Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from May 30 through June 1.
May 30, 1958 – The first flight of the Douglas DC-8. By the end of WWII, Douglas Aircraft held a commanding lead in the production of piston-powered airliners reaching all the way back to the early 1930s with the DC-2 (DC stands for Douglas Commercial). But even though WWII heralded the dawn of the jet age, Douglas saw no need to rush headlong into the new technology. The company was still well-placed in the airliner market with their extremely successful DC-6, and the DC-7, its final piston airliner, was still in development and wouldn’t take its made flight until 1953. De Havilland had produced the world’s first turbojet-powered airliner with the Comet, but a series of fatal crashes led airlines to shy away from the jet airliners, even though the Comet crashes were traced to metal fatigue around its large, square windows and had nothing at all to do with its turbojet engines.
But by 1950, Douglas was feeling the heat from their primary competitor. Inspired by the success of their B-47 Stratojet bomber, Boeing had begun work on their own jet powered airliner, and rolled out the 367-80 (Dash 80) in 1954. Though it was originally designed for the US Air Force as a jet-powered aerial tanker and eventually adopted as the KC-135 Stratotanker, the implications for the commercial airline industry were clear. In 1952, Douglas had begun their own studies for the development of a four-engine jetliner, also hoping to compete for a lucrative defense contract. Ultimately left out of the tanker competition, Douglas moved ahead with their airliner design, and announced the DC-8 in 1955. Following consultations with the airlines, they modified their prototype to allow for six-abreast seating and offered four different versions of the jetliner, though in a fateful decision, the variants only offered options for different engine or fuel loads. Douglas refused to offer the DC-8 in any other fuselage lengths, a decision that ultimately hampered sales when pitted against the Boeing 707.
Despite the promise of the new jet airliner, airlines were still lukewarm to the idea, as the turboprop airliner used less fuel and was quieter. It wasn’t until Pan Am announced that they would buy both the Boeing and the Douglas aircraft that airlines finally went all-in on turbojet airliners. The DC-8 entered service with Delta Air Lines and United Airlines in 1959, though Douglas’ decision to limit production to a single fuselage size led the airlines also to purchase similar but more flexible offerings from Boeing, and Convair, who offered their 880 airliner. It wasn’t until 1965 that Douglas finally offered a stretched DC-8, called the Super Sixty. The lengthened airliner now accommodated up to 269 passengers, a mark that was not surpassed until the arrival of the Boeing 747 in 1970. And even though the 707 is by far the most well-known airliner of the era, Douglas (now McDonnell Douglas following the merger of the two companies in 1967) would have the last laugh. While nearly twice the number of 707s and 720 variants were produced by Boeing, just 80 remained in service by 2002. The DC-8, however, which proved to be an excellent cargo aircraft after its passenger-carrying days were over, could boast 200 aircraft still in service. And by 2013, 36 DC-8s were still in service worldwide.
June 1, 1939 – The first flight of the Focke-Wulf Fw 190. Though WWI ended in 1918, the formal end of hostilities between Germany and the Allied Powers didn’t take place until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919. The treaty, which, in many ways, actually made WWII inevitable, was particularly harsh on Germany. One of the treaty’s provisions forbade the manufacture or stockpile of chemical weapons, armored vehicles, tanks and military aircraft. But with Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1934, Germany began to ignore the provisions of the treaty. Along with renewed production of weapons, the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (Ministry of Aviation) began work to develop new military aircraft in an effort to rebuild Germany’s air force, the Luftwaffe.
In the mid-1930s, the Ministry held a competition to develop a new single-engine fighter. That competition that was eventually won by the Messerschmitt Bf 109, which went on to become the second-most highly produced warplane in history behind the Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik. But even as the 109 entered development and production, the Ministry indicated that it wanted a second fighter to complement the 109, since it was feared that, as good as the 109 was at the time, future foreign designs might soon outclass it. Kurt Tank, the head of the design department at Focke-Wulf, took on the task of designing the new fighter. But unlike most German fighter aircraft of its era that used inline engines, Tank chose the 14-cylinder twin-row BMW 801 radial engine. Conventional wisdom in Europe at that time was that radial engines were too bulky for fighters, and that the size of the flat disk at the front of the plane would create too much drag and slow the fighter down. But Tank had seen the success of American radial-engined aircraft and, based on that experience, he chose the radial not only for its power but for its relative ease of maintenance. As it turned out, pilots also appreciated that huge hunk of metal at the front of the fighter, as it afforded an extra measure of protection while attacking Allied bomber formations.
To keep the large radial engine cool, Tank initially fitted a vented spinner that covered the entire engine, with cooling air introduced through a hole in the center of the spinner. This was eventually abandoned in favor of a more conventional spinner and a NACA cowling over the engine that accelerated air flow over the hot cylinders. Tank also sought to make the new fighter as rugged and simple as possible so that it could operate from rough, undeveloped airstrips and could be easily maintained in the field. To counter the problems that often arose from stretched cables that worked the control surfaces, Tank instead used a series of solid linkages that provided excellent control and longevity.
