Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from March 7 through March 10.
March 12, 1959 – The first flight of the Sikorsky SH-3 Sea King. With its ability to sneak up virtually undetected on enemy ships, the submarine has been the scourge of naval warfare since WWI. In the days prior to radar and sophisticated tracking aircraft, it was not uncommon that the first sign of submarine attack came when lookouts spotted the telltale wake of a torpedo racing through the water. The airplane proved to be a vital tool in detecting and fighting against submarines, but their role was initially limited to observation, and they had no means to detect submarines with anything but the naked eye. By WWII, and in the years immediately after, radar and magnetic anomaly detectors were added to the anti-submarine arsenal, but the earliest sets were too large to fit in a single aircraft. It wasn’t until 1954 that the US Navy had a single, dedicated anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft in the Grumman S-2 Tracker.
However, rapid advances in turboshaft technology meant that helicopters, operating from carriers or offshore platforms, could now perform the ASW mission. In 1957, the US Navy awarded a contract to Sikorsky to develop a helicopter that would combine hunter and killer capabilities into a single aircraft to help protect American fleets and the homeland from as many as 200 nuclear-armed Soviet submarines. The all-weather SH-3 had a five-bladed main rotor that was turned by a pair of General Electric T58 turboshaft engines that greatly improved range and power over earlier piston engines. The turboshafts carried the Sea King to a maximum speed of 166 mph, with the added safety of being able to fly on a single engine. Since the Sea King would be operating in the open ocean, it also featured a watertight hull with inflatable sponsons that allowed it to land on the surface of the water, making it the world’s first amphibious helicopter.
The Sea King was introduced in 1961, the same year that the first Soviet nuclear-powers submarine (K-19) was commissioned, and carried out its ASW mission using sonobuoys and a magnetic anomaly detector to find submerged submarines. A data link enable the Sea King to share information rapidly with surface ships in the fleet. Once a submarine was located, the Sea King could attack it with anti-submarine torpedoes or even the B-57 nuclear bomb fitted with a hydrostatic fuse which allowed it to function as a nuclear depth charge. Though the Sea King was primarily designed to find and destroy subs, it soon became a jack of all trades for the Navy, delivering cargo and transporting personnel between ships or on land. During the Vietnam War, Sea Kings armed with machine guns and protective armor for the crew were used to rescue downed pilots, and the Sea King served as the primary recovery aircraft for the astronauts and their space capsules during the manned space programs.
By 1990, the Navy replaced the Sea King in the ASW role with the Sikorsky SH-60F Seahawk, and the remaining Sea Kings were configured for logistical support and search and rescue. The SH-3 was ceremonially retired by the Navy in 2006, with official retirement taking place in 2009. Though the SH-3 no longer serves the fleet, the Marine Corps HMX-1 Squadron continues to operate Sea Kings as the VH-3, known as Marine One when the President of the United States is on board. Though it has served for nearly 60 years, the VH-3 will soldier on until its replacement, the Sikorsky VH-92, enters service. Throughout its service life, the Sea King has been constantly upgraded, and it exists in a host of variants, including those built under license by Agusta in Italy, Mitsubishi in Japan, and Westland in the United Kingdom. The H-3 was also built in a civilian version called the S-61 which remains in production.
March 12, 1930 – The death of William George “Billy” Barker. During WWI, fighter pilots became almost mythical figures whose death-defying feats over the battlefield made them heroes who epitomized both the danger and thrill of aerial combat. While the exploits of many British, American, French and German airmen in WWI are well known, William “Billy” Barker became the most decorated serviceman in the history of Canada, as well as in the history of the British Empire and Commonwealth of Nations, though it’s very likely that only war historians and Canadians know his name.
Barker was born on November 3, 1894 in Dauphin, Manitoba, and though he wasn’t a particularly skilled pilot (he made his first solo flight after only 55 minutes of dual instruction), and suffered several incidents during his piloting career, he made up for his average flying skills with aggressiveness, audacity, and highly accurate marksmanship. Barker learned to shoot at a young age, and became an excellent shot while riding on horseback. He further honed his shooting skills as an infantry machine gunner before joining the Air Service in 1916, where he first flew as an armed observer. After qualifying as a pilot, Barker flew 404 operational hours between September 1917 and September 1918 and shot down 46 aircraft and balloons. His personal Sopwith Camel became the most successful individual fighter plane in the history of the Royal Flying Corps.
