Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from July 31 through August 2.
August 1, 1955 – The first flight of the Lockheed U-2. At the close of World War II, the Communist Soviet Union was firmly in control of much of Eastern Europe, while the Democratic western allies held Western Europe. It was the beginning of an ideological struggle between East and West known as the Cold War, and while it never broke out into WWIII, the struggle brought about an arms race, space race, and numerous proxy wars as the two sides strived to become the dominant influence in the world. In the early stages of the Cold War, the United States was desperate for accurate and timely intelligence on Russian military activities. Today, that sort of information is gained by powerful satellites, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that satellites began providing pictures from the safety of space, and even then, they were unreliable. Long ranging reconnaissance aircraft like the Boeing RB-50, a variant of the WWII-era B-29 Superfortress, and the jet-powered Boeing RB-47 Stratojet, probed the edges of the Soviet Union, but it was hazardous duty and many planes and pilots were lost to Russian fighters and antiaircraft fire. What the US desperately needed was an aircraft that could fly high enough to be out of range of Soviet fighters, and perhaps even out of the range of Russian radars.
The US already had in their arsenal the Martin B-57 Canberra, the American-built version of the remarkable English Electric Canberra. The B-57 had a ceiling of 48,000 feet, just beyond the reach of Russian MiG-15 fighters. For added safety, Martin lengthened the wings of the B-57 in the hopes of reaching 70,000 feet, but came up 2,000 feet short. So the Air Force sent out requests to other aircraft manufacturers who might be able to devote all of their attention to this important project. Lockheed was not one of them. Nevertheless, the company heard of the project and submitted their own proposal, dubbed the CL-282, designed by the brilliant Clarence “Kelly” Johnson. Initially based on Lockheed’s XF-104, the single engine CL-282 had long, slender wings and was powered by a single General Electric J73 engine housed in a short fuselage. To save weight, the CL-282 had no landing gear, and would take off from a rolling cart and land on its belly. Even though the CL-282 promised the performance the Air Force requested, and perhaps even more, they passed on the Lockheed design in favor of a Bell aircraft that never actually flew. The CL-282 passed to the Central Intelligence Agency.
The CIA’s codename for the project to develop the CL-282 was Dragon Lady, and that gave the finished U-2 its unofficial nickname. But the CL-282 needed some improvements to make it operational. Lockheed added landing gear in the form of two wheels directly behind the cockpit, and another set of two wheels behind the engine. The rear wheels are coupled to the rudder and provide steering on the ground. Outrigger wheels on the wingtips, called pogos, keep the wingtips off the ground during taxi and takeoff. The pogos fall out on takeoff, and are replaced after landing, with the wingtips protected by titanium skid plates. The engine was also upgraded more powerful and proven General Electric J57 turbojet. The J57 added even more altitude to the U-2, which now had a service ceiling of nearly 75,000 feet, high enough to see the curvature of the Earth. So high, in fact, that pilots breathe 100% oxygen beginning an hour before their mission, and wear space suits in case the cockpit depressurizes at altitude.
Test flights began in 1956, and the Dragon Lady entered service the following year. CIA pilots, all civilians (military pilots were not allowed to make reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union), were called “drivers” rather “pilots.” With its long slender wing and unpowered controls, the U-2 was very difficult to fly at lower altitudes, and required constant attention at high altitude. In 1956, three U-2s crashed with the loss of the pilot. Despite these difficulties, the first U-2s were deployed to Germany in 1956 and began with overflights of East Germany and Poland in June, followed by the first overflights of the Soviet Union the following month. Though the Dragon Lady could be tracked by Soviet radars, more accurately than the US thought possible, it remained out of reach of the fighters sent up to knock it down. With the threat of nuclear war should the Soviets shoot down a U-2, President Eisenhower was reluctant to continue the flights, and they were canceled numerous times, only to be restarted at a later date. U-2s also made flights over other global hotspots such as the Suez, and later over Cuba and Vietnam. Despite the relative safety of extreme altitude, the Russians did mange to claim one U-2 with CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down by a surface to air missile on May 1, 1960. Another was shot down over Cuba in 1962.
Though very much a product of the Cold War, the U-2 remains in service today, and has provided intelligence for conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan more than 60 years after its maiden flight. The airframe has been updated with more powerful General Electric F118 turbofans along with upgraded sensors and cameras. The ability to quickly change sensors for different mission parameters makes the U-2 a valuable asset to this day. NASA also flies updated ER-2 variants for high altitude research. Capable of providing critical reconnaissance with more flexibility than orbiting satellites, and the judgement of a human pilot, it is likely that the U-2 will continue flying for years to come.