The Würger (shrike), as the Fw 190 was known, entered service with the Luftwaffe over the Western Front in August 1941. At first, Allied pilots were confused by the appearance of a radial-engined German fighter. But the 190 soon got their attention, as it proved superior to the British Supermarine Spitfire Mk. V in all regimes of flight except for turning radius. And with superior firepower coming from its two 13mm MG 131 machine guns and two 20mm MG 151 cannons, the 190 soon clawed its way into air superiority over the British. It wasn’t until the RAF captured a 190 that they could analyze it and develop a version of the Spitfire, the Mk. IX, specifically to deal with the Würger. Though relatively evenly matched over Western Europe, Fw 190 pilots on the Eastern Front scored huge victories over less experienced Russian pilots, with German ace Otto Kittel claiming 267 victories, many of them coming at the controls of a 190.
As Allied advances in fighter design continued, Focke-Wulf worked to stay ahead of, or at least on par with, Allied fighters. The D model was fitted with a Junkers Jumo 213 V-12 engine in an effort to increase high-altitude performance, while a further development, the Ta 152, was fitted with a Daimler-Benz DB 603 inverted V 12 and had a stretched fuselage and elongated wings. Despite proving a match for the most modern Allied designs, both came too late in the war to have a bearing on the outcome. Despite attempts by Allied strategic bombers to eliminate German aircraft factories, production of the 190 continued throughout the war, and only ceased in 1945 with Germany’s surrender. By that time, over 20,000 of all types had been produced. Despite that huge number, only one original Fw 190A exists, complete with its original BMW 801 engine, owned by the Flying Heritage Collection in Everett, Washington. That organization also owns the sole existing Fw 190D to have survived the war.
May 30, 1972 – The first flight of the Northrop YA-9, the unsuccessful competitor against the Fairchild Republic YA-10 (the eventual A-10 Thunderbolt II) for a dedicated close air support (CAS) aircraft. Both aircraft were designed around the 30mm General Electric GAU-8 Avenger rotary cannon, though the Northrop prototype was armed with 20mm M61 Vulcan gun, as the GAU-8 was still under development. While both designs showed promise, the YA-10 was selected after a fly-off between the two designs. Northrop built two prototypes, both of which were given to NASA for further flight testing after the competition. One of the prototypes is on display at March Field Air Museum, and the other awaits restoration at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
May 30, 1971 – The launch of Mariner 9, an unmanned space probe launched by NASA to explore Mars and the first spacecraft to orbit another planet. Part of the Mariner program, Mariner 9 was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop an Atlas-Centaur rocket and reached Mars on November 14, 1971, beating similar Russian probes by less than a month. Mariner 9's primary mission was to map the Martian surface, and the spacecraft also included a radiometer to detect volcanic activity. Before deactivation on October 27, 1972, Mariner 9 returned 7,329 images of Mars, as well as important data on the composition of the Martian atmosphere. Mariner 9 remains in Mars orbit, and is expected to fall from orbit and burn up in the Martian atmosphere sometime in 2022.
May 30, 1948 – The first flight of the Martin P5M Marlin, a flying boat developed by the Glenn L. Martin Company as a maritime patrol aircraft based on the earlier Martin PBM Mariner. The Marlin was notable for its use of a gull wing, which raised the engines higher above the surface of the water to keep them clear of the ocean spray. Later production models were modified with a T-tail to place the elevators higher above the water as well, and anti-submarine warfare variants were fitted with a magnetic anomaly detector (MAD) boom to detect submarines. The Marlin entered service in 1952, and saw action in the Vietnam War, performing the last flying boat maritime patrols carried out by the US Navy. The Marlin also served with the US Coast Guard and French Navy, and was retired in 1967 after production of 285 aircraft.
May 30, 1942 – The first bombing mission of Operation Millennium. During WWII, the US and Britain were convinced of the effectiveness of heavy strategic bombing against German cities. Following the principles set forth by Italian general Giulio Douhet, the Allies believed that heavy bombardment of civilian centers would hasten the end of war by breaking the morale of the population. Gathering together every flyable bomber they could muster, including many obsolescent aircraft, the RAF launched Operation Millennium against the German city of Cologne, putting over 1,000 bombers in the air for a single mission. The streams of bombers flew over the city for 90 minutes, dropping 1,500 tons of bombs into the city center. More so-called 1,000 bomber raids were carried out against other cities, but strategic bombing never had the desired effect on civilian morale, and German factory production actually increased steadily throughout the war despite the concentrated bombing effort.
May 30, 1912 – The death of Wilbur Wright. Following the successful first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903, the Wright Brothers worked tirelessly to improve their machine, secure investors, and protect their intellectual property. They also had to establish the fact that they were first at powered flight against mounting skepticism at home and abroad. The brothers started the Wright Company in 1909, but Wilbur spent many of his final years shuttling between the US and Europe fighting to protect their patents. Perhaps due to the strain of those trips, Wilbur fell ill with typhoid fever in May 1912 and died soon after at the age of 45. Following Wilbur’s death, Orville took over the leadership of their company, and died in 1948 at the age of 76, having lived from the first flight into the supersonic age of aviation.
