Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from May 20 through May 23.


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 sought 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. However, by the time of Charles Lindbergh, the urge to cross the Atlantic Ocean was not just because it was there, but because there was money to be made. Though Lindbergh made an international name for himself with his crossing of the Atlantic, he 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, rather from 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 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) and dubbed the Spirit of St. Louis in honor of those bankers and 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 window; 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, 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. The early spring weather proved treacherous, and Lindbergh dealt with icing and storm clouds, 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 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 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. (Lindbergh photo via the Library of Congress; Ryan NYP photo via Donald Hall Collection)

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May 23, 1967 – The first flight of the Hawker Siddeley Nimrod. The de Havilland Comet, the world’s first operational jet airliner, had a somewhat checkered past. After entering service in 1952, it was plagued by a series of fatal crashes, and the airliner was grounded for a time until the cause could be determined and rectified. Once de Havilland realized that the problem lay in the design of the windows, the Comet was redesigned and had a useful, though somewhat brief, resurgence, only to be overshadowed by the arrival of the swept-wing Boeing 707. But the story of the Comet didn’t end there. On June 4, 1964, the British Government issued Air Staff Requirement 381 to find a successor to the piston-powred Avro Shackleton, a four-engine maritime patrol aircraft developed from the Avro Lincoln bomber. Corrosion from salt air and metal fatigue were beginning to take its toll, and the Shackleton was due for retirement. A number of aircraft companies responded to the request, including Lockheed with their turboprop-powered P-3 Orion, the similarly powered Breguet Atlantic, as well as the turbojet-powered Hawkder Siddeley Trident, BAC One-Eleven and Vickers VC-10. But Hawker Siddeley, who had acquired de Havilland in 1960, offered a version of the Comet, which, like the Shackleton, was nearing the end of its service life. British Prime Minister Harold Wilson announced the decision to adopt the maritime patrol version of the Comet, dubbed the HS.801 by de Havilland, and the first two prototypes were converted from Comet 4 airframes that had not yet been completed as airliners. But taking a commercial airliner off the shelf and making a long-range maritime and antisubmarine warfare (ASW) platform took a significant amount of conversion, and the Nimrod ended up looking quite different from its Comet ancestor. The fuselage was enlarged by the addition of a second tube on top, giving it a “double bubble” cross section. The nose was extended to house powerful radars, the tail was modified to hold electronic warfare sensors, and a magnetic anomaly detector (MAD) boom was installed on the tail to detect submerged submarines. The Comet’s Rolls-Royce Avon turbojets were replaced by four Rolls-Royce Spey turbofans which offered better fuel efficiency and longer range. To further extend the Nimrod’s range during particularly long missions, one or two of the engines could be shut down to save fuel. After these conversions were complete, the Nimrod entered production and was introduced into RAF service in October 1969.

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The airborne early warning (AEW) variant of the Nimrod, which was not adopted

The initial variant, the MR1, was soon developed into two other variants. The R1 was developed into a signals intelligence aircraft whose mission was to intercept communications and other electronic signals. Three Nimrods were converted to this specification and went into service in 1974, replacing older Comet C2s and English Electric Canberras. (The R1 is currently being replaced by the Boeing RC-135W Rivet Joint.) The MR2 was a significant upgrade to the original R1, with modern avionics and more powerful radars. Following the Falklands War in 1982, the MR2 was updated with aerial refueling capability, as well as the capability to carry AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles for self defense. Nimrods were deployed in support of the Gulf War in 1990, and again during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But, like its Shackleton predecessor, the ravages of age began to catch up to the Nimrod, and work began on a significantly modernized, and essentially all new, replacement. But the Nimrod MRA4 suffered from serious delays and cost overruns, and the project was eventually abandoned in 2010. The RAF decided instead to procure the Boeing E-3 Sentry for the signal intelligence mission, and the Boeing P-8 Poseidon for the maritime patrol and ASW missions. In all, a total of 51 Nimrods were built, and they were officially retired in 2011. (UK Ministry of Defence photo by WO Rick Brewell; photo by Mike Freer via Wikimedia Commons)


Short Takeoff


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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 serve all over the world. Production was taken over by Viking Air in 2006, and over 900 have been produced to date. (Photo by calflier001 via Wikimedia Commons)


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May 20, 1941 – Germany invades Crete in Operation Merkur. The British had occupied the strategic island of Crete in the eastern Mediterranean Sea since 1940, and used it as a base from which to harass German troop movements in the area and to attack the 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. Crete finally fell to the Germans on June 1, 1941 after just 13 days of fighting. (Photo by Arthur Conry via Wikimedia Commons)


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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 solo 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 five years later she was lost at sea, along with her navigator Fred Noonan, during their attempt to circumnavigate the globe. (Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum photo)


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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, 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. 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. (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 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 who had been working on the project. (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 during WWII, Jabara transitioned to the the North American F-86 Sabre and served 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,” 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, 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. (US Air Force photo)


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May 21, 1995 – Boeing B-29 Superfortress Kee Bird catches fire and burns following restoration. 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. 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. (Photo: video screen capture from NOVA program B-29: Frozen in Time)


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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. (Photo by Stephen Kearney via Wikimedia Commons)


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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. Curtiss also provided the US Navy with its first aircraft, the A-1 Triad, in 1911, heralding 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. Curtiss died in 1930 at the age of 52. (Photo by Alexander Graham Bell family)


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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 fuselages and wings, retractable landing gear, clipped wings and a more powerful engine. Almost 1,300 were produced from 1947-1956. (Photo by Arpingstone via Wikimedia Commons)


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May 23, 1915 – The first flight of the Fokker Eindecker, a series of monoplane (eindecker) fighters designed by Dutch aeronautic engineer Anthony Fokker and flown by the German Air Service in WWI. The Eindecker was based on the Fokker M.5, an earlier monoplane scout designed by Fokker that first flew in 1913 and was itself influenced by the Morane-Saulnier H monoplane. The major advance of the Eindecker was Fokker’s development of a synchronizing gear, also called an interrupter, that allowed the machine gun to be fired through the arc of the propeller, giving pilots significantly improved aim during dogfights. German pilots such as aces Max Immelmann and Oswald Boelcke enjoyed a significant advantage over Allied aircraft that were not similarly equipped, allowing the Germans to hold a measure of air superiority for the second half of 1915 until the Allies developed their own interrupter. (Photo author unknown)


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May 23, 1848 – The birth of Otto Lillienthal, an early and influential pioneer of manned flight who was known as the Glider King for his experiments with, and development of, unpowered glider flight. Lillienthal worked closely with his brother Gustav and made over 2,000 flights beginning in 1891, some of which covered distances of over 800 feet. While all those flights only accounted for five hours of actual flying, Lillienthal’s influence on the history of aviation far outstripped his hours in the air, and the notoriety he garnered not only popularized the idea of future powered flight, but also influenced the early work of the Wright Brothers and other aviation pioneers. Lillenthal was killed on August 10, 1896 in the crash of one of his gliders when he entered an unrecoverable stall at an altitude of about 50 feet and suffered a broken neck in the subsequent crash. (Lillienthal portrait via Lilienthal Museum; Glider photo via US Library of Congress)


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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 and aviators at Wingspan and Planes You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of.

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