Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from March 24 through March 27.
March 24, 2015 – The crash of Germanwings Flight 9525. Whenever we board a commercial airliner, we can generally rest assured that the pilot is in no more of a hurry to crash the plane than we as passengers are, and that the pilot in command will do everything in his or her power to prevent a crash. However, on a number of occasions in commercial aviation history, airline passengers and people on the ground have fallen victim to a deranged pilot who commits what is known as suicide by pilot, where the pilot, for whatever reason, chooses to crash the aircraft intentionally, taking all on board with him. While the occurrences are rare, they do happen. In recent history, the first officer of EgyptAir Flight 990 allegedly locked the captain out of the cockpit and flew his Boeing 767 into the Atlantic Ocean, killing 217 passengers and crew. And, it’s possible that the captain of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH 370 intentionally flew his Boeing 777 deep into the southern Indian Ocean before running out of fuel and crashing. However, may never know the truth.
There can be little doubt about, though, what happened to Germanwings Flight 9525, when first officer Andreas Lubitz deliberately crashed into the French Alps while piloting an Airbus A320 (D-AIPX). Lubitz became a trainee pilot for Germanwings’ parent company Lufthansa in 2008, but suspended his training voluntarily after being hospitalized for severe depression. In 2013, he reentered the training program, this time in the United States. After a stint as a flight attendant, Lubitz joined Germanwings as a first officer in 2014. On the day of the crash, Lubitz was flying with Captain Patrick Sondenheimer, who had flown for Germanwings for 10 years and amassed 6,000 flight hours. Once the aircraft reached its cruising altitude of 38,000 feet on a flight from Barcelona to Düsseldorf, Captain Sondenheimer left the cockpit for a bathroom break. Once the captain was out of the cockpit, Lubitz locked the door and initiated a rapid descent, setting the autopilot for an altitude of 100 feet and pulling the engines back to idle.
When the captain returned from the lavatory, he found the cockpit door locked. Lubitz had also apparently disabled the keypad that allows entry from the cabin. The cockpit voice recorder (CVR) captured the sounds of Captain Sondenheimer first requesting reentry to the cockpit, then sounds of him banging on the door, followed by sounds of him trying to break the door down. The screams of passengers were also heard on the recording. Lubitz said nothing, and the only sound recorded from his was his slow and steady breathing. Lubitz ignored repeated attempts at communication from air traffic controllers, and a French Mirage fighter was scrambled to the scene. After a 10-minute descent, the airliner crashed into the Alps with such force that rescuers found no piece of the airliner larger than an automobile. All 150 passengers and crew were killed, making it the second worst suicide by pilot in history after the alleged EgyptAir crash, and the deadliest air crash in France since 1981.
The subsequent investigation immediately focused on First Officer Lubitz. A search of his apartment found no suicide note, but investigators did discover a letter addressed to Lubitz stating that a doctor had deemed him unfit for work. Though Lubitz had failed to notify Lufthansa of his status, it is also illegal in Germany for a company to access employees’ private medical records, so there was no way Lufthansa could have known of this change in Lubitz’s medical status. Investigators also found that Lubitz was taking prescription drugs, and had been diagnosed with a psychosomatic illness. Perhaps most damning, investigators found search records on Lubitz’s computer for “ways to commit suicide” and for descriptions of the security provisions of aircraft cockpit doors. They also discovered that Lubitz had been treated for suicidal tendencies and had been denied a commercial pilot license in the US. As a result of the crash and investigation, authorities in seven countries instituted a policy requiring that there be at least two crew members in the cockpit at all times, though the requirement was rescinded by the European Aviation Safety Agency in 2017. Canada followed suit, thought the rule remains in effect in the US.
The preliminary report by the Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses pour la Sécurité de l’Aviation Civile (BEA) can be found here.
March 24, 1935 – The first flight of the Avro Anson. For a island nation such as England, keeping watch on the surrounding seas is a vital part of national security, a task which became substantially easier with the arrival of the airplane. By the 1930s, the job maritime patrol and reconnaissance was performed by large flying boats, but those aircraft were expensive to build and operate, and required large crews. In 1933, the British Air Ministry issued a requirement for a smaller and simpler coastal patrol and maritime reconnaissance aircraft, one that could operate from land bases and supplement, though not entirely replace, the flying boats.
