Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from June 15 through June 18.
June 15, 1945 – The first flight of the North American F-82 Twin Mustang. When the airwar against the Japanese Empire began in the early stages of WWII, the only way for the Allies to attack Japanese targets was by flying over the Himalayas from Burma and India. But as the war progressed, the Allies carried out their island hopping campaign to seize Japanese-held islands in the Pacific Ocean, bringing them closer and closer to the Japanese homeland and making it easier for long-range bombers to reach their targets. However, the US still did not have a fighter that was capable of escorting bombers on long over-water missions, some of which could last up to eight hours. Even fighters that proved to be excellent long-range escorts in Europe, such as the Lockheed P-38 Lightning and North American P-51 Mustang, were unable to accompany the bombers on these long flights. And, even if the fighters were able to make the flight, such long missions put an enormous strain on a single pilot. What the US Army Air Forces in the Pacific needed was a fighter with extreme range, but also one with excellent maneuverability, and a second pilot to help with navigation over vast expanses of open ocean.
Beginning in late 1943, North American began working on a fighter with an unrefueled range of 2,000 miles, and they used the remarkable P-51 Mustang as the starting point. North American Design Chief Edgar Schmued began with two P-51H fuselages that had been lengthened behind the cockpit to allow for the installation of additional fuel and other equipment. The fuselages were then connected by a central wing section that housed six .50 caliber machine guns for heavy concentrated fire, while the outer wings were strengthened to carry additional ordnance. The vertical stabilizer was also enlarged to improve single-engine handling. Both cockpits were outfitted with full controls, an arrangement that allowed the two pilots to take turns flying on long missions. A night fighter variant, the F-82F, was fitted with a large radome under the center wing section, and the right cockpit became the radar operator’s station.
The F-82 was originally powered by two Rolls-Royce Merlin V-12 engines, but the Air Force wanted the Twin Mustang to be powered by American engines. So the Merlins were replaced by less powerful Allison V-1710 engines for full production, and the earlier Merlin-powered aircraft were converted to trainers, creating the unique situation where the trainer aircraft were actually faster than the production fighters. The F-82 was finally adopted by the Air Force in the summer of 1945, but when WWII ended soon after, orders were cut drastically and the F-82 entered service too late to see action in the war. With no immediate wartime mission, the true long-range capability of the Twin Mustang was dramatically demonstrated in February 1947 when an F-82B named Betty Jo flew from Hawaii to New York without refueling, covering 5,051 miles and setting a record for piston-engined fighters that still stands.
Though the F-82 was too late to service in WWII, there was still work for it to do. It’s long range made it well-suited to escort early Cold War bombers of the Strategic Air Command, and Twin Mustangs would have been capable of taking off from London for an escort mission to Moscow, with enough fuel for 30 minutes of loiter time over the target and a return flight to England. The F-82 was also one of the first American fighters to see action in the skies over Korea, and was responsible for downing the first three enemy aircraft of the war. The Twin Mustang was retired in 1953 after production of 272 aircraft. Only five F-82s survived scrap yard, and all but one of those are on display in museums or undergoing restoration. After a 10-year restoration, one Twin Mustang, an exceedingly rare preproduction XP-82 prototype, took its first post-restoration flight on January 28, 2019.
June 15, 1943 – The first flight of the Arado Ar 234. In many ways, German military technology was far ahead of the Allied powers, particularly in the area of jet-powered aircraft. The British eventually gained a measure of parity when they deployed the turbojet-powered Gloster Meteor, but it was the Germans who fielded the world’s first operational jet fighter in the Messerschmitt Me 262, and also the world’s first operational jet-powered bomber, the Arado Ar 234 Blitz.
The history of the Blitz (Lightning) began in 1940, when the German Ministry of Aviation (Reichsluftfahrtministerium, or RLM) requested designs for a high-speed, jet-powered reconnaissance aircraft that would have a range of 1,340 miles. Arado Flugzeugwerke was the only company to respond, and they offered their E.370 project. Though the range was less than what the RLM requested, the Ministry was still impressed with the design and ordered two prototypes. The Blitz featured a high, straight wing with one engine suspended underneath each wing. Similar to the Heinkel He 111, the cockpit was placed directly at the front end of the fuselage, providing a sleek nose but also offering the pilot no rearward visibility. Initial designs had rearward-firing defensive machine guns that were aimed by a periscope in the cockpit, but the system was considered useless in practice and the guns were omitted from production aircraft. The periscope, however, was retained.
