Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from May 18 through May 21.
May 18, 1953 – The first flight of the Douglas DC-7. Piston-powered aircraft design reached its zenith during WWII, as transport aircraft and long-range bombers helped win the war for the Allies. But with the arrival 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. Still, in the early post-war period, turbojets were relatively new, and airlines were reluctant to plunge headlong into the new technology. The radial engine airliner still had more miles to fly, but for the Douglas Aircraft Company, the DC-7 was the end of an era, the final piston-powered airliner produced by the company.
As the range of the modern airliner increased, companies like American Airlines wanted to provide nonstop service from coast-to-coast. But the airlines ran afoul of Civil Air Regulations that dictated that flight crews could fly no more than eight hours in one 24-hour period, and that was not enough time to complete the trip. To stay within the rules, American needed a faster plane. In order for Douglas to commit to building what might quickly end up being an anachronism (the jet-powered DC-8 took its first flight just five years later), American Airlines president C.R. Smith placed an order for 25 aircraft and agreed to cover the $40 million development cost. Still, building the DC-7 was a relative safe bet for Douglas. Sticking with a trusted engine also meant adhering to the design elements that had served Douglas so well in the past. The company based 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 was powered by four Wright R-3350 Duplex-Cyclone twin-row 18-cylinder radial engines, the same engine that was used in a host of other aircraft, including the Boeing B-29 Superfortress and Lockheed Super Constellation.
Just six 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 eight hours, even if actual conditions didn’t always permit that. Weather was always a factor and, despite the mature technology of the radial engines, 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. With the arrival of the DC-7B, which added still more power and range, American carriers were able to schedule east-to-west service from the US to Europe. However, the DC-7 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 provided 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 rapidly coming to an end. With the advent of the Boeing 707 and Douglas’ own DC-8 jetliner, sales of the DC-7 ground to a halt 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 that came with cargo doors added to the front and rear. Douglas produced the DC-7 from 1953-1958 and built 338 aircraft, roughly half the number of DC-6s they produced. Today, the DC-7 is nearly extinct, and only a handful remain airworthy.
May 21, 1927 – Charles Lindbergh completes the first solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. George Mallory was an English mountaineer who made three unsuccessful attempts to climb Mt. Everest in the early 1920s. When asked why he wanted to risk his life climbing the world’s tallest mountain, Mallory famously replied, “Because it’s there.” Unfortunately for Mallory, his third attempt cost him his life, and his frozen body wasn’t found until 1999. As the history of aviation progressed from the earliest attempts at flight, it was natural that aviators would seek to break through barriers of speed, altitude and distance, and traverse natural boundaries that had never been crossed before. One of the first maritime obstacles was the English Channel, but beyond that, the oceans seemed an insurmountable barrier between continents.
By the time Charles Lindbergh decided to have a go at crossing the Atlantic, the need to cross the ocean separating North American from Europe was no longer just because it was there, but because there was money to be made. Though he made an international name for himself with his crossing of the Atlantic, Lindbergh was by no means the first, nor the first to make the trip nonstop. That honor goes to the British duo of John Alcock and Arthur Brown, who made the flight from Newfoundland to Ireland in 1919 flying a Vickers Vimy. By the time Lindbergh made his flight eight years later, he was the 19th person to cross the Atlantic. But what made his flight significant was that he did not fly from the closest points between the continents. Instead, he flew between two major cities from which future passenger flights might originate. And he flew alone.
In the shadow of more famous aviators who tried—or died trying—to claim the the $25,000 Orteig Prize as the first aviator to fly either direction between New York to Paris, Lindbergh was a relative unknown, a civilian air mail pilot who struggled to find financial backing to fund his flight. Starting with $2,000 of his own savings, he eventually secured a loan from investors to purchase a custom built Ryan monoplane, officially known as the NYP (for New York to Paris). The aircraft was christened the Spirit of St. Louis in honor of the bankers and other financial supporters in the Missouri city who bankrolled his endeavor. The NYP was designed by Lindbergh and the Ryan Company’s chief engineer Donald Hall as a high-wing monoplane with a fabric skin and powered by a Wright R-790 Whirlwind J-5C radial engine that gave the aircraft a top speed of 133 mph. A 450-gallon fuel tank sat directly in front of the cockpit, and was separated from the engine by an oil tank. This meant that the Spirit had no front windscreen, and visibility was limited to two side windows. To see forward, Lindbergh had to yaw the aircraft to the left or right. The first flight of the NYP took place on April 28, 1927, just three weeks before Lindbergh’s attempt to cross the Atlantic.