The de Havilland Aircraft Company responded with their DH.89 Dragon Rapide, a twin-engine biplane airliner that carried 6-8 passengers, while Avro offered its Type 652A, a modified version of their Avro 652 airliner. In the ensuing competition, the Avro aircraft was deemed superior, and an initial contract for 174 aircraft was awarded in 1935. The name “Anson” was given to the project in honor of 18th-century British Admiral of the Fleet George Anson. Like many aircraft developed in the years leading up to WWII, the Anson was a low wing cantilever monoplane with the wing constructed mostly of spruce plywood, while the fuselage was a fabric-covered framework of metal tubes. The landing gear, while retractable, required no less than 144 cranks of a handle in the cockpit to pull the wheels up, so many shorter flights were taken with the landing gear down. The Anson was powered by a pair of Armstrong Siddeley Cheetah radial engines that provided a top speed of 188 mph with a range of just under 800 miles.
Initially, the Anson carried a crew of three. The pilot was responsible for aiming the fixed, forward-firing .303 caliber machine gun, while the radio operator/gunner manned a single .303 caliber Vickers K machine gun housed in a dorsal turret. A fourth crew member was added after 1938. In addition to the machine guns, up to 360 pounds of bombs could be carried on underwing stations. The Anson entered service with the RAF in March 1936 and, though the it was designed for maritime patrol, it really came into its own as a training aircraft, and it’s patrol duties were taken over by the newly-arrived Lockheed Hudson. By the time England entered WWII, the RAF had 824 Ansons, the majority of which were used to train bomber crews in multi-engine aircraft operation before they transitioned to training in large bombers. It was also used to train navigators, radio operators and bombardiers, and a powered turret was added to train defensive gunners in aerial gunnery.
After the war, production of the Anson continued for use as a small civilian airliner and executive aircraft. By the time production finally ended in 1952, just over 11,000 Ansons had been built, with nearly 3,000 of those produced by Federal Aircraft in Canada, production numbers that are second only to the Vickers Wellington bomber in total aircraft built.
March 25, 1955 – The first flight of the Vought F-8 Crusader. When the first dedicated fighter planes went to war in WWI they were armed with machine guns and, by WWII, the machine guns were supplemented with or replaced by harder hitting cannons. In the period after the war, when more powerful jet fighters entered service, machine guns gave way to guided missiles and, in some cases, the guns were removed entirely in the belief that missiles alone, fired from long range, would be sufficient. However, battle experience in Vietnam showed that the day of the gun was not passed, even in a modern fighter. But during the transition from guns to missiles, one fighter had the distinction of being the last to use guns as its primary weapon, and that was the Vought F-8 Crusader, nicknamed “The Last of the Gunfighters.”
Development of the Crusader began in 1952 when the Navy announced a requirement for a new supersonic fighter to replace the problematic Vought F7U Cutlass, an innovative fighter that was plagued with difficulties and only served in relatively small numbers. The requirement called for a carrier-based fighter with a top speed of Mach 1.2 at 30,000 feet, a climb rate of 25,000 feet per minute and a landing speed not to exceed 100 mph. Though the Crusader represented much of the standard design elements of its day, such as a notched leading edge on the wing for greater yaw stability and a solid stabilator tailplane, it was unique that its wing was mounted high on the fuselage. To reduce landing speeds and improve pilot visibility, the entire wing pivoted upward seven degrees, an innovation that earned Vought and the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer) the Collier Trophy in 1956. Despite this innovation, high landing speeds still required the carrier to steam at full speed during landing operations. The F-8 was powered by a single Pratt & Whitney J57 afterburning turbojet fed through a large intake on the fighter’s chin.
