Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from March 25 through March 27.
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 of varying caliber. 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 armament. However, battle experience in Vietnam showed that the gun was still a vital weapon for close up fighting, even in a modern jet fighter. During the transition from guns to missiles, the Vought F-8 Crusader had the distinction of being the last to be armed with guns as its primary weapon, earning it the nickname “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 in 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 Crusader was powered by a single Pratt & Whitney J57 afterburning turbojet fed through a large intake on the fighter’s chin, and high speed soon became its calling card. On the F-8's maiden flight over the California desert, test pilot John Konrad pushed the Crusader past the sound barrier. It was the first US carrier-based fighter to exceed 1,000 mph, and won 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 provided insufficient 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 variants, 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 1957, and soon joined the rest of 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 which turned the F-8 into a true all-weather fighter. The Crusader made its operational debut during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 when RF-8A reconnaissance variants flew high-speed, low-level 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. Frederick the Great (or perhaps Napoleon Bonaparte) famously said that an army travels on its stomach, and since the earliest days of warfare, supplying the troops in the field has always been a critical aspect 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 during the Second World War 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 the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC). However, General Henry “Hap” Arnold saw the CW-20's potential as a cargo aircraft, and ordered 46 modified CW-20As adapted for cargo with the designation C-46 Commando.
The most obvious difference between the CW-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 earned distinction 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, known as The Hump, and provided 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.
Despite its capabilities, 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-46 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-powered fighters of WWII, jet 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, those 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 4.5. Most were conceived in the 1970s and entered service in the 1980s, and were developed as significant improvements over their 3rd-generation ancestors.
Development of the Typhoon began 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 a 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 that grew out of it. 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 flight control 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 then building fighters unique to their own special needs.
The Typhoon entered service in 2003, and is currently flying for Austria, Italy, Germany, Spain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar. Eleven other nations are also considering placing orders. British Typhoons first saw action in 2011 enforcing the no-fly zone over Libya, but limitations in its ground attack capabilities required it to work 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.
March 27, 1977 – Two Boeing 747s collide at Tenerife Airport. Effective communication between pilots and ground controllers is critical to the safe operation of any flight, from the smallest civilian prop plane to the largest commercial airliner. For that reason, English was designated as the standard language of international air traffic in 2008 to eliminate misunderstandings. Ground controllers give verbal commands to keep airports running safely, and air traffic controllers communicate with airborne aircraft to help keep planes separated in the air. In the cockpit, good communication skills are critical for a flight crew to work together and not contradict each other, or for crew members to feel free to speak up if they sense a problem. But any breakdown in this process of communication can have disastrous effects. 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 the devastating accident 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 caused numerous airliners to divert to the small Los Rodeos Airport on the nearby 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 required to taxi up the runway to get into takeoff position. Adding to the difficulties was a dense fog that had descended on the airport that significantly reduced visibility and made it impossible for the tower personnel to see the entire runway. Los Rodeos also did not have ground radar. With no way to know where the planes were positioned on the ground, controllers never knew that KLM Flight 4805, with 248 passengers and crew, had started its takeoff roll while 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 his takeoff roll, first officer Klaas Meurs was not convinced that the runway was clear. However, he was hesitant to question his senior captain. Van Zanten continued his takeoff without asking for clearance confirmation from the tower and heedless of 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 before crashing to the ground in a massive fireball. Both aircraft were destroyed, and 560 passengers and crew on the two airliners were killed. Sixty-four passengers on the Pan Am airliner survived, while all onboard the KLM 747 perished. The crash remains the single worst accident in commercial aviation history.
As a result of the tragedy, 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 non-flying professions around the world.
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. The Arrow was created as an effort by the Canadian aviation industry to develop and produce an indigenous supersonic interceptor to reduce its reliance on American aircraft manufacturers. The project progressed as far as five flying prototypes which displayed excellent performance and handling, and test flights reached a top speed of Mach 1.98. However, in a decision that remains controversial to this day, the Canadian government canceled the project, citing concerns of cost overruns, the emergence of intercontinental ballistic missiles, 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 primarily 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 he entered test pilot school, followed by his application and acceptance 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 unsuccessful 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, though it proved to be 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 speed. Just 12 feet in length, the X-43 was mounted atop a modified Pegasus air-launched rocket and then both were dropped from a Boeing B-52B mothership and the rocket was fired. 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 brought down 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, launching into space atop a Vostok spacecraft and beating the United States into space by less than two months. For his feat, Gagarin was named a Hero of the Soviet Union, Russia’s highest honor. 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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