Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from May 7 - May 10.


May 10, 1972 – The first flight of the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II. On the night of August 20, 1968, half a million Warsaw Pact soldiers and thousands of tanks and armored vehicles rolled into Czechoslovakia, taking control of the country in a single night and putting an end to the Prague Spring. That watershed event in the Cold War showed the West that the massed might of Soviet armor was a serious and perhaps imminent threat, and one that land power alone was not prepared to deal with. It would take air power to stop the hordes of tanks, but at that time, there was no specialized aircraft to do the job. Close air support (CAS) had become somewhat of a lost art. But that hadn’t always been the case. One of the first tank busters, the Hawker Hurricane Mk IID, was a regular fighter armed with a pair of 40mm cannons which proved devastatingly effective against German tanks in WWII. For their part, the Germans developed the heavily armed Henschel Hs 129, the first aircraft specifically designed for close air support. Like the Germans in WWII, the NATO allies realized that they needed a purpose-built CAS aircraft, one that could fly low and slow over the battlefield, be rugged enough to sustain battle damage, and have the firepower to knock out tanks in a single pass. In 1966, the US Air Force created the Attack Experimental (A-X) program office to find a suitable aircraft, and by 1970 a specific request for proposals was made to the defense industry. The new aircraft would have a maximum speed of only 460 mph, but it would be capable of carrying 16,000 pounds of external stores (by comparison, a loaded Boeing B-29 Superfortress carried 20,000 pounds of bombs). Most importantly, the new aircraft would be developed around the massive General Electric GAU-8 Avenger 30mm cannon, a seven-barrel Gatling gun that could fire over 4,000 rounds per minute. Compared to other guns in use in CAS aircraft at the time, the Avenger had twice the range, took half the time to reach the target and could deliver three times the mass of projectiles to the target.

The General Electric GAU-8 Avenger cannon — and a little friend

The Air Force selected two finalists, the Northrop YA-9 and the Fairchild Republic YA-10. The YA-9 was a relatively traditional aircraft with fuselage-mounted engines and a shoulder wing, roughly comparable to the Russian Sukhoi Su-25. The YA-10, however, was a radical departure from traditional design, with a low, straight wing for excellent maneuverability, engines mounted in pods above the fuselage to protect them from ground fire, and twin tail fins for redundancy. Twelve hundred pounds of titanium armor protected the pilot and avionics. To deal with the recoil from the gun that could force the aircraft off target, the cannon was mounted slightly off-center, with the firing barrel in the nine-o’clock position directly on the aircraft’s centerline. Its position underneath the cockpit also helped prevent the ingestion of gun gases into the engines. Following a fly-off between the two competing designs, the Air Force selected the YA-10 as the winner in April 1973, and took delivery of the first production A-10s in March 1976. At first, some Air Force pilots balked at the idea of flying low and slow over the battlefield. But in the Gulf War of 1991, the Thunderbolt II showed how it was truly worthy of its WWII namesake, the P-47. During the war, A-10s destroyed more than 900 Iraqi tanks, 2,000 military vehicles, and 1,200 artillery pieces. A-10 pilots even shot down two enemy helicopters. The Thunderbolt II maintained a stellar 95.7 percent mission-capability rate over 8,100 sorties. The Air Force was so impressed, they dropped any ideas of replacing the twenty-year-old aircraft. However, that love affair may be coming to an end. Despite continued excellent service in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with no true dedicated successor, the Air Force is looking to retire the A-10 to free up money for development and production of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, a multi-role stealth aircraft that has yet to prove that it can live up to its Lockheed P-38 Lightning namesake, or effectively perform the CAS role that is so brilliantly carried out by the A-10. The US Congress has stepped in, trying to compel the Air Force to keep the A-10 flying, but it is a political and budgetary battle that is far from over. (US Air Force photos)

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May 7, 1992 – The first flight of the Space Shuttle Endeavour, the sixth and final Space Shuttle built and the fifth flown into space by NASA (Enterprise, the first shuttle, was used for static testing and glide tests). Following its first flight in 1992, STS-49, Endeavour served until 2011, flying a total of 25 missions before its retirement following STS-134. Construction of Endeavour began in 1987 as a replacement to the Space Shuttle Challenger which was lost, along with its crew, in 1986. Endeavour was named for British explorer Capt. James Cook’s HMS Endeavour (hence the British spelling), and it accomplished a number of firsts, including carrying the first African American woman astronaut to space, Mae Jemison, and completing the first mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. Following its retirement, Endeavour was moved to the California Science Center in Los Angeles where it is on display. (NASA photo)