For his service as a pilot, Barker was decorated numerous times, and his list of medals includes the Distinguished Service Order and Bar, the Military Cross and two Bars, two Italian Silver Medals of Military Valor, and the French Croix de Guerre. But it was his valor “in the face of the enemy” on Sunday, October 27, 1918, that earned him the Victoria Cross, the highest decoration attainable in the United Kingdom (roughly equivalent to the American Congressional Medal of Honor). Returning to base while flying his Sopwith Snipe fighter, Barker crossed enemy lines near the Forêt de Mormal at 21,000 feet. After downing one enemy plane, he was attacked by a formation of Fokker D.VIIs. By his own admission, he was being careless and failed to see his attackers. As the battle spiraled toward the ground, Barker found himself fighting 15 or more enemy planes. He was wounded three times in the legs, and his left elbow was shattered, but he still managed to control his fighter and dispatch three more enemy planes. Wounded and bleeding seriously, Barker crash landed behind Allied lines and was taken to a field dressing station by members of an RAF Kite Balloon Section (the fuselage of his Snipe was recovered and now resides at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa).
Barker remained in hospital for three months, during which time the First World War came to an end. After the war, Barker entered into an airplane business venture with fellow fighter ace and Victoria Cross recipient Billy Bishop. In 1922, he returned to service as a wing commander with the fledgling Royal Canadian Air Force and served until 1926. Following his retirement from the RCAF, Barker became the first president of the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey club. Throughout his relatively brief postwar career, Barker struggled with both his war wounds and alcoholism. He died in 1930 after losing control of his Fairchild KR-21 biplane during a demonstration flight at Rockcliffe Air Station in Ottawa, and his state funeral was attended by 50,000 mourners. Barker was just 35 years old.
March 11, 1993 – The first flight of the Airbus A321. When Airbus first conceived the A320 airliner, the company envisioned an entire line of aircraft, each one larger or smaller and tailored to the needs of individual airlines. The A321 was the first derivative of the A320 and features a fuselage stretched almost 22 feet by the addition of one section just forward of the wing and a second section at the rear, that made room for 35 more passengers in a typical 2-class configuration. The A321 also has a greater maximum takeoff weight (MTOW), though its range is slightly less than the A320. This deficiency was addressed in the A321-200, which has additional fuel capacity and more powerful engines. A further development, the A321neo (new engine option), entered service in 2017, and the A321LR long range variant.
March 12, 2004 – The first flight of the Embraer ERJ-190, a member of the Embraer E-Jet family of medium-range airliners produced by the Brazilian aerospace conglomerate Embraer. The E190 was the first stretched variant of the original E170, and features a larger wing and stabilizer plus new General Electric CF34 turbofan engines. With accommodation for 96-114 passengers depending on seating configuration, the E190, and slightly larger E195, are positioned to compete with the Bombardier CRJ-1000 and Airbus 220, the Boeing 717 and 737, and the Airbus A318.
March 12, 1998 – The first free flight of the NASA X-38, a crew return vehicle (CRV) that was designed to evacuate up to seven astronauts from the International Space Station (ISS) in the case of serious illness, fire, collision with space debris, or the grounding of the Space Shuttle. Built by Scaled Composites, the X-38 was based on lifting body technology developed in the 1960s and was of a similar shape to the Martin Marietta X-24A. The X-38 was to be semi-permanently docked to the ISS until needed, then re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and land using a parafoil. Two atmospheric prototypes were built and used for drop tests, along with one orbital prototype that was 90% complete, before severe budget cuts caused the cancellation of the program in 2002.
March 12, 1955 – The first flight of the Aérospatiale Alouette II, a light observation, liaison, reconnaissance, and air-sea rescue helicopter originally manufactured by Sud Aviation and the first helicopter to make use of a gas turbine engine rather than a heavier piston engine. In addition to its civilian duties, the Alouette II was converted to a gunship carrying anti-tank missiles or torpedoes. The Alouette II demonstrated its high altitude capabilities in 1956 when it performed the first mountain rescue of a stricken climber from more than 13,000 feet of elevation. The Alouette II was widely exported and, by the end of production in 1975, over 1,300 aircraft had been built.
March 13, 1969 – Apollo 9 returns to Earth. A critical rehearsal for the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon, Apollo 9 was launched from Kennedy Space Center on March 3, 1969 as the third manned mission of the Apollo program and spent 10 days in Earth orbit. Apollo 9 marked the first flight of the complete Apollo spacecraft, with both the Command/Service Module (CSM) and Lunar Module(LM) launched atop the Saturn V rocket. During three spacewalks, the crew tested new self-contained spacesuits that would be used on the Moon, and performed docking and flight tests of the LM. The flights of the LM, testing both descent and ascent engines, marked the first flight of a spacecraft that was not designed to return to Earth. Apollo 9 splashed down 160 miles east of the Bahamas, the last time a spacecraft splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean.
If you enjoy these Aviation History posts, please let me know in the comments. You can find more posts about aviation history, aviators, and aviation oddities at Wingspan.