Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from July 24 through July 26.
July 25, 2000 – The crash of Air France Flight 4590. Chuck Yeager, piloting the Bell X-1, broke the sound barrier for the first time in 1947 and, in the years that followed, supersonic flight was solely the purview of the military. But it didn’t take long for commercial aircraft designers to being imagining what a supersonic airliner might look like. In the 1950s, both England and France began development of their own SST, and the two countries eventually signed a treaty in 1962 to begin working together, an agreement which culminated in the Aérospatiale/BAC Concorde, whose name symbolized the cooperative development program. Ultimately, 20 Concordes were built, six of which were prototypes and used for development and testing. The remaining 14 were shared evenly between Air France and British Airways.
Following its introduction in 1976, Concorde flew regular routes from London and Paris to New York City, Washington, DC and Barbados, and more cities followed as Concorde expanded it routes. The SST’s four Rolls Royce/Snecma Olympus 593 afterburning turbojets provided a maximum cruising speed of Mach 2.04, and cut the flying time between transatlantic destinations in half when compared to traditional airliners. And, for most of its operational history, Concorde had a stellar safety record. Only twice had there been incidents that could have led to a crash. In 1989, a British Airways Concorde suffered a structural failure of the vertical stabilizer, followed by a similar failure on another British Airways Concorde in 1992. On both occasions, the airliner landed safely. Only one Concorde has ever suffered a fatal crash, but that single accident ultimately helped bring an end to all Concorde flights.
On July 25, 2000, Air France Flight 4590 (F-BTSC), a charter flight from Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, began its takeoff roll bound New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport. While at full power and committed to taking off, the airliner suffered a catastrophic fire and crashed into a hotel near the airport, killing all 109 passengers and crew on board plus four people on the ground. The Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses pour la Sécurité de l’Aviation Civile (BEA) carried out the official investigation and determined that the crash was caused by a series of events that began when a strip of titanium alloy fell off of a Continental Airlines McDonnell Douglas DC-10 which had departed ahead of Flight 4590. The debris punctured the tire on the departing SST, and a large chunk of the damaged tire struck the wing and ruptured the fuel tank. This caused fuel to pour from the tank which was then ignited by the engines and led to the loss of the two port engines. The cockpit crew was able to restore power to one of the failed engines, but the extra drag from the landing gear, which could not be retracted, in concert with the asymmetric thrust caused by the loss of engine power on one side, caused the pilots to lose control of the supersonic airliner and it crashed to the Hôtelissimo Les Relais Bleus Hotel near the airport.
Continental Airlines, along with one of its mechanics, was initially found guilty of involuntary manslaughter for the metal debris on the runway, but that ruling was overturned. During the trial, however, witnesses questioned the official BEA explanation, saying that a wheel spacer had not been installed on the left landing gear, and that the plane actually caught fire some 1,000 feet prior to passing the metal dropped by the Continental DC-10. Despite this testimony, the official explanation remained unchanged. As a result of the crash, all Concordes were grounded until safety upgrades could be made. Electronic flight controls were made more secure, the fuel tanks were lined with Kevlar to help shield them from debris, and special burst-resistant tires were fitted to the remaining airliners. Concorde flights resumed after a 14-month hiatus, but low passenger numbers and a drop in air travel following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, as well as rising maintenance costs, led to the Concorde’s retirement in November 2003.
July 24, 1978 – McDonnell Douglas completes the 5,000th F-4 Phantom II. One of the iconic aircraft of the Cold War Era, the Phantom II entered service in 1960 with the US Navy and eventually became one of the few fighters to serve in the Navy, US Marine Corps and US Air Force. Production of the two-seat all-weather interceptor/fighter-bomber began in 1958 and, by the time production ended in 1981, a total of 5,195 were built to serve the US military and 11 export nations. The F-4G Wild Weasel electronic warfare variant served as late as 1991 in the Gulf War and, following the Phantom’s retirement from US service in 1996, remaining F-4s were converted to QF-4 target drones.
