Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from May 18 - May 20.


May 18, 1953 – The first flight of the Douglas DC-7. During WWII, piston-powered aircraft design reached its zenith, and with the coming of the jet engine at the end of the war, it was only a matter of time before jet power supplanted piston power in the airline industry. But in the early post-war period, turbojets were still relatively new, and airlines were reluctant to plunge headlong into the new technology. The piston powered airliner still had more miles to fly, though for the Douglas Aircraft Company, the DC-7 would be the piston’s last hurrah. As the airliner’s range increased, companies like American Airlines wanted to start providing nonstop, coast-to-coast service. But they ran afoul of Civil Air Regulations that stated that flight crews could not fly for more than 8 hours in one 24-hour period. So American needed a faster plane, one that could complete the trip in the allotted time. When American Airlines president C.R. Smith ordered 25 aircraft—and agreed to pay the $4o million development cost—Douglas committed to developing the DC-7, their last piston airliner before the DC-8 which would take its first flight just 5 years after the DC-7. Along with trusted engine design, Douglas used a trusted wing design, basing the DC-7’s wing on that of the DC-4, and the fuselage was essentially that of the DC-6 but stretched to accommodate more passengers. The DC-7 would be powered by the Wright R-3350 Duplex-Cyclone, a twin-row, 18-cylinder radial engine that was being used in a host of other aircraft, including the Boeing B-29 Superfortress and Lockheed Super Constellation. Just 6 months after the DC-7's first flight, American Airlines began offering nonstop service flying from the west coast of the United States to the east coast, scheduling the flights for just under the required 8 hours, even if realistic conditions didn’t always permit that. The DC-7 was plagued with engine reliability problems, which caused frequent diversions and delayed flights. Nevertheless, the range and speed of the DC-7 was attractive to the airlines, and particularly with the DC-7B, which added still more power and range, it proved popular with American carriers who scheduled east-to-west service from the US to Europe. However, it remained unattractive to European airlines because the range was still insufficient for west-to-east transatlantic crossings. Douglas responded with the DC-7C (nicknamed Seven Seas), a variant that moved the engines a bit farther outboard on the wings to reduce cabin noise and provide for yet more fuel. The fuselage was stretched once again to make room for more seats. Despite the transatlantic range and relative reliability of the DC-7C, the days of the piston-powered airliner were coming to an end. With the advent of the Boeing 707 and Douglas’ own DC-9, sales of the DC-7 came to an end by the end of the 1950s. But the DC-7 still had lots of life in it. Douglas converted the earlier DC-7s and DC-7Cs into the DC-7F, a freighter variant came with cargo doors added to the front and rear. Douglas produced the DC-7 from 1953-1958, only building a 343, roughly half the number of DC-6s they produced. This is as much a matter of timing as anything else, coming as it did at the end of the piston era. Due perhaps to engine reliability issues, only a handful of DC-7s are still flying today. (Photo author unknown)


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May 19, 1891 – The birth of Oswald Boelcke. When WWI broke out in Europe in 1914, only 11 years had passed since the Wright Brothers took the first powered flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. But aircraft development in the intervening years had been rapid, and it wasn’t long before airplanes were appearing over the battlefield. At first, they were scout planes, providing reconnaissance on enemy positions in a similar fashion as the original scouts on horseback. Opposing pilots often passed each other with a friendly wave. But it wasn’t long before the pilots and scouts began taking pistols and rifles into the air, which then gave way to machine guns. Soon, scout planes had become dedicated fighter planes, and pilots wheeled and turned in combat high above the trenches. At first, aerial combat was very much a one-on-one affair, with lone pilots ranging across enemy lines seeking out an opponent. But it quickly became evident that groups of aircraft were more effective than a single fighter, and one man, Oswald Boelcke, would be the first codify the tactics of aerial combat. Bolcke was born in Giebichenstein in Eastern Germany, and joined the military in 1911, eventually becoming an officer in the Prussian Army. He started flying in 1914, and by 1915 he was assigned to an observer unit. Before long, Boelcke, along with three other pilots, among them Max Immelmann, received a new Fokker E.I fighter that had a machine gun synchronized to fire through the propeller. Along with his comrades, Boelcke would soon become an ace, and eventually would lead his own fighter squadron. He also tutored Manfred von Richthofen, better known as The Red Baron. But Boelcke’s most lasting contribution came in his codification of fighter tactics known as Dicta Boelcke. Contrary to the single combat practiced at the beginning of the war, Boelcke advocated fighting in groups, and many of his tenets still hold true to this day.