Original plans also called for the Ar 234 to take off from a three-wheeled trolley which was jettisoned after take off. After returning to base, the aircraft would land on retractable skids. This allowed the entire fuselage to be filled with fuel, but it also meant that returning bombers would be strewn around the airfield with no easy way to move them. Therefore, production aircraft were fitted with a traditional tricycle landing gear at the sacrifice of fuel capacity. With the fuselage crammed with fuel and landing gear, the Blitz had enough room left over for one bomb recessed under the fuselage, or one smaller bomb under each wing. Though the airframe was ready by the end of 1941, problems in development of the Jukers Jumo 004 engines delayed the first flight until July of 1943. Later models replaced the Jumo, which was needed for the Me 262 jet fighter, with four BMW 003 engines. This increased the power and speed, but only a handful were built before the war ended.
The Blitz finally entered service in 1944 as the world’s first operational jet bomber and, with a maximum speed of 459 mph, the Blitz outpaced all Allied piston-powered fighters of the time. It’s first combat mission was a reconnaissance flight over the Normandy beachheads in August of 1944, flying unmolested over the Allied positions and gaining valuable information on the landings. The Ar 234 also participated in attacks on the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen, where the Allies had secured a crossing of the Rhine. However, the attacks were ineffective, and a number of bombers were lost to antiaircraft fire. Though the Ar 234 was used sparingly, it proved nearly impossible to intercept, and it was the last Luftwaffe aircraft to fly over England during the war. Fortunately for the Allies, only 210 aircraft were produced and, like the Me 262, the Ar 234 came too late to have a significant impact on the outcome of the war.
June 17, 1959 – The first flight of the Dassault Mirage IV. The world entered the atomic age in 1945 when the United States dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the hopes that it would hasten the end of WWII. For a time, the US had a monopoly on nuclear weapons, but it wasn’t long before the Russians fielded an operational bomb of their own in 1949. The Soviets were quickly followed by England. But in the days before the first intercontinental ballistic missile the only way to deliver a nuclear bomb to an enemy target was with a deep penetration bomber, one that could fly high and fast into enemy territory in the hopes of evading enemy interceptors and antiaircraft fire.
Beginning in 1954, French Prime Minister Pierre Mendès France decided that France needed its own nuclear arsenal to put it on par with the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britan. France initiated development of a three-pronged nuclear deterrence (Force de frappe, later called Force de dissuasion) that would ultimately include land, sea and air assets each capable of carrying out nuclear attacks against the Soviet Union (or other foreign belligerents, presumably). In 1957, work began on a supersonic bomber capable of carrying a nuclear weapon, and Dassault offered the Mirage IV, which was a substantially enlarged version of their single-engine Mirage IIIA fighter. Where the Mirage III was powered by a single engine, the Mirage IV was powered by two SNECMA Atar afterburning turbojets capable of pushing the bomber to a top speed of Mach 2.2. The wing surface was doubled over that of the fighter, and the wing was also made much thinner than the Mirage III for high-speed performance. It could be armed with either a single free-fall nuclear bomb, a single nuclear missile, or 16 conventional bombs. Though Mirage IV carried three times more fuel than its predecessor, its armed range of 670 miles was still less than the Mirage III, and would have required multiple refuelings in the event that it had to reach deep inside the Soviet Union. And, if the nuclear mission had to be carried out, it would have been a one-way trip. The aircraft would not have had sufficient fuel to return, and its home bases would likely have been annihilated.
