed. Had both these crews been able to work together more effectively, delegating tasks and focusing on communication, the crashes may not have happened. United Airlines was the first major airline to institute CRM in 1981, and it paid off brilliantly just 8 years later at Sioux City, Iowa. United Flight 232 was a regularly scheduled flight of a McDonnell Douglas DC-10 (N1819U) from Denver International Airport to Chicago O’Hare that. At the time of the incident, it was cruising at 37,000 feet when the fan disk on the tail-mounted General Electric CF6 turbofan engine failed. Pieces of the broken disk ruptured all three hydraulic lines on the DC-10, leaving the aircraft virtually uncontrollable. As Captain Alfred Haynes and first officer William Records stuggled to control the aircraft, they were joined in the cockpit by Training Check Airman Captain Dennis Fitch, a passenger on the flight. The crew discovered that they could gain a measure of control over the plane by steering using alternating thrust of the two operable wing engines, and they could change altitude by adjusting the thrust of the engines together. Working together, Haynes and Records focused on trying to fly the plane and communicate with air traffic controllers, while Fitch worked the throttles. After considering their options, they decided to attempt an emergency landing at Sioux City, Iowa. Without control of the flaps and slats, they could not flare, nor could they slow the plane down to the appropriate landing speed, and they landed hard and fast, slightly off center of the runway. The plane cartwheeled down the runway, with portions of the fuselage ending up in a nearby cornfield. Despite the crash landing, 185 of the 296 passengers and crew survived, and the crew was heralded as heroes, with their teamwork held up as a shining example of CRM. The failure of the fan disk was found to have been caused by improper manufacturing processes and a failure to identify cracks in the blades during routine maintenance. As a result, maintenance and manufacturing procedures were changed to prevent future accidents, and changes to the hydraulic system were implemented to ensure that complete loss of hydraulic pressure would not happen in the future.
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 had 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 when 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 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. (Piper PA-32R photo—not crash aircraft—by Tony Hisgett via Wikimedia Commons; Kennedy photo via NASA)
July 16, 1965 – The first flight of the North American Rockwell OV-10 Bronco, a lightweight, STOL aircraft developed for the US Army, Air Force and Marine Corps for observation, forward air control, helicopter escort, armed reconnaissance, gunfire spotting, utility and limited 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. (US Air Force photo)
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, becoming one of the most popular and successful post-war transport and cargo aircraft. Development of the Viscount resulted from the work of the Brabazon Committee, a group founded to promote civilian aviation in England following WWII. The Viscount entered service with British European Airways (BEA) in 1953, providing the world’s first turboprop-powered passenger service and proving so successful that 160 aircraft had been ordered by only the second year of operations. A total of 445 were produced from 1948-1963, and the type was finally retired in 2008. (Photo by Arpingstone via Wikimedia Commons)
July 17, 2014 – Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is shot down over eastern Ukraine. Following the unexplained disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 over the southern Indian Ocean, Malaysian Airlines was again hit with tragedy when a second 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. The Ukrainian government blames Russian-backed separatists, while the separatists blame the Ukranian government, and 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. (Photo by Laurent Errera via Wikimedia Commons)
July 17, 1996 – A midair explosion destroys TWA Flight 800. TWA 800 was a regularly scheduled flight from New York to Leonardo to Rome when the Boeing 747-131 (N91339) exploded in midair shortly after takeoff, killing all 230 passengers and crew. No distress call was ever 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 reconstructed in a hangar in Calverton, NY. After a four-year investigation, the final NTSB report pointed to the likely cause being a detonation 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 prevalent is that the airliner was shot down by a missile, either from the US Navy or terrorists in a boat or on shore. However, evidence for these theories remains circumstantial. (Photo by Eduard Marmet via Wikimedia Commons)
July 17, 1939 – The first flight of the Bristol Beaufighter, a multi-role fighter bomber developed 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 was big enough to accommodate the large 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. (Canadian Forces photo)
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 and, inspired by Charles Lindbergh’s solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean 1937, he decided to emulate the feat. Corrigan failed to gain permission for his flight, and after departing Floyd Bennett Field in New York for a planned return flight to California, Corrigan instead turned his Curtiss Robin monoplane east and flew to Ireland anyway. He claimed that it was a navigational error that led to his wrong-way flight, but his plane was nevertheless 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. (US Air Force photos)
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 claimed its first victory over a German Etrich Taube monoplane, and by 1915, the F.B.5 had equipped the world’s first dedicated fighter squadron. By the end of the year it was outclassed by newer German designs, and was retired to serve as a trainer. A total of 224 were built. (Replica F.B.5 photo by RuthAS via Wikimedia Commons)
July 18, 2002 – The first flight of the Boeing YAL-1, a modified Boeing 747-400F that was armed with a megawatt-class chemical oxygen iodine laser (COIL) to provide defense against tactical ballistic missiles. The program to fit a flying laser was initiated in 1996, with the laser provided by Northrop Grumman housed in a turret built by Lockheed Martin. In 2007, the system was test-fired at an airborne target for the first time, with a second successful test in 2010, then a third which destroyed two test missiles. The program was canceled in 2011, and the YAL-1 was flown to Davis Monthan AFB in Arizona where it was put in storage before being scrapped in 2014. (Air Force photo)
July 18, 1942 – The first jet-powered flight of the Messerschmitt Me 262. Though the first flight of the Me 262, nicknamed Schwalbe (Swallow), had taken place more than a year earlier, delays in development of the Junkers Jumo 004 axial-flow turbojets meant that the 262's first flight was made a single Junkers Jumo 210 piston engines mounted in the nose. Development continued following the first jet-powered flight, and the Me 262 entered service in July 1942, eventually claiming 542 victories over Allied aircraft. However, difficulties with reliability of the early jet engines, and Allied attacks on Me 262 fuel supplies, hampered the operational capability of the jet fighter, and its impact on the war was ultimately negligible. (Photo of replica Me 262 by Noop1958 via Wikimedia Commons)
July 19, 1943 – The first flight of the Curtiss-Wright XP-55 Ascender. Fearing that American aircraft development was stagnating, the US Army Air Corps hoped to encourage innovative aircraft designs by issuing Request for Data R-40C in 1940. In response, the Curtiss-Wright Company proposed the XP-55 Ascender, a monoplane with a pusher propeller and a forward canard. Three prototypes were built, but testing showed that the airplane displayed poor stall characteristics, and the first prototype was lost to a crash. The third prototype (known derogatorily as the “ass ender”) saw further improvements to the wing, but this prototype was also lost to a crash that killed the pilot as well as two (or four) civilians on the ground. Ultimately, the Ascender’s performance was found to be inferior to conventional fighters, and advances in jet fighters led to the XP-55’s cancellation. (US Air Force photo)
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