Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from May 26 through May 29.


(US Air Force)

May 26, 1942 – The first flight of the Northrop XP-61 Black Widow. In modern times, it’s difficult, or even impossible, to imagine a fighter without a radar. Powerful modern radars have made possible fighters that can fly in all weather conditions, day or night, and attack enemy targets that are even beyond the pilot’s range of sight. But during WWII, the roles of day fighter and night fighter were, for the most part, separate. Smaller, more agile fighters did the fighting by day, while larger aircraft capable of carrying the early heavy radar sets fought by night. British development of radar (an acronym coined by the United States Navy for “radio detection and ranging”) had been progressing steadily since the early days of the war, and land-based radar stations proved vital during the Battle of Britain in detecting incoming German bombers and directing RAF fighters to intercept them. By late summer of 1940, the British finally fielded an airborne radar unit, called the Airborne Intercept (AI) radar, but they didn’t have an aircraft that could carry it.

Northrop YP-61 prototype from the 348th Night Fighter Squadron, showing the blisters beneath for fuselage for its 20mm cannons. The radar air housed in the unpainted nose section. (US Air Force)

The obtain an effective night fighter, the RAF requested aircraft designs from every Allied manufacturer, one of which was Northrop. Jack Northrop understood that any aircraft capable of the speed, altitude, range and firepower that the RAF requested, along with the ability to carry the heavy radar, needed to be big and would require more than one engine. While work on the airborne radar was progressing in England, the British Tizard Mission came to the US to receive assistance in developing new technologies away from the danger of German bombing, and they brought with them their AI radar. With the exchange of technologies, the US saw the potential for making their own night fighter, and the Army made a formal request for such an aircraft. With the head start Northrop had from working on the British proposal, the new XP-61 beat out the only competitor for the contract, the Douglas XA-26A, a night-fighter based on the Douglas A-26 Invader. Northrop’s design placed a large gondola between twin booms that each housed an 18-cylinder Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp radial engine. Based on the original British request, the gondola housed two machine gun turrets, one in the nose and one in the rear, each with four guns. Eventually, the rear turret was replaced with a powered turret on the top of the fuselage, though buffeting from the turret led it to be removed all together. Northrop then finalized the design by placing four 20mm cannons in the belly of the aircraft, making the Black Widow one of the few American aircraft to mount four cannons.

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Northrop P-61B Black Widow. From the B model forward, the upper turret was removed. (Bill Larkins)

Though history notes the Black Widow as America’s first dedicated night fighter, it was difficult, by the standards of contemporary fighter design, to call the Black Widow a fighter. It was a true behemoth, with a wingspan of 60 feet (8 feet longer than the Lockheed P-38 Lightning), a height of nearly 15 feet, and an empty weight of over 23,000 pounds. When Black Widows arrived in Europe in the spring of 1944, Army commanders were convinced that the P-61 was too slow and cumbersome to counter German aircraft. Instead, they wanted to procure the British de Havilland Mosquito, and even went so far as to organize a competition between the two aircraft. However, with a few tweaks to the engine to improve performance, the Black Widow was able to outperform the Mossie in speed and rate of climb and, with its special “Zap Flaps” and retractable spoilers, the P-61 could even outmaneuver the Mosquito. While still unable to outduel German single-engine fighters, the Black Widow proved quite effective against German bombers and fighter-bombers. P-61 squadrons even claimed a number of German V-1 flying bombs. In the Pacific, the Black Widow arrived too late to have a significant impact on the war, but it did play a vital role in the rescue of over 500 Allied prisoners from the Cabanatuan prison camp in the Philippines. Though it never fired a shot, a lone P-61 performed aerobatics over the camp to distract Japanese guards while Army Rangers positioned themselves for an assault. A Black Widow is also unofficially credited with scoring the last aerial victory of WWII.

The Northrop F-15 Reporter, the reconnaissance variant of the P-61. Note the redesigned center section, and the portholes in the nose for photography. (San Diego Air and Space Museum)

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While many WWII aircraft were retired quickly at the end of the war, the Black Widow, as America’s only night fighter, soldiered on until the US produced a jet-powered alternative, which eventually came in the form of the Northrop F-89 Scorpion. In addition to their combat duties, P-61s also played a leading role in research into ejection seat technology, and took part in the Thunderstorm Project, America’s first large-scale scientific study of thunderstorms. Northrop also developed a reconnaissance variant called the F-15 Reporter, which removed the top portion of the central gondola and housed the two-man crew under a single canopy. While the final flight of the P-61 was made in 1954, the Reporter served in various roles until 1968.


