Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from July 25 through July 28.
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. However, 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 togethe. The agreement culminated in the Aérospatiale/BAC Concorde, a name that 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 the airlines expanded their 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 the era of supersonic travel.
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. As the Concorde accelerated to takeoff speed, it struck the debris, puncturing the tire. As the tire disintegrated, a large chunk of rubber struck the wing and ruptured the fuel tank. This caused fuel to pour from the tank which was then ignited by the engines, leading to the loss of the two left-side 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 reduced 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 eventually 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, coupled with rising maintenance costs, led to Concorde’s retirement in November 2003.
July 27, 1949 – The first flight of the de Havilland Comet. Though we tend to think of the jet engine as a product of WWII, work had begun on the development of the turbojet engine as early as 1921. The first patent for an axial flow turbojet was granted to Frenchman Maxime Guillaume, though his engine was never built. Work progressed through the 1930s and 1940s, and both Britain and Germany fielded jet-powered fighters by the end of the war. The next logical step was to take the power of the jet engine and apply it to a large passenger airliner.
The British and Americans had agreed to split up the development of large, multi-engine aircraft during the war, with the Americans assuming responsibility for transport aircraft, while the British focused on production of heavy bombers. However, that arrangement left the British in the unenviable position of having very little infrastructure or expertise for the production of transport aircraft when the war ended. Many postwar British airliners were simply converted bombers. To address this shortcoming, the British formed the Brabazon Committee in 1942 under the direction of John Moore-Brabazon, 1st Baron Brabazon of Tara, which was tasked with the development of large, pressurized aircraft that could carry mail and passengers across the Atlantic Ocean. The committee began meeting in early 1943 and, over the next two years, they decided that the civilian aviation industry would require five different types of aircraft of varying size, capacity, and range. One of the aircraft, designated the Type IV, would be a 100-seat, jet-powered, pressurized transatlantic mailplane that could carry one long ton of cargo at a cruising speed of 400 mph nonstop across the Atlantic.
A proposal for such an aircraft was put forward by Sir Geoffrey de Havilland, who headed his own aircraft company and had influential government ties. If successful, the new airliner would fill the need for the Type IV aircraft, as well as Type III, a short-range airliner capable of serving multi-hop routes around the British Empire. A contract was awarded to develop the de Havilland Type 106, which later became known as the DH 106, and de Havilland undertook the design of both the airframe and the engines. While initial studies into the design of the Comet included proposals for a radical tailless design, de Havilland eventually settled on a traditional configuration with a straight wing that had a leading edge swept at 20 degrees and a straight tailplane. The prototype was powered by four de Havilland Ghost turbojet engines housed in the wing roots, but those were replaced by more powerful Rolls-Royce Avon axial flow jet engines in production models. The pioneering airliner also featured large, square windows for the passengers.
After rigorous testing, the first Comet prototype took its maiden flight on July 27, 1949, and the airliner was introduced to the world at the Farnborough Airshow later that year. The Comet entered service with British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) on May 2, 1952 and was an immediate success, attracting high-profile passengers including the Queen Mother. However, structural weaknesses around the large windows soon led to a number of fatal in-flight explosive decompressions, and all Comets were grounded in 1954 to investigate the cause of the hull losses. The failures were traced to fatigue cracks around the large windows that arose from repeated pressurization and depressurization of the fuselage, so new rounded windows were introduced, along with a strengthened hull.
Comets returned to the skies in 1958 and, though the accidents hurt sales, the airliner went on to enjoy a long career, even after it was surpassed by more modern airliners like the Boeing 707. Continued development of the Comet led to the creation of variants that stretched the airliner and added more seats and more fuel for increased range. And, when it looked like the Comet’s flying days were over, it was further developed into the Hawker Siddeley Nimrod maritime patrol and surveillance aircraft. Including the prototypes, a total of 114 Comets were produced, and the last was retired in 1997.
July 28, 1935 – The first flight of the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. In the lead up to the Second World War, two schools of thought emerged on how bombers could be used in battle. The first, tactical bombing, was developed to support ground forces in the achievement of a specific objective, such as overcoming a fortified position or destroying a bridge. The second, strategic bombing, would be carried out by waves of bombers flying over enemy territory in an effort to destroy factories, and later to flatten cities in hopes of destroying the morale of the civilian population. The Germans focused on the former, and honed the combined arms tactics into the Blitzkrieg warfare that was so effective early in the war. England and America, however, adopted the strategic theories of bombing, particularly those espoused by Italian Giulio Douhet. Proponents such as Hugh Trenchard in England and Billy Mitchell in America advocated the construction of fleets of heavy bombers based on the belief that “the bomber will always get through.”