On the morning of May 20, weighed down by 2,700 pounds of fuel, Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis struggled to leave muddy Roosevelt Field on Long Island, only just clearing telephone lines at the end of the field. Once in the air, the early spring weather proved treacherous, and Lindbergh dealt with towering storm clouds and icing, flying as high as 10,000 feet to pass a storm, and sometimes dropping as low as 10 feet above the waves in an effort to rid the wings of ice. Navigating by the stars at night and sometimes dead reckoning, Lindbergh landed at Le Bourget airport in France 33 hours after takeoff. He was greeted by 150,000 French spectators who mobbed him and his aircraft and carried him triumphantly around the field before both he and the Spirit were rescued by French troops. Lindbergh returned to the US as an international hero, and was feted with a ticker-tape parade in New York City. President Calvin Coolidge presented him with both the Distinguished Flying Cross and Congressional Medal of Honor, and the President of France awarded Lindbergh with the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest honor. Lindbergh’s later life would be troubled by the kidnapping and murder of his son, his views on racism, and his opposition to the war in Europe. Nonetheless, he supported the American war effort once the war began, even flying combat missions as a civilian pilot. Towards the end of his life, Lindbergh became a staunch advocate for environmental issues, and died in Hawai’i on August 26, 1974.
May 18, 1969 – The launch of Apollo 10, the fourth manned mission of the Apollo Program and the second mission to orbit the Moon. Apollo 10 served as a dress rehearsal for the Apollo 11 flight that successfully landed on the Moon two months later. After establishing orbit 70 miles above the lunar surface, 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 before successfully splashing down in the Pacific Ocean on May 26.
May 18, 1953 – Jacqueline “Jackie” Cochran becomes the first woman to break the sound barrier. A pioneering American aviatrix, Cochran was the only woman to compete for the Bendix Trophy, won five Harmon Trophies, and still holds more speed, distance and altitude records than any other pilot, male or female. During WWII, Cochran helped establish the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), in which women pilots were trained to ferry military aircraft in the US to free up male pilots for war duty. After the war, Cochran continued setting records in jet aircraft and became the first woman pilot to break the sound barrier while piloting an RCAF Canadair Sabre (the USAF had refused to loan her an aircraft for the attempt). , and set the world speed record for a woman pilot by flying 652 mph, then topped that on June 3 with a speed of 670 mph over a closed course. She was also the first woman to land and take off from an aircraft carrier. Cochran died in 1980 at the age of 74.
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 nuclear bomber, the Valiant suffered from fatigue cracks that would also plague the other V bombers, and its service life was relatively short, and it was supplanted by its more advanced successors. Before its retirement, the Valiant carried out nuclear deterrence missions, conventional bombing, and aerial reconnaissance. Some Valiants were also converted as aerial tankers. A total of 107 were built, and the Valiant was formally retired in 1957.
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 other 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 the airliner can carry up to 108 passengers in a dense, single-class configuration. The Superjet made its first revenue flight on April 21, 2011 by Armenian carrier Armavia, though that company went out of business in 2013. As of April 2018, a total of 159 have been built, and work is underway to develop the larger Superjet 130. However, the recent crash of a Superset 100 after a suspected lightning strike, as well as continuing problems with reliability and the acquisition of spare parts, have cast doubts on the ultimate success of the airliner.
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 the domestically-built IAI Kfir fighter.
May 19, 1952 – The first flight of the Grumman XF10F Jaguar, a prototype variable-geometry fighter developed for the US Navy. As fighter design progressed into the 1950s, the trend was moving towards larger, heavier aircraft with greater speed. While swept wings were good for high speed, they weren’t well-suited to low-speed landings, particularly on the straight decks of the carriers of the day. Grumman devised an aircraft that could straighten the wings for landing and takeoff, then sweep the wings back for high-speed flight. The Jaguar was hampered by unreliable engines and poor flight characteristics, and the development of larger carriers with angled flight decks eliminated the immediate need for such an aircraft. However, much of what was learned with the Jaguar was later used on the extremely successful Grumman F-14 Tomcat.
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 it remained the largest aircraft until the arrival of the Douglas XB-19 long range bomber in 1941. 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. It was intended to be used as a Soviet propaganda office outfitted with a powerful radio, printing presses, a library and a movie projector. The first ANT-20 crashed, killing 45 people, so a second aircraft was built with more powerful engines. It, too, crashed when the pilot allowed a passenger to take the controls who then unwittingly disengaged the autopilot. All 36 passengers were killed.
