Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from July 30 - August 2.


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 power plant. 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 goals 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. Northrop chose to build their new fighter around two powerful General Electric J85 turbojet engines which were originally designed to power the McDonnell ADM-20 Quail target decoy. Combined with its small size and use of the area rule, which gave the F-5 its characteristic slim waist, the fighter was capable of a top speed of Mach 1.6 and a thrust-to-weight ratio of up to 7.5:1.

Northrop YF-5A prototype

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When the Navy decided to retire their remaining escort carriers, Northrop forged ahead with their design, developing 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 two-seat trainer to replace the Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star as its primary trainer, and the newly designated T-38 Talon became the world’s first supersonic trainer, and also the one produced in the highest numbers. 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. When the US Air Force showed little interest in the F-5, it was ultimately chosen by the Kennedy Administration as the winner of the F-X competition in 1962 to provide a low-cost export fighter. 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-5 wasn’t adopted in large numbers by the US, it continues to fly them in the aggressor role for dissimilar combat training, and the Air Force has also bought back some export fighters for 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 a total of almost 1,400 F-5E/Fs. (US Air Force photos)


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August 2, 1966 – The first flight of the Sukhoi Su-17. Before the adoption of the jet engine in aviation, almost all aircraft, dating back to the Wright Flyer, were built with straight wings. Straight wings are good for low-speed stability, but as speeds increased with the advent of jet engines, designers in Germany began to experiment with swept wings that would be more advantageous to the higher speeds capable with turbojet engines. But as early as 1944, the idea of having an airplane with a variable-sweep wing (also called variable-geometry) that could alter its wing sweep was being investigated in Germany Messerschmitt Me P.1101. But this aircraft, which never entered production, could only vary the sweep of the wings to a fixed position before takeoff. In England, Barnes Wallis began working on a swing-wing concept in 1949, but it wasn’t until the experimental Bell X-5, which first flew in 1951 and had three different wing positions, could an aircraft vary its geometry in flight. However, one of the problems faced by a variable geometry aircraft is an unfavorable shift in the center of gravity between the straight and swept positions. To counter this problem, Russian designers at the Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute (TsAGI) modified an existing aircraft, the Su-7B, to use a fixed central wing with a variable outer wing in the hopes of improving the Su-7's low-speed flight characteristics and lowering its landing speed.

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This new aircraft, dubbed the Su-7IG, would be further developed into the Su-17 and become Russia’s first variable geometry aircraft, and the first in a series of fighters that also included the Su-20 and the Su-22, all of which were given the NATO reporting name Fitter. Among other changes from the Su-7 was a new canopy and a dorsal spine for additional fuel and avionics. The Su-17 was powered by a single Lyulka AL-21 afterburning axial flow turbojet that gave the Fitter a top speed of 870 mph, and it was armed with two 30mm cannons and could carry up to 8,800 pounds of external stores under the fixed wing section or on the fuselage. The Su-17 entered service with the Soviet Air Force in 1970, where it served during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan from 1979-1989. While high elevation and high temperature operations proved challenging for the Su-17, the ruggedly constructed engine was tolerant to sand ingestion and the Fitter maintained a high level of readiness. However, the Su-17 proved susceptible to anti-aircraft fire and shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles. The Fitter was widely exported to Soviet allies, eventually serving for over 20 years with Russia and 15 export countries, including Libya, where two Su-17s were shot down by US Navy Grumman F-14 Tomcat fighters over the Gulf of Sidra in 1981. Despite advances in Soviet fighter design, the Su-17 and its derivatives remained in service with Russia until 1998, and more than 500 of the 2,867 aircraft produced remain in service today. (Photo by Rob Schleiffert via Wikimedia Commons; schematic by Emoscopes via Wikimedia Commons)


Short Take Off


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July 30, 1971 – The Apollo 15 mission deploys the first Lunar Rover on the Moon. Apollo 15 was the 9th manned mission launched by NASA as part of the Apollo program, and the 4th 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 6 to 8 mph, and 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, remained on the Moon. (NASA photo)


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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. (Photo by Bidgee via Wikimedia Commons)


