Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting you caught up on milestones, personalities, and important historical events in aviation from March 26 through March 29.


March 26, 1940 – The first flight of the Curtiss C-46 Commando. Napoloen famously said that an army travels on its stomach, and the assets necessary to keep fighting soldiers in the field always far outnumber the men with guns. During WWII, the airplane became the new Army mule, and was capable of covering far greater distances than previously imagined, even across the tallest mountains in the world. Like other military cargo planes of its era, the Commando began its life as a large pressurized 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. But unlike its competitors, the CW-20 was designed with only two engines to keep the design simpler, and was also designed with 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. This arrangement not only provides more internal space but also provides more fuselage strength at higher altitudes. Initially, the CW-20 incorporated a twin tail, but that design was changed to a traditional design to improve low speed performance. Unfortunately for Curtiss, the airlines’ interest in the CW-20 was tepid at best, and no firm orders were placed for the aircraft. Still, with 25 letters of intent to purchase in hand, Curtiss began production of the 24-34 seat airliner, and the first prototype was purchased by the US Army Air Forces. Tthough the USAAF wasn’t interested in the aircraft as a transport, General Henry “Hap” Arnold saw its potential as a cargo aircraft, and he ordered 46 modified CW-20As outfitted for cargo use, and the name C-46 Commando was given to the aircraft. 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 was put to work 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, and aircraft parts. 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. Still, the Commando had a reputation for poor reliability, and many pilots nicknamed the aircraft the “flying coffin” or the “Curtiss Calamity.” It was plagued with unreliability, engine fires and unexplained airborne explosions. Following the war, and production of nearly 3,200 Commandos, Curtiss hoped to return the C-46 to civilian airliner service. But high maintenance costs and poor fuel economy meant that the airlines simply weren’t interested. Instead, the remaining C-46s went into service with cargo companies, and many still ply the harsh northern and arctic routes to this day. (US Air Force photo)


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March 27, 1994 – The first flight of the Eurofighter Typhoon. With the end of the Cold War in 1991, development of new fighter jets was drastically curtailed as part of the so-called peace dividend. Though work on 5th generation fighters slowed, development of new fighters didn’t stop. Advances in microchip and semiconductor design made during the 1980s and 1990s opened up new opportunities for aircraft design, and brought about what is now called the 4.5 generation of fighters such as the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet, Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Rafale. While these designs weren’t revolutionary, they took advantage of existing aircraft, as in the Super Hornet, or utilized designs based on existing aircraft or technologies. The development of the Typhoon traces all the way back to 1971, when the United Kingdom identified a need for a new fighter. Working together with Germany, France, Spain and Italy, England took part on the European Combat Aircraft program, though France eventually left the group to develop the Rafale on their own, an aircraft very similar in design and mission to the Typhoon. The Typhoon began with the BAe Experimental Aircraft Programme (EAP) that produced a single prototype of what would become the basis for the Typhoon, a twin-engine delta wing fighter with forward canards for added agility. Following a successful maiden flight, the first production contract was signed on January 30, 1998, with orders for 620 aircraft distributed among the partner nations. 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 fighter 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 bombs or missiles up to 16,500 pounds. The Typhoon entered service in 2003, and is currently flying for Austria, Italy, Germany, Spain and Saudi Arabia. More international customers have ordered aircraft and are awaiting delivery. British Typhoons first saw service in 2011 enforcing the no-fly zone over Libya, though it has yet to see service in Afghanistan or Syria. Numerous improvements have been suggested or ordered by export customers, but European nations are hesitant to put more money 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 Krasimir Grozev via Wikimedia Commons)


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March 27, 1977 – Two Boeing 747s collide at Tenerife Airport in the worst accident in the history of commercial aviation. 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 lapses in aircraft maintenance or crew procedure that create a string of events that can be broken at any time to prevent catastrophe. The worst accident in the history of commercial aviation had nothing to do with equipment problems, and had everything to do with poor communications and the hubris of one of the pilots. 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. 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 on the ground, controllers were forced to park 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. The small airport also lacked ground radar to track planes that could not be seen from the tower. Due to miscommunications between the pilot and air traffic controllers, the KLM 747 began its takeoff roll without clearance from the tower while the Pan Am 747 was using the main runway to taxi for takeoff. The first officer on the KLM airliner, who wasn’t certain that the runway was clear, was hesitant to say anything to the captain who was many years his senior and in command of the aircraft at the time. The KLM captain believed that the runway was clear, continued his takeoff without asking for confirmation from the tower or heeding the doubts of his first officer. When the Pan Am pilot saw the approaching KLM jumbo jet, he desperately tried to clear the runway, but just as the KLM aircraft was leaving the ground it struck the Pan Am airliner just behind the cockpit at approximately 160 mph. The KLM jumbo remained airborne briefly, but soon crashed to the ground. Both aircraft were destroyed. All 234 passengers and crew were killed on the KLM jumbo jet, and 326 passengers and crew of the Pan Am flight were killed, though 64 survived, including the flight crew. 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 repercussions. CRM has now become an industry standard, and has also been adopted by many other professions around the world. (Photo author unknown)


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March 26, 2006 – Hooters Air ends service. Hooters Air was founded by Robert Brooks, the owner of Hooters of America, a company best known for its family-friendly restaurants that feature both wings and breasts. Brooks acquired Pace Airlines in 2002 and rebranded the jets in Hooters Air livery, focusing on the golfing set and hoping to lure business with passengers who wanted to take flyaway golf trips. Each flight was staffed by two Hooters waitresses in the standard Hooters attire, in addition to a standard complement of appropriately dressed flight attendants. Hooters Air ceased operation on April 17, 2006 after expenses estimated at $40 million. (Photo by E McCutchan via Wikimedia Commons)


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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 booster rocket and then dropped from a Boeing B-52B mothership. After the rocket 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. While 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 using long wavelengths that detected the aircraft when landing gear or bomb bay doors were open. 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, 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 the world’s largest airline when measured by number of destinations, and the second largest when measured by scheduled passenger-miles flown. 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 2MR8, 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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March 29, 1960 – The first flight of the Tupolev Tu-124, a twin engine airliner developed from the Tupolev Tu-104 and designed to meet Aeroflot’s requirement for a new regional airliner to replace the Ilyushin Il-14. The Tu-124 was powered by a pair of Soloviev D-20P turbofans that were more efficient than the turbojets of the Tu-104, and it could carry up to 56 passengers at a cruising speed of 540 mph with a range of 1,3oo miles. The Tu-124 was introduced in 1962, and was exported to numerous Soviet bloc countries as well as India and Iraq. A total of 164 were produced, and it was finally withdrawn from Russian military service in 1992. (Photo by Lars Söderström via Wikimedia Commons)


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March 29, 1912 – The birth of Hanna Reitsch, a German aviatrix and test pilot, and the only woman awarded the Iron Cross First Class and the Luftwaffe Pilot Observer Badge for her service during WWII. Reitsch set over forty altitude and endurance records flying gliders, and served as a test pilot on the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka, Dornier Do 17 and Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet rocket plane. She was the first female helicopter pilot and one of the few to fly the Focke-Achgelis Fa 61, the world’s first fully controllable helicopter, which she famously demonstrated inside the Deutschlandhalle during the International Automobile Exhibition in Berlin. Reitsch was captured near the end of the war, and after her release she continued flying gliders, setting yet more records. Reitsch died in 1979. (Photo author unknown)


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