Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from March 14 through March 17.
March 15, 1972 – NASA announces the final design of the Space Shuttle. Throughout the manned space program, from Mercury to Gemini to Apollo, all parts of the launch system, from booster rockets to crew capsules, were expendable. But even before the first astronaut set foot on the Moon on July 21, 1969, NASA had already begun thinking about what future space travel would look like. As the space agency imagined the next generation of space vehicles, they considered ways to make at least part of the system reusable. In 1969, President Richard Nixon formed the Space Task Group to investigate and develop a new launch system and vehicle that would be less expensive than previous systems, and one that could be used by NASA, the Department of Defense, and perhaps non-government commercial entities. But the biggest question that needed to be answered was just what form this new spacecraft, dubbed the Integrated Launch and Re-entry Vehicle (ILRV), would take.
From the start, engineers envisioned a two-stage system that had the smaller vehicle, called the orbiter, sitting atop a larger launch vehicle, called a booster. In its earliest guise, the booster wasn’t just a rocket, but had wings and pilots. The orbiter and booster would have launched vertically and, after the orbiter separated to continue its journey into space, the booster would be piloted back to Earth to be refueled and reused. Like the final Space Shuttle design, the booster would essentially be a flying fuel tank, but both the orbiter and booster were envisioned with air-breathing jet engines to allow controlled flight for landing. However, like so many other aspects of the post-Apollo space effort, economics played a major role, and NASA simply didn’t have the money to pursue such an ambitious system, along with the creation of the orbiting space station that the ILRV was meant to service. The original concept would only lift about 25,000 pounds of payload into orbit, and the US Air Force, whose money was vital to the program, wanted a payload of 65,000 pounds for launching military satellites. NASA had to go back to the drawing board.
Not only did they have to redesign the Shuttle, they had to rethink the entire space station concept. NASA had originally planned for the station to be a large, single unit like Skylab. But changing the concept of the space station to one of modular construction, as we see today in the International Space Station (ISS), allowed NASA to reimagine the Shuttle as a vehicle that would carry those modules into orbit while also providing the payload space the Air Force required. Two basic design concepts then emerged. The first was called parallel burn, where the orbiter’s engine would be ignited at launch and burn in tandem with solid rocket boosters. The second was called series burn, where the orbiter’s engines would not fire until after the booster rockets were finished. Following a careful analysis of the cost of both systems, NASA opted for parallel burn, and announced on March 15, 1972 that the final design would be essentially what we see today: an orbiter attached to a external fuel tank (EFT) and lifted by two solid rocket boosters (SRBs). Of these three elements, the orbiter and the SRBs would be reusable. The SRBs would separate from the fuel tank after their solid fuel was expended and parachute back to Earth to be reused. The external fuel tank, which carried liquid hydrogen fuel and liquid oxygen oxidizer to power the orbiter’s main engines, would be expendable. Once the orbiter was done with the fuel it carried, the EFT would separate and fall back to Earth, breaking up in the atmosphere before impacting the Indian Ocean. Once it’s mission was over, the orbiter would re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and glide to a landing.
On July 25, 1972, NASA awarded a contract for development and construction of the Space Shuttle to the International Space Division of Rockwell, as well as management of the overall integration of the vehicle and the launch system. With the general design finalized, the prototype orbiter Enterprise was the first to be built in 1976. Though it never went to space, it was used for critical free-flight testing. Four operational Shuttles, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, and Atlantis were built, and Columbia made the maiden flight of the Space Shuttle program on April 12, 1981. Two Shuttles, Challenger and Columbia, were lost to accidents, and a fifth operational Shuttle, Endeavour, was built in 1991 to replace Challenger. All told, the five Shuttles completed 133 missions during their 30 years of service, and the Space Shuttle program ended with the final flight of Atlantis on July 21, 2011.