A US Marine Corps RF-4B Phantom II from Marine photo reconnaissance squadron VMFP-3 Eyes of the Corps prepares to launch from the USS Midway in 1976. Note the camera ports in the nose, as well as the Bicentennial livery on the aircraft. (Chuck Walters, USMC)

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May 27, 1958 – The first flight of the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II. In our modern military, the multi-role fighter aircraft has become the mainstay of the US Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. During WWII, specialized aircraft had taken on their individual missions, but the 1950s saw a move to aircraft that could be equally effective in the roles of ground attack, air superiority and, for the Navy, fleet defense. But with the adoption of multi-role aircraft came a significant increase in size, complexity, and cost. As the Korean War drew to a close, McDonnell Douglas began an internal project to develop a new fighter that they hoped would be of interest to the US Navy.

The mockup of the McDonnell F3H-G, which formed the basis for the F4H Phantom II. Note the completely horizontal wingtips and tailplane. (US Navy)

Starting with the F3H Demon, McDonnell worked to develop a so-called Super Demon, which would be powered by a pair of General Electric J79 axial-flow turbojets which promised a top speed approaching Mach 2. The program progressed as far as a mockup before the Navy decided that they already had supersonic day fighters under development with the Grumman XF9F-9 (F-11) Tiger and the Vought XF8U-1 (F-8) Crusader, both of which could adequately cover their need for a supersonic fighter. Though the Tiger and Crusader were effective fighters, so McDonnell set to work on developing their Super Demon concept into an all-weather fighter and bomber. But when the Navy saw the progress on the new fighter, they then asked McDonnell for a fleet defense interceptor with a radar that required a second crewman. Not only was the Phantom growing in size, it was also gaining complexity.

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The F4H-1 Phantom II prototype. Note location for the second pilot, and its limited visibility. This position was known as the “hole.” (US Navy)

McDonnell’s initial offering needed some redesigning, and the result was the odd assortment of competing up and down wing angles that made the Phantom instantly recognizable. Wind tunnel testing indicated an instability that could be cured most effectively by a 5-degree dihedral (upward sweep) to the wings. However, changing the design at this point in the Phantom’s development would require a complete redesign of the titanium central section at a significant cost of time and money. So McDonnell engineers gave just the wingtips a 12-degree dihedral, and the Phantom’s iconic upswept wingtips were born. The Phantom also received another one of its characteristic features, the anhedral (downswept) elevators. These were declined at 23-degrees to improve handling at high angles of attack. For the interceptor role, the Phantom needed a powerful radar, as well as a second crewman to operate it. In the early Phantoms, the rear seat was occupied by a pilot sitting “in the hole,” but later variants replaced the pilot with a radar intercept officer (RIO). Once the Navy accepted the new fighter, it was given the designation F4H-1, and McDonnell delivered 45 of these aircraft, essentially pre-production Phantoms that were reclassified as the F-4A. The F-4A was followed by the F-4B, which was given upgraded J79 engines and a more powerful radar.

US Air Force F-4C Phantom II of the 111th Fighter Interceptor Squadron. (US Air Force)

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By now, the US Air Force was showing interest in McDonnell’s new interceptor and, as part of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s push to have one fighter serve all the flying branches of the military, the Air Force took 29 aircraft on loan from the Navy before eventually ordering their own. Initially, the Air Force designated the aircraft as the F-110A Spectre, but finally settled on calling it the F-4C. With the Air Force’s adoption of the Phantom, it marked the first time that all three fixed-wing aviation branches of the US military—Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps—flew the same fighter. In a relatively short time, the Phantom began setting records for speed and altitude, and eventually garnered 16 world records, all of them set in unmodified production aircraft.

