Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from July 28 through July 31.
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: tactical and strategic. Tactical bombing was conceived as a way to support ground forces in the achievement of a specific objective, such as overcoming a fortified position or destroying a bridge, while strategic bombing was carried out by waves of bombers flying over enemy territory in an effort to destroy factories and deprive the armies of war materiel or 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 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. Though the B-17 dropped its first bombs in combat in the hands of RAF pilots, 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. 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 Flying Fortresses were produced by the end of the war.
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 and other smaller bombers to rain 1.4 million tons of bombs on German 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, 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.
July 29, 1967 – Fire engulfs the flight deck of USS Forrestal off the coast of Vietnam. Working on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier has been called one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Controlling jet and propeller aircraft around a pitching deck is an intricate ballet of blasting jet engines and spinning propellers, with death or serious injury a constant concern. And that is just during peacetime. In war, the dangers are compounded by a higher tempo of operations and the presence of bombs, missiles, rockets and fully-fueled aircraft either on the flight deck or stored belowdecks. In fact, the Battle of Midway took a critical turn when American dive bombers arrived overhead while Japanese aircraft were sitting on deck, fully loaded with bombs and fuel. The US Navy has been honing the art of carrier operations and carrier safety since 1920, but despite rigid safety procedures, there is always the potential for disaster.
By the early summer of 1967, the war in Vietnam was escalating dramatically, and the carrier USS Forrestal (CVA-59) sailed from Norfolk, Virginia to take up a position at Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of Vietnam. Once there, Forrestal immediately began launching attacks against North Vietnam in support of American and South Vietnamese troops. With the pace of operations increasing, the Navy’s demand for bombs soon outstripped production. To keep the bombers flying, the Navy was forced to use older ordnance, some of which dated back more than 10 years and had been exposed to the elements while in storage. On the day preceding the accident, Forrestal received a shipment of 1000-pound bombs, many of which were older, unstable bombs that had been improperly stored in Guam. Forrestal’s commanding officer, Captain John Beling, wanted to refuse the munitions, but he ended up accepting them reluctantly because of the acute shortage of munitions and the need for the bombs on missions the following day. Forrestal’s bomb handlers were particularly concerned with the unstable bombs being stored belowdecks, where an accidental explosion could sink the entire ship. So the bombs were stored out in the open on the flight deck.
The next day, the deck of Forrestal was crammed with fueled and armed aircraft and swarming with deck handlers and other personnel. Shortly before 11:00 am an electrical anomaly in a 5-inch Zuni rocket caused it to launch unintentionally from a McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom parked on the flight deck. The missile struck the external fuel tank on an armed Douglas A-4 Skyhawk and, while the rocket did not explode, it punctured the fuel tank, and the leaking fuel ignited. As damage control teams rushed to fight the rapidly spreading fire, one of the unstable bombs loaded on the Skyhawk detonated, blowing a hole in the armored flight deck. The explosion also raked the damage control team with shrapnel and covering the deck in even more burning fuel. As the fires continued to rage, nine more explosions occurred, eight of which were caused by the unstable bombs. The detonations tore holes in the flight deck that allowed burning jet fuel to flow into the living quarters below and into the interior spaces of the ship. Without heavy equipment, Forrestal’s crew pushed damaged aircraft into the water and rolled bombs over the side of the ship by hand. With the aid of the destroyer USS Rupertus (DD-851), which came within 20 feet of Forrestal to use its own fire hoses, Forrestal’s crew was eventually able to extinguish the fire by 4:00 am the following morning. The fire and explosions claimed the life of 134 crewmen, and 161 were injured, many of them seriously. Forrestal returned to Norfolk, where itspent more than 200 days undergoing repairs and refitting before returning to service. Though Capt. Beling was absolved of responsibility for the fire, he was assigned to staff work following the incident and retired in 1973 with the rank of Rear Admiral. Forrestal was decommissioned in 1993.
July 30, 1959 – The first flight of the Northrop F-5A Freedom Fighter. When the first jet fighters took flight at the end of WWII, they were relatively simple affairs, essentially straight-winged piston aircraft that were adapted for the new turbojet engines. But as jet engines became more powerful, fighters got bigger, more complex—and more expensive. To combat this trend, Northrop began working on a small, simple fighter in the mid-1950s called the N-156 in the hopes of securing a contract to produce a fighter that could fly from the US Navy’s smaller escort carriers. The design team was led by Northrop’s vice president of engineering Edgar Schmued, who designed two of arguably the greatest fighters ever built, the North American P-51 Mustang and North American F-86 Sabre, before coming to Northrop. Along with chief engineer Welko Gasich, the Northrop team set out with the specific goal of creating a small, low-cost fighter that would be easy to maintain and easy to fly, but would also have the potential for future growth and development.
