Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from July 4 through July 6.
July 4, 1927 – The first flight of the Lockheed Vega. The Wright Brothers made their famous First Flight in 1903, and it did not take long for the airplane to become an object of fascination the world over. In the earliest days, the airplane was a wondrous machine flown by daring and brilliant inventors before becoming rapidly multiplying as a weapon of war. After WWI, aviation moved from the purview of the military into the civilian world, and reached its so-called Golden Age in the 1920s and 1930s. Barnstorming pilots crisscrossed the countryside offering rides and flying demonstrations, air races pushed technological advances in speed and handling, and intrepid aviators assaulted the record books, each trying to set the next mark in distance, speed or altitude. The fabric-covered biplane gave way to the all-metal monoplane, and many great—and some not-so-great—airplanes came out of this era. But one aircraft in particular, the Lockheed Vega, became an icon of the Golden Age, a rugged airplane with long range that was the preferred aircraft for some of the age’s best known aviators.
The Vega was designed by Lockheed’s John K. “Jack” Northrop and Gerard Vultee, both of whom would go on to start their own successful aircraft companies in later years. At first, the Vega was designed as a four-seat airliner intended for service on Lockheed’s passenger routes. At the time, paved runways were uncommon, and the Vega would need to be rugged enough to operate from grass fields and unimproved airstrips. But Northrop and Vultee also wanted their new aircraft to be fast, and when the Pratt & Whitney R-1340 Wasp radial engine was fitted in the Vega 5 in 1929 it gave the aircraft an impressive maximum speed of 185 mph. The monocoque fuselage was constructed with laminated plywood shaped in a concrete mold, with each half of the fuselage shaped separately and then assembled over a metal tube frame (as many as 10 later Vegas were built by the Detroit Aircraft Corporation with an all-metal fuselage, though they retained the original wooden wings). In order to maintain the strength and integrity of the fuselage, the cantilever wing was mounted on top of the fuselage rather than passed through it, and a NACA cowling was placed over the engine and streamlined spats were mounted on the fixed landing gear to improve aerodynamic efficiency.
The Vega was introduced in 1928, but it proved too small for airline service. However, it soon found a home with private owners and, by the end of the year, Lockheed had built 68 aircraft, more than half of the eventual 132 they ultimately produced. It wasn’t long before the Vega leapt into the record books when stunt pilot Arthur Goebel set a new coast-to-coast record of 19 hours and completing the first nonstop west to east flight in the process. The following year, Vega pilots won every speed award in the National Air Races in Cleveland. In 1932, Amelia Earhart made her historic solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in a Vega 5b that had been modified by Fokker Aircraft Corporation of America to increase the fuel capacity to 420 gallons.
But there was none greater than Wiley Post when it came to getting the most out of the Vega. Flying a Vega 5C named Winnie Mae, Post won the National Air Race Derby in 1930, flying from Los Angeles to Chicago in 9 hours 8 minutes 2 seconds. Post trumpeted that record by painting it on the side of his Vega. The following year, Post and co-pilot Harold Gatty established the first record for circumnavigating the globe in a fixed-wing aircraft when they departed Roosevelt Field in New York in Winnie Mae and returned in just eight days after traveling 15,474 miles. Then, in 1933, Post beat his own record, making the global flight alone in seven days. But Post and his Vega weren’t done. In 1934, Post began work on developing the world’s first practical pressure suit for pilots. In September 1934, Post flew Winnie Mae to 40,000 feet, then 50,000 feet, and discovered the existence of the jet stream as an added bonus.
Like so many great aircraft, technological advances soon surpassed the Vega, and only a handful remain in museums (the National Air and Space Museum is home to Winnie Mae). As of 2014, only one Vega remains airworthy, though another is currently undergoing restoration.
July 5, 1917 – The first flight of the Fokker Dr.1 Dreidecker. When war broke out in Europe in 1914, aviation was still in its infancy. The Wright Brothers had made their First Flight just 11 years earlier, but the remarkable pace of aviation development meant that early airplanes were ready to join the fray. At first, airplanes were used only as observation planes, called scouts, that performed the same reconnaissance duties of their horse-borne predecessors. But it wasn’t long before air crews began taking pistols and rifles into the air, and the friendly wave between opposing pilots was was replaced with often inaccurate gunplay. Dedicated fighter planes armed with machine guns followed, and the aerial dogfight was born. Beginning an aerial arms race that continues to this day, belligerents worked feverishly to produce ever more powerful and maneuverable fighters in an effort to wrest control of the skies over the battlefield from the enemy.