August 1, 1936 – The death of Louis Blériot. The Wright Brothers made history in 1903 with their flight at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, and while they are widely recognized as being the first to fly a fully controllable aircraft (some contend that they weren’t really the first), aviation pioneers in Europe were working hard to catch up to them. Three years after the Wright Brothers’ historic flight, Brazilian inventor Alberto Santos-Dumont, working in France, made a public flight in his Santos-Dumont 14-bis, which resembled a giant box kite, while Frenchman Gabriel Voisin made the first flight of his Voisin biplane in 1907. Despite the news surrounding the successful flights of the Wright Brothers, many in Europe remained skeptical of their achievements. To prove the doubters wrong, Wilbur Wright traveled to Europe in 1908 and made a series of demonstration flights near Le Mans, demonstrating just how far he and his brother Orville had come with their Wright Flyer. Wilbur made numerous demonstrations in which he flew circles and figure-eights that stunned the French audience, and one of those in attendance that day was Louis Blériot.
Though Blériot is best known today for his pioneering work in aviation, he originally made his money as an inventor and engineer. Blériot was born on July 1, 1872 at Cambrai, France, and following his education at the prestigious École Centrale in Paris and compulsory military service with an artillery regiment he went to work for an electrical engineering firm where he developed the first practical headlamp for automobiles. The money he earned from this invention funded his foray into aviation. Blériot began with attempts at building ornithopters, but these flapping-wing designs proved unsuccessful for what today seem obvious reasons. In 1905 he met Voisin, and the two agreed to work together. They formed the Ateliers d’ Aviation Edouard Surcouf, Blériot et Voisin, but the partnership was unsuccessful, and Blériot realized that he was still far from his goal. After witnessing a successful flight by Santos-Dumont, Blériot dissolved his partnership with Voisin and struck out on his own. He continued experimenting with different configurations and, at a time when most aircraft pioneers were working with multiple wings, Blériot instead focused on the development of the world’s first powered monoplane, the Blériot V, which took its maiden flight on March 21, 1907. The aircraft only made short flights, and was damaged beyond repair after its third flight, but Blériot was on his way.
Numerous modifications and experiments followed, and his Blériot VII, with a large forward wing and smaller tail wing, established the basic layout of almost all aircraft to follow. The controls of the Blériot VII featured tail surfaces that could be moved together or separately and formed the predecessor to the elevators, ailerons and elevons used in modern aviation. Though the success of the Blériot VII established Blériot as a pioneering innovator, his greatest public notoriety came when he completed the first successful crossing of the English Channel. On July 25, 1909, the Frenchman took off from Calais at 4:41 am in his Type XI monoplane which was powered by a 25-horsepower, 3-cylinder Anzani engine. After a 36-minute flight, Blériot made a hard landing in Dover and claimed the £1000 prize which was being offered by the British newspaper the Daily Mail. The feat brought him fame and helped the success of his aircraft manufacturing business, and led to 100 orders for his Type XI and more than 900 orders for aircraft during WWI.
Blériot continued his manufacturing work after the war, and was present at Le Bourget Airport in 1927 to welcome Charles Lindbergh to Paris after his solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. Blériot died in 1936 at the age of 64 and, in his honor, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale established the Louis Blériot Medal to recognize records set in speed, altitude and distance.
August 2, 1966 – The first flight of the Sukhoi Su-17. Before the adoption of the jet engine, almost all aircraft, dating back to the Wright Flyer, were built with straight wings. Generally, straight wings provide good low-speed stability and handling, but the advent of the turbojet engine during WWII led designers to experiment with swept wings that would incur less drag at higher speeds. However, swept wings also had the drawback of requiring higher landing speeds. But what if you could design an airplane that could benefit from both straight and swept wings? As early as 1944, the idea of having an airplane with a variable-sweep wing (also called variable-geometry) was being investigated in Germany with the Messerschmitt Me P.1101. But this aircraft, which never entered production, could only change 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, that an aircraft could change its wing sweep in flight.
However, one of the problems faced by variable geometry aircraft is an unfavorable shift in the airplane’s center of gravity when moving between the straight and swept positions. To counter this problem, Russian designers at the Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute (TsAGI) modified an existing Sukhoi 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. This new aircraft, dubbed the Su-7IG, was further developed into the Su-17 and became Russia’s first variable geometry aircraft. Along with the modified wing, Sukhoi gave the Su-17 a new canopy, and a dorsal spine for additional fuel and avionics. The new variable sweep fighter was the first in a series that also included the Su-20 and the Su-22 and, despite the different Sukhoi classifications, all of these variants received the NATO reporting name Fitter.