  1. Try to secure advantages before attacking. If possible, keep the sun behind you.
  2. Always follow through an attack when you have started it.
  3. Fire only at close range, and only when your opponent is properly in your sights.
  4. Always keep your eye on your opponent, and never let yourself be deceived by ruses.
  5. In any form of attack it is essential to assail your opponent from behind.
  6. If your opponent dives on you, do not try to evade his onslaught, but fly to meet it.
  7. When over enemy lines, never forget your line of retreat.
  8. For the Jasta (squadron): Attack in groups of four or six. When the fight breaks up into a series of single combats, take care that several do not go for one opponent.

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Obviously, in the modern age of beyond visual range (BVR) weapons and radar, some of these tactics must be modified. But the concepts of using the sun, never fighting without a wingman, and keeping sight of your opponent are still quite relevant. As tactics evolved into the Second World War, Boelcke’s Dicta served as the basis for others to expand on, such as the RAF ace Edward “Mick” Mannock and his set of 15 rules, and RAF pilot and ace Adolph Malan, who had his own set of ten rules, again expanding on the groundbreaking work of Boelcke. There is a famous axiom in the world of fighter pilots: “There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.” Such was the fate of Oswald Bolcke, who was bold, but did not grow old. On October 28, 1916, Boelcke set out on his sixth sortie of the day with five other pilots, including two of his brightest students, Manfred von Richthofen and Erwin Böhme. While attacking a British de Havillan DH.2 fighter, Bolcke and Böhme collided, and while Bolcke managed to land, but his improperly secured lap belt did not restrain him, and he was killed. Boelcke was only 25 years old. (Photo author unknown)


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May 20, 1937 – The Fairey Battle enters service with the Royal Air Force. The Battle was originally conceived as a replacement for older biplane bombers, and though it was powered by the same Rolls-Royce Merlin V-12 engine used in some of the most successful aircraft of WWII, it was hampered by its size and weight. The Battle took its maiden flight on March 10, 1936, and while it was a significant improvement over the aircraft it replaced, it was completely obsolete by the outbreak of WWII. In addition to its lack of speed and average handling, it also lacked an armored cockpit and self-sealing fuel tanks, making it vulnerable to antiaircraft fire and enemy fighters. Nevertheless, Battles saw extensive, if somewhat futile, service in the early days of the war, and were withdrawn from frontline service by the end of 1941. (Imperial War Museum photo)


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May 20, 1932 – Amelia Earhart becomes the first woman to make a solo flight across the North Atlantic. Five years after Charles Lindbergh’s famous flight across the Atlantic, Earhart took off from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland and, after facing strong northerly winds, icing conditions, and mechanical problems, she landed in a pasture at Culmore, Northern Ireland just under 15 hours later. Upon landing, one of the local farmers who witnessed her arrival reportedly asked Earhart, “Have you flown far?” “From America!” she replied. Earhart was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for her achievement, but would be lost at sea, along with her navigator Fred Noonan, during their attempt to circumnavigate the globe five years later. (Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum photo)


Astronauts Eugene Cernan, John Young and Thomas Stafford

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May 18, 1969 – The launch of Apollo 10, the fourth manned mission of the Apollo Program and the second to orbit the Moon. Apollo 10 served as a dress rehearsal for the Apollo 11 mission that successfully landed on the Moon two months later. After establishing orbit 70 miles above the Moon, astronaut John Young, who would later command the first flight of the Space Shuttle, remained in the Command Module while mission commander Thomas Stafford and Lunar Module pilot Eugene Cernan descended to within 8.4 nautical miles of the Moon’s surface. On its return from the Moon, Apollo 10 set a world record for the highest speed attained by a manned vehicle, flying at 24,791 mph, then successfully splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on May 26. (NASA photo)


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May 18, 1951 – The first flight of the Vickers-Armstrong Valiant, a four-engine, high-altitude nuclear bomber and the first of the so-called V bombers (along with the Handley Page Victor and the Avro Vulcan). Designed as a strategic bomber, the Valiant suffered from fatigue cracks that would also plague the other V bombers, and its service life was relatively short, supplanted by its more advanced successors. Before its retirement, the Valiant carried out nuclear deterrence missions, conventional bombing, and reconnaissance. Some were also converted as aerial tankers. A total of 107 were built, and the Valiant was formally retired in 1957. (Photo author unknown)


