Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from July 9 - July 12.


Royal Canadian Air Force pilots scramble to their Hurricanes

July 10, 1940 – The Battle of Britain begins. By the summer of 1940, the situation was looking decidedly bleak for the British. The British Expeditionary Force fighting in France had been beaten back to Dunkirk, and only through a truly heroic and herculean effort of the Royal Navy and British civilians were the soldiers evacuated from the beaches. Though nearly 240,000 British, French and Belgian troops had been rescued, the Allies were on the run in Europe. On June 22, France officially signed an armistice with Germany, marking the end of the Battle of France. England was now alone to face the Germans in western Europe, and Adolf Hitler turned his sights on the island nation. He knew that, as long as England stayed in the war, he would not be able to claim complete victory, nor would he be able to turn his armies fully against Russia in the east. What he hoped for was a negotiated peace. Britain was not interested. Despite the odds, they chose to fight, spurred on by the words of Prime Minister Winston Churchill:

...The Battle of France is over. The battle of Britain is about to begin.... The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world...will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age.... Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”

Unable to negotiate peace, the Germans began planning for Unternehmen Seelöwe (Operation Sea Lion) to invade Britain. But before such an invasion could take place, the Luftwaffe needed to achieve air superiority over the RAF. Luftwaffe Air Marshal Hermann Göring was certain that his forces could knock the RAF out of the sky, and give time for the Wehrmacht to prepare for an invasion. The Battle of Britain began on July 10, 1941 (German historians observe different operational dates), and while it has come to be symbolized by the indiscriminate bombing of London, the battle opened with attacks against British shipping and ports. One month later, on August 13, the Luftwaffe launched Unternehmen Adlerangriff (Operation Eagle Attack), with three German Luftflotten (air fleets) unleashed against British air bases, radar installations and aircraft factories. Against this onslaught of 2,500 fighters and bombers, the RAF had about 600 fighters. But they weren’t just flown by British pilots. There were pilots from New Zealand, Australia, Canada, South Africa, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Belgium, France, Poland and Czechoslovakia, as well as a handful of pilots from neutral America and Ireland. The two main aircraft in the British arsenal were the Hawker Hurricane and the newer Supermarine Spitfire. Generally, the “Spit,” the more agile of the pair, tangled with the fighters, while the heavily armed “Hurries” took on the bombers. Both aircraft were superior to the Heinkel He 111s and Junkers Ju 88s ranging over England. German Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters were every bit the match for the British fighters, but long flights from the European continent left them low on fuel with little time to fight. The British also had the advantage of fighting over their home soil, where pilots could land quickly to re-arm and repair their fighters, and a network of radar stations to warn them of attacking waves of German planes.

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By early September, Göring had nearly reached his goal of destroying the RAF, but when some German bombs accidentally fell on London, the British retaliated by bombing Berlin. An outraged Hitler ordered Göring to shift his attacks from the RAF to London, which proved to be a fateful move. In what was known as The Blitz, German bombers rained their bombs down on British civilians, hoping to break British morale and force the British government to the negotiating table. However, all it did was strengthen British resolve to fight, and give the RAF the breathing room it so desperately needed to rest their pilots and rebuild their bases. In what proved to be a stunning tactical blunder, the Blitz raids only continued to deplete the Luftwaffe while bringing them no closer to eliminating the RAF. As a result, Hitler pushed back the launch date for Operation Sea Lion, and eventually abandoned it altogether. In a speech to Parliament on August 20, 1940, as the battle was drawing to a close, Winston Churchill praised the RAF for their effort and sacrifice to protect their homeland:

The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the World War..... Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.