The Crusader made a name for itself for its high speed and heavy firepower. On the maiden flight over the California desert, test pilot John Konrad pushed the F-8 past the sound barrier, and speed would become one of the Crusader’s hallmarks. It was the first US carrier-based fighter to exceed 1,000 mph, winning the Thompson Trophy for achieving a speed of 1,015 mph. On July 16, 1957, Maj. John Glenn, who would later become the first American to orbit the Earth, made the first non-stop transcontinental flight at an average speed of over Mach 1. Maximum speed in normal operations was Mach 1.7, and cruising speed was 570 mph with a combat radius of 450 miles. Based on experience in the Korean War, where machine guns proved to lack the hitting power to knock down enemy fighters, the Crusader was armed with four 20mm Colt Mk 12 cannons in the lower fuselage capable of firing 1,000 rounds per minute and, on earlier models, a retractable tray was installed below the fuselage that could hold air-to-air or air-to-ground rockets. In later models, the tray was removed to provide more space for fuel. Hardpoints on the side of the fuselage or under the wing carried rockets, missiles or bombs.
The Crusader entered US Navy service with fighter squadron VF-32 in March of 1957, and soon joined the fleet as a day fighter. Early F-8s were fitted with a small radar in the nose, while later models received more powerful AN/APQ radars, turning the F-8 into a true all-weather fighter. During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the Crusader made its operational debut when RF-8A reconnaissance aircraft flew low-level, high-speed photo missions over the island and provided irrefutable evidence to the world that the Russians were indeed building nuclear missiles bases in Cuba. In Vietnam, Crusaders were the first to engage North Vietnamese fighters, and also took part in ground attack missions. Crusader pilots claimed 19 enemy fighters shot down, all but two being MiG-17s. Vought eventually produced 1,219 Crusaders, and the type was retired from active duty in 1976, though the reconnaissance variant served until 1987. Crusaders also flew for the Philippines and France, with France retiring the last of their Crusaders in 1999.
March 26, 1940 – The first flight of the Curtiss C-46 Commando. Napoloen famously said that an army travels on its stomach and, as far back as the Romans, supplying the troops in the field has always been a critical part of waging war. Even as late as WWII, the horse and mule still played a vital role in logistics, and continued to do so throughout the conflict. But the airplane finally became a major mover of large amounts of materiel, capable of covering far greater distances than previously imagined, even across the tallest mountains in the world.
The C-46 Commando began its life as a pressurized high-altitude airliner known as the Curtiss CW-20 that Curtiss hoped would compete with the Douglas DC-4 and Boeing 307 Stratoliner, both four-engine airliners. Unlike its competitors, however, the CW-20 was designed with two engines to keep the design simpler, and was also given a “double bubble” fuselage. Where most aircraft have a single pressurized tube for passengers and cargo, a double bubble design stacks one tube on top of another, giving the aircraft a figure-8 cross section which allows for more internal space. Unfortunately for Curtiss, the airlines’ interest in the CW-20 was tepid at best, and no firm orders were placed for the aircraft. Still, Curtiss had 25 letters of intent to purchase in hand, so they began production of the 24-34 seat airliner anyway. The first prototype was purchased by the US Army Air Forces, but they returned the aircraft to Curtiss, who then sold it to BOAC. However, General Henry “Hap” Arnold saw the CW-20's potential as a cargo aircraft, and he ordered 46 modified CW-20As adapted for cargo with the designation C-46 Commando.
The most obvious difference between the CS-20 and The C-46A was the replacement of the double tail with a single vertical stabilizer. It also had enlarged cargo doors, a strengthened floor, and a cabin that could quickly convert from cargo to passengers. The Army subsequently ordered 200 of these aircraft, and the engines were changed from the original Wright R-2600 Twin Cyclones to a pair of more powerful Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp engines. The Commando was introduced in 1941 at the start of WWII, and was best known for its service in the China-Burma-India Theater. There, the Commando’s high-altitude design made it the ideal aircraft for flying supplies over the Himalayas, better known as The Hump, providing vital materiel to the armies of the Republic of China fighting against the Japanese. The C-46 could haul more cargo than other twin-engine cargo aircraft of its day, and loads often included light artillery, fuel, ammunition, aircraft parts, and even livestock. Its powerful engines allowed the Commando to fly in the thin air over the world’s tallest mountains, and loads of up to 40,000 pounds were possible in emergency situations. It could also operate fully loaded on a single engine
Manufactured in 1942, this C-42 continues to be flown by Everts Air Cargo in AlaskaStill, the Commando was not without its faults. It had a reputation for poor reliability, and many pilots nicknamed the aircraft the “flying coffin” or the “Curtiss Calamity.” It was plagued with problems with its automatic propeller pitch control, engine fires, and unexplained airborne explosions. At least 31 Commandos exploded in flight over the inhospitable Himalaya. Curtiss built nearly 3,200 Commandos during the war, and they hoped to return the C-36 to civilian airliner service once the war had ended. But high maintenance costs and poor fuel economy meant that the airlines simply weren’t interested. So the C-46 went back to what it did best, hauling cargo, and many still ply the harsh northern and arctic routes to this day.