In 1916, the first British Sopwith Triplanes appeared over the Western Front, and the new fighter was immediately superior the older, slower German Albatros fighters then in use by the Deutsche Lufstreitkräfte (German Air Force). Working in Germany, Dutch aviation pioneer Anthony Fokker immediately started development of a triplane that could counter the Sopwith, and he started by converting one of his biplane designs already in development. The new fighter was designated the Fokker V.4, but initial results were poor. So Fokker revised the design by altering the ailerons and elevators and using a longer wing span to help improve roll control. The new aircraft was designated V.5, and though only three of these intermediate designs were produced, one was evaluated in September 1917 by Manfred von Richthofen, better known as the Red Baron. Despite its the V.5's shortcomings, Richthofen claimed his 60th victory in the triplane. In a further refinement of the design, Fokker added struts between the wings to minimize the wing flexing that hampered the fighter’s performance. The final production version, which was now called the Dr.1 Dreidecker (triplane), was very similar to the V.5, but now incorporated stepped wings and gave the aircraft its iconic forward profile.
Two prototypes were ordered and delivered to Belgium in late August 1917 for evaluation by Richthofen. Within the first two days, he downed two enemy planes, and reported that the Dreidecker was clearly superior to the Sopwith Triplane. Richthofen recommended that all fighter groups be outfitted with the new plane as soon as possible, and he scored his last 19 victories in a Dr.1 before his death in April 1918. Despite continuing difficulties with the fighter, including wing failures and problems with visibility, 320 aircraft were built, and the Dreidecker was used to good effect. The Dr.1 was inherently unstable, and while that trait could prove difficult for novice flyers, it also lent to the fighter’s exceptional maneuverability in the hands of a skilled pilot. What it gave up in top speed to other contemporary fighters it made up for with excellent climb and roll rates.
Towards the end of the war, shortages of castor oil for the engines hampered the fighter’s readiness rate, and the use of synthetic oils resulted in numerous engine failures. Only three aircraft are known to have survived the war, one of which was known to have crashed during testing, and one of the aircraft flown by Richthofen was held in a German museum until it was destroyed by Allied bombs during WWII. Only a few artifacts remain today, though many replicas and reproductions have since been built and are flown today.
July 4, 2005 – The NASA space probe Deep Impact successfully impacts comet Tempel 1. Deep Impact was launched on January 12, 2005 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and was designed to investigate the interior composition of comet Tempel 1. After rendezvousing with the comet, the spacecraft released an impactor that collided with the comet’s nucleus, formed a crater, and excavated debris from the interior crater. In the process, Deep Impact became the first probe to eject material from a comet’s surface for study. After completion of the mission, the spacecraft flew by Earth on December 31, 2007 on its way to study extrasolar planets, as well as comet Hartley 2.
July 4, 2002 – The death of Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., the commander of the Tuskegee Airmen in WWII and the first African-American general officer in the US Air Force. Davis was born into a military family in Washington, DC on December 18, 1912, and his father achieved the rank of brigadier general in the US Army. The younger Davis graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1936, but was denied entry to the Army Air Corps at a time when African-Americans were not accepted for flight service. Following the institution of the flight training program at Tuskegee University in Alabama, Davis was assigned to the first training class, and was deployed to the Mediterranean in support of the invasion of Sicily. Following the war, Davis rose through the Air Force, eventually gaining the rank of four-star General in 1998.
July 4, 1997 – Mars Pathfinder lands on Mars. After landing on Mars, Pathfinder deployed a roving probe named Sojourner, the first rover to operate outside of the Earth-Moon system. Pathfinder was launched from Florida’s Cape Canaveral on December 4, 1996 and bounced to a landing on what is now called the Carl Sagan Memorial Station. Pathfinder was the first in a series of rover missions to the Red Planet, and the first successful lander since two Viking landers arrived on the Martian surface in 1976. Developed as part of NASA’s “faster, better and cheaper” initiative, the solar-powered rover carried out experiments on the Martian soil and took photographs of its surroundings before contact was lost two months after landing.
July 4, 1986 – The first flight of the Dassault Rafale, a fourth generation multi-role fighter developed in the mid-1970s to replace aging aircraft and consolidate missions missions for the French Air Force and Navy. Development began with the Rafale A technology demonstrator, a delta-wing aircraft that featured forward canards to increase maneuverability. Development led to the Rafale C, which was both smaller and stealthier than its predecessor, and utilized a redesigned vertical stabilizer, radar-absorbent materials, and increased use of composite materials. Production began in 1982, and more than 133 of both the one- and two-seat variants have been produced to date. The Rafale entered service in May of 2001 and has seen action over Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Africa.
July 4, 1975 – The first flight of the Boeing 747SP, the smallest and fastest variant of the Boeing 747. Boeing initiated development of the SP after a request from Pan Am for an airliner capable of carrying passengers from New York to Tokyo, its longest route at the time. The stubby wide-body was originally designated SB for Short Body, and then changed to SP for Special Performance. Boeing shortened the 747 fuselage, increased the size of the horizontal stabilizer, and simplified the wing’s trailing edge flaps. Though the SP was the longest-range airliner available when it entered service, Boeing received few order,s and only 45 SPs were produced. As of December 2016, 10 SPs remain flying, and NASA also operates one SP to carry the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), with a large opening in the side of the aircraft for a reflecting telescope.