Not only were fighters getting larger and larger, but the engines that powered them were also growing in size and complexity. To keep the size of their new fighter at a minimum, Northrop selected two powerful General Electric J85 turbojet engines which had been designed originally to power the McDonnell ADM-20 Quail target decoy. Though the J85 was small, weighing in at just 300-500 pounds each, it provided 3,500 pounds of thrust in normal operation and 5,000 pounds with afterburner. Combined with the fighter’s small size and use of the area rule, which gave the F-5 its characteristic slim waist, the F-5 was capable of a top speed of Mach 1.6 with a thrust-to-weight ratio of up to 7.5:1 compared to the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom at just 4.7:1. The F-5 was armed with two 20mm M39A2 revolver cannons in the nose with 280 rounds each. Seven hardpoints could carry up to 7,000 pounds of bombs, rockets, missiles, or extra fuel tanks.
The changing needs of the US Navy led them to abandon the use of smaller escort carriers, but Northrop forged ahead with their design and developed both a single-seat fighter version, the N-156F, and a two-seat trainer version, the N-156T. In July 1956, the Air Force chose the N-156T to replace the Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star as its primary trainer, and the newly designated T-38 Talon became both the first supersonic trainer and eventually the most-produced trainer in the world. Northrop continued developing the N-156F in the hopes of providing a fighter for the Military Assistance Program, which sought to arm nations allied to the US with low-cost weapons, and it was this aircraft which took its first flight on July 30, breaking the sound barrier on its maiden flight.
Despite the excellent performance and reliability of the F-5, the Air Force showed little interest in the fighter, and the program was in danger of being shut down. However, the Kennedy Administration chose the F-5 in 1962 as the winner of the F-X completion to provide a low-cost export fighter the America’s allies. In 1965, the Air Force sent 12 F-5As to Vietnam to evaluate them under the codename Project Skoshi Tiger, and it was here that the F-5 received its unofficial nickname, which became official with the later F-5E/F Tiger II. While the F-5A and F-5E/F weren’t adopted in large numbers by the US, it continues to be flown in the aggressor role for dissimilar combat training, and the Air Force has also bought back some export fighters for use in this role. The Tiger II, which won the International Fighter Aircraft competition in 1970, remains in service alongside older Freedom Fighters the world over. Northrop attempted yet another upgrade to the venerable little fighter with the F-20 Tigershark, hoping to develop an export fighter to compete with the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon, but it was ultimately unsuccessful. By the end of production in 1987, a total of 847 F-5A/B/C aircraft had been built, along with nearly 1,400 F-5E/Fs.
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 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 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 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.
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 an interrupter 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.
July 29, 1958 – President Dwight Eisenhower signs the National Aeronautics and Space Act, creating NASA. NASA has its origin in the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, an agency created in 1915 to further the efforts of aeronautic research and technological development in the United States. But as America entered the space age following WWII, the country needed an organization for a new era. The National Aeronautics and Space Act carries this simple preamble: To provide for research into problems of flight within and outside the earth’s atmosphere, and for other purposes. While NASA has done, and continues to do, research that carries military implications, its stated purpose is that of a peaceful, non-military organization. The Act goes on to say that, “The Congress hereby declares that it is the policy of the United States that activities in space should be devoted to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind.” In addition to NASA’s high profile space programs such as Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, the Space Shuttle, and the International Space Station, the organization continues to fund research into all aspects of space exploration, space travel, aviation, and related sciences. NASA’s latest large project, the Space Launch System and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, will see astronauts return to the Moon, create a permanent lunar station, and one day journey to Mars.
July 29, 1952 – A US Air Force North American RB-45 Tornado completes the first non-stop jet-powered flight across the Pacific Ocean. The B-45 has the distinction of being the first jet-powered bomber to enter US Air Force service, and though it was quickly superseded by the Boeing B-47 Stratojet, the RB-45 reconnaissance variant served until 1959 and made flights over the Soviet Union. To demonstrate the capability of the bomber, a B-45 of the 91st Reconnaissance Wing commanded by Maj. Lou Carrington departed from Alaska and arrived in Japan 9 hours and 50 minutes later, refueling twice in the air along the way. The midair refueling by Air Force KB-29 tankers also marked the first time a multiengine jet bomber was refueled in flight. Carrington and his crew were awarded the MacKay Trophy by the Air Force in recognition of the “most meritorious flight of the year.”
