Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from March 17 through March 20.


North American B-45C Tornado (US Air Force)

NMarch 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 their own. The Luftwaffe had already fielded the world’s first operational jet bomber, the Arado Ar 234 and though it was only built in limited numbers, it was clear that the future lay in jet power, and that the US needed to work quickly to develop a bomber of their own. Work of the Tornado began in 1944 with a requirement from the US War Department for a new jet-powered bomber and, following submissions from several companies, the North American NA-130 was chosen as the winner on September 8, 1944.

Cutaway of the prototype XB-45 (US Air Force)

The idea of using a swept wing dates back to before WWI, but it early experimentation was driven by a desire to increase stability. By the 1930s, the Germans had begun to investigate the swept wing to reduce high-speed drag, but 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, and could carry up to 22,000 pounds of bombs. It was also armed with two .50 caliber machine guns in the tail for defense against fighters. The B-54 had a crew of four: pilot, co-pilot, bombardier-navigator and tail gunner

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North American B-45 Tornadoes of the 47th Bombardment Wing on the tarmac at Langley Air Force Base in 1952. (US Air Force)

By the end of WWII, technological advancements were beginning to outpace development and production plans 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 bomber 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. Postwar budget restrictions 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 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.

RB-45C reconnaissance aircraft. Note the solid nose and camera ports (US Air Force)

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Despite its relatively short service life, the Tornado filled an 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.


US Navy

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March 19, 1989 – The first flight of the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey. When the helicopter entered military service shortly after WWII, it revolutionized ground warfare. No longer were airstrips or dangerous parachute drops necessary to deliver troops to a combat theater, and an entirely new concept of vertical envelopment entered military doctrine. But the helicopter has its limitations, particularly in speed. Due to its design, a traditional helicopter is limited to about 250 mph, well under the speeds that are attainable by an airplane. For many years, aircraft designers sought to get the best of both worlds: an aircraft that can take off vertically like a helicopter, but then transition to horizontal flight like an airplane. Ideally, the rotors that lift the aircraft could then be used to pull it through the air.

The burned wreckage of a US Navy RH-53D Sea Stallion in the Iranian desert after the disastrous Operation Eagle Claw (IR-PSRI)

The problem of vertical or short takeoff flight (V/STOL) has been solved for smaller fighters such as the Hawker Siddeley Harrier, but V/STOL jets were never capable of carrying a useful payload of cargo or troops, though some tried. But that all changed with the Osprey, when engine and control technology finally matured enough to develop a large aircraft that could make a meaningful contribution to military logistics and transport. The critical need for an aircraft such as the Osprey was demonstrated Operation Eagle Claw, the disastrous attempt to rescue 52 American hostages being held at the American embassy in Tehran in 1980. At the time, the American fleet of large helicopters had neither the speed nor the range to carry out the rescue mission without highly orchestrated stops for fuel inside enemy territory, and an accident at a landing site lead to the deaths of nine personnel and the abandonment of the mission. What the Department of Defense desperately needed was an aircraft that could take off beyond the horizon, fly at high speed to a landing zone, then land vertically like a helicopter.

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Marines and sailors from India Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, make their way to a VMMT 365 MV-22 Osprey at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, California (US Marine Corps)

The Osprey traces its lineage back to the Bell XV-15, which first flew in 1977 and proved that the tilting-nacelle concept could provide superior performance to traditional helicopters. In 1981, work began on the Joint-service Vertical take-off/landing Experimental program (JVX) to fill that need. The design called for a large fuselage for troops or materiel, with turbojet engines in rotating nacelles at the end of short wings. The US Navy and Marine Corps were the lead branches in the development of the JVX based on their specific operational needs, and Bell Helicopter partnered with Boeing Vertol to produce six prototypes of the Osprey. Following testing, full-scale production began in 1986. The Osprey entered service in 2007, and over 200 have been built to date.

US Air Force CV-22 Osprey (Airwolfhound)

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As with many modern military aircraft built entirely from scratch, cost overruns began to plague the Osprey, as well as a number of high-profile training accidents. Detractors believed that the Osprey was an inherently dangerous aircraft, particularly in the case of engine failure, even though one engine can drive both rotors through a system of interconnected drive shafts. Pilots also had to learn how to fly the Osprey, because it was neither an airplane nor a pure helicopter. According to Bell’s chief Osprey test pilot Bill Leonard.