Anl F-4B Phantom II of US Navy Fighter Squadron VF-111 Sundowners on a bombing mission over Vietnam in 1971. (US Air Force)

The Phantom was soon fighting in the skies over Vietnam, where it became the principal ground attack aircraft and air superiority fighter, with pilots or RIOs of both the Navy and Air Force becoming aces flying the F-4. But despite these victories, the Phantom was hampered by its reliance on guided missiles in combat. When the Phantom was initially designed, the Air Force felt that the age of the gun given way to the age of the missile, and the Phantom did not have an internal gun for close range engagements. To make matters worse, early missiles were unreliable, and failed to hit their targets. This shortcoming was eventually addressed by the addition of a rotary cannon mounted in a pod underneath the fuselage, though it proved difficult to use in combat, and the F-4E was finally fitted with an internal gun.

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Two U.S. Air Force 35th Tactical Fighter Wing An F-4G “Wild Weasel” from the US Air Force 35th Tactical Fighter Wing armed with AGM-88 high speed anti-radiation missies aircraft flies over the Saudi desert Operation Desert Shield in January 1991. (US Air Force)

In addition to its fighter and attack duties, the F-4 proved to be an excellent reconnaissance aircraft as the RF-4, and was also developed into an electronic warfare variant known as the F-4G Wild Weasel, both of which served long enough to see action in the Gulf War of 1990 before being retired for good in 1996, and many F-4s ended their life as QF-4 target drones. The Phantom was widely exported, and a handful of nations still operate the Phantom to this day. By the time production ended in 1981, McDonnell had delivered just under 5,200 Phantoms.


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May 27, 1955 – The first flight of the Sud Aviation Caravelle. Following the maiden flight of the de Havilland Comet in 1949, commercial air travel officially entered the Jet Age. Though the Comet was a relatively large aircraft by the standards of its day, its early configurations carried only 36 passengers, due in part to very few seats being placed in the spacious cabin—a luxury by today’s standards. But soon after its introduction, the Comet suffered a series of high profile crashes whose cause was eventually traced to the square shape of its cabin windows, and the revolutionary airliner was removed from service until the problem could be solved. The aviation industry was ripe for a challenger to the Comet’s debut, and the Sud Aviation Caravelle was waiting in the wings.

Thai International Sud Aviation Caravelle at Arlanda Airport in 1970 (Lars Söderström)

In 1951, a year before the Comet entered service, the French Comité du matériel civil (civil aircraft committee) announced specifications for a new medium-range airliner that could accommodate 55-65 passengers, have a cruising speed of 370 mph, and a range of 1,200 miles, though they did not specify the type or number of engines to be used. They received no less that 20 proposals of varying designs, most of which employed the new turbojets that were coming into use at the time. By March 1952, the committee had winnowed the list down to three entrants, one of which was proposed by Société national des constructions aéronautiques du Sud-Est, better known as Sud-Est or SNCASE. The SNCASE design was originally powered by three engines, but with the arrival of more powerful Rolls-Royce Avon RA.7 engines it became clear that two engines would be sufficient and the tail-mounted engine was removed. The remaining engines were left on the rear fuselage rather than moved to the wing, an arrangement that had the added benefit of making the passenger cabin quieter during flight.

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An Air France Caravelle III deploying a braking parachute, which was used before the development of thrust reversing engines. (Lars Söderström)

The nose section of the Caravelle was a direct copy of that of the Comet, which Sud licensed from de Havilland. After the experience of the square windows in the Comet, the Caravelle was given its distinctive teardrop shaped windows, which maintained the strength of the fuselage while also allowing passengers to look downward. The lack of engine pods under the wing resulted in an aerodynamically clean wing which SNCASE gave a 20-degree sweep. Unwittingly, the Sud designers had created the template for almost all future rear-engined aircraft to come. Air France placed the first orders for the new airliner in 1956, followed by SAS a year later, and the Caravelle entered service with both carriers in 1959.

A United Airlines Caravelle VIR, the first to be outfitted with thrust reversers, at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport in 1962 (Jon Proctor)

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The Caravelle became an instant success, and eventually served air carriers in 47 nations, as well as the militaries and governments of 12 nations. United Airlines was the sole US operator of the Caravelle when it purchased twenty airliners which entered service in 1961. As the Caravelle became more and more popular, Sud Aviation (as it became known following the merger of Sud-Est and Sud-Ouest in 1957) continued development of the airliner with eight variants following the original production model, mostly with improved engines. By the sixth variant, the Caravelle 10R, the Rolls-Royce turbojets gave way to Pratt & Whitney JT8D low-bypass turbofan engines, the same ones used on the comparable Douglas DC-9 and larger Boeing 707. By the final variant, the Caravelle 12, the length of the fuselage had been stretched thirteen feet and passenger capacity had grown to 140. A total of 282 Caravelles were produced between 1958-1972, and the last Caravelle was retired in 2005.