July 30, 1971 – The Apollo 15 mission deploys the first Lunar Rover on the Moon. Apollo 15 was the ninth manned mission launched by NASA as part of the Apollo program, and the fourth to land on the Moon. It was also the first of the so-called J missions which featured extended stays of more than three days on the Lunar surface, with greater emphasis on scientific exploration. In order to cover more ground than was possible on foot, Apollo 15 deployed the first Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV), a battery-powered rover that could carry two astronauts at speeds of six to eight mph. Over the course of their stay on the Moon, astronauts David Scott and James Irwin covered a total distance of 17.25 miles in the Rover. The Rover, along with ones placed by Apollo 16 and Apollo 17, remain on the Moon.
July 30, 1958 – The first flight of the de Havilland Canada DHC-4 Caribou, a cargo aircraft designed for short takeoff and landing (STOL) to fulfill a requirement from the US Army for a tactical airlifter to supply frontline troops. Following the DHC Beaver and DHC Otter, the Caribou was the first aircraft designed by de Havilland Canada to have two engines, and it entered US Army service in 1961 where it was known as the C-7. Initially seeing service in Vietnam, the Caribou’s ability to operate from runways as short as 1,200 feet made it an ideal complement to the Air Force’s larger cargo airplanes. A total of 307 were produced, and the final Caribous were retired from military service by the Royal Australian Air Force in 2009.
July 30, 1954 – The first flight of the Grumman F-11 Tiger, a day fighter developed by Grumman for the US Navy that began as an advanced development of the Grumman F-9 Cougar. Grumman eliminated the wing root air intakes and moved them forward to help reduce drag, made the wing thinner, moved the elevator down to the fuselage, and reshaped the fuselage to take advantage of the newly discovered area rule principle. The Tiger remained a work in progress throughout its career, and also earned the dubious distinction of being the first jet to shoot itself down when it overtook its own bullets in a dive during weapons testing. The Tiger’s operational career was relatively short, though it gained notoriety when the fighter was selected by the Navy’s Blue Angels in 1957. A total of 200 Tigers were produced from 1954-1959, and it was retired from active service in 1961, though it served the Blue Angels until 1969.
July 31, 1991 – The US Senate votes to allow women to fly combat aircraft. Women were first allowed to fly US military aircraft in WWII as members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), but they were limited to ferrying flights and were considered civilian pilots, receiving no military benefits. The first women military pilots received their wings in 1974 with the US Navy, and then in 1976 with the US Air Force, but they were still excluded from combat missions, even though they were flying cargo and liaison aircraft into war zones such as Panama, Grenada, and the Persian Gulf. Following the Senate vote, Martha McSally became the first American woman to fly a combat mission when she piloted a Fairchild Republic A-1o Thunderbolt II in support of Operation Southern Watch over Iraq in 1995.
July 31, 1944 – The disappearance of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Born on June 29, 1900, Saint-Exupéry was a French author and pilot who is best known for his book Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince). Exupéry flew for the French Air Force in the early part WWII and, following the fall of France, he traveled to America to encourage the US to join the war. He then joined the Free French Air Forces in North Africa, even though his health was failing and he was beyond the age limit for service. While flying a Lockheed F-5B, the unarmed reconnaissance variant of the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, Saint-Exupéry disappeared over the Mediterranean Sea. While remains of a pilot were found, they were not confirmed to be his and the story of his disappearance was never learned.
July 31, 1941 – The first flight of the Lockheed Ventura, a medium bomber and maritime patrol aircraft developed from the Lockheed Model 18 Lodestar and designed to replace the Lockheed Hudson. The Ventura was initially flown by the RAF as a medium bomber, but it suffered high combat losses and was pulled from service in favor of the de Havilland Mosquito. Remaining Venturas were moved to maritime patrol missions. In US Army Air Corps service, it was known as the B-34 Lexington and was used primarily for training, though Army Venturas were subsequently transferred to the US Navy where they gained the designation PV-1 and served primarily in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska.
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