Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from June 17 through June 20.


June 17, 1959 – The first flight of the Dassault Mirage IV. The United States dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 in the hopes that it would hasten the end of WWII, and for a time they had a monopoly on nuclear weapons. But it wasn’t long before the Russians had an operational bomb of their own. They were quickly followed by England, France, and other nations, 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 president Pierre Mendès France decided that France needed its own nuclear arsenal, and they initiated development of a three-pronged nuclear deterrence (Force de frappe, later called Force de dissuasion) that would include land, sea and air assets each capable of carrying out nuclear attacks against the Soviet Union (or other foreign belligerent). Work began on a supersonic aircraft capable of carrying a nuclear weapon and, in 1957, Dassault offered an aircraft that was a substantially enlarged version of their single-engine Mirage IIIA fighter. The new aircraft was powered by two SNECMA Atar afterburning turbojet engines capable of pushing the Mirage IV to a top speed of Mach 2.2. The wing surface was doubled over that of the fighter, and the wing was also 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, and carried three times more fuel than its predecessor, giving it an armed range of 670 miles. Despite the greater fuel capacity, the Mirage IV still had a shorter range than its Mirage III predecessor, and required multiple refuelings 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, as it would not have had sufficient fuel to return, and its home bases would likely have been annihilated.

A Mirage IV performing a reconnaissance mission over Kuwait during the Gulf War of 1991

The Mirage IV was the first element of France’s nuclear triad to enter service, joining the French Air Force in October 1964, with 36 aircraft forming 9 squadrons of 4 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 7 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. (Photo by Mike Freer via Wikimedia Commons; US Air Force photo)

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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 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 diminishing the size of targets that could be detected. 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 in Lockheed’s Skunk Works led by engineer Ben Rich on a technology demonstrator known as the Hopeless Diamond, a nickname derived from the shape of the aircraft, one which 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, showing up on the radar 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.

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The Have Blue technology demonstrator

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 work 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. To shield the hot exhaust from detection, the engines are buried deep within the aircraft, which meant that afterburners could not be used, limiting the Nighthhawk to subsonic speeds. Though given the “F” designation for fighter, the Nighthawk was strictly an attack platform for dropping guided bombs or missiles, and after being revealed to the public in 1988, the F-117 saw extensive action in the 1991 Gulf War, flying the first missions of the war to knock out Iraqi radar sites and eventually flying 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 during NATO operations over Serbia in 1999 after Russian radar operators, using modified radars, discovered they could detect the F-117 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. (US Air Force photos)


US Navy Grumman F6F Hellcat pilot Alexander Vraciu celebrates 6 victories, all scored on June 19, 1944. Vraciu ended the war as the Navy’s 4th highest scoring ace.

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June 19, 1944 – The Battle of the Philippine Sea. The use of the airplane in warfare began in WWI, and it reached its ascendancy in WWII. The Japanese showed the true potential of the carrier-based warplane with its attack on Pearl Harbor, and the ensuing Battle of the Coral Sea and Battle of Midway showed that the airplane had replaced the battleship as the true center of the modern battle group. Midway proved to be a turning point in the Pacific War, with the Japanese advance finally being blunted, as the initiative turned to America and her allies. Even with the loss of four carriers, Japanese naval aviation wasn’t utterly destroyed, though it was severely hobbled. There remained one more epic carrier battle to be fought, the largest carrier battle in history, and it proved to be the last gasp for Japanese naval air power in WWII. In the summer of 1944, American forces launched operations as part of their island hopping campaign to take the Japanese-held islands of Tinian, Saipan and Guam in the Mariana Islands. Despite their depleted forces, the Japanese navy, in an effort to halt the American advance, formed a fleet that included 5 heavy carriers and 4 light carriers, along with 5 battleships, 11 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers and 28 destroyers. On June 16, a US submarine discovered the fleet off the coast of the Philippines as the Japanese turned to face the Americans. To oppose the Japanese fleet, the Americans had Task Force 58, one of the most powerful armadas ever assembled. Under the command of Admiral Marc Mitscher, Task Force 58 included 7 heavy carriers, 8 escort carriers, 7 battleships, 8 heavy cruisers, 13 light cruisers and 69 destroyers. Mitscher divided his fleet into 4 carrier task groups and 1 battleship task group, while the Japanese divided their fleet into 4 groups. Japanese scout planes spotted the American fleet on the morning of June 19, and launched the first attack. However, American radar discovered the planes 50 miles away from the fleet, and American fighters were waiting for them when they arrived. In the ensuing battle, more than 200 Japanese planes were shot down against the loss of only 23 US planes.

