Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from June 26 through June 28.
June 26, 1948 – The Berlin Airlift begins. Following the D-Day landings in France on June 6, 1944, Germany found itself squeezed on two fronts. The Allies were methodically pushing eastward on a broad front throughout Europe, while the Russians were racing westward at a breakneck pace to reach the German capital ahead of the Western Allies. Berlin fell to the Russians on May 2, 1945 and, as had been decided at the Yalta Conference held in February of that year, the German capital was divided into four occupation zones. The Russians controlled the eastern quarter of the city, while the remainder was divided between the French, British and Americans. The city itself was deep inside eastern Germany, which was fully controlled by the Russians.
Though the shooting war was over, the Cold War between the Western Bloc (the US and its European allies) and Russia had begun. The fragile wartime alliance between the West and the Soviet Union ended, and both sides sought to influence the political makeup of Europe and the rest of the world through economic and political policies and proxy wars. On June 24, 1948, in an effort to make the city of Berlin entirely its own, Russia cut off the western sectors from the outside world, severing water connections and halting all vehicular and river traffic into or out of the Allied sectors. West Berlin was effectively cut off from the rest of Western Europe, and it became a democratic island inside Communist East Germany.
But while the Russians could block all road, rail and water access to West Berlin, they could not put a roof over it, and the Western allies began the greatest airlift in history. Prior to the blockade, the Russians agreed to let the Western allies use three air corridors from western Germany into Berlin, and these corridors formed the supply routes. Starting haphazardly at first, the operation was taken over by US Brigadier General Joseph Smith, who had commanded Boeing B-29 Superfortresses under General Curtis LeMay during the war. But Smith had no airlift experience, and he was soon replaced by Major Gerneral William Tunner, a veteran of airlift operations over the Himalayas during the fight against Japan. Tunner cobbled together an aerial armada of Douglas C-47 Skytrains and British C-47 Dakotas, Douglas DC-3 airliners, and Douglas C-54 Skymasters and started round-the-clock flights. Directed by radio beacons, the Americans flew loops into Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport, while the British flew a circuit through the RAF airfield at Gatow. Tunner instituted strict rules to streamline the operation, such as requiring IFR landings regardless of weather and the elimination of aircraft stacking while planes awaited landing. If an aircraft missed an approach, the crew was required to return to their starting point, fully laden, and try again. Tunner required air crews to stay with their planes at all times, and meals were brought out to the crews on the tarmac so they could take off immediately after unloading. Citizens of West Berlin pitched in to help unload the planes.
By the end of August 1948, 1,500 flights per day—one landing every minute—delivered more than 5,000 tons of cargo, enough to keep the city fed and powered in spite of the Soviet blockade. And on Easter Sunday, 1949, the airlift managed to deliver 13,000 tons of cargo, including the equivalent of 600 railroad cars of coal. The airlift continued for 11 months, making more than 189,000 flights totaling nearly 600,000 hours of flying and amassing more than 92 million miles. In the face of this herculean effort, the Soviets finally relented and lifted the blockade one minute after midnight on May 12, 1949. West Berlin remained a free city, and it stood as an important symbol of the West’s resolve to fight the spread of Communism in Europe until the reunification of Germany in 1990.
June 26, 1942 – The first flight of the Grumman F6F Hellcat. When the US Navy entered WWII, their primary carrier-based fighter was the Grumman F4F Wildcat, a fighter that, while an all-metal monoplane, was still very much a product of an earlier era of fighters. It was only one generation removed from the Grumman F3F, the last biplane fighter to serve the Navy, and the Wildcat even shared the F3F’s hand-cranked landing gear. While the Wildcat did yeoman’s work in the early days of the war, it was completely outclassed by the excellent Mitsubishi A6M Zero that ruled the skies in the Pacific. Fortunately for the Navy, a successor was waiting in the wings, a fighter that had been undergoing development since 1938, and one that would prove every bit the match for the nimble Zero.
Soon after the Wildcat made its first flight on September 2, 1937, and even before it entered Navy service, Grumman started working on its successor. By June 1941, six months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a prototype was ready for testing. And while the Hellcat bore a significant resemblance to the Wildcat, it was in fact an entirely new aircraft. Gone was the hand-cranked landing gear, replaced by hydraulically actuated struts that folded fully into the wing. The wings were mounted closer to the bottom of the fuselage and could be hydraulically folded back for carrier storage. It was also five feet longer, had a greater wingspan, and outweighed the Wildcat by 3,000 pounds. But most importantly, it had a much more powerful engine.
