Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from June 8 through June 11.
June 8, 1966 – The crash of the second North American XB-70 Valkyrie prototype. Accidents during the development and testing of new aircraft aren’t necessarily inevitable, but all test pilots know that they are a distinct possibility. When tragic mishaps occur in the normal testing process, the understanding that test work is inherently dangerous makes accidents understandable, and perhaps even acceptable. However, when a deadly accident comes during a flight that has nothing to do with the testing program of a new aircraft, it can be a bitter pill to swallow. Such was the case with the loss of the second XB-70 Valkyrie prototype, a high-flying supersonic bomber designed to carry out nuclear strikes deep within the Soviet Union.
The story of the Valkyrie goes back to 1955, when the US Air Force issued a requirement for a new bomber that would combine the payload capacity of the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress with the supersonic speed of the Convair B-58 Hustler. North American responded with its radical XB-70, a bomber that could reach Mach 3 while flying at more than 77,000 feet. But advances in surface-to-air missiles soon put the entire project in doubt. Air Force doctrine changed from high altitude supersonic bombing to low altitude penetration of enemy airspace, which meant that the Valkyrie would have to be flown at lower levels, where it was barely faster than the B-52, and with a reduced payload. When the first ICBM installation became operational in Russia in 1959, the emphasis shifted from the nuclear bomber to the nuclear-tipped missile, and the giant XB-70 became an anachronism, a bomber for an earlier age. The Valkyrie project soon became a Cold War era political football, the stuff of campaign promises and political bargaining, before the project was finally canceled in 1961.
But the two XB-70 prototypes remained valuable research assets, and on June 8, 1966, engine manufacturer General Electric asked the Air Force to stage a photo flight with the second XB-70 (20207) and four other GE-powered aircraft: a McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, a Northrop F-5 Freedom Fighter, a Northrop T-38 Talon, and a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter. As the cameras rolled and chase planes snapped photos, the five aircraft flew in close formation, with the Valkyrie in the lead and the other aircraft in echelon off each wing. Without warning, the Starfighter, piloted by NASA Chief Test Pilot Joe Walker and flying just off the XB-70's starboard wing, collided with the Valkyrie and then rolled inverted across the top of the huge bomber. The careening Starfighter destroyed both of the Valkyrie’s rudders before striking and damaging the port wing. The F-104 broke up in the air, killing Walker, while the Valkyrie, without its rudders, flew on briefly before the crew lost control and the plane rolled over and headed earthward. Alvin White, the XB-70's pilot, managed to eject, though he suffered serious injuries, including a crushed arm caused when the clamshell escape pod, which had been designed to protect the pilot during high-speed ejection, closed on him. Co-pilot Carl Cross never initiated the ejection sequence and rode the aircraft into the ground.
The investigation concluded that due to the XB-70's tremendous width at the back and long narrow fuselage it would have been difficult for Walker in his F-104 to maintain his position off the Valkyrie’s wing without proper sight cues. Once the two aircraft collided, the wake vortices from XB-70's wingtip likely caused the Starfighter to roll over the top of the Valkyrie. Despite the accident, the remaining XB-70 continued its research duties for three more years, until it was retired and flown to the National Museum of the United States Air Force in 1969 where it is currently on display.
June 9, 1974 – The first flight of the Northrop YF-17. When the first dedicated fighter aircraft took to the skies in WWI, they were relatively small and simple affairs. Powerful and nimble, fighters were designed to duke it out one-on-one in the skies over the battlefield, where agility and speed could mean the difference between life and death. During WWII, fighters started getting larger and more complex, as did the engines, but with the advent of the jet engine at the end of the war, and then during the 1950s and 1960s, fighters started getting still bigger and heavier to accommodate larger engines, greater weapons loads, and more complex onboard radars. Aircraft that were once just fighters were now becoming multi-role aircraft that could dogfight as well as carry missiles and bombs for ground attack and in all weather conditions. And not only were the fighters getting bigger, the price tags were also growing at an alarming rate.
In an attempt to reverse that trend, the US Air Force initiated the Lightweight Fighter program (LWF) in 1972 to encourage the development of a simple and inexpensive fighter that would still be effective in the modern era. The LWF was limited to a weight of 20,000 pounds and was expected to provide speeds of up to Mach 1.6 at 40,000 feet. The Northrop Corporation already had considerable experience building low-cost fighters, having won the International Fighter Aircraft competition in 1970 with their F-5 Freedom Fighter, an aircraft that was designed to provide America’s allies with an inexpensive yet modern fighter. And it was the F-5 that formed the basis for Northrop’s entry into the LWF competition.