During the 1930s, rapid advances in aircraft design and construction left behind the fabric-covered biplanes of the 1920s in favor of all-metal monoplanes of increasing size, strength, and capability. Boeing introduced the US Army Air Corps’ first all-metal bomber with the YB-9 in 1931, and Martin followed in 1934 with the B-10, the first truly modern bomber. But as soon as the B-10 entered service, the USAAC began the search for a new bomber to replace it, one that would be capable of carrying a “useful bomb load” at 10,000 feet, could stay aloft for 10 hours, and would have a speed of 200 mph. A competition took place at Wright Field in Ohio between the Douglas B-18 Bolo, the Martin Model 146, both twin-engine aircraft, and the Boeing Model 299, which had four engines. When the new Boeing bomber, bristling with defensive armament, was first rolled out to the press, a newspaper reporter remarked that the bomber looked like a “flying fortress.” The name stuck.
While USAAC brass were impressed by the performance of the Model 299, now carrying the designation YB-17, they were concerned about the higher cost of the larger bomber. When the Boeing prototype was destroyed in a crash during testing, the Air Corps chose the Martin bomber. But this was not the end of the B-17. Its performance was impressive enough for the USAAC to order 13 YB-17s for further evaluation, and its performance in testing was so good that by the outbreak of WWII in December of 1941 there were already 155 Flying Fortresses in the air. And once the Flying Fortress showed its mettle in combat, those numbers soon soared into the thousands. Following the B-17's first foray into battle in the hands of British pilots, the 8th Air Force alone racked up more than 10,000 missions over Europe. The B-17G variant, which was built in the greatest numbers (over 8,000), had no less than 13 defensive M2 Browning .50 caliber machine guns and could carry up to 8,000 pounds of bombs depending on the mission. To meet the demand, wartime production of the B-17 was carried out by Boeing, Douglas, and Vega (a subsidiary of Lockheed), and a staggering total of 12,731 Flying Fortresses were produced by the end of the war.
In practice, the bomber didn’t always get through, but the Flying Fortress was capable of withstanding an enormous amount of damage while still bringing its crew home. The B-17 became the iconic American bomber of the war in Europe, and teamed up with the Consolidated B-24 Liberator and other smaller bombers to rain 1.4 million tons of bombs on Axis targets, with the B-17 accounting for roughly half that number. As for strategic bombing, postwar analysis found mixed results. While Germany’s production of oil and ammunition was significantly affected, along with the almost total destruction of transportation capabilities and the halt of submarine production, supplies of aircraft actually increased throughout the war. Other supplies, such as ball bearings and steel, were virtually unaffected. Anywhere from 350,000 to 500,000 civilians were killed, but bombing itself did not lead directly to German capitulation. Following the war, the vast majority of B-17s were broken up and sold for scrap, though a handful continued to serve in different roles. The Brazilian Air Force retired its last Flying Fortress in 1968, and today only about 14 remain airworthy, none of which are combat veterans.
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 she began 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 (after Valentina Tereshkova). On her second trip into Earth orbit, Savitskaya performed an EVA outside of the Salyut 7 space station and spent over three hours in space tethered to the station. She was twice awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union, her nation’s highest honor. Savitskaya retired from the Russian Air Force in 1993 with the rank of major.
July 25, 1930 – The death of Chauncey Milton “Chance” Vought. Born on February 26, 1890 in Long Island, New York, Vought was an American aviation pioneer, engineer, aircraft designer, and co-founder of the Lewis and Vought Corporation. Vought was taught to fly by the Wright Brothers in 1911, and designed his first aircraft, the Mayo-Vought-Simplex, in 1913, which was sold to the British as a trainer. He worked briefly with the Wright Brothers on the Wright Flyer V before forming his own company and producing the Vought VE-7, a US military trainer and the first airplane to take off from an American aircraft carrier. Vought was just 40 years old when he died of septicemia, but the company he founded continued through numerous associations: Lewis and Vought, Chance Vought, Vought Sikorsky, Ling-Temco-Vought (LTV) Aerospace, Vought Aircraft Companies and Vought Aircraft Industries. Unfortunately, Vought himself was not around to see the tremendous growth of the company he founded, nor did he see any of the remarkable aircraft the company built, such as the F4U Corsair. He was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1989
July 25, 1909 – French pilot Louis Blériot becomes the first person to fly across the English Channel. Blériot was a pioneering French aviator in the early days of powered flight, set numerous records, 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 in the air, Blériot landed hard in England and damaged his aircraft. Fortunately, he was unhurt, and 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. In 2020, Proteus was spotted working with another innovative and stealthy Scaled Composites aircraft, the Model 401, though the exact nature of the testing remains a mystery.
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.