When the Mirage IV entered service in October 1964, it formed the first element of France’s nuclear triad, with 36 aircraft forming nine squadrons of four aircraft each. To carry out their missions, the Mirages worked in pairs, with one aircraft carrying a nuclear weapon while the other served as a tanker to refuel the attack aircraft. At the height of operations, there were always at least 12 aircraft in the air, with 12 more on the ground ready to deploy in four minutes should the need arise. The other twelve could be readied within 45 minutes. For seven years, the Mirage IV was France’s only means of delivering a nuclear weapon, as the land and sea components of the Force de dissuassion were not available until 1971. Dassault produced a total of 62 aircraft, and the Mirage IV served in the nuclear deterrence role until it was superseded by strategic nuclear missiles. The bomber variants were retired in 1996, though the reconnaissance versions served until 2005.
June 18, 1981 – The first flight of the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk. Though the Nighthawk is very much a product of 20th century technology, the radar detection it was meant to avoid traces its history back to a time 100 years earlier. In 1886, German physicist Heinrich Hertz (for whom the eponymous measure of frequency is named) discovered that radio waves could be reflected back from solid objects and, by 1904, another German, the inventor Christian Hülsmeyer, discovered the ability to use radio waves to detect metal objects. By WWII, radar (which is actually an acronym for radio detection and ranging) was used by the Royal Air Force to detect incoming German bombers, and radars were installed on aircraft to direct bombers to targets and to create the first night fighters. Following the war, development of radar technology made the sets ever more powerful, increasing the range and making possible the detection of ever smaller targets. But what if you could make an aircraft that was invisible to radar, or at least one that had a radar cross-section (RCS) so small that a large aircraft appeared the size of a small bird? While not truly invisible, it would be impossible to detect the aircraft out of all the other normal clutter on a radar screen.
The idea that an aircraft might be made nearly invisible to radar was first proposed by Russian mathematician Pyotr Ufimtsev in 1964, though the shapes necessary rendered the concept impossible at the time because the aircraft would be unflyable. It wasn’t until fly-by-wire flight control computers became more sophisticated that the idea could finally become a reality. The Nighthawk program began with work led by engineer Ben Rich at Lockheed’s Skunk Works on a technology demonstrator known as the Hopeless Diamond, a nickname derived from the shape of the aircraft. It was hopeless because nobody believed would ever fly. On paper, Lockheed engineers believed that the new design would be 1,000 times less visible than any other aircraft ever created at Lockheed, and would show up on a radar screen as an object about the size of a marble. In 1976, the Air Force awarded a contract to develop the Have Blue project, the stealth demonstrator that proved the concept and eventually led to development of the F-117 Nighthawk.
The Nighthawk is instantly recognizable by its faceted shape, a series of flat surfaces that never join at a right angle. This myriad of differently angled flat surfaces works to reflect radar energy away from, rather than back to, the radar receiver. Special radar-absorbent coatings are also used to keep the radar signals from bouncing off the aircraft. But radar isn’t the only way to track an aircraft. The heat signature from jet engines is also easily detectable, so the Nighthawk’s engines are buried deep within the aircraft. This placement, however, ruled out the use of afterburners, which limited the Nighthhawk to subsonic speeds. The F-117 also relied on redundant, fly-by-wire flight controls that make thousands of corrections per second. Without this system, the aircraft would simply tumble out of control.
Though given the “F” designation for fighter, the Nighthawk was strictly an attack platform for dropping guided bombs or missiles, and has no gun, either internal or external. After being revealed to the public in 1988, the F-117 saw made its combat debut in 1989 during the US invasion of Panama. Nighthawks then saw extensive action in the 1991 Gulf War, where they flew the first missions of the war to knock out Iraqi radar sites and eventually took part in nearly 1,400 sorties. Though a number of Nighthawks have been lost to accidents, only one was ever lost in combat when it was shot down in 1999 during NATO operations over Serbia. Despite the F-117's stealthy design, Russian radar operators, using modified radars, discovered they could detect the Nighthawk when its landing gear or bomb bay doors were open. The plane came down relatively intact, and the Serbians invited the Russians and Chinese to inspect the wreckage and gain valuable information on American stealth technology. Lockheed produced a total of 64 Nighthawks, and the F-117 was officially retired in 2008. However, some military observers have reported continuing flights of the F-117 over the US Air Force’s super-secret testing site at Groom Lake in Nevada, popularly known as Area 51. The reason for these flights remains unclear.