One of the biggest problems we’ve had in the [pilot] community is getting past the idea that it’s a helicopter that flies fast. It’s not. It’s an airplane that hovers. And if you fly the airplane like a helicopter, yes, it’s very difficult to fly as a helicopter. And if you do that, you have a very good chance of having a problem with controllability because of the way the aircraft operates. If you fly it like an airplane and you are willing to take the time to understand the capabilities of it in helicopter, it’s a very, very easy airplane to fly. (Breaking Defense)

Though crashes in the early years of development led to as many as 30 deaths (resulting from three crashes), the Osprey has since matured into an effective and safe aircraft, and the aircraft that critics once deemed unsafe now has a safety record that rivals traditional military rotorcraft. Marine Corps V-22s eventually replaced the venerable CH-46 Sea Knight, and were first deployed to Afghanistan in 2009, where they took part in their first combat missions and continue to see service there today. For the US Air Force, the CV-22 Osprey has also become valuable in special operations missions where their range and speed (up to 350 mph) aid in the rapid insertion of special forces, and work continues to develop the Osprey for the combat search and rescue (CSAR) role. The Navy also plans to use the Osprey to replace the Grumman C-2 Greyhound for Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD).

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US Air Force

March 19, 1941 – The 99th Pursuit Squadron, better known as the Tuskegee Airmen, is constituted. If one were to look at photographs of WWII, it would be relatively easy to reach the conclusion that WWII was very much a white man’s war. However, when the war began, 2.5 million African American men registered for the draft, and at least 1 million went on to serve either as draftees or enlisted personnel in all the branches of the US military. However, with a few notable exceptions, the overwhelming majority were relegated to support roles such as cooks or drivers. The US military was still a segregated organization with African Americans serving in segregated units and, until the formation of the Tuskegee Airmen, no African American had ever served as a military pilot.

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Maj James A. Ellison reviews first class of Tuskegee Airmen in 1941 (US Air Force)

By 1940, according to the US census, there were only 124 black pilots in all of the US. But in 1939, Congress passed the Civilian Pilot Training Act, and Tuskegee University in Alabama began training African American pilots as part of the Civilian Pilot Training Program. In January 1941, the War Department announced plans to create a “Negro pursuit squadron” to be manned by graduates of the Tuskegee program, and the 99th Pursuit Squadron was activated on March 22, 1941 at Chanute Field in Illinois with 271 enlisted men trained in ground support. Pilot training for the 99th began the following June. Initially, the squadron included 47 officers and 429 enlisted men, but the unit was still segregated, and the construction contract for the base was awarded to an African American contractor. By April 1942, the 99th was considered ready for combat, and the squadron was sent to North Africa to be part of the 33rd Fighter Group.

Lt. Col. Benjamin O. Davis, first commander of the 99th Pursuit Squadron. Davis retired from the Air Force as a four-star general, the first African American general officer in the US Air Force (US Air Force)

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The Tuskegee Airmen, nicknamed the Red Tails due to the distinctive red paint on the empennage of their North American P-51 Mustangs, flew their first combat mission against a strategic island in the Mediterranean Sea in the run up to the invasion of Sicily. During the Italian campaign, the 99th provided close air support for the US 5th Army at Foggia and during the Battle of Anzio, and for French and Polish forces during the Battle of Monte Cassino. On July 2, 1943, 1st Lt. Charles Hall of the 99th claimed the first enemy aircraft destroyed by a Tuskegee Airman when he downed a German Focke-Wulf Fw 190 over southwestern Sicily.

A restored P-51C Mustang with the markings of the 99th Pursuit Squadron (Max Haynes)

The 99th continued to escort bombers and provide air cover during the Italian campaign, and the squadron was awarded the first of three Distinguished Unit Citations during the period June-July 1943 for its actions during the landings on Sicily. In all, the 99th flew over 15,000 sorties and lost 66 pilots in combat, one of the lowest loss rates in the US Army Air Forces. The exemplary service of the Tuskegee Airmen, along with that of other African American servicemen, helped bring about the integration of the US military on July 26, 1948, when President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981 stating in part that “there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed forces without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.”

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US Air Force

March 20, 1932 – The first flight of the Boeing P-26 Peashooter. When the airplane first went to war in 1914, the predominant design was the biplane, a wood- or metal-framed structure covered by fabric. But as aircraft design progressed in the 1920s and 1930s, advances in construction and aerodynamics led to the monoplane. With only one wing and no struts or braces, the reduction in drag meant increased speeds, though many of the early monoplanes still used traditional frame and fabric construction techniques. The Germans had made advances with metal monoplanes as early as 1915 with the all-metal Junkers J 1, but its weight (more than one ton) limited its performance when powered by the engines of its day. But by the 1930s, it was clear that the metal monoplane was the future of military aviation, and while the Boeing P-26 wasn’t the first metal monoplane to be considered by the US Army Air Corps, it was the first to enter production and service.