March 27, 1994 – The first flight of the Eurofighter Typhoon. Beginning with the first jet fighters of WWII, fighter development has been broken down into generations, with each generation seeing successive improvements in speed and capability, as well as refinements to basic aircraft design and improved aerodynamics. The most technologically advanced fighters in service today belong to the 5th generation, fighters that feature advances such as stealth, thrust vectoring, and networked battle management. But by far, most jet fighters in service today are 4th-generation fighters, or somewhat more advanced aircraft that are considered generation 4-and-a-half. Most were conceived in the 1970s and entered service in the 1980s, and were developed as significant improvements over their 3rd-generation ancestors.
The development of the Typhoon traces back to 1971, when both the United Kingdom and Germany sought to replace the US-designed 3rd-generation McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II and Lockheed F-104 Starfighter currently in service. Engineers in the UK had been working on fighter that would have been similar to the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet, while German designers were working on a delta-wing design with forward canards. Through a rather tangled web of shifting European partnerships that at one time or another included England, Germany, France, Italy and Spain, an aircraft known as the British Aerospace EAP (Experimental Fighter Program) finally emerged in 1986 which set the basic layout for the Typhoon design. But there were some notable differences between the EAP and the Typhoon. Where the EAP used a cranked delta wing, tall vertical stabilizer and box air intake, the Typhoon employs a straight delta, shortened stabilizer, and more aerodynamic curved air intake.
The Typhoon is powered by a pair of Eurojet EJ2000 afterburning turbofans that produce up to 20,230 pounds of thrust each and offer a maximum speed of Mach 2 at altitude, with supercruise capabilities at Mach 1.25. It is armed with a single Mauser BK-27 revolver cannon, and can carry a full complement of up to 16,500 pounds of bombs or missiles. In order to make the Typhoon an agile dogfighter, the aircraft is built with relaxed stability, meaning that the design is inherently unstable and would be unflyable without the aid of computers and fly-by-wire technology. Following a successful maiden flight, the first production contract was signed on January 30, 1998. The Typhoon is built on four separate assembly lines, with each partner nation producing parts for all the aircraft but building fighters unique to their own special needs.
The Typhoon entered service in 2003, and is currently flying for Austria, Italy, Germany, Spain, Oman and Saudi Arabia. Kuwait and Qatar have placed orders for the Typhoon and are awaiting delivery, and eleven other nations are considering placing orders. British Typhoons first saw action in 2011 enforcing the no-fly zone over Libya, but limitations in its ground attack capabilities have seen it working alongside older Panavia Tornados in the ground attack role in Libya and the Syrian Civil War. Saudi Typhoons have also flown combat missions in Syria. Though the Typhoon is still under development, with improvements to radar and weapons systems taking place throughout production, European nations are hesitant to make significant future investments into the program, instead choosing to await the Typhoon’s replacement. England is currently developing the 5th generation Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, and expects to see it enter service by 2030. (Photo by Tim Felce via Wikimedia Commons; photo by Mean as custard via Wikimedia Commons)
March 27, 1977 – Two Boeing 747s collide at Tenerife Airport. Except in the case of terrorism or any other singular event (such as a missile strike or a deranged pilot), aviation disasters are most often caused by a chain of events that can begin with poor maintenance procedures or a breakdown in crew communication, a chain that can be broken at any link to prevent catastrophe. When two fully loaded Boeing 747s collided on a foggy runway on the small island of Tenerife, it marked the worst accident in the history of commercial aviation, and it had everything to do with poor communications, and the hubris of one pilot in command.