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July 30, 1954 – The first flight of the Grumman F-11 Tiger, a day fighter developed for the US Navy by Grumman 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 becoming 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 prominence 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. (US Navy photo)


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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. (US Air Force photo)


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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 before joining the Free French Air Forces in North Africa, even though his health was failing and he was beyond the age limit for service. Saint-Exupéry disappeared over the Mediterranean Sea while flying a Lockheed F-5B, the unarmed reconnaissance variant of the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, and while remains of a pilot were found, they were not confirmed to be his. (Exupéry photo author unknown)


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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, serving primarily in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. (US Library of Congress photo)


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August 1, 2002 – The first flight of the Scaled Composites White Knight, an aircraft designed to launch the SpaceShipOne experimental spacecraft in the first part of a program to take paying passengers into space. Designed by Burt Rutan, White Knight is powered by two General Electric J85 turbojet engines and carried the SpaceShipOne to an altitude of 45,000 feet before releasing it to fly to space on its rocket motor. A total of 17 flights were made with SpaceShipOne before it was replaced by the larger and more powerful White Knight Two. Following the completion of the SpaceShipOne program, White Knight carried out drop tests of the Boeing X-37 Orbital Test Vehicle. In July 2014, White Knight was retired to the Flying Heritage Collection in Everett, Washington. (Photo by D Ramey Logan via Wikimedia Commons)


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August 1, 1973 – The first flight of the Martin Marietta X-24B, an experimental wingless aircraft developed jointly between the US Air Force and NASA to explore the concepts of lifting body aircraft. The X-24 was dropped from a Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, then powered by a rocket engine in flight before gliding to a landing. The lifting body research was carried out from 1963 to 1975 to investigate wingless vehicles that could land on Earth after flying in space, and data gained during these experiments was put to use in the design of the Space Shuttle. The X-24B made a total of 36 test flights before it was retired to the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. (NASA photo)


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August 2, 1985 – The crash of Delta Air Lines Flight 191, a regularly scheduled flight of a Lockheed L-1011 TriStar (N726DA) from Fort Lauderdale to Dallas that crashed while trying to land in a thunderstorm. Lacking sophisticated Doppler radar found on today’s airliners that could warn the pilots of wind speeds in a storm, the airliner was struck by microburst-induced wind shear at low altitude that caused the L-1011 to crash a mile short of the runway, killing 136 passengers and crew, plus 1 person on the ground. The National Transportation Board investigation faulted the pilots for choosing to land through the storm, as well as a lack of training for dealing with wind shear. As a result of this crash, the Federal Aviation Administration now mandates wind shear detection systems on all commercial aircraft. (Photo by Andrew Thomas via Wikimedia Commons)


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August 2, 1960 – The first flight of the Bennett Airtruck, an agricultural aircraft constructed from surplus Royal New Zealand Air Force North American Harvard (T-6) training aircraft. The Airtruck is essentially an agricultural chemical hopper with wings, engine and twin-boom tail, with the cockpit placed directly over the engine. Up to 5 passengers could also be carried instead of chemicals. Two were built, and the first crashed in 1963, and the second crashed 2 years later. Despite the loss of the prototypes, the Airtruck proved to be a very efficient agricultural aerial topdresser, and the design was transferred to the Transavia Corporation, who produced the Transavia PL-12 Airtruk, which was manufactured from scratch and did not use scavenged Harvard parts. (Photo by Flyernzl)


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August 2, 1911 – Harriet Quimby becomes the first American woman to be certified as a pilot. At a time when flying was dominated by male pilots, Quimby became the first woman to earn a pilot’s license in the United States, and her piloting exploits served as an inspiration to many women of her day. Quimby was hired as a spokesperson by the Vin Fiz Company and became the first woman to fly across the English Channel in 1912, a feat that was unfortunately overshadowed by news of the sinking of the Titanic just one day later. Quimby was killed on July 1, 1912 when, for unknown reasons, her Blériot XI monoplane suddenly pitched forward, ejecting both her and her passenger at an altitude of 1,500 feet. Ironically, the plane came to earth relatively undamaged. (Library of Congress photo)


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