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May 7, 1946 – The first flight of the Handley Page Hastings, a British troop transport and general cargo plane that served the Royal Air Force as a replacement for the Avro York. The Hastings was powered by four Bristol Hercules radial engines and was capable of carrying up to 50 troops, 35 paratroops, 32 stretchers or 20,000 pounds of cargo. The Hastings first saw service as part of the Berlin Airlift in 1948, where it was used primarily to deliver coal to the blockaded city. The Hastings also served during the Suez Crisis in 1956, and was finally retired in 1977 and replaced in RAF service by the Lockheed C-130 Hercules. A total of 151 Hastings were produced from 1947-1952. (Photo by Mike Freer via Wikimedia Commons)


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May 9, 1967 – The first flight of the Fokker F28 Fellowship, a short range jet airliner developed by the Dutch aircraft manufacturer Fokker. Initially designed to accommodate 50 passengers, production aircraft eventually carried 65 passengers, and future variants were expanded to carry as many as 79 passengers. Similar in appearance to the Douglas DC-9, the Fellowship was powered by a pair of Rolls-Royce Spey low-bypass turbofans that gave the F28 a cruising speed of about 520 mph and a range of up to 1200 miles, depending on the variant. A total of 241 aircraft were produced from 1967-1987, and the type remains in limited service. (Photo by Rolf Wallner via Wikimedia Commons)


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May 9, 1962 – The first flight of the Sikorsky CH-54 Tarhe (S-64 Skycrane), a heavy-lift helicopter that traces its lineage back to the Sikorsky S-56 (military CH-37 Mojave), an early heavy lifter which was then developed into the Sikorsky S-60 which served as the basis for the CH-54. The Tarhe could lift up to 20,000 pounds, either in a detachable pod or slung beneath the fuselage, and the crew of three allowed one pilot to sit in a rear-facing seat to control the helicopter during loading operations. Just over one hundred Tarhes were built and saw extensive service in Vietnam, and while the military retired the type in 1991, many are still used by private firms for heavy-lift operations and firefighting. (US Army photo)


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May 9, 1926 – Richard Byrd and Floyd Bennett make the first flight over the North Pole. While some historians credit Byrd and Bennett with this milestone in aviation exploration, there remains significant controversy surrounding their accomplishment. With Bennett as pilot, Byrd planned to take off from Spitsbergen (Svalbard) in their Fokker F.VIIa-3m, fly over the Pole, and return. However, evidence of erasures in Byrd’s personal diary cast doubt on whether the team actually reached the Pole before returning to Spitsbergen. Nevertheless, Byrd and Bennett were hailed as national heroes and awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Three days later, a flight by the airship Norge, lead by Roald Amundsen, flew from Spitsbergen to Alaska, so there can be no doubt that they crossed the Pole. The debate continues as to which explorer was actually first. (Photo author unknown)


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May 10, 2012 – The death of Evelyn Bryan Johnson. Johnson was born in Corbin, Kentucky on November 4, 1909 and began her flying career with the US Army Air Corps in 1944. By the time she quit flying at the age of 96 she had logged 57,635.4 flying hours, earning her the international record for the greatest number of flying hours logged. Johnson was a colonel in the Civil Air Patrol, and also a flight instructor, garnering the distinction of being the oldest instructor pilot in the world and training more pilots and giving more FAA exams than any other instructor. On July 21, 2007, Johnson was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame, joining Amelia Earhart, Jacqueline Cochran, Sally Ride and other famous flyers. (Photo by Wade Pane via The Washington Post)


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May 10, 1991 – The first flight of the Bombardier CRJ100. The CRJ traces it roots back to 1989 with the beginning of the Canadair Regional Jet program which sought to develop a medium-range jet airliner to seat up to 52 passengers. The design was originally developed as a stretched variant of the Canadair Challenger CL-600 business jet, and following the CRJ100's entry into service it was quickly developed into the CRJ200 ER and LR, each with increased range. The CRJ100, along with its larger CRJ200 variant, have proven very popular with smaller airlines, as well as some large airlines who use the regional jet to serve smaller airports. A total of 935 aircraft of both variants have been produced, and while production has ended, the airliner remains in service. (Photo by Arpingstone via Wikimedia Commons)


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May 10, 1978 – The first flight of the Dassault Mirage 2000. Based on the delta wing Mirage III, the Mirage 2000 was developed in the 1970s as a lightweight fighter to compete with the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon for the lucrative export market. Since the Mirage 2000 was based on an existing aircraft, the prototype was ready for its first flight in just 27 months. The Mirage 2000 displayed superb handling for a delta-wing aircraft, impressing spectators when it was unveiled at the 1978 Farnborough Airshow, demonstrating that it was indeed a viable competitor to its American challenger. The Mirage 2000 entered service in November of 1982, and over 600 examples were produced, with many sold to Dassault’s export customers. (US Air Force photo)


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