On the day of the disaster, a terrorist bombing at the Gran Canaria Airport carried out by the Canary Islands Independence Movement (CIIM) caused numerous airliners to diverted to the small Los Rodeos Airport on the island of Tenerife in the Canary Islands. With limited apace and only a single runway, controllers at Los Rodeos were forced to position aircraft on taxiways, and departing aircraft were forced to taxi on the runway to get into takeoff position. Adding to the difficulties was a dense fog that had descended on the airport which significantly reduced visibility and made it impossible for the tower personnel to see the entire runway. Los Rodeos also did not have ground radar. When KLM Flight 4805, with 248 passengers and crew, started its takeoff roll, Pan Am Flight 1736, with 335 passengers and crew, was still on the runway, taxiing to its takeoff position.
The captain of the KLM airliner was Veldhuyzen van Zanten, one of KLM’s most famous pilots and the airline’s chief flight instructor on the 747. He carried a commanding presence in the cockpit, so much so that it would have been difficult for any junior member of the crew to question his decisions. As van Zanten commenced takeoff, first officer Klaas Meurs was not convinced that the runway was clear, but he was hesitant to question his captain. Van Zanten continued his takeoff roll without asking for clearance confirmation from the tower or heeding the concerns of his first officer. When the Pan Am pilot saw the rapidly approaching KLM jumbo jet, he desperately tried to clear the runway via a runway exit, but just as the KLM 747 was leaving the ground it struck the Pan Am 747 just behind the cockpit at approximately 160 mph. The KLM jumbo remained airborne briefly, but soon crashed to the ground in a massive fireball. Both aircraft were destroyed, and the collision resulted in the deaths of 560 passengers and crew on the two airliners. Sixty-four passengers on the Pan Am airliner survived, but all onboard the KLM 747 were killed, and the crash remains the single worst accident in commercial aviation history.
As a result of the crash, international regulators made major changes to takeoff and flight crew procedures. Standard communications phrases were adopted in English, and air traffic controllers were required to read back pilot responses rather than reply with a simple “Roger” or “Okay.” But even more far reaching, the crash helped lead to the development of Crew Resource Management, a system of crew communication that allows even the most junior pilot or cabin crew member to question the decisions made by the commanding pilot without fear of reprisal. CRM has now become an industry standard, and has also been adopted by many other professions around the world.
March 24, 1971 – Boeing cancels the B2707 supersonic transport. Envisioned as a larger and faster supersonic transport to rival the Aérospatiale/BAC Concorde, the B2707 arose from a competition initiated by the National Supersonic Transport program announced by President Kennedy in 1963. The B2707 project advanced as far as the construction of two prototypes, neither of which were completed, before the project was canceled. Rising environmental concerns over pollution, fuel consumption and noise levels, as well as a lack of funding, ultimately led to the end of the program and the loss of as many as 60,000 jobs.
March 24, 1944 – RAF Flight Sergeant Nicholas Alkemade jumps out of his burning bomber without a parachute during a raid on Germany. Alkemade was taking part in a raid on Berlin when his Avro Lancaster was attacked and shot down by a Junkers Ju 88 night fighter. With the bomber on fire and his parachute damaged, Alkemade decided it would be preferable to die from falling rather than being burned to death, so he bailed out at 18,000 feet and fell into a forest, where tree branches slowed his fall before he came to rest in a deep snowdrift, suffering from severe bruising and a sprained leg. He was captured by German troops and finished the war as a POW. Alkemade died in 1987.
March 25, 1971 – The first flight of the Ilyushin Il-76. The strategic airlifter was first developed by Ilyushin as a commercial freighter in 1967 to replace the turboprop-powered Antonov An-12, and it also saw service with the Russian military as a cargo aircraft, transport and aerial tanker. Like most Russian aircraft, the Il-76 was built to operate from unimproved or grass runways, a capability that has proven especially useful in international disaster relief. The Il-76, NATO reporting name Candid, has been developed into numerous variants and has been exported to 37 international customers. The aircraft remains in production, and 960 have been built to date.
