Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from March 25 through March 28.


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 hard hitting cannons. Eventually, the guns gave way to guided missiles before the realization that guns were still a necessary component, even in a 21st century fighter. But during that 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, on its very first flight from Edwards AFB, test pilot John Konrad pushed the Crusader past the sound barrier, and speed would become one of the Crusader’s hallmarks. The F-8 was the first US carrier-based fighter to exceed 1,000 mph, winning the Thompson Trophy that year for achieving a speed of 1,015 mph and, on July 16, 1957, Maj. John Glenn 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.

F-8J Crusader of VF-191 lands onboard the USS Oriskany, showing its raised wing to lower landing speeds

Based on experience in the Korean War, where machine guns proved to lack the 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 could carry 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, 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. (US Navy photos)

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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 the most important part of carrying on a war. Even by WWII, the horse and mule were still playing a vital role in logistics, and continued to do so throughout the conflict. But the airplane finally became the primary 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 only 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 weren’t interested in the aircraft as a transport. General Henry “Hap” Arnold saw the CW-20's potential as a cargo aircraft, and he ordered 46 modified CW-20As adapted for cargo use and received the name C-46 Commando. Unlike its airliner predecessor, the C-46A 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 but, before production could get under way in earnest, 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 Republic of China armies fighting the Japanese. The C-46 could haul more cargo than other twin-engine cargo aircraft of its day, and loads often including light artillery, fuel, ammunition, aircraft parts, and even livestock. Its powerful engines allowed it to fly in the thin air over the world’s tallest mountains, it could operate fully loaded on just one engine, and loads of up to 40,000 pounds were possible in emergency situations.

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Manufactured in 1942, this C-42 continues to be flown by Everts Air Cargo in Alaska

Still, 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. (US Air Force photo; photo by Frank Kovalchek via Wikimedia Commons)


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March 27, 1994 – The first flight of the Eurofighter Typhoon. From the introduction of the jet fighter in WWII to today, fighter development has been broken down into 5 generations. Each generation saw successive improvements in speed and capability, as well as refinements to basic aircraft design and improved aerodynamics. Today, there are a few 5th-generation fighters in service, mostly with the United States, aircraft that feature the latest advancements in stealth technology, thrust vectoring and networked communications. But by far, the most jet fighters in service today are 4th-generation fighters, or somewhat more advanced aircraft that are considered generation 4.5. Most of these aircraft 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 all the way 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. Engineers in the UK had been working on an aircraft that would have been similar to the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet, while German designers were working on a delta-wing 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 that served as the basis 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.

British Aerospace EAP, the technology demonstrator for the Typhoon

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. 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. 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 and Saudi Arabia. Kuwait and Oman have placed orders for the Typhoon and are awaiting delivery, and eleven other nations are considering placing orders. British Typhoons first saw service 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)

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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 lapse in aircraft maintenance procedures or a breakdown in crew communications that creates a chain of events, a chain that could be broken at any time 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 accident, numerous airliners had diverted to the small Los Rodeos Airport on the island of Tenerife in the Canary Islands because of a terrorist bombing at the Gran Canaria Airport carried out by the Canary Islands Independence Movement (CIIM). Two of those aircraft, KLM Flight 4805 and Pan Am Flight 1736, both Boeing 747s loaded with vacation-goers, had landed at Los Rodeos and, due to the large number of aircraft parked at the airport, controllers were forced to position some of the airliners on taxiways. When the time came for aircraft to depart Los Rodeos, a dense fog had descended on the airport, significantly reducing visibility, and the small airport lacked ground radar to track planes that could not be seen from the tower. With the taxiways jammed with parked aircraft, the main runway had to be used to taxi into takeoff position, and due to miscommunications between the KLM pilot and ground controllers, the KLM 747 began its takeoff roll while the Pan Am 747 was still taxiing into position on the main runway

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Captan van Zanten was featured in this ad for KLM, which was in the onboard magazine on Flight 4805

The captain of the KLM airliner was Veldhuyzen van Zanten, one of KLM’s most famous pilots and the chief flight instructor on the 747. He bore a commanding presence in the cockpit, and it would have been difficult for the crew to question his decisions. As van Zanten commenced takeoff, first officer Klaas Meurs, the junior officer on the flight deck, 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 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. 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. (Photo author unknown; KLM advertisement)


Short Takeoff


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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. (Photo by aceebee via Wikimedia Commons)


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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. Read more about the Avro Arrow at Aviation History. (Canadian government photo)


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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. (Photo via Tangmere Military Aviation Museum)


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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. During Apollo 13, an explosion on the service module caused Lovell and his crew to abort the Moon landing, though they eventually returned safely to Earth. Lovell left NASA after Apollo 13 to work in private industry. (NASA photo)


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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. (US Navy photo)


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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. (NASA Illustration)


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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. (Serbian Army photo via The Aviationist)


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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. He 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. (Polish MiG 15UTI photo by KGG1951 via Wikimedia Commons; Gagarin photo via Swedish government)


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March 28, 1931 – United Air Lines is formed by the combination of Boeing Air Transport (previously merged with Pratt & Whitney to create United Aircraft and Transport Corporation), National Air Transport, Varney Airlines and Pacific Air Transport. United began transcontinental flights in 1933 flying the Boeing Model 247, the first all-metal jetliner. Today, United is one of the world’s largest airlines with nearly 87,000 employees, and the second largest when measured by scheduled passenger-miles flown and number of routes. In 2010, United merged with Continental, and the company changed its name to United Continental Holdings to reflect the merger. (Photo via San Diego Air & Space Museum)


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March 28, 1931 – The first flight of the Mitsubishi 2MR, a parasol wing reconnaissance monoplane designed for the Imperial Japanese Army and the first Japanese military aircraft to be both designed and built in Japan. All four prototypes took their maiden flight on the same date, and Mitsubishi eventually produced 230 aircraft. The 2MR8 saw service in Manchuria beginning in 1933, and were also used by the Chinese Air Force during the Second Sino-Japanese War. (Japanese government photo)


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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 and aviators at Wingspan and Planes You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of.

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