The YF-17 began as an internal development of the Freedom Fighter, called the N-300, which featured a lengthened fuselage, leading-edge wing root extensions (LERX), twin vertical stabilizers canted outward, and more powerful engines. As that design matured into the P-530 and P-600, the wing was moved to a mid-fuselage position, and the leading-edge extensions were lengthened further until they reached the cockpit, giving the new fighter its characteristic “cobra hood” shape and inspiring its unofficial Cobra nickname. In a carryover from the F-5, the YF-17 was also powered by two engines, in this case General Electric YJ101 afterburning turbofans. For ease of maintenance, the design allowed for the engines to be lowered directly from the aircraft without requiring disassembly of the empennage. The YF-17 also supported partial fly-by-wire control surfaces.
The YF-17 was entered into the LWF competition following its roll out on April 4, 1974, and its four competitors were quickly reduced to just one, the single-engine General Dynamics YF-16. Though the two fighters both performed well, the new General Electric turbofans fitted in the Cobra were never able to deliver full rated power, hampering the YF-17's speed performance over its rival. But top speed was not the only reason that the Cobra eventually lost out to the YF-16, which ultimately became the F-16 Fighting Falcon. The Air Force cited the YF-16's lower operating costs, greater range, and better acceleration and maneuverability. The YF-16 also shared the same Pratt & Whitney F100 turbofan that was currently being used by the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle, and that commonality appealed to the Air Force for its significant cost saving over development and maintenance of an entirely new power plant.
Despite the loss of the LWF competition, it was not the end of the Cobra. In an industry where second chances are rare, the US Navy, who had a preference for fighters with two engines, selected the YF-17 in 1974 as the winner of their Air Combat Fighter competition which was initiated to find a replacement for the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk and LTV A-7 Corsair II, as well as the remaining McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom IIs. Northrop partnered with McDonnell Douglas, who had extensive experience designing carrier-based aircraft, and developed the Cobra into the multirole McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet, which formed the backbone of the US Navy fighter fleet from its introduction in 1983 to its withdrawal from frontline service in 2018. The two YF-17 prototypes are on display at the Western Museum of Flight in California and Battleship Memorial Park in Alabama.
June 11, 1926 – The first flight of the Ford Trimotor. For most people, Henry Ford is a name synonymous with automobiles, interchangeable parts, and the assembly line. But back in the 1920s, Ford made a brief foray into aircraft manufacturing when he joined a group of investors in the acquisition of the Stout Metal Airplane Company in 1925. The purchase netted Ford not only the company’s assets, but also Stout’s intellectual property, including designs for an aircraft that previous owner, William Stout, had been working on. Stout had been influenced by the pioneering work of Hugo Junkers in the construction of all-metal aircraft in Germany, as well as three-engined aircraft designed by Anthony Fokker.
Stout had previously developed the single-engine Stout 2-AT Pullman, which achieved a certain amount of success. It’s successor, however, the ungainly 3-AT trimotor, the first all-metal aircraft to be certified in the US, was an unmitigated disaster. In fact, when Stout’s chief test pilot landed after the 3-AT’s maiden flight he refused to fly it again. So when a fire destroyed one of Stout’s hangars, and the 3-AT along with it, Ford used the opportunity to make a fresh start on the trimotor. The first order of business was the removal of William Stout from the design team.
The new aircraft was called the 4-AT, and it very closely resembled the Fokker F.VII trimotor, though the Fokker design used far less metal in its construction. The 4-AT also copied Junkers’ wing design, as well as the corrugated metal skin that Junkers had pioneered, which prompted Junkers to sue Ford for patent infringement. Junkers prevailed, and Ford was prevented from marketing his aircraft in Europe. The original Trimotor was powered by three Wright R-790 Whirlwind 9-cylinder radial engines that gave it a maximum speed of 132 mph and a range of 570 miles. Later variants received a trio of more powerful Pratt & Whitney R-1340 Wasp radials. And, in much the same way that the Model T had a profound impact on the sale of motor cars in the US, the Trimotor, with accommodation for eight passengers, had an immediate impact on civilian air transport in the US.