The Fitter was powered by a single Lyulka AL-21 afterburning axial flow turbojet that gave it a top speed of 870 mph and was armed with two 30mm cannons. Up to 8,800 pounds of external stores could be carried 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, though it proved susceptible to anti-aircraft fire and shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles. The Fitter was widely exported to Soviet allies, and eventually served for over 20 years with the Soviet Air Force 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.
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 US Navy was the first branch to accept woman pilots in 1974, while the US Air Force accepted its first group of women pilots in 1976. However, 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). Saint-Exupéry flew for the French Air Force in the early part WWII, then traveled to America following the fall of France to encourage the US to join the war. He later 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. Though remains of a pilot were found, they were not confirmed to be his, and the details of his disappearance were 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.
August 1, 2002 – The first flight of the Scaled Composites White Knight, an aircraft designed to launch the SpaceShipOne experimental spacecraft as 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 the spacecraft to fly on its rocket motor. While Knight made a total of 17 flights with SpaceShipOne before it was replaced by the larger and more powerful White Knight Two. Following the completion of the SpaceShipOne test program, White Knight carried out drop tests of the Boeing X-37 Orbital Test Vehicle, and was retired to the Flying Heritage Collection in Everett, Washington in July 2014.
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 design 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.
August 1, 1949 – The first flight of the Northrop C-125 Raider. Following WWII, Northrop’s first offering for a civilian airliner was the three-engine N-23 Pioneer. However, with so many surplus aircraft available, airlines showed little interest. So Northrop instead pitched it to the US Air Force as the C-125 Raider to fulfill the roll of a short takeoff and landing (STOL) cargo carrier. The Air Force placed an order for 23 aircraft, and Raiders began to enter service in 1950. However, the Raider proved to be underpowered, and they were quickly relegated to ground training duty and declared surplus just five years after their introduction. Most of the remaining aircraft ended up flying cargo in South and Central America. Two non-airworthy Raiders remain, one on display at the Pima Air and Space Museum in Arizona and the other at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Ohio.
August 1, 1907 – The Aeronautical Division of the United States Army Signal Corps is created “to study the flying machine and the possibility of adapting it to military purposes.” Though initially cool to the role of the airplane in the military, the US Army began to show interest in the Wright Brothers’ invention four years after the famous first flight. The Aeronautical Division was the world’s first heavier-than-air military aviation organization, and the Army purchased their first aircraft, a Wright Model A, also known as the Military Flyer, on August 2, 1909. The Aeronautical Division saw its first action in 1913 when the 1st Aero Squadron was sent into Mexico to take part in the hunt for Pancho Villa. The Aeronautical Division eventually gave way to the US Army Air Corps and US Army Air Forces in WWII, and then became its own equal branch of the military with the creation of the US Air Force in 1947.
August 2, 1917 – Royal Naval Air Service pilot Edwin Harris Dunning becomes the first pilot to land on a moving ship. In 1910, American Eugene Ely had made the first landing on a ship moored in Hampton Roads, but to make carrier operations useful an aircraft would have to land while a ship was underway. In the era before arresting wires and tail hooks, Dunning had to rely on crew members assembled on deck to grab his Sopwith Pup and bring it to a halt. He made two successful landings on HMS Furious as it steamed in Scapa Flow in northern Scotland, but on his third attempt a gust of wind caused his aircraft to veer off the deck and into the water. Dunning was rendered unconscious and drowned. He was just 25 years old.
August 2, 1985 – The crash of Delta Air Lines Flight 191, regularly scheduled Lockheed L-1011 TriStar (N726DA) service from Fort Lauderdale to Dallas-Fort Worth that crashed while trying to land during a thunderstorm. Lacking the sophisticated Doppler radar found on today’s airliners that warn 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. All 136 passengers and crew, plus 1 person on the ground, were killed. 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. A memorial plaque placed at Founder’s Plaza next to the DFW Airport commemorates the tragedy.
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 Texan) training aircraft. The Airtruck is essentially an agricultural chemical hopper with wings, engine, and twin-boom tail, with the cockpit placed on top. As many as five passengers could also be carried instead of chemicals. Two were built, though the first crashed in 1963, and the second crashed two years later. Despite the loss of the prototypes, the Airtruck proved to be a very efficient agricultural aerial top dresser. The design was transferred to the Transavia Corporation which produced the Transavia PL-12 Airtruk, a similar aircraft that was manufactured from scratch and did not use scavenged Harvard parts.
August 2, 1911 – Harriet Quimby becomes the first American woman to be certified as a pilot. At a time when flying was almost entirely done by male pilots, Quimby, a Hollywood screenwriter, became the first woman to earn a pilot license in the United States, and her flying 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 her Blériot XI monoplane was struck by a gust of wind and suddenly pitched forward, ejecting both her and her passenger at an altitude of 1,500 feet over Dorchester Bay. The pilotless plane came down relatively intact.
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