May 31, 1991 – The first flight of the Pilatus PC-12, a turboprop passenger and cargo aircraft designed primarily for corporate use and regional airlines. The PC-12 is powered by a single Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6 turboprop that provides a cruising speed of 312 mph and a range of over 1,700 miles with a full complement of 9 passengers. The PC-12 has proven to be a tremendous success, and is the best selling pressurized single-turbine aircraft in the world. Over 1,500 hundred have been built, and the aircraft remains in production. The bulk of sales have been to the civilian market, though the PC-12 does serve government agencies and militaries around the world, including the US Air Force, where it is known as the U-28A.
June 1, 2011 – The Space Shuttle Endeavour lands at Kennedy Space Center after its final flight. Endeavour (OV-105) was the fifth and final Space Shuttle to be built, and took the place of the Shuttle Challenger after the disaster that claimed the lives of seven astronauts. Named for the HMS Endeavour of Captain James Cook and the Command Module of Apollo 15, Endeavour took its maiden flight on May 7, 1992 on STS-49, a mission to retrieve a communications satellite that had failed to reach its proper orbit. The mission marked the first time three astronauts walked in space at the same time. Over 19 years of service, Endeavour flew 25 missions, spent almost 300 days in space, completed 4,671 orbits of the Earth, and travelled 122,883,151 miles. Endeavour carried Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman astronaut, into space, and flew the first mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope. After its retirement, Endeavour was placed on display at the California Science Center in Los Angeles, California.
June 1, 2009 – The crash of Air France Flight 447, a regularly scheduled flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris. The Airbus A330 (F-GZCP) took off on schedule and, due to the length of the flight, there were three pilots—one captain and two first officers—who would take shifts in the cockpit. With the captain out of the cockpit, the plane encountered icing conditions which led to the auto-pilot and auto-thrust being automatically deactivated. The pilot in command initiated rolling maneuvers, and an eventual unnecessary pitch up, which continued until the aircraft stalled and fell into the Atlantic Ocean. The final report cited inconsistent speed readings from iced pitot tubes, failure of the crew to recognize the attitude of the airplane or to follow proper procedures for loss of auto-pilot, and lack of practical training for manual high altitude flight.
June 1, 1953 – The US Air Force Thunderbirds demonstration team is activated. The Thunderbirds trace their lineage back to the first Air Force demonstration squadron, the Acrojets, which flew the Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star, America’s first operational jet fighter, and was based at the USAF Fighter School at Williams AFB in Arizona. With the onset of the Korean War, the Acrojets were disbanded in 1950, but another demonstration team, the Skyblazers, entertained crowds in Europe from their base at Fürstenfeldbruck Air Base in Germany at about the same time. Two members of the Skyblazers went on to form the nucleus of the Thunderbirds, which was formed in 1953 as the 3600th Air Demonstration Team at Luke AFB in Arizona. The team takes its name from a legendary bird found in native North American mythology, and the current livery reflects traditional Native American imagery of the Thunderbird. The Thunderbird’s first aircraft was the Republic F-84G Thunderjet, and they have since transitioned through most frontline USAF fighters, and currently perform in the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon.
June 1, 1948 – The first flight of the Cessna 170, a single-engine general aviation aircraft that was produced by the Cessna Aircraft Company from 1948-1956. Beginning with the four-seat 170, an enlarged version of the popular Cessna 140, the diminutive aircraft was powered by a Continental C145 air-cooled flat-six cylinder engine and featured a high wing and V struts. Development continued into the 1950s with the 305, which was modified with tandem seating and was flown extensively by the US Air Force, Army and Marine Corps for reconnaissance and forward air control as the O-1 Bird Dog. The 170 was later developed into the Cessna 172, which featured a tricycle landing gear and became history’s most successful aircraft. A total of 5,174 170s were built.
June 1, 1943 – British actor Leslie Howard is killed when his plane is shot down over the Bay of Biscay. Best known to American audiences for his role as Ashley Wilkes in the epic film Gone with the Wind (1939), Howard was a passenger on KLM/BOAC Flight 777 from Bristol, UK to Lisbon, Portugal flown by a camouflaged Douglas DC-3 (G-AGBB). During the nighttime flight, Howard’s aircraft was shot down by a flight of Junkers Ju 88Cs that were on patrol over the bay. The same DC-3 had been attacked twice before but escaped. One theory for the attack is that German intelligence officers believed that Winston Churchill was on the flight, and the airliner was attacked in an attempt to assassinate the British prime minister. Along with Howard, four KLM flight crew were killed, as well as 12 passengers, many of them British business executives or low-level government employees, as well as two or three children.
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