June 15, 1936 – The first flight of the Vickers Wellington, a twin-engine long-range strategic medium bomber designed in the 1930s to provide the RAF with a modern high-performance bomber. The Wellington was designed using the geodetic construction developed by Barnes Wallis that consisted of duralumin beams formed into a lattice then covered with fabric and dope. The construction technique gave the Wellington remarkable strength, and maintained integrity even when entire sections of the lattice were destroyed. Wellingtons carried out the first RAF bombing missions of WWII, and the bomber was eventually converted to a night bomber and maritime patrol aircraft. The Wellington was the only British bomber to be produced continuously throughout the war, and Vickers built 11,461 Wellingtons before production ended in 1945. The Wellington was retired in 1953.
June 15, 1936 – The first flight of the Westland Lysander, a high-wing single-engine aircraft originally designed for the roles of liaison and co-operation (delivering messages and spotting for artillery) for the British army. Though soon rendered obsolete in the co-operation role, the Lysander’s excellent short takeoff and landing capabilities made it particularly well-suited for clandestine operations behind enemy lines, and it was often used to insert or extract Allied agents and to support the French Resistance during the German occupation of France. The Lysander also served as a target tug, and was widely exported to British allies around the world. Nearly 1,800 were produced before the type was retired by the British in 1946.
June 15, 1916 – The first flight of the Boeing Model 1, a single-engine biplane seaplane and the first aircraft designed by William Boeing. Known also as the B&W Seaplane in recognition of its co-designer Lt. Conrad Westervelt, the Model 1 was a traditional wood frame construction braced by wire, and it resembled the Martin trainer owned by Boeing, though Boeing’s airplane had improved pontoons and a more powerful engine. Two aircraft were built and offered to the US Navy and, when the Navy chose not to adopt them, they were sold to the New Zealand Flying School, where they set a New Zealand altitude record of 6,500 feet. The aircraft, named Bluebill and Mallard, also became the first airmail planes in New Zealand.
June 16, 1984 – The flight of the first all-female commercial airline flight crew. When Emily Warner was hired by Frontier Airlines in 1973, she was the only woman working as a pilot for a major US airline and, in 1976, the first to be promoted to captain. In the five years following her hire, the number of female pilots rose to 300. By chance, Warner’s name appeared on the pilot rotation for Flight 244, Boeing 737 service from Dever, Colorado to Lexington, Kentucky, paired Warner with first officer Barbara Cook. The flight marked the first time that an airliner cockpit was crewed by two women.
June 16, 1963 – Valentina Tereshkova becomes the first woman to fly in space. The Soviet Union scored a significant propaganda victory when it put Yuri Gagarin into space in 1961, just three weeks ahead of American Alan Shepherd. To follow that feat, the Soviets thought they could score another victory by being the first to put a woman into space. Valentina Tereshkova, one of five female cosmonauts, launched onboard Vostok 6 and spent nearly three days in space, completing 48 orbits of the Earth. It would be 20 years before Sally Ride became the first American woman in space (and third woman overall) when she launched onboard the Space Shuttle Challenger, just two days after the 20th anniversary of Tereshkova’s launch.
June 16, 1954 – The first flight of the Lockheed XFV, an experimental aircraft developed by Lockheed in an attempt to provide a fighter aircraft that could operate from the afterdecks of conventional warships. The XFV was designed to take off from a vertical position, transition to horizontal flight, then transition back to vertical and land on its tail. For testing, the XFV was fitted with long landing gear for a traditional horizontal take off, and while some transitions from level to vertical flight and hovering were undertaken, the XFV never took off vertically, due in large part to its underpowered engine. Only one XFV was completed before the project was canceled in 1955.
June 17, 1986 – The final flight of the Boeing B-47 Stratojet. After the final Boeing B-47 Stratojet (52-0166) was restored to flying status for a one-time ferry flight from Naval Weapons Center China Lake to Castle Air Force Base in California for museum display, it marked the end of one of the most influential designs of the early jet era. Following a 1944 US Air Force request for a new jet-powered bomber, the B-47 entered service with the Strategic Air Command in 1951, and by 1956 there were 28 wings of B-47 bombers and five wings of RB-47 reconnaissance variants, with many staged at forward bases as part of America’s nuclear deterrence policy. Though the Stratojet never saw combat, it remained the mainstay of SAC’s bomber force into the 1960s. Over 2,000 were produced, and the EB-47E electronic countermeasures variant served until 1977.