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May 19, 2008 – The first flight of the Sukhoi Superjet 100, a twin-engine, fly-by-wire airliner designed to compete with the Antonov An-148 and similarly sized aircraft built by Bombardier and Embraer. The Superjet 100 is powered by a pair of PowerJet SaM146 turbofan engines built as a partnership between Snecma of France and NPO Saturn of Russia, and can carry up to 108 passengers in a dense, single-class configuration. The airliner made its first passenger flight on April 21, 2011, and while it is difficult to determine the exact number of orders and deliveries, Malév Hungarian Airlines indicated in 2009 that it would purchase 30 aircraft. A total of 104 have been built to date. (Photo by Katsuhiko Tokunaga via Wikimedia Commons)


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May 19, 1967 – The first flight of the Dassault Mirage 5, a supersonic, delta wing attack jet that was derived from the Dassault Mirage III by Dassault Aviation. The Mirage 5 was developed by request of the Israeli Air Force, who believed that removing avionics from behind the cockpit would allow for more fuel for long-range attack missions. Due to tensions in the Middle East, the French government refused to deliver the fighters to Israel, though they eventually received them through outside sources. The Mirage 5 was also developed into reconnaissance and two-seat variants, and proved popular with export customers, serving in the air forces of 15 nations. A total of 582 were built, and the Israelis eventually used the Mirage 5 as the basis for their own IAI Kfir fighter. (Photo by Chris Lofting via Wikimedia Commons)


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May 19, 1934 – The first flight of the Tupolev ANT-20 Maxim Gorky, an eight-engine transport aircraft and one of the largest aircraft of its era. Its wingspan was nearly that of the modern Boeing 747-400 jumbo jet, and remained the largest until the advent of the Douglas XB-19 long range bomber. Named after Maxim Gorky, a Russian and Soviet writer and founder of socialist realism, the ANT-20 was an all-metal aircraft based on the construction techniques pioneered by Hugo Junkers in WWI, and was intended to be used as a Soviet propaganda office outfitted with a powerful radio, printing presses, a library and a movie projector. A second aircraft was built after the first crashed, killing 45 people, though it was powered by six more powerful engines. It, too, crashed when the pilot allowed a passenger to take the controls and the passenger unwittingly disengaged the autopilot. All 36 passengers were killed.


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May 20, 1977 – The first flight of the Sukhoi Su-27, (NATO reporting name Flanker), a highly maneuverable air superiority fighter designed by Sukhoi to a direct competitor to the American Grumman F-14 Tomcat and McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle. The Su-27 entered service in 1985, where its primary mission was to defend the Soviet union from American bombers such as the Rockwell B-1B and Boeing B-52, and though it was designed initially as an air superiority fighter, the Su-27 has proven to be adaptable to a wide range of missions. Numerous variants have been developed, including the Su-30, a two-seat deep strike aircraft, the Su-33 naval variant, the Su-34 strike fighter/bomber and the Su-35. (Photo by Oleg Belyakov via Wikimedia Commons)


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May 20, 1971 – The US House of Representatives votes to end government funding of the Boeing 2707 supersonic transport. In 1961, the US government committed to building its own supersonic transport (SST) to compete with the European Concorde and Russian Tupolev Tu-144. Coming rather late to the challenge, the Americans decided to compete by making an SST that was larger than either of its competitors, accommodating as many as 247 passengers. However, the realities of supersonic transport were hard to conquer, and high fuel consumption in an era when the general public was starting to take a concern in the health of the environment and worries over sonic booms and ozone pollution made SSTs unpopular. By 1971, despite orders for 115 aircraft from 25 airlines, Congress cut funding for the B2707. The two prototypes were never completed, and Boeing was forced to lay off as many as 60,000 employees. (Illustration author unknown)


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May 20, 1951 – US Air Force Captain James Jabara becomes the first American jet fighter ace. Following two combat tours in Europe flying the North American P-51 Mustang, Jabara transitioned to the the North American F-86 Sabre and served during the Korean War. Fighting against Soviet-built MiG-15 fighters, Jabarra scored his first victory on April 3, 1951, and scored his fifth and sixth victories on the same day a month later. Jabara ended the war with 15 victories, earning him the title of “triple ace,” and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal, and the British Distinguished Flying Cross. Jabara went on to various commands after the war, and was killed along with his daughter in a car crash. They are both buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington DC. (US Air Force photo)


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