(Tim Shaffer)

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May 29, 1940 – The first flight of the Vought F4U Corsair. In the world of a fighter pilot, speed is life. Not only does speed give a pilot an advantage over your opponent, it also gives the pilot the ability to run to safety when outnumbered. So, when the US Navy Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer) requested proposals for a new single-engine fighter in early 1938, they stipulated that the fighter must provide the maximum speed obtainable, which meant that it would have to be fitted with the most powerful engine available along with the largest propeller.

The XF4U-1 prototype. Note the cockpit farther forward on the fuselage, before it was moved aft to make room for a larger fuel tank. (US Navy)

Following the unsuccessful Vought V-141/V-143 (which were actually developed from an aircraft originally designed by Northrop), Vought design team leader Rex Beisel took the same basic design of the earlier aircraft but made it considerably larger and gave the new XF4U-1 a prototype 18-cylinder Pratt & Whitney XR-2800 Double Wasp twin row radial engine. This marked the first time that the Double Wasp was fitted in an aircraft, and that engine would go on to power some of the most iconic military aircraft in history. In the early Corsair, the Double Wasp provided 1,805 hp and, when mated with the largest propeller ever fitted on a fighter up to that time, the Corsair became the first single-engine US fighter to exceed 400 mph in level flight. And, it was that large propeller that gave the Corsair its iconic inverted gull wing. The shape of the wing actually had nothing at to all do with aerodynamics or performance; rather, the bend in the wing was to provide clearance for the huge propeller and to allow for shorter landing struts. The fully retractable oleo struts were also a first for a US Navy fighter, and the anhedral center portion of the wing also housed the Corsair’s oil coolers.

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An early F4U-1 Corsair of VF-17 Jolly Rogers prepares to take off from the USS Bunker Hill in 1943. Note the greenhouse canopy which was replaced by a plexiglass canopy in later variants. (US Navy)

By the time the F4U-1 entered production, some significant changes had taken place in the design. The original armament of two .30 caliber machine guns mounted in the engine cowling and two .50 caliber machine guns in the wings gave way to six .50 caliber guns in the wings. To make way for the guns, the cockpit was moved aft and the wing fuel tanks were relocated to a larger self-sealing tank ahead of the cockpit. Thus, another practical design consideration was responsible for its long nose, another of the Corsair’s iconic features and preserved the aircraft’s center of gravity. A new more powerful Double Wasp engine now provided the Corsair with 2,000 hp,and later production models added water injection for still more power, a plexiglass canopy, and a raised seat to aid visibility over the long nose.

A Corsair launches rockets against ground targets during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. (US Navy)

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But even with the improved visibility, Corsair pilots still had trouble seeing over the nose during carrier landings, and this led to the US Navy’s initial refusal to accept the Corsair for carrier operations. Since the Navy already had the Grumman F6F Hellcat, which was powered by the same Double Wasp Engine, the Corsair became the primary weapon of land-based US Marine Corps units, who flew the F4U with devastating effectiveness in the Pacific Theater, where the Japanese called it “Whistling Death.” It wasn’t until the British devised a turning landing procedure that allowed the pilot to see the deck until the last part of the landing pattern that the Navy accepted it as a carrier fighter. Marine Corps pilots also proved that the Corsair could be an effective ground attack platform, particularly in the close air support mission (CAS) in support of Marine landing forces.

F4U-4 Corsair over Korea in 1951 (US Navy)

While many WWII fighters were retired at the end of the war in favor of new turbojet powered fighters, the Corsair’s speed, power and range ensured its continued service with the Navy and Marine Corps. The Corsair saw extensive action in the Korean War, where it was used primarily in the CAS role and, though outclassed by the new Russian jet fighters, Marine pilot Capt. Jesse Folmar still managed to shoot down a MiG-15 while flying a Corsair. The Corsair proved to be a robust yet flexible platform, and no less than 16 variants were developed throughout its service life, including the addition of cannon armament, a wing-mounted radar pod for night fighting, and the addition of superchargers. After WWII, the Corsair also proved popular on the air race circuit. Over 12,500 Corsairs were built between 1942-1953, the longest production run for any American piston-powered fighter, so many that Vought had to enlist the aid of Goodyear and Brewster to help build the fighter during the war, though poor production quality meant that none of the Brewster-built Corsairs were sent to battle. Of that number, roughly 45 remain airworthy or are undergoing restoration.

