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


(Author unknown)

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 radars onboard. 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 not only were the fighters getting bigger, the price tags were also growing at an alarming rate.

The lineage of the F-5 (left) and YF-17 is apparent from this overhead view.

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.

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A front view of the YF-17, showing its distinct wing extensions that lent it the nickname Cobra. (US Air Force)

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), and more powerful engines. As that design matured into the P-530, 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 nickname of Cobra. In a carryover from the F-5, the YF-17 was also powered by two engines, in this case General Electric YJ101 after burning 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 General Dynamics YF-16 and Northrop YF-17 fly together during the Lightweight Fighter completion. (US Air Fprce)

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Following its roll out on April 4, 1974, the YF-17 was entered into the LWF competition, 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 powerplant.

The YF-17 in US Navy livery. After losing out to the YF-16, this aircraft became the basis for the F/A-18 Hornet. (US Navy)

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, and 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.

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(Tim Shaffer)

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 was 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.

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Stout 3-AT (Author unknown)

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, and the first order of business was the removal of William Stout from the design team.

A detail of the Ford Trimotor (NC8407) showing the corrugated metal skin and exposed control cables. (Tim Shaffer)

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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.

The spartan cockpit of the Ford Trimotor. (Tim Shaffer)

Shortly after the arrival of the Trimotor, Transcontinental Air Transport (which eventually became TWA) was founded by financier Clement Keys and, 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 flying a Trimotor. The aircraft’s rugged construction also made it a popular cargo aircraft.

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The Stout Bushmaster, the unsuccessful development of the Trimotor. (Bill Larkins)

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. 

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(Tim Shaffer)

June 12, 1994 – The first flight of the Boeing 777. As the commercial airline industry progressed through the 1950s and 1960s, airliners got longer and longer but not necessarily wider. The Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8 dominated the market, but they were limited to six-across seating, and there were practical limits on just how long an aircraft could be made. International airlines clamored for higher passenger loads, so the Boeing Company responded with the 747, the world’s first wide-body airliner, which entered service in 1970. They followed the 747 with the narrow-body 757 and wide-body 767 in response to new airliners manufactured by their main rival Airbus, and both the 757 and 767 were immediately successful and continue flying today.

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The first 777-200, painted in Boeing livery (Boeing Dreamscape)

Following Boeing’s pioneering launch of the 747, Douglas followed suit with their own wide-body DC-10, and Lockheed introduced the L-1011, both of which were three-engined trijets. However, Boeing found themselves with a gap in passenger capacity between the 767 and 747, so they began to develop their own trijet to fill the void. But advances in engine technology meant that transoceanic flights could now be made with airliners that had only two engines, and airlines had begun flying the twinjet 767 regularly on long intercontinental routes. So Boeing dropped the trijet concept and went instead with an enlarged 767, which they called the 767X. They also proposed a 767 with a larger cross-section while retaining the commonality of the earlier 767 cockpit. But the airlines weren’t interested, saying that they wanted an even wider fuselage with more interior options, intercontinental range, and lower operating costs.

Alitalia Boeing 777-200ER (Ken H)

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So Boeing went back to the drawing board and developed an entirely new airliner, the first to be designed entirely using computer-aided design (CAD) and Boeing’s first to use fly-by-wire controls. In another industry first, Boeing allowed their potential customers to have a say in the design and development of the aircraft. Based on their input, Boeing offered 9-across seating in coach with the ability to accommodate as many as 325 passengers. To make room for all the seats and cargo, Boeing designed the 777 as the first airliner with a fully circular cross section and the largest twinjet in the world. The 777 comes with engine options from Pratt & Whitney, Rolls-Royce and General Electric, with the GE90 being the largest and most powerful high bypass turbofan in use today, producing 115,000 pounds of thrust. An even larger engine will be available with the launch of the 777X in 2019. In a three-class seating arrangement, the 777-300ER, the most popular variant, can accommodate nearly 400 passengers with a range of 8,400 miles. The 777-200LR is capable of even greater range, and can fly halfway around the globe without refueling. As of March 2018, 777s of Qatar Airlines hold the record for the longest passenger flight, from Qatar to New Zealand, a distance of 9,032 miles.