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Peashooters of the 17th Pursuit Group lined up at March Field in California (US Air Force)

PDevelopment of the P-26 began in 1931 with an internally funded Boeing project known as the Model 248. For that aircraft, the Army supplied the engines and instruments while Boeing built the airframe. The 248, though a monoplane, still employed many of the design elements found in earlier aircraft, such as fixed landing gear and external wire bracing to keep the wings from buckling. Its small wings also led to an unacceptably high landing speed, which caused a number of crashes, and the Peashooter’s short nose meant that it had a tendency to pitch forward on landing, injuring or killing the pilot. These problems were addressed by the addition of flaps to lower the landing speed, and a raised headrest to protect the pilot should the plane flip over. Two different engines were used in the P-26A and P-26B before the Army settled on a carbureted Pratt & Whitney R-1340 radial fitted with a Townend ring to help reduce drag and improve cooling.

Boeing P-26 of the 19th Pursuit Squadron (US Air Force)

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The USAAC ordered 111 P-26As, followed by orders for the improved B and C models, and took delivery of the first Peashooters in 1934. At the time of its introduction, the Peashooter was the fastest fighter in the American inventory with a top speed of 234 mph. But rapid advances in aircraft design in the 1930s soon rendered the P-26 somewhat of an anachronism. Fighters such as the Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Hawker Hurricane were just three years away, much more modern aircraft with enclosed cockpits, retractable landing gear and cantilevered wings. Nevertheless, the P-26 proved easy to fly, and it remained in service until the outbreak of WWII. Though the Peashooter never saw combat with American forces, fighters exported to China saw action against the Japanese in 1937, where they were responsible for downing a handful of bombers, and members of the Philippine Army Air Corps had limited success against Japanese fighters in 1941. A total of 141 Peashooters of all variants were produced, and it was the last fighter produced by Boeing until the company acquired McDonnell Douglas in 1997.


Short Takeoff


Inset by Frank Vargo; Electra via Museum of Flight

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March 17, 1997 – Linda Finch takes off on a flight to recreate and complete the ill-fated round-the-world flight of Amelia Earhart. 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, 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. It should be noted that March 17 is the departure date for Earhart’s first attempt at circumnavigation of the globe. The second attempt, in which Earhart and copilot Fred Noonan disappeared, began on July 2, 1937.


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March 17, 1966 – The first flight of the Bell X-22, an experimental vertical/short takeoff and landing (V/STOL) aircraft. Lift was provided by four large ducted fans driven by four General Electric T58 turboshaft engines grouped on the rear wing. Developed to investigate the use of V/STOL takeoff 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.


Royal Air Force

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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.


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N1331HMarch 17, 1949 – The Sunkist Lady takes off to set an endurance record, remaining in the air for 1,008 hours. 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. There, they remained aloft over Southern California until the record was broken. The pilots were supplied with food and fuel by vehicles driving along a runway as they descended, and 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 used 6,552 gallons of fuel.


NASA

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March 18, 1965 – Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov becomes the first person to “walk” in space. Leonov was one of 20 Soviet Air Force pilots selected as the first cosmonauts in 1960, and his first flight to space was on board Voskhod 2 as part of Russia’s manned space program. During Leonov’s 12-minute-long extravehicular activity (EVA), a defect in the design of his spacesuit caused it to inflate to the point where he could not re-enter the capsule. He had to release a pressure valve on the suit and only then just barely made it back inside. Leonov returned to space for the second and last time in 1975 as commander of Soyuz 19, part of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in which a Soviet and an American space capsule docked together in space to mark the symbolic end of the Space Race.


US Navy

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March 18, 1961 – The first flight of the Tupolev Tu-28, a long-range interceptor introduced to the Soviet Air Force in the late 1960s and the largest interceptor to fulfill that role ever to enter service. To protect Russia’s vast territory, Tupolev designed a supersonic interceptor with an enormous fuel load, radar, and the best air-to-air missiles available at the time. The Tu-28, also called Tu-128 by the Soviets, was never intended as a dogfighter; rather, it’s mission was to intercept American bombers such as the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress. The Tu-28 had an estimated top speed of Mach 1.5 and a range of 1,600 miles, but could not fly above 15,600 feet when armed. Just under 200 were built, and the type was retired in 1990.