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By the end of the battle on October 31, 1940, the RAF had lost 544 pilots against roughly 2,500 Luftwaffe pilots. More than 40,000 British civilians had been killed. But England would not face the threat invasion again, and for the RAF, and all the defenders and citizens who withstood the German attack, it was indeed their finest hour. (Top photo via RCAF; second photo author unknown)


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July 12, 1980 – The first flight of the McDonnell Douglas KC-10 Extender. In the earliest days of aviation up through WWII, flying long distances was limited by the amount of fuel you could carry on board. The very first instance of aerial refueling occurred in the barnstorming era, when a stuntman strapped a tank of fuel to his back and climbed from one plane to another. One of the earliest attempts at a practical system occurred in 1923 when two Airco DH.4 biplanes transferred fuel via a long hose. But it wasn’t until 1949 that a nonstop around-the-world flight was carried out by a US Air Force Boeing B-50 Superfortress that was refueled in the air three times by bombers that had been converted to KB-50 tankers. Aerial refueling for the Air Force became a standard practice with the arrival of the Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker, but even that aircraft didn’t have the truly global range required for Air Force operations the world over, a lesson learned during operations in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. During the procurement process for a new, long-range tanker, the Air Force realized that the best solution might be found by converting existing commercial airliners for use as refueling aircraft, and the Air Force started an evaluation of the Boeing 747 and McDonnell Douglas DC-10, the Lockheed L-1011 and the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy strategic airlifter. After quickly dismissing the two Lockheed aircraft, the Air Force ultimately chose the DC-10, citing its ability to operate from shorter runways as being a principal factor in the selection. Once the DC-10 was chosen, extensive modifications to the airliner were necessary. But despite those modifications, the KC-10 still retains an 88% commonality with its airliner predecessor. Most of the windows were removed, along with the lower cargo doors, and the McDonnell Douglas Advanced Aerial Refueling Boom (AARB) was added to the rear of the aircraft. This flying boom was a significant upgrade to earlier hose systems, as it allowed the refueler, or “boomer,” to control the refueling probe while the receiving aircraft held station below and behind the KC-10. Still, the Extender retains the probe-and-drogue system used by the US Navy and its NATO allies. Three bladder-type fuel cells were installed below the main cabin floor and, combined with the KC-10's own fuel stores, it can carry more than 356,000 pounds of fuel, nearly twice the load of the KC-135. The Extender has an operational range of 4,400 miles, and its mission can be extended with its own ability to refuel from another aircraft. In addition to its enormous fuel load, the KC-10's cargo hold can also carry up to 170,000 pounds of cargo or hundreds of troops. The Extender has served mostly in the strategic role, refueling large numbers of aircraft on ferry flights or other strategic transport aircraft, and they have proven critical during long-range missions where countries have prohibited overflying of their sovereign territory. The Netherlands also operate two Extenders, and while there was talk in the US of retiring the fleet, appropriations in 2015 mean that the Extender will keep flying for the foreseeable future. (US Air Force photo)


Short Take Off


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July 9, 1991 – Bombardier-Navigator Lt. Keith Gallagher suffers partial ejection from U.S. Navy Grumman KA-6D Intruder. While flying from the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, Gallagher was partially ejected through the canopy of his Grumman KA-6D Intruder (the aerial tanker version of the Navy attack plane) when his ejection seat malfunctioned. As the aircraft flew at 264 mph, Gallagher found himself stuck in the broken canopy, his arms flailing 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 announced the 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. Gallagher suffered paralysis in half of his right arm, and damage to his left shoulder, as well as significant facial injuries. After about 6 months of recovery, he returned to service. You can read a full account of the incident here. (US Navy photo)


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July 10, 2013 – The Northrop Grumman X-47B unmanned combat air vehicle lands aboard USS George Washington (CVN 73). In 2000, the US Navy committed to the development of an Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) and awarded contracts for demonstrator aircraft to Boeing and Northrop Grumman. After its first launch from the USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) on May 14, 2013, the X-47B performed the first autonomous touch-and-go landings three days later and the first arrested carrier landing on July 10. The X-47B also demonstrated autonomous aerial refueling in April of 2015. The X-47 program has finished, and the Navy plans to open the competition for a deployable fleet of Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) aircraft in 2016, with regular operations beginning in 2020. (US Navy photo)