March 25, 1958 – The first flight of the Avro Canada CF-105 Arrow, an attempt by the Canadian aviation industry to develop and produce an indigenous supersonic interceptor. The project progressed as far as flying prototypes which displayed excellent performance and handling, reaching a top speed of Mach 1.98. However, the Canadian government controversially canceled the project, citing concerns of cost overruns and the threat of Soviet espionage. Following the cancelation on February 20, 1959, all the finished and unfinished aircraft were destroyed along with all engineering tools and plans.
March 25, 1931 – The first flight of the Hawker Fury, a development of the earlier Hawker F.20/27 and the first RAF fighter capable of speeds in excess of 200 mph. The Fury improved on the F.20 mainly with the introduction of the Rolls-Royce Kestrel V-12 engine that was in use in the Hawker Hart light bomber. The Fury I entered service with the RAF in 1931, with the upgraded Fury II joining five years later. It remained in service until January 1939, shortly before England’s entry in to WWII. A total of 275 Furies were produced.
March 25, 1928 – The birth of James “Jim” Arthur Lovell, an American astronaut who took part in the Gemini and Apollo space programs and is best known as the commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission. Prior to his NASA career, Lovell flew the McDonnell F2H Banshee for the US Navy before entering test pilot school and then applying for the Astronaut Corps. His first flight to space was on Gemini 7, where Lovell, along with Command Pilot Frank Borman, set an endurance record of 14 days in space. Later, Lovell commanded Gemini 12 with pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and also served as the command module pilot of Apollo 8, the first Apollo mission to orbit the Moon. Following the Apollo 13 mission, Lovell left NASA to work in private industry.
March 26, 1956 – The first flight of the Temco TT Pinto, a two-seat, tandem jet trainer developed by Temco Aircraft for the US Air Force. The Pinto was developed in response to an Air Force requirement for a primary jet trainer, but lost the competition for a production contract to the Cessna T-47 Tweet. The Pinto was powered by a single Continental Motors J69 jet engine and had a maximum speed of 345 mph. Like regular jet fighters, the Pinto was equipped with ejection seats, though it was underpowered, particularly for emergency maneuvering. Fifteen were built, but they were retired by the end of 1960 and sold as surplus. Seven remain registered to civilian pilots, while one resides in the Philippine Air Force Museum.
March 27, 2004 – NASA’s X-43 flies nearly seven times the speed of sound. The X-43 was an unmanned experimental hypersonic research aircraft built to test flight flight at extreme speeds. The X-43 was placed atop a modified Pegasus air-launched rocket and then dropped from a Boeing B-52B mothership. After the rocket fuel was exhausted, the X-43 flew on its own powered by a supersonic-combustion “scramjet” engine fueled primarily by hydrogen. On its second test in March 2004, the X-43 reached Mach 6.83 (4,600 mph), and the upgraded X-43 reached Mach 9.68 at 110,000 feet on November 16, 2004. The program was suspended in June 2013.
March 27, 1999 – A US Air Force Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk is shot down over Serbia. During the NATO bombing of the former Yugoslavia dubbed Operation Allied Force and Operation Noble Anvil, a unit of the Yugoslav Army hit the Nighthawk with an S-125 Neva/Pechora guided missile. Though the Nighthawk is mostly undetectable by standard radar, Yugoslav forces discovered a way to track the F-117 by modifying their older radar systems to detect the fighter with long wavelengths that spotted the aircraft when landing gear or bomb bay doors were opened. The pilot ejected and was rescued by a US Air Force combat search and rescue team, and the wreckage of the F-117, the only Nighthawk ever lost in combat, now resides in a Serbian museum.
March 27, 1968 – The death of Yuri Gagarin. Gagarin made history on April 12, 1961 when he became the first man to orbit the Earth in a Vostok spacecraft, beating the United States into space by less than two months. For his feat, Gagarin was award Russia’s highest honor, the Hero of the Soviet Union, though he never went to space again. Gagarin was named the deputy training director of the Cosmonaut Training Center near Moscow, but was killed in the crash of his Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15UTI training jet along with instructor Vladimir Seryogin. The cause of the crash remains a matter of dispute.
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