March 16, 1926 – Robert Goddard launches the first liquid-fuelled rocket. The earliest rockets date back to 13th century China, where there were used both as weapons and fireworks. Militarily, these solid-fueled projectiles became primarily weapons of siege warfare and, even as the rockets became more complex, the rocket fuel remained relatively unchanged. Today, many rockets and missiles are still powered by solid fuels, but it was American Robert Goddard’s work with liquid-fueled rockets that helped to usher in the Space Age, and Goddard is generally accepted to be the father of space flight and modern rocketry.
As a young boy, Goddard was influenced by the science fiction writings of H.G. Wells, particularly The War of the Worlds, and he began to study the works of other inventors, such as Samuel Pierpont Langley, who wrote about flight for Smithsonian Magazine. By 1913, Goddard was studying calculus and developed the mathematics that made it possible to calculate the position and velocity of a rocket in vertical flight, as well as the force necessary to get rockets of differing weights into the atmosphere. In 1919, the Smithsonian published A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes, a report in which Goddard discusses his work with rockets, the development of his mathematics, and his belief that rockets could one day travel to the Moon. Though Goddard is best known for his pioneering work with rockets, he was also a physicist and engineer who held 214 patents, and his groundbreaking work in the fields of rocketry and orbital theory formed the basis for rocket science. His work also led to developments in atmospheric research, ballistic missiles, and manned space travel.
Goddard began with experimental rockets burning solid fuel, but he soon realized that in order to gain the velocities necessary to reach space he would need to use a liquid propellant. When compared to solid-fuel rockets, liquid propellants have the benefit of providing greater power at lower volumes of fuel and provide a greater power to weight ratio. They also provide more control over the rocket’s flight. Once a solid rocket is ignited, its burn rate can only be controlled by the shape of the fuel block, while use of a liquid fuel allows for the throttling of the rocket engine. Starting in 1921, Goddard began to experiment with liquid-fueled rockets using a liquid oxidizer, and he successfully tested the first rocket engine using a liquid propellant in 1923. His first successful launch using a rocket fueled with gasoline and liquid oxygen took place on March 16, 1926 at Auburn, Massachusetts. Though that first flight only lifted a mere 41 feet into the air, it demonstrated the potential of the liquid fuel engine. Goddard and his team launched a total of 33 rockets, and they eventually reached altitudes as high as 1.6 miles and speeds up to 550 mph.
Along with his development of new fuels, Goddard also pioneered the means to control his rockets. His early rockets used static fins for stability, but later models employed gyroscopically controlled vanes in the exhaust, a method that was later copied by the Germans for use in the V-2 rockets used to attack England in the later stages of WWII. Goddard also pioneered a system that steered the rocket nozzle itself, a control method that is still in use today. Unfortunately for Goddard, many in the US government and military failed to appreciate the importance of his work and, by the end of WWII, the Germans had far outpaced the US in rocket development, possibly using Goddard’s own data that had been transferred to Germany by spies in the US. However, in a bit of historical irony, the wartime advances made by Germans like Werner von Braun returned to the US following the war, when many captured German scientists were brought to the United States to work on America’s nascent space program. Nevertheless, Goddard’s work cemented him in the history of space exploration, and the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, as well as the Goddard crater on the Moon, are named in his honor.
March 17, 1947 – The first flight of the North American B-45 Tornado. By the later stages of WWII, the arrival of jet-powered German bombers had the Allies scrambling to develop aircraft of their own. The Luftwaffe had already fielded the Arado Ar 234, the world’s first operational jet bomber, and though it was only built in limited numbers, it was clear that the future lay in jet power. Work on the Tornado began in 1944 with a requirement from the US War Department for a new jet-powered bomber. Following submissions from several companies, the North American NA-130 was chosen as the winner on September 8, 1944.
Though the idea of using a swept wing dates back to before WWI, and the Germans had begun to investigate the swept wing to reduce high-speed drag by the 1930s, it wasn’t until after the war that captured German data made its way to the United States. Thus, the B-45, like many other early jet aircraft, still employed straight wings, and would not have looked out of place if it were given propeller engines. The Tornado was powered by four General Electric J47 turbojets housed in nacelles in the wing and had a maximum speed of 570 mph with a range of 1,000 miles while carrying up to 22,000 pounds of bombs. It was also armed with two .50 caliber machine guns in the tail for defense against fighters and had a crew of four: pilot, co-pilot, bombardier-navigator and tail gunner.