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May 29, 1935 – The first flight of the Messerschmitt Bf 109. In the years leading up to WWII, Germany was working all out to rebuild its air force following the harsh restrictions placed on the country by the Treaty of Versailles that brought an end to WWI. Though Germany was technically restricted from creating any new weapons of war, civilian designers nevertheless forged ahead with new aircraft that could easily take on fighting roles and, by the time the Bf 109 took its first flight, it heralded the end of the biplane era and the ascendancy of the monoplane fighter.

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The inverted Daimler-Benz engine, with the canon firing between the cylinders.

One of the first truly modern fighters of its day, the Bf 109 (often erroneously called the Me 109) featured the first operational use of all-metal monocoque construction, retractable landing gear, and an enclosed cockpit. It was developed as one part of a four-part requirement for new military aircraft put forth by the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (Ministry of Aviation) in 1933. The requirement called for a single-seat fighter with a top speed of 250 mph and a rate of climb that would allow the fighter to reach 20,000 feet in a minimum of 17 minutes. Arado, Heinkel, Focke-Wulf and the Bayerische Flugzeugwerke (Bf), led by Willy Messerschmitt, all submitted designs, with the Messerschmitt aircraft declared the winner due in large part to its higher speed, better rate of climb, and superior diving characteristics. Messerschmitt’s new fighter was powered by the new Junkers Jumo 210 inverted V-12 engine but, not without a touch of irony, the prototype’s first flight was powered by a British-made Rolls-Royce Kestrel mounted vertically, since the Jumo was not yet ready. The use of inverted engines provided certain benefits over the more traditional mounting, such as improved visibility over a narrower nose, greater ease of maintenance in the field, and a lower center of mass that improved handling. It also allowed for the placement of a cannon that fired through the propeller spinner, with the propeller turned by a series of gears. The Jumo was used primarily in pre-war fighters, but was replaced in wartime production by the Daimler-Benz DB 601 and DB 605.

Bf 109E with desert camouflage off the cost of North Africa in 1941 (Author unknown)

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The Bf 109 was an immediate success, setting numerous speed records in the years prior to the war, and a specially prepared Bf 109 set a speed record for piston aircraft that stood until 1969. The 109 saw its first action in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) in support of Franco’s fascist government, which the Luftwaffe used as a dress rehearsal for the coming invasion of Poland. Development of the 109 continued throughout the war, with refinements of the design to increase handling and the installation of ever more powerful Jumo engines to increase speed. Though more advanced fighters, such as the radial-engined Focke-Wulf Fw 190, were introduced throughout the conflict, the Bf 109 remained the backbone of the Luftwaffe throughout the war, and proved to be a very effective fighter, particularly against more poorly trained Russian pilots on the Eastern Front. Bf 109 pilots accounted for more aerial victories than any other aircraft in the war, with the highest scoring ace in history, Erich Hartmann, claiming an astonishing 352 victories, most against Russia, and Hans-Joachim Marseille, fighting against significantly better opponents in North Africa, scoring 154 victories.

A Messerschmitt Bf 109G of the Finnish Air Force. Though the swastika is associated with Fascist Germany, the Finns used it as a symbol of good fortune, and it marked their aircraft from 1918-1945. (Author unknown)

The 109 was widely exported to countries allied to Germany and, though most German aircraft were retired after the war, the 109 continued to serve foreign air forces, particularly the Swiss and Finnish air forces, into the mid-1950s. By any metric, the Bf 109 was a remarkable fighter, but perhaps most telling is the sheer number of aircraft built. By the end of production, nearly 34,000 Bf 109s of all types had been produced, making it the second-most produced combat aircraft in history behind the Russian Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik.

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Short Takeoff


(US Air Force)

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May 26, 2010 – The first flight of the Boeing X-51A WaveRider, an unmanned, hypersonic research aircraft that took its name from the compression lift created by its own shockwaves that it uses to generate lift. Powered by a scramjet engine, the X-51 is carried aloft by a Boeing B-52H mothership to an altitude of 50,000 feet, then released while attached to a solid rocket booster that propels the X-51 to a speed of Mach 4.5. The booster is then jettisoned, and the aircraft flies under power from a Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne scramjet engine. Following its maiden flight, and two flights flights with mixed results, the X-51 accelerated to Mach 5.1 on May 1, 2013 and flew for 210 seconds before running out of fuel and crashing into the Pacific Ocean. That flight set a record for the longest duration of flight at hypersonic speeds.