As development of the Hellcat continued, Grumman got valuable input from pilots who had faced the Zero in combat. As a direct result of those meetings, the Hellcat’s original Wright R-2600 Twin Cyclone radial, which produced 1,700 hp, was replaced with a Pratt & Whitney R-28900 Double Wasp 18-cylinder radial capable of 2,200 hp, the same engine being used in the Vought F4U Corsair and Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. The new power plant gave the Hellcat a top speed of 391 mph compared to the Zero’s 332 mph. While the Zero was designed to be light and agile, it offered little to no protection for the pilot. Grumman, on the other hand, a company that earned its nickname “The Iron Works” for their reputation for building rugged aircraft, gave the Hellcat a bullet-resistant windscreen, 212 pounds of cockpit armor to protect the pilot, and self-sealing fuel tanks, weight increases that were offset by the more powerful engine. The Hellcat’s claws were six .50 caliber Browning AN/M2 machine guns mounted in the wings, and it could carry up to 4,000 pounds of bombs, rockets or torpedoes.
The F6F entered service in 1943, and despite the fact that it was slower than the Corsair, it was better suited to carrier operations. Therefore, the Hellcat became the standard US Navy fighter until the end of the war. When tested against a captured A6M5 Zero, the Hellcat proved to be faster, could outturn the Japanese fighter at higher altitudes, and had a faster roll rate. The Zero was still a better dogfighter at lower altitudes, but American pilots learned to use the Hellcat’s weight and firepower to their advantage in diving attacks on Japanese fighters. The Fleet Air Arm (FAA) of the Royal Navy also flew the Hellcat, first called the Gannet, before switching back to the name Hellcat for simplicity. The 1,200 aircraft flown by the FAA served in Norway, the Mediterranean, and the Far East, but had far fewer opportunities to shoot down enemy fighters than their American counterparts in the Pacific. By the end of the war, Navy and Marine pilots calmed 5,163 victories over Japanese aircraft at a loss of 270 Hellcats, a ratio of 19:1 when taking into account both claimed and confirmed victories. There were no less than 305 pilots who became aces in the F6F.
After the war, Hellcats were used as second-line fighters behind the Grumman F8F Bearcat, and also served as trainers and even as pilotless radio-controlled bombs during the Korean War. A night fighter variant flew for the US Navy until 1954, and the Hellcat also served as the original aircraft for the US Navy’s Blue Angels flight demonstration team when the team was formed in 1946. Grumman turned out more than 12,000 Hellcats in three years of production, and the final Hellcats were retired from service with the Uruguayan Navy in 1960.
June 26, 1974 – The first flight of the Eurocopter AS350 Écureuil (Squirrel), a single-engine light utility and transport helicopter developed by Aérospatiale as a replacement of the Aérospatiale Alouette II. The Alouette’s initial successor, the Gazelle, was a success in the military market, so the Écureuil was directed at the civilian market, and steps were taken to keep the cost of the helicopter as low as possible. The production helicopter is powered by a Turbomeca Arriel 2B turboshaft engine which gives the Écureuil a cruising speed of 152 mph, and the helicopter has capacity for five passengers. Nearly 4,000 have been produced, and the Écureuil is operated all over the world and is particularly popular with civil authorities.
June 26, 1936 – The first flight of the Focke-Wulf Fw 61, a tandem-rotor helicopter that is considered the first practical and functional helicopter. While Igor Sikorsky is known for his groundbreaking work with single-rotor helicopters, the Fw 61 used two counter-rotating, three-bladed rotors to provide lift, while lateral control was achieved by the use of cyclic pitch and asymmetric rotor lift. Torque was controlled through the counter-rotation of the rotors, and a small propeller at the front served only to cool the engine. Two were built, and one was flown famously by Hanna Reitsch inside the Deutschlandhalle in 1938. The Fw 61 also set an unofficial altitude record of 11,234 feet in 1938.
June 27, 1976 – The hijacking of Air France Flight 139. Air France Flight 139, an Airbus A300 (F-BVGG), departed Tel Aviv, Israel carrying 246 passengers and flew to Athens, Greece where hijackers secretly boarded the plane along with other passengers. After departing for Paris, the hijackers took over the plane and flew it first to Libya, then Entebbe, Uganda. The hijackers demanded $5 million and the release of Palestinian militants, many of who were held in Israeli jails. On July 4, following unsuccessful negotiations, Israeli commandos stormed the airport where the hostages were being held and killed the hijackers, along with three hostages who were caught in the crossfire. One commando was killed by Ugandan soldiers as the hostages boarded planes to be flown out of the country.
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