The first United Airlines 777-200 (N777UA) departs from Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport on October 16, 2004. (Solitude)

On May 15, 1995, United Airlines received the first 777, powered by Pratt & Whitney PW4000 engines, and the first revenue flight took place on June 7, 1995 from London Heathrow to Dulles International in Washington, DC. British Airways debuted the first GE90-engined 777 in November of that year, while Thai Airways International received the first 777 to be powered by Rolls-Royce Trent 877 engines in March 1996. Today, the Triple-Seven is flown by 68 customers worldwide, with Dubai-based Emirates operating the lion’s share of aircraft with 161 in the air. United Airlines is a distant second with 88 in service. Currently, Boeing has received orders for nearly 2,000 777s of all variants, with over 1,950 deliveries, though only the 777-300ER, 777F freighter remain in production. Boeing has plans for further development of the 777 with its 777X program, which will see new carbon-fiber-reinforced wings for greater efficiency and folding wingtips for complete airport gate compatibility. The cabin will also be widened and enhanced based on experience learned from development of the 787 Dreamliner. Two variants of the 777X—777-8 and 777-9—are expected to enter service in 2020.

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British Airways Boeing 777-300ER. (Mark Harkin)

A restored V-1 Vergeltungswaffen at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC (Tim Shaffer)

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June 12, 1944 – The first V-1 flying bomb falls on England. The V-1 flying bomb, along with the V-2 ballistic rocket, were known to the Germans as Vergeltungswaffen, or retaliatory weapons. The Allies often referred to them as vengeance weapons, and when guided bombs began appearing in the skies in the final year of the war, the V-weapons were often seen as the last gasp of a desperate Germany as it faced the inevitable prospect of losing WWII. But the history of the V-1 actually began began three years before the war with the work of German engineer Fritz Gosslau who developed a remotely-controlled aircraft in 1936. In 1939, the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (German Air Ministry) received a proposal for a flying bomb that could carry a 2,200-pound payload over 300 miles, but it was plagued with inaccuracy. Even though most of the problems with the guidance system were worked out by 1941, Adolf Hitler did not approve the project until June 1944, soon after the Allied invasion of occupied Europe on D-Day.

A cutaway showing the compass in the nose, the warhead, fuel tank, and compressed air tanks to power the gyroscopes and pressurize the fuel. (Imperial War Museum)

The V-1 featured a welded sheet metal fuselage, plywood wings, and was powered by a pulsejet engine, the first of its kind to power an aircraft. The pulsejet had a distinctive sound as it flew, and the Allies nicknamed the V-1 “buzz bomb” and “doodlebug.” The nascent cruise missile was controlled in flight by an internal gyroscope and, once the propeller-driven odometer indicated the target had been reached, explosive bolts disabled the control system and the V-1 entered a dive towards the target. Though fairly inaccurate at first, refinements in the control system eventually enabled the V-1 to strike with an accuracy of roughly seven miles around the intended target. This certainly wasn’t accurate enough for use as a tactical weapon, but as a strategic weapon of terror, it was close enough, as most of its targets were large cities and their civilian populations.

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A V-1 falls on London on June 15, 1944. (US Air Force)

At the peak of operation, more than 100 V-1s per day were fired at southeast England, but continuing problems with guidance systems and poor engine reliability meant that only about 25-percent of the buzz bombs actually hit their intended targets. Nevertheless, over 6,000 British civilians fell victim to the V-1. In addition to the ground-launched bombs, about 1,200 V-1s were also air-launched from modified Heinkel He 111s which increased their operational range. When the first V-1s appeared over England, the only aircraft fast enough to intercept the low-flying bombs was the Hawker Tempest, though eventually Supermarine Spitfires, North American P-51 Mustangs and Republic P-47 Thunderbolts were modified to increase their speed. De Havilland Mosquitos also proved relatively effective, and the early jet-powered Gloster Meteor claimed a handful of buzz bombs as well. The relatively small size of the V-1 made it a difficult target for guns, and the most effective method to stop the V-1s was to fly alongside, put a wingtip underneath the V-1's wingtip, then flip the flying bomb over, causing it to crash.