(Authors unknown)

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May 26, 1958 – The death of Constantin “Bazu” Cantacuzino, a Romanian pilot and one of the highest scoring Romanian aces of WWII. Before the outbreak of WWII, Cantacuzino was an aerobatic pilot and was chief pilot for the Romanian state airline LARES. With the start of the war, Romania sided with the Axis powers, and Cantacuzino fought both Soviet and Allied aircraft, and claimed one of six B-24 Liberators shot down during a bombing mission. But as the Axis powers began to falter near the close of the war, Romania switched allegiance to the Allied side, Cantacuzino began to fight his former German allies, downing three Heinkel He 111s attacking Bucharest. But his most spectacular mission came when he was tasked with transporting the highest-ranking American POW in Romania, Lieutenant Colonel James Gunn III, to Italy. Flying a Messerschmitt Bf-109 emblazoned with an American flag, Cantacuzino landed in Italy to lead a flight of 56 Boeing B-17s to return to Romania to repatriate the American POWs. When his Messerschmitt could not be refueled, he was given a North American P-51 Mustang, which he mastered after only a single flight. Cantacuzino ended the war with 43 victories, and returned to work with LARES. However, all of his lands were confiscated by the Communist government, and he eventually escaped to Italy in 1947.


(NASA)

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May 26, 1951 – The birth of Sally Ride, a physicist, astronaut, and the first American woman in space. Ride joined NASA in 1978 and went to space in 1983 as a Mission Specialist on board Space Shuttle Challenger on mission STS-7. With that flight, Ride became not only the first American woman in space, as well as the first known LGBT astronaut, but, at age 32, she was also the youngest American astronaut to fly in space. Ride went to space a second time the following year, again on Challenger, as a Mission Specialist on ST-41-G. Ride left NASA in 1987, but served on the investigation committees into the Challenger and Columbia disasters. After teaching physics at the University of California, San Diego, Ride died of pancreatic cancer in 2012 at age 61.


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May 28, 2017 – The first flight of the Irkut MC-21, a narrow-body twin-engine airliner developed by the Yakovlev Design Bureau and produced by the Irkut Corporation, a subsidiary of Russian state-owned United Aircraft Corporation and the same company that produced the Sukhoi Su-30 family of multi-role fighters. Developed as a replacement for the aging Tupolev Tu-154 trijet, the MC-21 features a carbon fiber reinforced polymer wing and is powered by either Pratt & Whitney PW1000G or Aviadvigatel PD-14 turbofan engines. Irkut plans to produce the airliner in two lengths that will accommodate up to 165 (MC-21-200) or 211 (MC-21-300) passengers in a single-class configuration, and touts its new airliner as being more efficient than its Boeing or Airbus counterparts. As of May 2018, Irkut has produced two flying prototypes with four more aircraft under assembly, and the company plans to have the airliner in service by 2020.


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May 28, 2010 – The Solar Impulse 1 makes its first flight powered by solar energy. Solar Impulse 1 (HB-SIA) is a long-range, experimental aircraft developed to demonstrate the viability of solar power for extended flight and designed to promote clean technologies. Following an 87-minute flight on April 2, 2010, Solar Impulse 1 made its first entirely-solar powered flight, with the aircraft’s batteries charged during the flight. Solar Impulse 1 was followed by Solar Impulse 2, which carries more solar cells and a more powerful engine. Flying Solar Impulses 2, pilots André Borschenberg and Bertand Piccard departed from Abu Dhabi in March of 2015 and successfully completed a circumnavigation of the globe on July 13, 2016 using only solar power.


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May 28, 1997 – Linda Finch completes a recreation of Amelia Earhart’s failed attempt to circumnavigate the globe. Finch, an aviatrix and businesswoman from San Antonio, TX, took off on March 17 in a restored 1935 Lockheed Model 10 Electra that had been prepared identically to Earhart’s plane. Her flight took 10 weeks to complete flying legs of 8 to 18 hours at a time and stopping at 36 different locations in 18 countries. The flight covered approximately 26,000 miles. After completing the circumnavigation, Finch’s Electra was acquired by the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington where it will be displayed. 

