Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from July 6 through July 9.
July 8, 2011 – The launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis on STS-135, the final flight of the Space Shuttle program. Before the Space Shuttle Columbia took its maiden flight on April 12, 1981, going into space had been the work of expendable spacecraft. Multi-stage rockets were left in orbit after their fuel was spent, or burned up re-entering the atmosphere, and the relatively tiny capsules that held the astronauts were so heavily damaged by the friction and heat of re-entry that they could not be used again. Since every component of the spacecraft had to be built from scratch for every launch, it was not only a wasteful way to get into space but it was also terribly expensive. Though we tend to think of the Space Shuttle as a product of the 1980s, NASA had already begun the process of developing a reusable spacecraft all the way back in 1969, the same year that Neil Armstrong took his “one small step” on the Moon. The space agency envisioned what was essentially as a “space truck” that could haul payloads into space relatively cheaply and then be quickly used again.
The Space Shuttle Program got its official start in 1972 with an announcement by President Richard M. Nixon that NASA would develop what later came to be called a Space Transport System (hence, all Shuttle missions were given the prefix “STS”). NASA considered many different concepts for the launch system and orbiter, and debated over just how much of the system would be reused. Engineers considered placing air-breathing engines on both the Shuttle and its booster, so both could be flown like an airplane during landing, or even flown between landing and launch sites. They also considered placing the Shuttle directly on top of an expendable launch rocket. Ultimately, NASA settled on a design where the orbiter was attached to a huge expendable fuel tank flanked by a pair of solid rocket boosters that would parachute into the ocean after launch to be used again. The Shuttle, after completing its orbital mission, would then re-enter the atmosphere and glide to an unpowered landing. At the start of the program, the goals for the Shuttle were quite ambitious, and NASA hoped to preform as many as one launch per week. However, by the time the Shuttle was ready for launch, the realities of both the complex system and Congressional funding meant that the Shuttle never became the flying truck that NASA originally envisioned, though it did become NASA’s orbital workhorse during its thirty years of service.
NASA built six Shuttles (the first, Enterprise, never went to space and was used for testing), and the Shuttle fleet carried out hundreds of science experiments in the reusable Spacelab module carried in the Shuttle’s cargo bay and ultimately ferried 3,513,638 pounds of cargo into orbit. Shuttles were instrumental in the construction of the International Space Station (ISS), rotated crews between Earth and the Russian Mir space station and the ISS, and placed the Hubble Space Telescope, along with many satellites, into both low and high Earth orbit. They also carried classified Department of Defense payloads into space. Over the thirty years of Shuttle service, orbiters circled the Earth 20,830 times and carried 355 astronauts (306 men, 49 women) from 16 different countries into space.
Shuttle flights began on April 12, 1981 with STS-1, a manned flight that lasted just over two days, and ended with STS-135, the 135th and final mission of the Shuttle program. Atlantis lifted off from Kennedy Space Center July 8, 2011 and docked with the ISS two days later. The mission was originally not scheduled to be flown due to a lack of funding, but NASA administrators stated the need to resupply to the ISS in light of delays in commercial rocket development and Congress eventually provided funding for the mission. The crew of four astronauts was the smallest since STS-6 in 1983, a necessity since there were no Shuttles available for a rescue mission should the need arise. If Atlantis were damaged during launch, the crew would have to stay at the ISS and return to Earth on regularly scheduled Russian Soyuz capsules, a process that would have taken a year.
With the end of the Shuttle Program, resupply missions to the ISS have been taken over by commercial space interests as part of NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services program. All ISS crews will have to fly on Russian spacecraft until the completion of the Commercial Crew Development program to build a spacecraft capable of transporting crews into low Earth orbit. Over the span of operations, the Shuttles Challenger and Columbia were lost in flight along with a total of 14 astronauts. Following the end of the program, the remaining Space Shuttles were distributed to museums and display sites around the country. Atlantis is on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.
July 8, 1947 – The first flight of the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser. When the passenger airliner entered service before WWII, it was a relatively small aircraft by today’s standards, with room for only 10-15 passengers. But during the war, strategic bombing missions called for aircraft that could carry large bomb loads, and the development of large piston-powered aircraft reached its zenith by the end of the war in August 1945. With the cessation of hostilities, Aircraft companies that had built bombers for the military took their expertise into the civilian sector, and the heavy bombers that had originally been designed for battle formed the basis of a new generation of large passenger airliners. The RAF had focused solely on the development of bombers during the war rather than transport aircraft, and the Avro Lancastrian and Avro York were developed from the Avro Lancaster bomber, while the Avro Lincoln bomber formed the basis for the Avro Tudor. But England wasn’t the only country that took advantage of military aircraft conversions.