Shortly after the arrival of the Trimotor, Transcontinental Air Transport (which eventually became TWA) was founded by financier Clement Keys. On July 7, 1929, TAT inaugurated transcontinental service from New York to Los Angeles with passengers making the 51-hour journey by alternating between rail and air transportation. A ticket for this service cost $338, which would be over $3,800 in today’s dollars. Trimotors were also flown by Pan American Airways to Cuba and other destinations in Central and South America. But the Trimotor was not only used for passenger flights. It set numerous distance records, and US Navy Commander Richard Byrd, with pilot Bernt Balchen, made the first flight over the geographic South Pole in 1937 while flying a Trimotor. The aircraft’s rugged construction also made it a popular cargo aircraft.
Rapid advances in aircraft design and technology quickly surpassed the Trimotor and Ford left the airplane business, though his company did produce aircraft under license during WWII. William Stout purchased the rights to the Trimotor in 1954, hoping to modernize the design and to regain a foothold in the aviation industry. But his Stout Bushmaster 2000 was unable to match the performance of more modern aircraft, and only two were built. Even though the Trimotor’s heyday as an airliner was relatively brief, it would fly into the 1960s as a rugged and dependable cargo aircraft, and a handful remain flying to this day, taking passengers on a flight back to the Golden Age of aviation.
June 8, 1995 – US Air Force Capt. Scott O’Grady is rescued in Bosnia after six days in hostile territory. During the Bosnian War (1992-1995) which followed the breakup of Yugoslavia, air forces of the United Nations carried out Operation Deny Flight to police a no-fly zone over Bosnia and Herzegovina in an effort to stem the killing of civilians and stop the ethnic cleansing that eventually claimed as many as 7,000 civilians. While on patrol, Capt. O’Grady, flying an F-16C Fighting Falcon, was struck by a Bosnian Serb army 2K12 Kub surface-to-air missile and was forced to eject over Bosnian Serb territory. Using lessons learned during survival training such as eating leaves and capturing rainwater, O’Grady eluded capture for six days before contacting USAF pilots on his rescue radio. A force of 51 US Marines launched from USS Kearsarge, protected by USMC Harriers and AH-1W SuperCobra gunships located and rescued O’Grady without firing a shot. O’Grady received a Bronze Star and Purple Heart and retired from the Air Force in 2001.
January 8, 1967 – Israeli jets and torpedo boats attack the American reconnaissance ship USS Liberty. USS Liberty (AGTR-5) was a Belmont-class technical research ship (spy ship) that was sent to the Mediterranean Sea in 1967 to monitor increasing tensions between Israel and a coalition of Arab nations. When the Six-Day War broke out on June 5, 1967, Liberty was in international waters off the Sinai Peninsula when she was attacked by Israeli jets and torpedo boats who later claimed to have mistaken her for an Egyptian ship. Though Liberty’s captain had requested a US destroyer escort before the attack, the request was denied because the ship was clearly marked as a US vessel, and radio messages instructing Liberty to move farther away from the area were not received until after the attack. Thirty-three crew members died in the attack, along with one civilian. The Israeli government officially apologized and paid $7 million to the families of the victims, and later paid an additional $6 million for the damage to the ship.
June 8, 1959 – The delivery of the first Missile Mail. The idea to deliver mail by some sort of projectile goes all the way back to 1810, when author Heinrich von Kleist first suggested using rockets and artillery batteries to deliver mail. In 1959, the US Postal Service experimented with using a Regulus cruise missile launched from the US Navy submarine USS Barbero (SS-317), with the missile’s normal nuclear payload replaced by post office mail containers. The mail reached its intended target of Naval Station Mayport, and the USPS went as far as creating a post office station onboard Barbero. Despite the successful test, the high cost made it impractical, and the service was mainly used as a promotion for the Post Office, and missile practice for the US Navy and Air Force.
June 8, 1959 – The first unpowered flight of the North American X-15, a rocket-powered hypersonic research aircraft developed by the US Air Force and NASA to explore flights at extreme speed and altitude. Considered the world’s first operational spaceplane, the X-15 carried out 199 test flights, and Air Force pilots who exceeded 50 miles of altitude were awarded astronaut wings. Civilian pilots did not receive their astronaut wings until 2005. Three X-15s were built, and the spaceplane still holds the world record for the highest speed ever attained by a manned, powered aircraft when Pete Knight flew at Mach 6.72 (4,519 mph) on October 3, 1967. The record for highest altitude was set by Joseph Walker when he flew the X-15 to 67 miles above the Earth in 1963. The X-15 was retired in 1968.