A Supermarine Spitfire uses its wing to tip over a V-1 in flight. (Imperial War Museum)

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As the Allies started retaking France and began capturing territory in Germany, they overran the V-1 launch sites and the number of attacks dwindled sharply. Towards the end of the war, V-1s were launched against Antwerp and other sites in Belgium before the final launch site was captured in October 1944. While the bombs themselves weren’t terribly effective, the attacks did cause the Allies to divert about a quarter of their bomber force to attack the launch sites, often without effect. By the end of V-1 operations, 9,521 buzz bombs had been launched against England and Belgium, an impressive number that nevertheless had a negligible affect on the ultimate outcome of the war.


Short Takeoff


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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.


(Australian Government)

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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.


(Dramatization via National Geographic Channel)

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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.


(F-16 photo US Air Force; Parker photo author unknown)

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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.


(US Air Force)

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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.


(NASA)

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June 12, 1979 – The Gossamer Albatross flies across the English Channel. Designed and built by American aeronautical engineer Dr. Paul MacCready and built by his company AeroVironment, the Albatross was the first human-powered aircraft to cross the English Channel, claiming the second Kremer prize along with its £100,000 purse. The Albatross was MacCready’s second human-powererd aircraft after the earlier Gossamer Condor, which had won the first Kremer prize in 1974 for completing a one-mile figure-eight course. Powered and flown by amateur cyclist and hang glider pilot Bryan Allen, the Albatross completed the 22.2-mile crossing in 2 hours and 49 minutes at a top speed of 18 mph and an altitude of just 5 feet.


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June 12, 1965 – The first flight of the Britten-Norman Islander, a light utility aircraft, regional airliner and cargo aircraft, and one of the best-selling commercial aircraft produced in Europe. Designers John Britten and Desmond Norman developed the Islander to satisfy a demand for an inexpensive twin-engine transport, and sought to produce an aircraft that was capable of carrying heavy loads while still being simple to maintain. With 1,280 being built since 1965, the Islander has proven to be a tremendous success, and it remains in production today. The Islander was developed into numerous variants, and serves with the British Army and UK police forces, as well as over 30 military operators and many civilian operators worldwide.


(Author unknown)

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June 12, 1934 – The Air Mail Act of 1934 is enacted. As a result of the Air Mail Scandal of the 1930s, and following congressional investigations into the awarding of Air Mail contracts to certain airlines, the Air Mail Act reintroduced competitive bidding for lucrative air mail routes and prevented aircraft manufacturers from operating passenger airlines. The new act superseded the earlier act of 1930, and resulted in the restructuring of the airline industry, new regulations for passenger flight, and the modernization of the US Army Air Corps. To circumvent the new restrictions, aircraft manufacturers simply changed their names, resulting in the creation of American Air Lines, Northwest Airlines, Eastern Airlines and United Air Lines.


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June 12, 1930 – The first flight of the Handley Page Heyford, a biplane night bomber developed to replace the Vickers Virginia in RAF service. The Heyford arose from Air Ministry specification B.19/27 in 1927 which called for a heavy night bomber that could carry 1,546 pounds of bombs at a range of 920 miles, and it’s two Rolls-Royce Kestrel 12-cylinder engines provided a top speed of 142 mph. As the last biplane bomber to serve the RAF, the Heyford displayed an interesting mixture of both WWI-era and more modern construction, with metal frame, fabric-covered wings supporting an aluminum monocoque forward fuselage, and a fabric-covered tail. Named for the base where it was first deployed, the Heyford entered service in 1933 and eventually filling nine squadrons by the end of 1936. With the arrival of more modern monoplane bombers by 1937, the Heyford was retired in 1939.


Connecting Flights


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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, aviators and airplane oddities at Wingspan.

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