Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from July 17 through July 19.
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. Experiments with flying wing designs began as far back as 1910, and American Jack Northrop began experimenting 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 venerable Boeing B-52 Stratofortress. The new bomber would also 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 a team from 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 19, 1989 – United Airlines Flight 232 suffers complete hydraulic failure over Iowa following an uncontained 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, a safety record made possible by rigorous maintenance and highly trained crews. But aircraft crews operate best when they work together, and 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 to his co-pilot who questioned whether the runway was clear. In the second, the cockpit crew became so engrossed with solving a problem with the landing gear indicator that they failed to monitor their fuel levels. The plane simply ran out of fuel and crashed seven miles short of the airport. Had both these crews been able to work together more effectively, delegating tasks, focusing on communication, and simply flying the plane, the crashes may not have happened. United Airlines was the first major airline to institute CRM in 1981, and it paid off brilliantly just eight years later at Sioux City, Iowa.
United Flight 232 was regularly scheduled McDonnell Douglas DC-10 (N1819U) service from Denver International Airport to Chicago O’Hare. The sequence of events leading to the crash landing in Iowa began as the airliner 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 practically 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 using alternating thrust of the two operable wing engines to steer, and they could change altitude by adjusting the thrust of both engines together. Working as a team, 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, the pilots were unable to slow their rate of descent, nor could they flare the airliner for landing or slow it down to a safe landing speed. As the DC-10 descend toward Sioux City, the airliner was going 252 mph and dropping at 1,850 feet per minute instead of the prescribed 161 mph and 300 feet per minute. The DC-10 struck the runway hard and fast, but only slightly off center. The airliner cartwheeled down the runway, with portions of the fuselage ending up in a nearby cornfield. Despite the crash landing and fire, 185 of the 296 passengers and crew survived. The flight deck crew, badly injured yet still alive, was heralded as heroes, and their teamwork was 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 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, with three of them having 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 was large enough to 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 and, inspired by Charles Lindbergh’s solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean 1937, he 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 to Ireland. After landing in Ireland, 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 claimed its 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.
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 test its effectiveness as defense against tactical ballistic missiles. The program to fit a flying laser was initiated in 1996, and the laser, built by Northrop Grumman, was housed in a nose turret constructed 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.
July 18, 1942 – The first flight of the Messerschmitt Me 262 under jet power. Though the maiden 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 using a single Junkers Jumo 210 piston engine mounted in the nose. The jet-powered Me 262 entered service in July 1942 as the world’s first operational jet fighter, and 262 pilots claimed 542 victories over Allied aircraft by the war’s end. 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 negligible.
July 18, 1919 – The death of Raymond de Laroche, the first woman in the world to receive a pilot license. De Laroche (née Deroche) was born in Paris on August 22, 1882 into a working class family, and developed an affinity for cars and motorcycles while also working as an actress. In 1909 she convinced French aviation pioneer Charles Voisin to teach her to fly, and her first flight, and possibly the first by any woman pilot, was necessarily a solo flight since the Voisin aircraft had only one seat. De Laroche received her pilot license on March 8, 1910 and began taking part in aviation expositions as far away as Budapest and Egypt. In 1910 she was almost killed in a crash at Reims, but recovered and returned to flying. In 1913 she won the Femina Cup for a flight of over four hours, and set two altitude records in 1919. While working to become the world’s first female test pilot, de Laroche was killed, along with her copilot, in the crash of an experimental aircraft.
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 swept wing 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 of the Ascender (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 and as many as 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.
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