A Japanese dive bomber goes down in flames while attacking the escort carrier USS Kitkun Bay (CVE-71)

Meanwhile, US submarines had located the main body of the Japanese fleet, and torpedoed the carrier Taihō and then the carrier Shōkaku, which sank four hours later. The Japanese attacked again, but the planes flew in the wrong direction. Nevertheless, the attackers were detected and annihilated by American fighters. By the end of the battle on June 20, between 300 and 400 Japanese aircraft were destroyed, earning the battle the nickname “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.” Though it might have been possible for the Japanese to replace their aircraft, the losses in pilots was a blow from which they would never recover. Even though Japan still had carriers, they no longer had the men or planes to operate effectively from their decks, and the ships were reduced to the role of a diversionary force 4 months later Battle of Leyte Gulf, which is recognized by some historians as the largest naval battle in history and resulted in a decisive victory the the US and her allies. (US Navy photos)

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June 17, 1986 – The final flight of the Boeing B-47 Stratojet. When 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 5 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. (US Air Force photo)


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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. (Photo author unknown)


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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 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. (Photo by Michael Gilliand via Wikimedia Commons)


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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. (C-32 photo via US Army; Earhart photo author unknown)


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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. (National Archives photo)


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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, becoming 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. (Photos public domain)


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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 looping turn 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. However, 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. (Photos public domain)


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June 19, 2002 – Adventurer Steve Fossett takes off on the first solo balloon circumnavigation of the Earth. Fossett departed from Northam, Western Australia on June 19 in a balloon named Spirit of Freedom, and flew eastward across the Pacific Ocean, over Chile and Argentina, then across the southern Atlantic Ocean to South Africa and then across the southern Indian Ocean, arriving back in Australia on July 4. The flight covered 20,626 miles, and set numerous distance and flight longevity records. Fossett made other world record flights, including the first solo, nonstop circumnavigation of the Earth in the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer. Fossett died in the crash of his private plane on September 3, 2007. (Photo via AirportJournals.com)


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June 20, 1983 – The first flight of the Bombardier Dash 8, the first in a series of twin-turboprop, medium-range airliners that were originally known as the de Havilland Canada (DHC) Dash 8. Developed from the four-engine DHC Dash 7, the Dash 8 is built in four variants capable of accommodating from 39-78 passengers. It entered service in 1984 with the now-defunt NorOntair airline, and was extremely successful as a regional airliner. Despite challenges from newer small regional jets, the lower operating costs of the turboprop engine have allowed the Dash 8 to remain competitive. The Dash 8 remains in production, and nearly 1,200 have been built to date. (Photo via Kentaro Iometo via Wikimedia Commons)


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June 20, 1966 – Sheila Scott completes the first of three circumnavigations of the globe. Scott was a record-setting British aviatrix, and she made her first round-the-world flight in a Piper Comanche 260B, departing from London Heathrow on May 18, having flown approximately 31,000 miles over the course of 34 days and 189 flying hours. She topped that in 1971 with a “world and a half” flight of 34,000 miles, becoming the first person to fly over the North Pole in a single-engine aircraft. Scott was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1968 for her exploits, and died in 1988 at the age of 66. (NASA photo)


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June 20, 1951 – The first flight of the Bell X-5, an aircraft that was inspired by the variable-sweep wing Messerschmitt P.1101 and the first aircraft that was able to change the angle of wing sweep in flight. The X-5 had three settings for the wings, and a full sweep could be accomplished in 30 seconds. However, the aircraft was so unstable that the second prototype was lost in a crash which killed its test pilot. While the X-5 was ultimately a failure, data on swing-wing technology would be used successfully on later production aircraft such as the General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark, the Grumman F-14 Tomcat and the Rockwell B-1 Lancer bomber. (US Air Force photo)


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If you enjoy these Aviation History posts, please let me know in the comments. And if you missed any of the past articles, you can find them all at Planelopnik History. You can also find more stories about aviation and aviators at Wingspan and Planes You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of.

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