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July 10, 1968 – The first flight of the Mil V-12, a twin-rotor helicopter capable of lifting up to 88,000 pounds and the largest helicopter in the world. After experimenting with a tandem rotor system similar to the Boeing CH-47 Chinook, Mil settled on a transverse system of rotors that eliminates the need for a tail rotor. Power is derived from a pair of Soloviev D-25 turboshaft engines that give the V-12 a top speed of 162 mph. Two aircraft were built, and they set eight world records, four of which still stand today. However, by the time the aircraft was ready for production the Soviet Air Force decided that they no longer needed the gargantuan helicopter and it was never produced. (Photo by Groningen Airport-Eelde via Wikimedia Commons)


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July 10, 1962 – Launch of Telstar 1. The Space Race between the US and the Soviet Union du ring the Cold War began when the Russians launched Sputnik into into Earth orbit on October 4, 1957. The earliest satellites simply relayed electronic signals back to the ground, but Telstar 1 was the first truly utilitarian communications satellite, and the first capable of relaying television pictures, telephone calls and fax images. It also transmitted the first live television images across the Atlantic Ocean. Built by a consortium of telecom companies, Telstar 1 was launched from Cape Canaveral atop a Thor-Delta rocket and beamed its first images the next day. A total of 18 Telstar satellites were launched by 2004, and the last is expected to function for 13 years. (Image via Engineering & Technology Magazine)


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July 10, 1942 – The first flight of the Douglas A-26 Invader, a fast, powerful attack aircraft designed as a successor to the Douglas A-20 Havoc, and one that was unusual for having a single pilot for a plane of its size. The A-26 was powered by a pair of Pratt & Whitney Double Wasp radial engines, featured an laminar flow wing, and was capable of carrying up to 6,000 pounds of bombs. It was produced in two main versions: one with a plexiglass nose housing a Norden bombsight for traditional bombing missions, and a second with a solid nose armed with up to eight .50 caliber machine guns. Later versions mounted an additional six machine guns in the wings, for a total of 14 forward-firing guns. Delivery of the Invader to the Pacific began in August of 1943, then to Europe the following year, where it fought effectively, flying over 11,000 sorties and dropping over 18,000 tons of bombs. After WWII, the Invader saw service in Korea and Vietnam, plus numerous other Cold War conflicts. Almost 2,500 A-26s were produced, and it served as late as 1980 with the Colombian Air Force. (US Air Force photo)


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July 11, 1979 – Skylab re-enters Earth’s atmosphere. Skylab was an orbiting space station that had been launched by NASA on May 14, 1973. The first manned mission to the station launched on May 25, 1973, and was planned primarily to repair damage suffered during the station’s launch. Two subsequent missions were flown to place crews on the station and to carry out scientific experiments in microgravity. Skylab orbited Earth 2,476 times, and the third mission, Skylab 4, set a new record for time in space when the astronauts remained on board for 84 days. NASA planned to use the Space Shuttle, then under development, to boost Skylab to a higher orbit and keep it functioning, but delays in the Shuttle program prohibited that. When Skylab re-entered the atmosphere, parts of the station landed in the Pacific Ocean and on western Australia, but no injuries were reported from falling debris. (NASA photo)


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July 11, 1894 – The birth of Edward “Eddie” Stinson, a pilot and and the founder of an aircraft manufacturing company that bore his name. Stinson was born in Fort Payne, Alabama and learned to fly at the Wright School in Dayton, Ohio. He served as a US Army Air Corps flight instructor during WWI, and later worked as a test pilot for Stout Engineering. In 1925, Stinson teamed with a group of investors to form the Stinson Aircraft Syndicate, which led to the production of a number of successful aircraft designs. Stinson was killed on January 26, 1932 when a flag pole sheared the wing off a prototype Stinson Model R during a landing attempt. At the time of his death, Stinson had logged over 16,000 hours in the air, making him the world’s most experienced pilot. Stinson was 38 years old. (Stinson photo author unknown; Stinson Model R photo via San Diego Air and Space Musuem)