By the end of WWII, technological advancements were beginning to outpace development and production schedules of many fighter and bomber programs. With the Cold War starting to heat up, the Air Force placed special emphasis on nuclear-capable bombers, and a decision had to be taken whether to produce the B-45, or the Convair XB-46, which was similar to the Tornado in many respects, though much larger. After an evaluation, the B-45 was chosen as the better aircraft, and North American received a contract to produce the B-45 beginning in January 1947. But the Tornado soon became a victim of underpowered engines and the rapid advances of aircraft technology. The Boeing XB-47, which benefitted from captured German data on swept wing design, took its maiden flight less than a year after the Tornado, and offered greater speed and almost twice the combat range. Reduced postwar military budgets also meant that the Air Force would have to limit the number of projects it could develop, and with the B-47 looming on the horizon, production of the B-45 was cut, resulting in a final production run of just 143 aircraft. Nevertheless, the Tornado holds the distinction of being America’s first operational jet bomber and the world’s first multi-jet engined bomber to be refueled in midair.
Despite its relatively short service life, the Tornado filled a vital gap in America’s and NATO’s nuclear deterrence force, particularly during the Korean War, when so many military assets had been sent to Asia. In 1952, B-45s were modified to carry nuclear bombs and sent to England, and the RB-45 reconnaissance variant provided valuable intelligence over Korea, where they complemented older Boeing RB-29 piston-powered reconnaissance aircraft that had proven vulnerable to enemy jet fighters. After the war, the Tornado made some overflights of the Soviet Union, but those missions were soon taken over by the Martin B-57 Canberra (the American-built English Electric Canberra), which could fly at higher altitudes. The B-45 was removed from active service by the end of the 1950s, though some served for a few more years as test aircraft.
March 14, 1947 – The first flight of the Lockheed L-749 Constellation, an improved version of the Lockheed L-649 Constellation and the first of the Constellation series to make regular crossings of the Atlantic Ocean. The “Connie” originally entered service with the US Army Air Forces in WWII, and it became one of the great intercontinental airliners when it entered commercial service after the war. The L-749 provided increased range, plus the addition of jet stack exhaust manifolds that increased speed. Further development yielded the L-749A in 1949, which featured a strengthened fuselage and more robust landing gear. The first L-749 was delivered to Pan Am on April 18, 1947, and ultimately 119 L-749s were produced between 1947-1951 before the introduction of the L-1049 Super Constellation.
March 14, 1927 – Pan American World Airways is founded. Better known as Pan Am, the company was started by the United States government in 1927 as a shell company to counter the German-owned Colombian carrier SCADTA and blunt German influence in South America. Under the leadership of Juan Trippe, Pan Am grew rapidly by aggressively buying small airlines and expanding mail and passenger routes in South America. By 1937, Pan Am was providing Sikorsky S-42 seaplane service to Europe, and had started pushing westward from the US to Hawaii and the Far East flying the Boeing 314 Clipper and the pressurized Boeing 307 Stratoliner. Following WWII, Pan Am continued to expand its routes as it entered the jet age, and was the launch customer for both the Boeing 707 and Boeing 747. At its peak in the 1960s, Pan Am carried 6.7 million passengers and served 86 countries on every continent except Antarctica. By the 1970s, the oil crisis led to higher fuel prices and fewer travelers, and Pan Am found itself facing massive amounts of debt. After attempting to acquire domestic airlines and selling off major portions of its assets, the remainder of the company was purchased by Delta Air Lines in 1991 for $1.39 billion.