Boeing had been working on a large pressurized bomber since 1938, and when the Boeing B-29 Superfortress entered service in 1944 it was by far the most technologically advanced four-engine bomber of its day. Designed to cross the vast reaches of the Pacific Ocean, the Superfortress had unparalleled range and power and carried enough fuel for flights of over 3,000 miles. Based on the success of the B-29, Boeing chose it as the basis for a large cargo aircraft, and work on the C-97 Stratofreighter began in 1942. They took the wings and lower fuselage from the Superfortress and added a second, enlarged fuselage tube on top, creating a double-bubble cross section with both an upper and lower deck. This enlarged cargo aircraft now formed the basis for a civilian airliner which became known as the Model 377. While double-decker seating wasn’t necessarily an innovation (earlier large flying boats such as the Boeing 314 Clipper had two decks), the 377 was one of the first postwar land-based airliners to feature a seating area that accommodated 14 passengers in a lower deck lounge in addition 1oo passengers in upper deck seating. The top section was wider than competing airliners by Douglas, and the supercharged Pratt & Whitney R-4360 Wasp Major engines provided a higher level of pressurization for the cabin passengers, as well as air conditioning.
Pan Am was the launch customer for the 377 and ordered 20 Stratocruisers in 1945. The first passenger-carrying flight took place in April 1949 from San Francisco to Honolulu. For overnight flights, 28 passengers could be accommodated in berths that were more reminiscent of railroad sleeping cars than airliners. By the sixth year of operation the 377 had carried over three million passengers, completed almost 3,600 transcontinental flights and crossed the Atlantic Ocean 27,000 times. As with other propeller-powered airliners, the 377 was eventually superseded by jet-powered airliners such as the de Havilland Comet and Boeing 707, and its last passenger flight was made in 1954. But the remarkable aircraft that started with the B-29 had yet one more conversion to make. Once its airliner days were over, the 377 served as the basis for the line of oversized Aero Spacelines Guppy cargo carriers.
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 airliner 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 and catching fire. Of the 307 passengers and crew, three passengers were killed (one was run over by a fire truck) 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. Following the death of her husband in 1926, Bastié began performing flying exhibitions to earn money, and eventually purchased her own 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, 1919 – The British rigid airship R34 completes the first east-to-west crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. R34 was the second rigid airship of the R33 class whose design was based on the captured German Zeppelin LZ 86. She took her maiden flight on March 14, 1919 and plans were made for an Atlantic crossing soon after. R34 left England on July 2, 1919, less than a month after Alcock and Brown completed the first crossing of the Atlantic from west-to-east, and arrived two days later at Long Island, NY after a flight of 108 hours that nearly exhausted the fuel supply. With no experienced ground handlers present, a member of the crew parachuted to the ground and thus became the first person to arrive in America traveling by air. R34 returned to England July 10-13, and was eventually scrapped in 1921 after a crash in poor weather.
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 XVIII, 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 die in an aviation accident.
July 7, 2003 – The launch of Mars Exploration Rover–B, better known as Opportunity. Opportunity was launched atop a Delta II Heavy rocket as part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover program and landed on the Red Planet on January 25, 2004, three weeks after its sister rover Spirit (MER-A). Spirit became mired in soft ground in 2009 and ceased communications the following year, but Opportunity continued to function 15 years after landing, even though it was designed to function for only 90 days. Opportunity made significant discoveries on the geology of Mars, and helped to determine whether the Earth’s closest neighbor was ever capable of sustaining life, looking particularly for signs of water. Contact with Opportunity was lost on June 10, 2018 when the rover failed to wake from hibernation, and the mission was declared officially over on February 13, 2019. In all, Opportunity had traversed over 28 miles of the Martian surface, surpassing the previous record for a rover set by the Russian Lunokhod 2 rover that landed on the Moon in 1973.
