Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from March 18 through March 20.
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 the entirely novel concept of air assault, or vertical envelopment, entered military doctrine. But the helicopter has its limitations, particularly in speed. Due to its fundamental 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 by creating an aircraft that could take off vertically like a helicopter but then transition to horizontal flight like an airplane. Ideally, the rotors that lift the aircraft like a helicopter could then be used to pull it through the air like an airplane.
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 by Operation Eagle Claw in 1980, the disastrous attempt to rescue 52 American hostages held at the American embassy in Tehran. 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 remote desert landing site caused 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 descend vertically like a helicopter.
The Osprey traces its lineage back to the Bell XV-15, which first flew in 1977 and proved that the concept of using tilting engine nacelles could provide superior performance to traditional helicopters. In 1981, work began on the Joint-service Vertical take-off/landing Experimental program (JVX) to create an aircraft with a large fuselage for troops or materiel and turboprop 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.
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 fatal 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.
Though three crashes in the early years of development led to a total of 30 deaths, 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. 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).
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 global conflict began, 2.5 million African American men registered for the draft, and at least 1 million went on to serve 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. Until the formation of the Tuskegee Airmen, no African American had ever served as a military pilot.
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 as part of the 33rd Fighter Group.
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.
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 at 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. Due in large part to the exemplary service of the Tuskegee Airmen, along with contributions of other African American servicemen, President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948 which ordered the integration of the US military and stated 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.”
March 20, 1932 – The first flight of the Boeing P-26 Peashooter. Dating back to the earliest days of aviation, the monoplane was nothing new by the early days of the Golden Age of aviation. Nevertheless, biplanes made up the vast majority of aircraft built during and after WWI, and most were made of a fabric-covered frame constructed from wood or metal tubing.But as aircraft design progressed in the 1920s and 1930s, advances in construction and aerodynamics led to the widespread adoption of the monoplane. A single wing eliminated the need for all the struts and braces found in WWI-era biplanes and helped to reduce drag and increase speeds, though the fabric-covered airframes were still used. In Germany, aircraft designers made significant advances with metal monoplanes as early as 1915, when Hugo Junkers first flew 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.
Development 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, looked much like a biplane with its top wing removed, and still employed many of the design elements found in earlier aircraft. It had fixed, panted landing gear, and its external wire bracing, the last to appear on a US fighter, kept the wings from buckling under high G loads. The wings were also relatively short, which gave the Peashooter an unacceptably high landing speed. This caused a number of crashes, and the Peashooter’s short nose meant that the stubby plane 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, while a new raised headrest protected the pilot should the plane nose 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.
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. With a top speed of 234 mph, the Peashooter was the fastest fighter in the American inventory when it was introduced, but rapid advances in aircraft design during the 1930s quickly rendered the P-26 obsolete. Fighters such as the Messerschmitt Bf 109and Hawker Hurricane were just three years away, much more modern aircraft with enclosed cockpits, retractable landing gear and cantilevered wings. By 1938, the P-26 gave way to the Seversky P-35 and Curtiss P-36. 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 Boeing fighter to enter production until the company acquired McDonnell Douglas in 1997.
(NASA)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.
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 and designated Fiddler by NATO, was never intended as a dogfighter; rather, it’s mission was to intercept American bombers such as the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress before the bombers could reach their targets. 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 served for nearly 30 years.
March 19, 1964 – Geraldine Mock becomes the first woman to fly around the world. Mock took off on March 19 from Columbus, Ohio piloting a single-engine Cessna 180 Skywagon (N1538C) christened Spirit of Columbus and completed the circumnavigation on April 17 after 29 days. Her 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. Spirit of Columbus now resides at the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington, DC.
March 20, 2008 – The death of Ann Baumgartner, the first American woman to fly a jet fighter. Born in Augusta, Georgia in 1918, Baumgartner served as a pilot with the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) during WWII and 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, and eventually became 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 and wrote as a scientific journalist.
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 uncontested at Naval Air Station Key West. 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.
March 20, 1942 – The first flight of the Mitsubishi J2M Raiden (Thunderbolt). The Raiden, Allied reporting name Jack, was designed by Jiro Horikoshi, who had also designed the A6M Zero, and was intended to serve as 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-altitude Boeing B-29 Superfortress. Nevertheless, its armament of four cannons was potent, and the Raiden was occasionally effective in diving attacks. A total of 671 Raidens were built, and it was retired at the end of the war.
March 20, 1937 – Amelia Earhart’s first attempt at circumnavigating the globe ends with a ground accident in Hawaii. Earhart was America’s best-known aviatrix of aviation’s Golden Age, and had already made a name for herself as the first woman to fly solo from Hawaii to California and the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, both taking place in 1935. The following year, Earhart had a Lockheed Electra 10E specially built for a flight around the world and, on March 17, 1937, Earhart began her first attempt at circumnavigation with a flight from Oakland, California accompanied by navigators Fred Noonan and Harry Manning, as well as technical advisor Paul Mantz. While taking off for the second leg of the flight, the Electra suffered a landing gear failure and ground looped, heavily damaging the aircraft, though nobody on board was hurt. The accident ended the round-the-world attempt, but Earhart and Noonan would try again four months later, this time flying west to east, only to disappear over the Pacific Ocean on July 2, 1937.
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 at the beginning of the war in 1941. 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.
March 20, 1922 – The US Navy commissions the USS Langley (CV 1). Converted from the collier USS Jupiter, Langley was America’s first aircraft carrier and 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 months of WWII, but had to be scuttled following an attack by Japanese bombers on February 27, 1942.
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