July 24, 1946 – Bernard Lynch becomes the first person to be ejected from an airplane. When Valentine Baker died in an aviation accident in 1942, it spurred his business parter, James Martin, to begin work on the first production ejection seat. In 1944, the RAF Air Staff approached Martin to develop an escape system for their new jet-powered fighters. Martin designed a seat that was launched out of the aircraft using an explosive charge and, after numerous tests on the ground over the course of a year, Lynch, a Martin-Baker employee, was successfully ejected from a Gloster Meteor flying at 8,000 ft. Fortunately for Lynch, the seat performed flawlessly, and Martin-Baker continues making ejection seats to this day.
July 24, 1897 – The birth of Amelia Earhart. Born in Atchison, Kansas, Amelia Earhart holds a significant place in the annals of American aviation history, as she was not only a pioneering aviator but also a pioneer in the expansion of societal roles for women in general. Earhart took her first flying lessons in 1921, and set her first world altitude record the next year. In 1928, she was the first woman to cross the Atlantic by plane, albeit as a passenger, but made her own transatlantic solo flight in 1932, a feat for which she received the Distinguished Flying Cross. Earhart set numerous other flying records, but disappeared over the Pacific Ocean in 1937 with navigator Fred Noonan on her second attempt to circumnavigate the globe. The mystery of her disappearance remains unsolved to this day.
July 25, 1984 – Cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya becomes the first woman to perform a spacewalk (EVA). Savitskaya began her career as a pilot and set 18 international world records flying MiG fighters and another three records in team parachute jumping before beginning her training as a cosmonaut in 1980. She went to space for the first time in 1982 as a crew member of the Soyuz T-7 mission, a flight which made Savitskaya the second woman in space. On her second trip into Earth orbit, she performed an EVA outside of the Salyut 7 space station and spent over three hours in space tethered to the station. Savitskaya was twice awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union, her nation’s highest honor. She retired from the Russian Air Force in 1993 with the rank of major.
July 25, 1909 – French pilot Louis Blériot becomes the first person to fly across the English Channel. Blériot was one of the pioneering French aviators in the early days of powered flight, set numerous records for flight, and formed his own airplane manufacturing company. In the early days of powered flight, the English Channel was considered one of the great obstacles to be conquered, and Blériot achieved his greatest fame when he took off from France and flew his Type XI monoplane, powered by a 25-horsepower, 3-cylinder Anzani motor, across the Channel. After 36 minutes of flight, Blériot landed hard in England and damaged his aircraft. Fortunately, Blériot was unhurt, and he claimed a £1,000 prize for being the first to make the crossing.
July 26, 1998 – The first flight of the Scaled Composites Proteus, a tandem-wing high-altitude research aircraft developed by aviation pioneer Burt Rutan to investigate the use of aircraft as telecommunications relays. The composite aircraft has a 77-foot wingspan that can be increased to 92 feet for high-altitude flight, and set a world record for altitude with a flight that reached 63,245 feet in October 2000. Due to the aerodynamic efficiency of the design, Proteus is capable of loitering over a point on the Earth at 60,000 feet for more than 18 hours. One aircraft was built, and it has carried out numerous experiments in coordination with NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Proteus remains in service and currently belongs to Northrop Grumman.
July 26, 1958 – The death of Iven Carl Kincheloe, Jr, a US Air Force test pilot, aeronautical engineer, and double ace in the Korean War. Kincheloe was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1928 and, after a military career in which he received the Silver Star, he became a test pilot for the US Air Force’s Century Series of fighter aircraft and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross three times. While piloting a Bell X-2, Kincheloe became “America’s No. 1 Spaceman” when he exceeded 100,000 feet of altitude and was credited as the first man to enter outer space. Kincheloe was killed when he failed to eject from his crippled Lockheed F-104 Starfighter during a flight over Edwards AFB in California.
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