July 7, 1981 – The Solar Challenger completes the first solar-powered flight across the English Channel. Aeronautical engineer Paul MacCready made a name for himself in the 1970s with human-powered aircraft, one of which, the Gossamer Albatross, was the first aircraft to cross the English Channel under human power in 1979. The Albatross was then developed into the Gossamer Penguin, which added a solar array to generate power for propulsion. The Solar Challenger was a much more robust development of the Penguin, with power for its two three-horsepower engines coming from 16,128 solar cells on the wings and horizontal stabilizer which provided up to 3,800 watts of electricity. The Solar Challenger took its maiden flight on November 6, 1980, and made the crossing of the English Channel from France to England in just under 5.5 hours. The aircraft is now part of the collection of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.
July 7, 1961 – The first flight of the Mil Mi-8, a twin-turbine helicopter that was originally designed as a transport helicopter and then further developed into an airborne command post, gunship, and reconnaissance helicopter. More than 17,000 have been built since production began in 1961, and it is the most common operational military helicopter in the world. Mikhail Mil designed the Mi-8 (NATO reporting name Hip) as a replacement for the radial-engined Mil Mi-4, and the twin turbine-powered Mi-8 can accommodate up to 16 troops or 3,500 pounds of cargo and has a top speed of 161 mph. The Mi-8 entered service in 1967, is flown by 71 countries worldwide and remains in production today.
July 7, 1946 – The first flight of the Hughes XF-11, an experimental reconnaissance aircraft built for the US Army Air Corps by Howard Hughes to compete with the Republic XF-12 Rainbow for a US Army Air Forces contract. Resembling the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, the XF-11 was fitted with such a complex system of contra-rotating, variable-pitch propellers that the second prototype was fitted with traditional propellers. On its maiden flight, a hydraulic leak caused caused the loss of one engine, and Hughes crashed while attempting to make an emergency landing on a golf course, an accident that the Army attributed to pilot error. Hughes was seriously injured, but survived. After he recovered, Hughes successfully flew the second prototype in 1947, but the USAAF had lost interest in both the XF-11 and the XF-12, and both projects were canceled.
July 8, 1999 – The death of Charles “Pete” Conrad, a test pilot, aeronautical engineer, astronaut, and the third man to walk on the Moon. Born on June 1, 1930, Conrad began his astronaut career with NASA as a member of Project Gemini, and flew alongside astronaut Gordon Cooper on Gemini 5 on an eight-day mission orbiting the Earth that set an endurance record for the time. Conrad followed Gemini 5 with the flight of Gemini 11 partnered with astronaut Richard Gordon, and went to the Moon as mission commander on Apollo 12. Conrad then commanded Skylab 2, the first manned mission to the Skylab orbital space station. For Skylab 2, which carried out significant repairs to the space station, Conrad was awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor in 1978. After leaving NASA, Conrad worked in the television industry and with McDonnell Douglas, and was a member of a Learjet crew that set a record for circumnavigating the globe in 49.5 hours in 1996.
July 8, 1977 – The death of Katherine Stinson. Born on February 14, 1891, Stinson was the fourth woman in the US to obtain her pilot certificate, and soloed at the age of 21 after just four hours of instruction. The following year, she began touring on the flying exhibition circuit, where she was known as “The Flying Schoolgirl” and, in 1915, she became the first female pilot to perform a loop. In 1917, Stinson set an American record for non-stop flying when she completed a 606 mile flight from San Diego to San Francisco. During WWI, Stinson drove an ambulance in Europe, where she contracted influenza and was forced to give up flying. Her brothers, inspired by her aviation feats, started the Stinson Aircraft Company in 1920. Katherine Stinson was 86 at the time of her death.
July 8, 1965 – The death of Paul Mantz. Mantz was best known for his work as both an air racing pilot and movie stunt pilot. Ater a stint as a commercial pilot, he went back to work in Hollywood. He worked for Howard Hughes and others, and made his film debut flying a Stearman biplane in the 1932 film Air Mail. During WWII, Mantz served in the First Motion Picture Unit and took up racing after the war, winning the Bendix Trophy in three consecutive years. Returning once more to his movie career, Mantz was hired to fly the Tallmantz Phoenix P-1, a highly modified aircraft that was meant to represent a jury-built aircraft flown out of the desert by a marooned aircrew in The Flight of the Phoenix. During filming, Mantz carried out a particularly aggressive maneuver and the plane broke apart, killing him. The FAA investigation cited alcohol consumption as a factor in the crash, though others dispute that finding.
