Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from March 27 through March 29.
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, 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.
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 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 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 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.
March 27, 1977 – Two Boeing 747s collide at Tenerife Airport. The safety of any flight is almost always dependent on good communication. 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, and 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.
Top: KLM Boeing 747 (PH-BUF), the aircraft that struck the Pan Am 747 (clipper arctic). Bottom: A Pan Am 747 similar to the one that was destroyed at Tenerife (Michel Gilliand)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 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 on 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 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 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 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 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. 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 29, 2001 – The first flight of the X-32B Joint Strike Fighter. In 1960, both the US Air Force and US Navy were looking to develop a new large tactical fighter/bomber and, in an effort to dave money, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara dictated that the two services must work together to find one aircraft that could serve both branches. The result of that directive was the Tactical Fighter Experimental (TFX) program that led to the development of the General Dynamics F-111. But it soon became clear that the two services had very different missions in mind for the aircraft, and the Navy eventually dropped out of the program to develop the Grumman F-14 Tomcat instead. The moral of that story is that, no matter how hard you try, it is extraordinarily difficult to make a single aircraft that can fulfill such different and specific roles. But that didn’t stop the US Department of Defense from trying the same thing again, but this time, with a fighter for all three fixed-wing services (the last to do that successfully was the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II).
Through the merger of various ongoing aircraft procurement programs, the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program was launched in 1993 to develop a single basic airframe that could fulfill the strike, fighter, and ground attack roles, be capable of short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL), and employ stealth technology. Boeing and Lockheed Martin were chosen to build prototypes, which became the X-32 and X-35 respectively. Though both aircraft shared the same mission parameters, the two companies worked to solve the design challenges in very different ways, and they were only permitted to use the money provided by the DOD. Boeing’s goal was to create three different versions of the same fighter with as many common parts as possible, so where Lockheed Martin designed a complex, shaft-driven fan for the STOVL variant of the X-35, Boeing opted for using vectored thrust coming from an engine placed well forward in the fuselage. This engine placement, along with its pronounced chin intake, is what gave the X-32 its ungainly appearance. But this large intake, with the engine almost directly behind it, had the negative impact of exposing the turbine blades to radar detection, a problem that Boeing had plans to mitigate but were never fully developed. Boeing also chose a single piece, carbon fiber composite delta wing that was capable of holding 20,000 pounds of fuel.
However, 8 months into the construction of the prototype, the Navy changed their requirements, and Boeing was forced to redesign the tail of the aircraft. Since there was no time to work those changes into the prototypes before testing began, Boeing was forced to use two different configurations to prove their technology. The X-32A was the conventional takeoff aircraft for the Air Force and Navy (CTOL), while the X-32B was the STOVL demonstrator for the Marine Corps. The first flight of the X-32A took place on September 18, 2000, followed six months later by the X-32B. The X-32B was powered by a Pratt & Whitney F119 afterburning turbofan which gave the fighter a top speed Mach 1.6 in level flight. To transition to vertical landing, a butterfly valve redirected the jet output to vectoring nozzles, and attitude was controlled by ducted nozzles on the wingtips, with others fore and aft on the fuselage. This configuration meant that the X-32B was powered by a direct lift engine, similar to the McDonnell Douglas AV-8B Harrier II. While this arrangement was significantly less complex than the system derived by Lockheed Martin, it had the drawback of being less powerful, and not capable of carrying the same loads. In fact, Boeing had to remove panels to reduce weight for the STOVL test flights.
After the flyoff competition, the X-35 was chosen over the X-32 on October 26, 2001, and that aircraft went on to become the F-35 Lightning II, an aircraft that has seen significant problems and cost overruns in its development. We will never know if the Boeing aircraft would have been any easier or cheaper to develop. Though Boeing lost the billions of dollars they stood to gain had they won the contract, the X-32 still provided invaluable research data and experience with advanced designs and materials. Both the X-32A and X-32B have been preserved, with the former awaiting restoration at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, and the latter on display at the Patuxent River Naval Air 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, 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.
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 airliner. Today, United is one of the world’s largest airlines with approximately 83,000 employees, and the third largest when measured by scheduled passenger-miles flown and fleet size, with service to 342 destinations in 60 countries. In 2010, United merged with Continental, and the company changed its name to United Continental Holdings to reflect the merger.
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.
March 28, 1910 – French aviator and inventor Henri Fabre performs the first flight to take off from the water. The son of a shipbuilding family, Fabre joined his interests in aviation with his family’s knowledge of boatbuilding to create the Fabre Hydravion, a canard aircraft of Fabre’s own design with a pusher propeller turned by a Gnome Omega radial engine. Though Fabre had no flying experience, he successfully piloted the maiden flight, plus two others that day. By week’s end, he had managed flights of 3.5 miles before the aircraft was heavily damaged in a crash. Though Fabre built no more aircraft, his design influenced French aviation pioneers Charles and Gabriel Voisin, and Gaston Caudron and René Caudron, and he also provided floats for their early attempts at seaplane development.
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 mounted in the wing roots 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 Eastern Bloccountries, as well as India and Iraq. A total of 164 were produced, and it was finally withdrawn from Russian military service in 1992.
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