May 20, 1965 – The first flight of the de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter, a 19-seat twin-engine passenger and utility plane developed from the single-engine de Havilland Canada DHC-3 Otter. The Twin Otter is powered by a pair of Pratt & Whitney PT6A turboprop engines which gives it significantly greater capability than its single-engine predecessor. The primary design consideration for the Twin Otter was to replicate the Otter’s short takeoff and landing (STOL) characteristics which made them popular with bush pilots and airlines servicing small or remote airstrips. Production aircraft were delivered with either floats, skis, or tricycle landing gear, and Twin Otters remain in service the world over. Production was taken over by Viking Air in 2006, and over 900 have been built to date.
May 20, 1941 – Germany invades Crete in Operation Merkur. Beginning in 1940, the British occupied the strategic island of Crete in the eastern Mediterranean Sea and used it as a base from which to harass German troop movements in the area and to attack Romanian oil fields at Ploiesti. Following the fall of Greece to Germany in 1941, Hitler set his sights on Crete, believing that taking the island would help protect his forces in the Mediterranean as well his supply of oil from Romania. Operation Merkur (Mercury) was carried out by more than 7,000 airborne troops (Fallschirmjäger, or paratroops), either parachuting from Junkers Ju-52 transports or arriving in DFS 230 gliders, marking the first large-scale airborne invasion in military history. Though the invaders were initially slowed by the island’s garrison, German soldiers eventually captured the Maleme airfield, which allowed additional troops to be brought by air. Despite stiff resistance, Crete fell to the Germans on June 1, 1941 after 13 days of fighting.
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 solo flight across the Atlantic, Earhart took off from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland and, after facing strong northerly winds, icing conditions, and mechanical problems, 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?” She replied, “From America!” Earhart was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for her achievement, but five years later she was lost at sea, along with her navigator Fred Noonan, during their attempt at circumnavigating the globe.
May 20, 1977 – The first flight of the Sukhoi Su-27, (NATO reporting name Flanker), a highly maneuverable air superiority fighter designed by Sukhoi as 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 the defense of the Soviet Union from American bombers such as the Rockwell B-1B and Boeing B-52. Though it was designed initially as an air superiority fighter, the Su-27 has proven to be adaptable to a wide range of missions, and Sukhoi developed numerous variants, 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.
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 late to the challenge, the Americans decided to compete by making an SST that was larger than either of its competitors and could accommodate 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, along with 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 who had been working on the project.
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 during WWII, Jabara transitioned to the the North American F-86 Sabre and continued his service as a fighter pilot 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.” He 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, but died along with his daughter in a car crash in 1966. Jabara and his daughter are both interred at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC.
May 21, 1995 – Boeing B-29 Superfortress Kee Bird catches fire and burns during an attempt to take off from Greenland. On February 21, 1947, a US Army Air Force Boeing B-29 Superfortress crash landed in Greenland during a secret Cold War spying mission. The crew was rescued after three days on the Arctic ice, but aircraft, damaged though mostly intact, was left behind. Beginning in 1994, restoration crews dug the plane out of the ice and snow and began working to make theB-29 airworthy so it could be flown to the United States for a full restoration. By the spring of 1995, Kee Bird was ready to be flown. As the bomber rolled on takeoff, a fuel tank rigged to the B-29’s auxiliary power unit started leaking, leading to an uncontrollable fire. The crew escaped without serious injury, but Kee Bird was completely destroyed, and its charred remains still lie on the Greenland ice.
May 21, 1975 – The first flight of the Rutan VariEze, a composite, homebuilt aircraft designed by aeronautical engineer Burt Rutan that features a forward canard control surface and swept wing based on Rutan’s earlier work with the VariViggen. Rutan debuted the aircraft at the EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where he set a distance record for its class of 1,638 miles. Rutan designed the VariEze specifically to help reduce the plane’s susceptibility to spin/departure and stalling when compared to other homebuilt aircraft, and he began selling the designs to aircraft homebuilders in 1976. By the end of 1979, he had sold 4,500 sets of plans. Rutan stopped selling plans for the VariEze in 1985 to focus on his company Scaled Composites.
May 21, 1985 – The death of Sir Geoffrey de Havilland. Born on July 27, 1882, de Havilland was a British aviation pioneer and aeronautical engineer wjp was responsible for some of the preeminent military aircraft of WWII. De Havilland built his first aircraft in 1910, and formed the de Havilland Aircraft Company in 192o. His company produced the de Havilland Mosquito multi-role fighter/bomber during the war and, as part of the Brabazon Committee, de Havilland oversaw the production of the de Havilland Comet, the world’s first jet-powered airliner. De Havilland remained in control of his company until it was bought by Hawker Siddeley in 1960, and he died at the age of 82.
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