July 4, 1957 – The first flight of the Ilyushin Il-18, a four-engine turboprop airliner that proved to be one of the most successful Soviet airliners of its era. Like many Russian designs, the Il-18 was durable and rugged, with many airframes achieving over 45,000 flight hours. Following its entry into service in 1958, the Il-18 earned the Brussels World Fair Grand Prix in 1958 and set 25 world records for range and altitude. The Il-18 was widely exported, and also served as a military transport and cargo aircraft. Just under 700 were produced from 1957-1985, and though it was superseded by the Ilyushin Il-62 jetliner, the Il-18 remains in limited civilian and military service.
July 5, 2016 – NASA’s Juno spacecraft enters orbit around Jupiter. Juno is part of NASA’s New Frontiers program, a series of missions designed to investigate the planets of our Solar System that seeks principal investigators to help fund and administer the exploratory missions. A second spacecraft in the program is New Horizons, which launched on January 19, 2006 to study Pluto. Juno was launched on August 5, 2011, and is the second probe to orbit the Solar System’s largest planet after Galileo, which orbited Jupiter from 1995-2003. Juno’s mission is to study Jupiter’s gravity and magnetic fields, its polar magnetosphere, and will search for clues on how the planet formed and what the planet is made of. Following its scientific missions, NASA planes to deorbit Juno into Jupiter’s atmosphere in 2018.
July 5, 1979 – The death of Émile Dewoitine, a French industrialist who designed fighters and airliners for France before and during WWII. Dewoitine was born in Crépy-en-Laonnais on September 26, 1892, and worked for aircraft manufacture Latécoère before founding his own company in 1920, though with little success. After moving to Switzerland, where his Dewoitine D.27 fighter was accepted for service, he returned to France to found Aéronautique Française (Avions Dewoitine) in 1931, where he produced the Dewoitine D.500, France’s first all-metal monoplane fighter, as well as the Dewoitine D.338 airliner. During WWII, the Dewoitine D.520 fighter proved to be France’s best domestic fighter, and was nearly a match for the Messerschmitt Bf 109. When Dewoitine tried to start a company in America in 1940, he was tried in absentia by the Vichy government and found guilty of treason, so he moved to Spain to continue his work, eventually returning to Toulouse after the statute of limitations expired on his sentence.
July 5, 1942 – The first flight of the Avro York, a four-engine transport aircraft that was derived from the Avro Lancaster bomber. Like other postwar British airliners that were based on bombers, the York borrowed the wings, tail and undercarriage of the Lancaster and was fitted with a larger, square fuselage that could accommodate up to 56 passengers. Powered by four Rolls-Royce Merlin engines, the York had a maximum speed of 298 mph and a range of 3,000 miles. It entered service with the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) in 1944, and was also used by the RAF Transport Command. Following the end of mainline service, the York continued to fly with independent airlines for both passenger and freight operations, and was finally retired in 1964. Avro produced 259 Yorks from 1943-1949.
July 6, 2013 – The crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214, Boeing 777-200ER (HL77423) service from Incheon International Airport in South Korea to San Francisco International Airport (SFO). On final visual approach to SFO in excellent weather, the aircraft came in below the glide slope and the main landing gear and tail of the 777 struck a seawall short of the runway before rotating and coming to rest to the left of the runway. Of the 307 passengers and crew, three passengers were killed and 187 were injured. The NTSB investigation cited pilot error, saying that “Mismanagement of Approach and Inadequate Monitoring of Airspeed Led to Crash of Asiana flight 214.” The report also cited the crew’s unfamiliarity with the 777's automatic airspeed control during descent. The accident was the first fatal crash of the 777 since the airliner entered service in 1995, and the first fatal commercial airliner crash in North America since 2001.
July 6, 1952 – The death of Maryse Bastié. Born on February 27, 1898, Bastié became interested in flying after marrying a WWI fighter pilot. After the death of her husband in 1926, Bastié began performing flying exhibitions to earn money, and eventually purchased her own aircraft, a Caudron C.109 monoplane, in 1927. She set numerous records for women aviators, as well as a record time for a solo crossing of the South Atlantic, and was awarded the Harmon Trophy in 1931. Bastié achieved the rank of Captain in the French Air Force while logging more than 3,000 hours of flying time, and was made a Commander in the French Légion d’honneur. Bastié was 54 when she died in a plane crash.
July 6, 1819 – The death of Sophie Blanchard. Blanchard (née Armant) was born on March 25, 1778 and took up ballooning when she married pioneering balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard in 1804. Sophie was the first woman to work as a professional balloonist, and continued flying after her husband’s death in 1809 when he fell from a balloon after suffering a heart attack. She made more than 60 ascents after Jean-Pierre’s death, and performed flights for Napoleon Bonaparte and King Louis XIII, who named her “Official Aeronaut of the Restoration.” Blanchard was killed when fireworks that she launched from her balloon ignited the balloon’s gas bag, giving her the unfortunate distinction of being the first woman to be killed in an aviation accident.
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