June 8, 1940 – The sinking of Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Glorious. Glorious was commissioned in January 1917, the second of the Courageous-class battlecruisers. During the late 1920s, she was rebuilt as an aircraft carrier, and spent most of the period before WWII patrolling the Mediterranean Sea. After the outbreak of the war, Glorious took part in the hunt for the German cruiser Admiral Graf Spee in the Indian Ocean, and was then sent to support British operations in Norway. While ferrying aircraft to Norwegian land bases, Glorious and her escort destroyers, HMS Ardent and HMS Acasta, came under attack by the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, which had not been spotted because Glorious had no aircraft aloft, nor did they have anybody manning the crow’s nest. In less than two hours of bombardment, Glorious sank with the loss of more than 1,200 men, along with 160 from Acasta and 152 from Ardent. Only 42 survived.
June 9, 1944 – The first flight of the Avro Lincoln, a large, four-engine heavy strategic bomber and the last piston-powered bomber to serve the Royal Air Force. The Lincoln was developed from the Avro Lancaster and entered service in 1945. Though it was built to carry out bombing missions against the Japanese homeland, it came too late to see service in WWII. However, it did serve in the Malayan Emergency beginning in 1948, and the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya which began in 1952. The Lincoln also saw extensive service with the Royal Australian Air Force and the Argentine Air Force, and was eventually retired from RAF service in 1963 in favor of the English Electric Canberra and the subsequent V-force bombers. The Lincoln also served as the basis for the Avro Shackleton maritime patrol aircraft and the Avro Tudor airliner. A total of 624 were produced, and the Lincoln was finally retired by Argentina in 1967.
June 9, 1928 – Charles Kingsford Smith and his crew complete the first flight across the Pacific Ocean. Kingsford Smith and his 4-man crew, flying in a Fokker F.VII Trimotor named Southern Cross, departed Oakland, California on May 31, 1928 bound for Australia, with planned refueling tops in Hawaii and Fiji. The third leg of their flight took them to Brisbane after a total flying distance of 7,187 miles. Kingsford Smith followed that feat with a nighttime crossing of the Tasman Sea from Australia to New Zealand, as well as a westward flight across the Atlantic Ocean from Ireland to Newfoundland in 1930. In 1935, Kingsford Smith disappeared during a flight from India to Singapore while attempting to break a speed record for the voyage. The Southern Cross had been sold in 1931, and the wreckage of the aircraft is now displayed at the Queensland Museum.
June 10, 1990 – British Airways Flight 5390 experiences explosive decompression, partially ejecting the airliner’s captain. During a routine flight from Birmingham, England to Málaga, Spain, the cockpit window of the British Aircraft Corporation One-Eleven (G-BJRT) separated from the fuselage at 17,000 feet. Captain Tim Lancaster was pulled half way out of the aircraft, and would have been ejected entirely had his legs not snagged on the control column. A flight attendant quickly grabbed the captain’s belt to keep him from being completely sucked out of the aircraft. Inside the cockpit, the crew could see Lancaster being pummeled against the side of the aircraft, and they were certain he was dead. But upon landing they found that he was alive, though he suffered frostbite, bruising and fractures to his arm and hand. Flight attendant Nigel Ogden also suffered frostbite. Lancaster returned to work just five months after the incident. An investigation determined that maintenance crews had used incorrect bolts to fit a replacement windscreen.
June 10, 1989 – Capt. Jacquelyn Parker graduates from the US Air Force Test Pilot School, becoming the first female USAF test pilot. Parker was the youngest student to attend the University of Central Florida at age 14, and its youngest graduate at age 17. Too young to join the Air Force, Parker began work as an intern at NASA and became their youngest full-fledged mission controller at age 18. After joining the Air Force, Parker became the first female instructor on the Northrop T-38 Talon and the first woman qualified to fly the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon. She is also a two-time winner of the Kitty Hawk Award for achievements in the field of aviation. Parker has accumulated over 3,000 hours flying more than 35 different aircraft, including the General Dynamics F-111, McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, Lockheed C-141 Starlifter, Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker and the Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk.
June 10, 1967 – The first flight of the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-23 (NATO reporting name Flogger), a third-generation fighter which, in spite of its variable-sweep wing, can be considered roughly analogous in mission to the earlier McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II. The Flogger was the first Soviet fighter designed with look down/shoot down radar capable of picking out a target below the radar’s horizon and against the clutter of the ground beneath. It was also the first Soviet fighter to be armed with beyond visual range missiles. While a definite improvement over earlier Soviet designs, the Flogger was hampered by poor radar performance, and the fighter proved difficult to fly and expensive to maintain, suffering particularly from a short engine service life. Nevertheless, over 5,000 were produced, and though it was phased out of Russian service by 1999, the Flogger still serves many export customers.
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