March 16, 1947 – The first flight of the Convair CV-240, originally designed as a larger, more modern replacement for the Douglas DC-3. Like the famed Douglas aircraft, the prototype 240 was unpressurized, and the airlines’ desire for a pressurized fuselage led Convair to redesign the 240. The fuselage was lengthened to add 10 more seats, which brought initial capacity to 40 passengers. Continued development of the CV-240 resulted in a number of variants, each one with longer fuselage and wings, and the eventual incorporation of turboprop engines. The CV-240 was the first private aircraft to be used in a US presidential election when John F. Kennedy flew in a CV-240, named Caroline in honor of his young daughter. The 240 also served with the US Air Force as the C-131 Samaritan and with the US Navy as the R4Y. Just under 1,200 aircraft were produced between 1947-1954, and though largely retired, a handful remain in service as cargo aircraft.
March 17, 1997 – Linda Finch takes off on a flight to recreate and complete Amelia Earhart’s ill-fated round-the-world flight. Finch, an aviatrix and businesswoman from San Antonio, TX, took off in a restored 1935 Lockheed Model 10 Electra that had been prepared identically to Earhart’s plane. Finch’s flight took 10 weeks to complete while flying legs of 8 to 18 hours at a time. She stopped at 36 different locations in 18 countries and covered approximately 26,000 miles. Finch’s Electra has been acquired by the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington where it will be displayed. March 17 is the departure date for Earhart’s first unsuccessful attempt at circumnavigating the globe in 1937. The second attempt, in which Earhart and copilot Fred Noonan disappeared, began on July 2, 1937.
March 17, 1966 – The first flight of the Bell X-22, an experimental vertical/short takeoff and landing (V/STOL) aircraft. Power for the X-22 came from four General Electric T58 turboshaft engines grouped on the rear wing that turned four large ducted fans. Developed to investigate the use of V/STOL aircraft for the transport of troops and cargo, the X-22 successfully transitioned from vertical to forward flight soon after its maiden flight, but a crash six months later led to the loss of the first prototype. Though it was the most successful aircraft of its type at the time, the hoped-for speed of 315 mph was never achieved and the project was canceled. The second prototype, the X-22A, is now on display at the Niagara Aerospace Museum in New York.
March 17, 1936 – The first flight of the Armstrong Whitworth Whitley, one of three twin-engine medium bombers to serve the Royal Air Force during WWII. The Whitley was introduced in 1937 to replace the Handley Page Hayford biplane bomber, and took part in the first RAF bombing raids of the German homeland, though it was essentially obsolete by the start of the war in 1939. Following the introduction of larger, four-engine bombers, the Whitley was retired from frontline service in 1942 and relegated to maritime reconnaissance duties. It also served as a glider tug, trainer, and transport aircraft. A total of 1,814 Whitleys were produced, and the bomber was fully retired at the end of the war.
March 17, 1949 – The Sunkist Lady takes off in an attempt to set an endurance record. In an attempt to break the previous endurance record of 726 hours set in 1939, pilots Dick Reidel and Bill Barris of the Fullerton Air Service flew their modified Aeronca Sedan from Fullerton, California to Miami Florida, where they circled for 14 days before returning to California. After reaching California, the pair remained aloft until the record was broken, eventually logging 1,008 hours in the air. The pilots were supplied with food and fuel by vehicles driving along a runway while supplies were handed up to the crew. By the time Reidel and Barris landed on April 26, they had covered more than 75,600 land miles and burned 6,552 gallons of fuel.
March 17, 1921 – The death of Nikolay Yegorovich Zhukovsky. Born on January 17, 1847, Zhukovsky was a Russian scientist who is considered the founding father of modern aerodynamics and hydrodynamics. He was the first to undertake the study of airflow in the hopes of one day creating a flying machine, and created the world’s first Aerodynamic Institute near Moscow in 1904, where he is often called the Father of Russian Aviation. Zhukovsky was the first to explain the origin of lift mathematically, and the first to determine that the amount of lift of a body is proportional to its velocity and the circulation of the air around it. Zhukovsky also constructed Russia’s first wind tunnel.
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.