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July 12, 1966 – The first flight of the Northrop M2-F2, the second of three NASA designs to investigate the feasibility of an aircraft with no wings. Without wings, the shape of the aircraft itself, called a lifting body, provides the lift. It was thought that by eliminating a conventional wing you would also eliminate the drag that comes with it. During the 60s and 70s, lifting bodies were a primary area of research into their use as small manned spacecraft. Eventually, the Air Force lost interest in the project, and NASA turned its efforts to the Space Shuttle. The M2-F2 was a development of the earlier M2-F1, and sixteen unpowered glide tests were carried out before the aircraft was modified into the M2-F3 which was capable of supersonic flight. (NASA photo)


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July 12, 1957 – President Dwight Eisenhower becomes the first US president to fly in a helicopter. Today, flying in a helicopter is a routine practice for the US president. But in 1957, helicopters were still relatively new, and not deemed safe enough for presidential travel. With Cold War concerns over the ability to evacuate the president from the White House by road, the Secret Service deemed the helicopter to be the best solution. President Eisenhower made the first presidential flight in a US Air Force Bell 47J Ranger from the White House to the presidential retreat at Camp David. Today, transporting the president by helicopter is an everyday occurrence, and it is now the responsibility of US Marine Corps helicopter squadron HMX-1. (National Air & Space Museum photo)


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July 12, 1929 – The first flight of the Dornier Do X, a huge, 12-engine flying boat built by Claude Dornier and the largest, heaviest, and most powerful flying boat in the world at the time. In order to circumvent the restrictions of the Treaty of Versailles, the Do X was built in Switzerland. It was powered by twelve Curtiss V-1570 Conqueror V-12 engines in a combined push-pull configuration, and had a top speed of 131 mph. The Do X could accommodate up to 100 passengers, and set a world record for its day when it carried 169 passengers and crew, a record that stood for 20 years. However, Dornier had trouble finding customers for his giant flying boat, and only three were ever built. (Deutsches Bundesarchiv photo)


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July 12, 1921 – The death of Harry George Hawker, an Australian aviation pioneer, chief test pilot for Sopwith during WWI, and founder of Hawker Aircraft. Born on January 22, 1889, Hawker began his career as an auto mechanic in England before starting work with Sopwith, where he convinced them to teach him to fly, soloing after just three lessons. Following the liquidation of Sopwith Aircraft in 1920, Hawker teamed with Thomas Sopwith to start a new company, H.G. Hawker Engineering. Harry Hawker died in the crash of his Nieuport Nighthawk, but his company continued. Through a series of acquisitions and mergers it became Hawker Siddeley, though it continued to make aircraft with the Hawker name. These included many of the most important and iconic aircraft of WWII, particularly the Hurricane and Typhoon. (Photo from the George Grantham Bain Collection via Wikimedia Commons)


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July 12, 1910 – The death of Charles Stewart Rolls. Charles Rolls is best known to aviation and automotive history as one half of the famed Rolls-Royce Limited manufacturing company, which he formed with Henry Royce in 1906. But Rolls, born on August 27, 1877, was also a pioneering aviator, first in ballooning then in airplanes, following his purchase of a Wright Flyer Model A in 1909. While not the first to cross the English Channel, Rolls was the first to make the crossing and then return immediately, thus also becoming the first to cross the Channel flying eastward. Sadly, Rolls would achieve another, more infamous first, when he became the first Briton to die in an airplane accident following the crash of his Wright Flyer in 1910. (Rolls photo author unknown; Wright Flyer photo via US Army)


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July 12, 1882 – The birth of Charles Voisin, an early French pioneer of aviation who started his own aircraft manufacturing company with his brother Gabriel called Appareils d’Aviation Les Frères Voisin. The Voisin brothers built airplanes to order for wealthy customers, and used these aircraft to further their understanding of controlled flight. Their 1907 biplane, flown by Henri Farman, made the first heavier-than-air flight in Europe of more than one minute. The aircraft, known as the Voisin-Farman 1, would form the basis of their fledgling company. Charles was killed in an automobile accident on September 26, 1912, but the company would continue under his brother’s leadership, producing aircraft for the French during WWI. (Photos via US Library of Congress)


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