June 17, 1961 – The first flight of the HAL HF-24 Marut (Spirit of the Tempest), a twin-engine fighter bomber designed by former Focke-Wulf designer Kurt Tank and the first jet aircraft developed and built in India. Though designed for Mach 2 flight, the lack of a sufficiently powerful engine meant that the Marut could barely reach Mach 1, and following the successful detonation of India’s first nuclear bomb, import restrictions prevented more powerful engines from being fitted. The Marut did see some action as a ground attack aircraft, and during the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971, an Indian pilot flying an HF-24 claimed a victory over a Pakistani North American F-86 Sabre. A total of 147 Maruts were built, and the type was retired in 1985.
June 17, 1955 – The first flight of the Tupolev Tu-104, (NATO reporting name Camel), the world’s first successful jet-powered airliner. Though the de Havilland Comet had flown first, the Comet was withdrawn from service in 1954 due to a series of fatal crashes and did not return to service until 1958. Tupolev based the Tu-1o4 on the Tu-16 bomber, and when the Tu-104 arrived in London in 1956 it caused much consternation in the West because nobody believed that the Soviets had the technology to produce a modern airliner. The Tu-104 entered service with Czechoslovak Airlines in 1957, and while it had a safety record comparable to other airliners of the time, a series of crashes led to its retirement on commercial routes in 1979, and it was removed from military service by 1980.
June 17, 1928 – Amelia Earhart becomes the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. Though best known for her disappearance while attempting a circumnavigation of the globe in 1937, Earhart made headlines in 1928 as the first woman to cross the Atlantic Ocean in an airplane, though she did so as a passenger. In response to Charles Lindbergh’s famous crossing the previous year, Earhart accompanied pilot Wilmer Stutz and copilot/mechanic Louis Gordon on a 22-hour flight from Newfoundland eastward to Wales flying a Fokker F.VII trimotor. Since the flight was made on instruments, Earhart never did any flying during the trip, though on landing, she did tell an interviewer, “...maybe someday I’ll try it alone.” Earhart made her own solo Atlantic crossing in 1932.
June 18, 1983 – Sally Ride becomes the first American woman to fly in space. Ride joined NASA in 1978 and went to space in 1983 as a Mission Specialist on board Space Shuttle Challenger on mission STS-7, 20 years after the first woman in space, cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova. At age 32, Ride was also the youngest American and the first LGBT astronaut to fly in space. She went to space a second time the following year, again on Challenger, as a Mission Specialist on ST-41-G. Ride left NASA in 1987, but served on the investigation committees into the Challenger and Columbia disasters. After teaching physics at the University of California, San Diego, Ride died of pancreatic cancer in 2012 at age 61.
June 18, 1928 – Explorer Roald Amundsen and his crew disappear in the Arctic. Roald Amundsen was a famed explorer of the Earth’s polar regions and became the first to reach the South Pole in 1911. On May 25, 1928 the airship Italia crashed in the Arctic Ocean while flying around the North Pole, and Amundsen and his crew of five left Tromsø, Norway in a Latham 47 floatplane to search for survivors. Flying across the Barents Sea, the aircraft disappeared without a trace, though two months later a piece of a float was found washed ashore, then three months later the gas tank washed ashore. The bodies of Amundsen and his crew were never found.
June 18, 1916 – The death of Max Immelmann. Immelmann was the first German ace of WWI, and the first to be awarded the Pour le Mérite, one of the highest awards of the Kingdom of Prussia. He is credited with the creation of the turning maneuver that bears his name, and had scored 15 victories by the time of his death. Immelmann was one of the first to make use of the interrupter gear developed by Anthony Fokker which allowed the pilot to fire directly through the arc of the fighter’s propeller. Ironically, Immelmann’s death resulted from a malfunction of the device, when he shot away the propeller of his Fokker E.III Eindecker monoplane and crashed.
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