(Author’s note: March 17 is the departure date for Earhart’s first attempt at circumnavigating the globe which ended in Hawaii following a takeoff accident. The second attempt, in which Earhart and copilot Fred Noonan disappeared, was begun on July 2, 1937.) 


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May 28, 1987 – Mathias Rust lands in Red Square. Rust, an 18-year-old aviator from West Germany with only 50 hours of flying time, hoped to hasten the end of the Cold War by creating what he called an “imaginary bridge” between East and West. The inexperienced Rust departed from Hamburg on May 13 in a Cessna 172 modified to carry extra fuel and flew first to the Faroe Islands, then to Norway and Finland. When he departed Helsinki on May 28, Rust told air traffic controllers he planned to fly to Stockholm, but then deactivated the Cessna’s transponder and turned toward Moscow. Rust’s plane was detected on Russian radars, fighters were scrambled and surface-to-air missiles were targeted, but confusion reigned among the Russian air defenses and Rust flew unmolested until he landed his Cessna on a bridge and taxied into the middle of Red Square. In a way, Rust’s plan to help bring an end to the Cold War was successful, as the veneer of invincibility had been removed from the Russian military, and many of the old, entrenched Russian officers who bungled the interception of Rust’s plane were ousted by General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, helping to pave the way for reforms that ultimately led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.


(stinsonflyer.com; US Army) Note: Accident aircraft not pictured

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May 28, 1971 – Audie Murphy is killed in a plane crash. Murphy was one of the most highly decorated American service members in WWII, receiving every combat award possible from the US Army, as well as awards from the French and Belgian governments for his heroism in combat. Following the war, Murphy enjoyed a successful acting career, and documented his exploits in the 1955 film To Hell and Back. On the night of his death, Murphy was a passenger in an Aero Commander 680 Super as the plane flew through rain and fog with zero visibility. The pilot, though experienced, was not rated for instrument flying, and was unfamiliar with the aircraft type. Murphy’s plane crashed near Roanoke, Virginia, and the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the pilot’s decision to continue flying under visual flight rules (VFR) in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) caused the crash. 


(Tim Shaffer)

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May 29, 1951 – Capt. Charles Blair makes the first nonstop solo flight over the North Pole. After setting a speed record flying nonstop from New York to London at an average speed of 446 mph earlier in the same year, Blair set his sights on crossing the North Pole. Blair departed from Bardufoss, Norway in his North American P-51C Mustang named Excalibur III and flew to Fairbanks, Alaska nonstop, a flight that covered 3,260 miles. Blair was awarded the Harmon Trophy, as well as the Gold Medal of the Norwegian Aero Club. His aircraft is now on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia. Blair was killed in 1978 in the crash of a Grumman Goose he was piloting for Antilles Air Boats.


(US Navy)

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May 29, 1944 – The aircraft carrier USS Block Island is torpedoed near the Azores. Block Island (CVE-21) was a Bogue-class escort carrier commissioned on March 8, 1943 that originally entered service as an aircraft ferry and made two trips between New York City and Belfast before WWII. During the war, she operated as part of a hunter-killer group and took part in four anti-submarine cruises and that resulted in the sinking of four German U-boats. While sailing off the coast of the Azores, Block Island was struck by three torpedoes from the German submarine U-549, which was in turn sunk by American destroyers. Remarkably, only six sailors were lost in the attack, with the other 951 picked up by members of the battle group. Block Island was the only American carrier lost in the Atlantic during WWII.


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May 29, 1934 – The Collier Trophy is awarded to Hamilton Standard Propeller Company for development of the controllable-pitch propeller. The controllable-pitch propeller (or variabile-pitch) is one in which the blades can be rotated along their long axis to alter the blade’s angle of attack as the pass through the air, increasing the propeller’s efficiency. The hydraulically actuated propeller designed by Hamilton Standard allowed the pilot to have direct control over the propeller, a significant advance in aircraft technology. For their work, the company received the Collier Trophy, which is awarded for “the greatest achievement in aeronautics or astronautics in America, with respect to improving the performance, efficiency, and safety of air or space vehicles, the value of which has been thoroughly demonstrated by actual use during the preceding year.”


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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