Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from July 26 through July 28.
July 27, 1949 – The first flight of the de Havilland Comet. As early as 1921, work had begun on the development of the turbojet engine. The first patent for an axial flow turbojet was granted to Maxime Guillaume, but the engine was never built. Work progressed through the 1930s and 1940s, with the Britain and Germany both producing 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. During the war, the British and Americans decided to split up the development of large, multi-engine aircraft, with the Americans assuming responsibility for transport aircraft, while the British focused on production of heavy bombers. But that arrangement would leave the British in the unenviable position of having very little infrastructure or expertise in the production of transport aircraft when the war eventually came to an end. To address that situation, the British formed the Brabazon Committee in 1942 under the direction of John Moore-Brabazon, 1st Baron Brabazon of Tara to pursue 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 identified different needs of the civilian aviation industry and stated requirements for five different types of aircraft. One of the aircraft, designated the Type IV, would be a 100-seat, jet-powered, pressurized transatlantic mailplane that could carry 1 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 more traditional configuration with a straight wing that had a 20-degree swept leading edge and a straight tailplane. The engines were housed in the wing roots, and the airliner featured large, square windows for the passengers. The prototype was originally powered by four de Havilland Ghost turbojet engines, but those would be replaced by more powerful Rolls-Royce Avon axial flow jet engines. After rigorous testing, the first prototype’s maiden flight took place on July 27, 1949, and the Comet was introduced to the world at the Farnborough Airshow later that year. It 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 caused a number of fatal in-flight explosive decompressions, and the Comet was pulled from service in 1954 to investigate the cause of the hull losses. After a redesign to introduce rounded windows and an enlarged, strengthened hull, the Comet returned to the skies in 1958 and, though the accidents hurt sales, it went on to enjoy a long career, even after it was surpassed by more modern airliners like the Boeing 707. Continued development led to the creation of variants that stretched the airliner to add more seats and more fuel for increased range and, once the Comet reached its end of service as an airliner, 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. (Photo by Ralf Manteufel via Wikimedia Commons; prototype photo via British Government)
July 28, 1935 – The first flight of the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. When the airplane became a weapon of war in the First World War, it did so first as a scout plane, and then a fighter. But it wasn’t long before pilots began dropping bombs from their planes onto enemy troops below. At first, simple hand-held bombs were dropped overboard with limited success, but bombing soon became more sophisticated, and deadly. At the time, the only aircraft capable of carrying a barely effective bomb load was the Zeppelin, but that changed drastically in the period between the World Wars. In the lead up to World War Two, two schools of thought—tactical and strategic—emerged on how bombers could be used in battle. Tactical bombing was conceived as a way to support ground forces in the achievement of a specific objective, such as capturing a town or fortified position, while strategic bombing was carried out by waves of bombers flying over enemy territory in an effort to destroy factories to deprive the armies of war materiel or level cities to destroy 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 WWII. England and America, however, adopted the strategic theories of bombing, particularly those of 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 with the first truly modern bomber in 1934, the B-10. 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,” and 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 and, when a crash during testing destroyed the Boeing prototype, 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 as the Flying Fortress showed its mettle in combat, those numbers soon soared into the thousands. The B-17 dropped its first bombs in combat with the RAF, but it was the US Army Air Forces that flew thousands of missions over occupied 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. And while the bomber didn’t always get through, 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, teaming up with the Consolidated B-24 Liberator to drop 8 million bombs against Germany. Wartime production of the B-17 was carried out by Boeing, Douglas and Vega, a subsidiary of Lockheed, and eventually a staggering total of 12,731 B-17s were produced by the end of the war. 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 increased throughout the war, and other supplies, such as ball bearings and steel, were virtually unaffected. Anywhere from 350,000 to 500,000 German 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. (US Air Force photos)
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 holds world records for altitude, setting a record of 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 has been built, and it has carried out numerous experiments in coordination with NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and currently belongs Northrop Grumman. (US DOE Photo)
July 26, 1958 – The death of US Air Force test pilot Iven Carl Kincheloe, Jr, a test pilot, aeronautical engineer and double ace in the Korean War, as well as a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross and Silver Star. Kincheloe was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1928 and, after his military career, he became a test pilot for the US Air Force’s Century Series of fighter aircraft. Whle piloting a Bell X-2, Kincheloe was the first pilot to exceed 100,000 feet of altitude, receiving credit as the first man to enter outer space and earning the nickname “America’s No. 1 Spaceman.” Kincheloe was killed when he failed to eject from his crippled Lockheed F-104 Starfighter during a flight over Edwards AFB in California. (US Air Force photo)
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 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 in 1972. (Photo by William Nelson via Wikimedia Commons)
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 built 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 came from an existing fighter, the Attacker had a tailwheel landing gear, an unusual arrangement 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 Attacker was withdrawn from service in 1954 after the production of 182 production aircraft. (British Government photo)
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 an airliner, where it set a record for flying from Berlin to New York City in just under 25 hours. Focke-Wulf added a gondola and bomb bay to turn the Condor into a long-range maritime patrol bomber for service in WWII, and later, the Condor was used exclusively by the Luftwaffe as a troop and VIP transport. A total of 276 were produced from 1937-1944. (Deutsches Bundesarchiv photo via Wikimedia Commons)
July 27, 1882 – The birth of Sir Geoffrey de Havilland, a British aviation pioneer and aeronautical engineer responsible for some of the preeminent military aircraft of WWII. De Havilland built his first aircraft in 1910, and formed the de Havilland Aircraft Company in 192o. His company produced the de Havilland Mosquito multi-role fighter/bomber during the war and, as part of the Brabazon Committee, de Havilland oversaw the production of the de Havilland Comet, the world’s first jet-powered airliner. De Havilland remained in control of his company until it was bought by Hawker Siddeley in 1960, and he died in 1962 at the age of 82. (de Havilland photo via Australian Government; Mosquito photo via British Government)
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, eventually earning over 150 trophies, and she 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. (Photo author unknown via WANE.com)
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 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 2 passengers, and 11 civilians in the skyscraper. Based on this accident, the architects of the World Trade Center considered the possibility of an accidental crash of a Boeing 707 when they designed the towers, little knowing that such a scenario would play out purposefully in 2001. (Empire State Building photo by Ernie Sisto; B-25 photo via US Air Force)
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. First entering the fray as observation planes known as scouts, pilots soon began shooting at each other with small arms, and the first dedicated combat aircraft, the Vickers F.B.5, arrived in early 1915. Technological advances brought ever more powerful and faster fighters, including a mechanism created by Anthony Fokker to allow fighters to fire through the arc of the propeller. By the end of the war, 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. (British Government illustration)
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