July 8, 1948 – The first flight of the Ilyushin Il-28, an early postwar twin-engine bomber produced for the Soviet Air Force and the first jet-powered Soviet bomber to enter large scale production. Ilyushin developed the Il-28 (NATO reporting name Beagle) first using Rolls-Royce Nene turbojet engines purchased from Britain, and then used reverse engineered copies designated as Klimov VK-1. The Il-28 had a top speed of 560 mph and could carry up to 6,600 pounds of bombs. It was also fitted with four cannons, two in the nose and two in the tail for defense. A total of 6,635 were produced, with just under 200 converted to two-seat trainers. The Il-28 was widely exported, and was also built under license in China as the Harbin H-5. The Soviets retired the Il-28 in the 1980s, though some remained in service into the 1990s.
July 8, 1947 – The Roswell Daily Record reports that a UFO crash landed near Roswell, New Mexico. The UFO craze traces its roots to rural New Mexico when a farmer near Roswell found pieces of what he believed was an alien spacecraft, and the local newspaper ran a headline announcing the capture of a “flying saucer.” The US military arrived, quickly took the wreckage away, and told local residents that it was debris from a crashed weather balloon, fueling theories of a government cover up. Recently released documents now explain that the debris was actually part of Project Mogul, a balloon that carried secret listening devices to detect Soviet nuclear tests. Other reports that actual aliens had been found in the wreck are most likely due to the discovery of weighted mannequins that were dropped from Air Force planes to test the the effects of high-altitude ejections from aircraft.
July 8, 1941 – The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress flies its first combat mission of WWII. The B-17 was the iconic American heavy strategic bomber in the airwar over Europe, but despite its association with the US Army Air Corps (USAAC) and later US Army Air Forces (USAAF), the Flying Fortress first flew into battle in the hands of Royal Air Force pilots in 1941 before the US became involved in the war. When war broke out in Europe, England did not yet have a heavy bomber of its own. So the USAAC provided the RAF with 20 B-17Cs (the RAF designated it the Fortress I), and the bomber saw its first action of the war in an unsuccessful raid against the German port city of Wilhelmshaven. The B-17 never really caught on with the RAF and, after losing eight of their initial fleet, the remaining bombers were shifted to Coastal Command for use in maritime patrol.
July 9, 2019 – The death of H. Ross Perot. Born on June 27, 1930 in Texarkana, Texas, Ross Perot is best known as a billionaire businessman and twice-unsuccessful third party presidential candidate. But Perot entered the annals of aviation history in 1981 when he took part in a world record circumnavigation of the globe by helicopter. In an effort to beat Australian Dick Smith, who had started his own attempt at a round-the-world helicopter flight, Perot purchased a stock Bell 206 LongRanger II, christened it Spirit of Texas, and modified the helicopter to hold more fuel, deployable pontoons, and upgraded navigational equipment. With pilot J.W. Coburn, the pair set out from Dallas on September 1 and made 56 refueling stops while crossing 26 countries and flying 26,000 miles before returning to Dallas. One stop was made aboard a container ship in 15-foot seas and 40 mph winds since Russia would not allow the team to land in the Soviet Union. Perot also paid for a Lockheed C-130 and crew to support the flight. The circumnavigation took a total of 246 flight hours at an average ground speed of 117 mph, and an overall average of 35 mph, setting a world record for flight time in a helicopter. The Spirit of Texas now resides at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.
July 9, 1991 – Bombardier-Navigator Lt. Keith Gallagher survives partial ejection from a US Navy Grumman KA-6D Intruder. While flying from the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72), Gallagher’s ejection seat malfunctioned and he was partially ejected through the canopy of his Grumman KA-6D Intruder. As the aircraft flew at 264 mph, Gallagher found himself stuck in the broken canopy while his arms flailed in the gale outside the aircraft. His helmet and air mask were ripped off, and he could not breathe because of the wind blasting into his face. Pilot Lt. Mark Baden declared an emergency and was immediately routed back to the carrier, where he landed safely, with Gallagher still sticking out of the cockpit. Miraculously, Gallagher was still alive. He suffered paralysis in half of his right arm, and damage to his left shoulder, as well as significant facial injuries. After six months of recovery, Gallagher returned to service.
A full account of the incident can be read here.
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