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March 18, 1913 – The birth of Werner Mölders, a WWII Luftwaffe fighter pilot and the leading German ace of the Spanish Civil War. During Mölder’s brief career, he became the first fighter pilot in history to achieve 100 combat victories, and was also instrumental in the development of the finger-four combat formation. After fighting in Spain, Molders took part in the Battle of France and Battle of Britain before being sent to the Eastern Front during Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia. In July 1941, Mölders was removed from combat and named Inspector General of Fighters, where he oversaw the training and tactics of German fighter pilots. On November 22, 1941, Mölders was flying as a passenger in a Heinkel He 111 to attend the funeral of Ernst Udet when the plane crashed near Breslau while attempting a landing in bad weather. Mölders was 28 years old at the time of his death.


Sheldon Ross/Columbus Dispatch via Smithsonian Institution

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March 19, 1964 – Geraldine Mock becomes the first woman to fly around the world. Piloting a single-engine Cessna 180 Skywagon (N1538C) named Spirit of Columbus, Mock took off on March 19 from Columbus, Ohio and completed the flight on April 17 after 29 days. The flight included 21 stopovers and covered 22,860 miles. In recognition of this feat, Mock was awarded the Louis Blériot Medal from the Féderation Aéronautique Internationale in 1965. In 1970, Mock published a book about her trip titled Three-Eight Charlie. She also holds numerous speed and distance records for a woman pilot, was the first to fly across the Pacific Ocean in a single-engine aircraft, and the first to cross both oceans. Her Cessna now resides at the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.


US Air Force

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March 20, 2008 – The death of Ann Baumgartner, the first American woman to fly a jet fighter. Born in Augusta, Georgia in 1918, Baumgartner was a pilot with the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program which was tasked with ferrying new aircraft from factories in the US to points of embarkation around the country. In February 1944, Baumgartner transferred to Wright Field in Ohio on a temporary assignment to test aeromedical equipment, eventually becoming assistant operations officer for the WASPs at Wright Field. On October 14, 1944, Baumgartner flew the Bell YP-59 Airacomet, America’s first jet fighter, as part of her testing duties. Following the disbanding of the WASPs in 1944, Baumgartner continued to work as a flight instructor for United Airlines.


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March 20, 1991 – Cuban Air Force pilot Maj. Orestes Lorenzo Perez defects to the US in a Russian-built fighter. While on a training mission, Perez turned his Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-23BN toward Florida and landed at Naval Air Station Key West uncontested. To the embarrassment of the US Air Force, defense radars failed to pick up the airplane and no fighters were scrambled. The MiG was eventually returned to Cuba, and Perez was given asylum in the US. The following year, Perez flew back to Cuba in a Cessna 310 and landed on a busy highway to pick up his wife and two sons who had been told that he would be returning for them. Orestes then flew back to the US, where his family was also granted asylum.


Captured J2Ms in RAF markings (UK Government)

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March 20, 1942 – The first flight of the Mitsubishi J2M Raiden (Thunderbolt), Allied reporting name Jack. The Raiden was designed by Jiro Horikoshi, who had also designed the A6M Zero, and was built to be a local defense interceptor to protect the Japanese home island from American bombers. The J2M first saw action in 1944 during the Battle of the Philippine Sea, but its lack of a turbocharger meant that it had difficultly engaging the high-flying Boeing B-29 Superfortress, though its armament of four cannons was potent, and it was occasionally effective in diving attacks. A total of 671 Raidens were built, and it was retired at the end of the war. 


US Navy

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March 20, 1935 – The first flight of the Grumman F3F, the last biplane fighter delivered to the US Navy. Designed to replace the Grumman F2F, the F3F entered service in 1936, but was removed from frontline service in 1941 at the beginning of the war. It was replaced by the Brewster F2A Buffalo, though a number of F3Fs continued to fly in a training role. The F3F also served the US Army Air Force as a trainer with the designation UC-103. Though the F3F performed the bulk of its service before the war and was obsolete by 1941, it formed the developmental basis for the Grumman F4F Wildcat, the mainstay Naval fighter in the early years of WWII.


US Navy

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March 20, 1922 The US Navy commissions the USS Langley (CV-1), its first aircraft carrier. Converted from the collier USS Jupiter, Langley was also the US Navy’s first turbo-electric ship. Langley was converted at the Navy Yard in Norfolk, Virginia and named after American aviation pioneer Samuel Pierpont Langley. The first plane to fly from her deck was a Vought VE-7 flown by Lt. Virgil Griffin on October 17, 1922. After serving off the California coast for 12 years, Langley was converted to a seaplane tender (AV-3) and served in the early part of WWII, but had to be scuttled following an attack by Japanese dive bombers on February 27, 1942.


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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