Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from May 19 through May 22.


(Author unknown)

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, and 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 in the rarefied air high above the mud and blood of 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, was the first to codify the tactics of aerial combat.

Fokker E.I monoplane of the type flown by Boelcke (San Diego Air and Space Museum)

Bolcke was born in Giebichenstein in eastern Germany, joined the military in 1911, and 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, who was flying with another fighter pioneer, 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 soon became an ace, and eventually led his own fighter squadron. He also tutored Manfred von Richthofen, better known as The Red Baron. But Boelcke’s most lasting contribution to combat aviation came in his list 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.

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  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) missiles and radar, some of these tactics must be modified. But the concepts of placing the sun at your back, never fighting without a wingman, and keeping sight of your opponent, still hold true today. As tactics evolved into the Second World War, Dicta Boelcke served as the basis for others to expand upon, such as the RAF ace Edward “Mick” Mannock who put forth 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.

Boelcke’s Fokker D.III on display at the Zeughaus museum in Berlin. Boelcke scored eight victories in this aircraft in 1916, but was destroyed by Allied bombers in 1943. (US Navy)

There is a well-known 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 Havilland DH.2 fighter, Bolcke and Böhme collided. Bolcke managed to land, but his improperly secured lap belt did not restrain him, and he was killed. Boelcke was only 25 years old. 

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(Library of Congress)

May 21, 1927 – Charles Lindbergh completes his 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. But the urge to conquer natural obstacles wasn’t limited to those on the ground. 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 early maritime obstacles was the English Channel, but beyond that, the oceans seemed an insurmountable barrier between continents.

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The Ryan NYP, better known as the Spirit of St. Louis (Donald Hall Collection)

By the time of Charles Lindbergh decided to have a go at it, the need to cross the Atlantic Ocean 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.

A cutaway drawing of the Spirit of St. Louis showing the huge fuel tank in the front of the aircraft, as well as the fuel tanks in the wings. (National Air and Space Museum)

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In the shadow of more famous aviators who tried—or died trying—to claim the Orteig Prize, a $25,000 award to the first aviator to fly from New York to Paris, or vice versa, 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 dubbed 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.

Lindberg’s arrival at Le Bourget, and his reception by the French public the next day.

On the morning of May 20, weighed down by 2,700 pounds of fuel, 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.

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Short Takeoff


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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 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.


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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 the domestically-built IAI Kfir fighter.


(US Navy)

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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, while sweeping 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 extraordinarily successful Grumman F-14 Tomcat.


(Author unknown)

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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 it remained the largest aircraft until the arrival 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. 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 s 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, 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.


(Author unknown)

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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. With 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 finally fell to the Germans on June 1, 1941 after just 13 days of fighting.


(Imperial War Museum)

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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 it was a significant improvement over the aircraft it replaced. However, it was completely obsolete by the outbreak of WWII. In addition to its slow 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 though often futile service in the early days of the war, and were withdrawn from frontline service by the end of 1941.


(National Air and Space Museum)

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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 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?” “From America!” she replied. 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 to circumnavigate the globe.


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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 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. 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.


(Author unknown)

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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 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, 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.


(US Air Force)

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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 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.


(PBS)

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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 the damaged plane, though mostly intact, was left behind. Beginning in 1994, restoration crews dug the plane out of the ice and snow and began working to restore the aircraft to flying condition so it could be fully restored. By the spring of 1995, Kee Bird was ready to be flown. As Kee Bird 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.


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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.


(Alexander Graham Bell Family)

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May 21, 1878 – The birth of Glenn Curtiss. Though often eclipsed in history books by the Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss was one of America’s greatest aviation pioneers, and has been credited with the creation of the American aviation industry. Among Curtiss’ credits are the first officially witnessed flight in North America, victory at the world’s first international air meet in France, and the first long-distance flight in the US. In 1911, Curtiss provided the US Navy with its first aircraft, the A-1 Triad, marking the birth of US Naval Aviation. Curtiss’ contributions to military aviation in both World Wars are too numerous to mention here, but some of his company’s many significant aircraft include the JN4 “Jenny” biplane, the P-36 Hawk and P-40 Warhawk, the C-46 Commando, and the SB2C Helldiver. Despite so many aircraft carrying his name in WWII and beyond, Curtiss never lived to see them, as he died in 1930 at the age of 52.


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May 22, 1946 – The first flight of the de Havilland Canada DHC-1 Chipmunk, a tandem, two-seat primary trainer and the first aviation project to be undertaken by de Havilland Canada following WWII. The Chipmunk was developed as a replacement for the de Havilland Tiger Moth biplane trainer and was initially adopted by the Royal Air Force and Royal Canadian Air Force. It was ultimately flown by 19 other nations, and also became a popular civilian aircraft used for training, aerobatics and crop spraying. Some were modified for aerobatics as the Super Chipmunk, with strengthened fuselage and wings, retractable landing gear, clipped wings and a more powerful engine. Almost 1,300 were produced from 1947-1956. 


Connecting Flights


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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, aviators and airplane oddities at Wingspan.

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