July 27, 1958 – The death of Claire Chennault. Chennault was born September 6, 1890 in Commerce, Texas and became a pilot during WWI after a stint as a school principal. A proponent of the pursuit fighter in the 1930s at a time when the US Army was focused on bombers, Chennault left the Army in 1937 and worked as an aviation advisor to the Chinese government, where he became the head of the 1st American Volunteer Group, better known as the Flying Tigers, in 1941. Chennault led the AVG and, later, the US Army Air Forces units that followed the disbandment of the AVG, but openly feuded with General Joseph Stilwell, the US Army commander in China. Stilwell wanted Chennault’s forces to support ground supply routes into China, while Chennault advocated bombing Japanese targets in support of Chinese Nationalist forces. Following the war, Chennault created the Civil Air Transport, later known as Air America, to support the Nationalist fight against Communist China. Chennault died of lung cancer, most likely from heavy cigarette smoking, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC.
July 27, 1947 – The first flight of the Bristol Sycamore, the first domestically designed and built helicopter to serve with the Royal Air Force. Bristol began working on helicopters as early as 1944, and development of the Sycamore took over two years. The prototype was powered by a Pratt & Whitney Wasp Junior 9-cylinder radial engine, though production models were fitted with an Alvis Leonides radial engine which provided a top speed of 132 mph. The Sycamore entered service in April 1953 and served during the Malayan Emergency, and was also flown by Germany, Belgium, and Australia. A total of 180 were built from 1947-1955, and the type was retired by 1972.
July 27, 1946 – The first flight of the Supermarine Attacker, a fighter developed for the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm (FAA) and the first jet fighter to enter operational service with the FAA. The Attacker has its roots in the Supermarine Spiteful, a piston-powered fighter designed to replace the Supermarine Spitfire. The Attacker used the same straight, laminar flow wings of the Spiteful and was powered by a single Rolls-Royce Nene turbojet which gave it a top speed of 590 mph. Since the wings, with their main landing gear, came from an existing propeller fighter, the Attacker had a tail-dragger arrangement which was unusual for a jet fighter. The Attacker entered service with the FAA in 1951, but developments in jet fighter design quickly rendered it obsolete, and the type was withdrawn from service in 1954 after the production of 182 aircraft.
July 27, 1937 – The first flight of the Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor, a large, four-engine aircraft originally developed by Focke-Wulf as a long-range transatlantic airliner. Focke-Wulf’s chief designer Kurt Tank developed the Condor to cruise at nearly 10,000 feet, the limit for an unpressurized airliner. The Condor enjoyed a brief career as a commercial airliner serving with Deutsche Lufthansa, where it set a record for flying from Berlin to New York City in just under 25 hours. With the outbreak of WWII, Focke-Wulf added a gondola and bomb bay to convert the Condor into a long-range maritime patrol bomber. Later, the Condor was used exclusively by the Luftwaffe as a troop and VIP transport. A total of 276 were produced from 1937-1944.
July 28, 2008 – The death of Margaret Ringenberg. Born in Fort Wayne, Indiana on June 17, 1921, Ringenberg learned to fly in 1941 at age 19 and began her flying career in 1943 as part of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), ferrying aircraft, performing test flights, and pulling targets for fighter practice. After the war, Ringenberg took up air racing, and eventually earned over 150 trophies. She also competed in the Round-the-World Air Race in 1994 at the age of 72. At the time of her death, Ringenberg had amassed more than 40,000 hours of flying time.
July 28, 1945 – A North American B-25 Mitchell crashes into the Empire State Building. During a period of thick fog over New York City, a US Army Air Forces B-25 was performing a routine personnel transport mission when the pilot was instructed to abort his landing and proceed to Newark Airport in New Jersey due to poor visibility. Becoming disoriented in the fog, pilot William Smith crashed into the Empire State Building between the 78th and 80th floors, killing himself, his two passengers, and 11 civilians inside the skyscraper. Based on this accident, the architects of the World Trade Center considered the possibility of an accidental impact by a Boeing 707 when they designed the towers, little knowing that such a scenario would play out intentionally in 2001.
July 28, 1914 – World War I begins. World War I was a watershed event in the history of aviation, as the airplane became a weapon of war a mere 11 years after the first flight of the Wright brothers. Aircraft first entered the fray as observation planes known as scouts, but pilots soon began shooting at each other with small arms. The first dedicated combat aircraft, the Vickers F.B.5, arrived in early 1915. Technological advances brought ever more powerful and faster fighters, and an interrupter mechanism developed by Anthony Fokker allowed fighters to fire through the arc of the propeller, thereby dramatically increasing the accuracy and effectiveness of aerial marksmanship. By the end of the war on November 11, 1918, the Germans has lost more than 27,000 aircraft to enemy fire or crashes, while members of the Entente powers lost more than 88,000. More than 15,000 airmen were lost.
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