Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from November 2 through November 5.
November 2, 1947 – The first flight of the Hughes H-4 Hercules. There’s no question that Howard Hughes was an eccentric man. Known for his reclusive behavior, he was also one of the wealthiest people of his generation. Through his varied interests and investments, Hughes managed to grow a $1 million inheritance into a billion-dollar empire that encompassed interests in investing, film making, real estate and philanthropy. But Hughes is also known for his efforts in aviation, first with the formation of Hughes Aircraft Company in 1932, and later with his purchase of a controlling investment in Trans World Airlines in 1939. Hughes had a fascination with speed and air racing, and built the Hughes H-1 Racer, in which he set numerous speed records. The H-1 was also the last privately-developed aircraft to set a world speed record. He developed other aircraft for the US military, none of which were particularly successful, but he is perhaps best known for his greatest failure, the H-4 Hercules.
Popularly known as the Spruce Goose, the Hercules was conceived early in WWII by shipbuilder Henry J. Kaiser and built by Hughes Aircraft in the hopes of providing the US Army with a transatlantic cargo plane that would be capable of carrying either 150,000 pounds of cargo, 750 fully equipped troops, or two M4 Sherman tanks weighing 30 tons each. Hercules was an apt name for the plane, because it was a true behemoth and the largest flying boat ever built.
Its wingspan of 320 feet 11 inches was the longest for more than 70 years before it was surpassed by the Scaled Composites Stratolaunch in 2019. In an effort to save weight and conserve metal, the Hercules was constructed almost entirely of birch (not spruce, but Spruce Goose sounds better), and was powered by eight Pratt & Whitney R-4360 Wasp Major radial engines each producing 3,000 horsepower. The H-4 was constructed in Hughes’ Los Angeles factory, then disassembled and transported by a house moving company to Long Beach, where it was reassembled for flight testing.
With Hughes at the controls, the Hercules made two uneventful taxi runs in the waters off Cabrillo Beach. Then, on the third run, the Spruce Goose rose to about 70 feet above the surface of the water, flew at 135 mph for about a mile, then settled back onto the water—and never flew again. It is impossible to know if the Spruce Goose would have met its design objectives. Its first flight came more than two years after VJ Day and the US government was no longer interested in such a huge, propeller-powered cargo plane. The Spruce Goose was maintained in a climate-controlled hangar for 30 years, then put on display in a special hangar before being acquired by the Disney company, who had plans to develop a theme park around it, but those plans never came to fruition. The Hercules now resides at the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon.
November 2, 1943 – The first flight of the Grumman F7F Tigercat. During WWII, the piston powered fighter reached the zenith of its development. Unfortunately for the war effort, however, some of the greatest propeller planes ever produced came too late to make a difference in the outcome of the war, and were soon displaced by jet-powered aircraft during the Korean War. Such was the fate of the Tigercat, one of the fastest piston-powered fighters ever built and, in the words of Navy test pilot Frederick Trapnell, “...the best damn fighter I’ve ever flown.”
Grumman has a rich history of providing powerful and rugged warplanes for the US Navy, but the aircraft that became the Tigercat actually started out as a project by Grumman to build the XP-50, a twin-engine interceptor for the US Army Air Corps, which itself was a development of the radical XF5F Skyrocket.
But when the XP-50 prototype was lost in a crash, funding was shifted to a new design, the XP-65, and development of the Army interceptor took place simultaneously with development of the Navy version, which bore the designation XF7F. The new interceptor kept the twin engines of its predecessors, but was otherwise a traditional design, albeit with a very narrow fuselage to reduce its frontal area.
Initially, the main difference between the Army and Navy versions was the inclusion of superchargers in the Army’s XP-65. But as development continued, it became clear that the Army and Navy had very different requirements, and those needs could not be met by a single airplane (a situation that would plague the development of the General Dynamics F-111 twenty years later). So when the Army stopped pursuing the XP-65, Grumman used its considerable experience building naval aircraft and focused entirely on the XF7F. The Navy envisioned their new aircraft both as a fighter and as a ground attack aircraft, and the Tigercat had a serious bite, with four 20mm cannons and four .50 caliber machine guns firing forward, as well as hardpoints on the wings and fuselage for bombs and torpedoes. And not only could the Tigercat hit hard, it was fast. With a top speed of 460 mph, it outpaced the Grumman F6F Hellcat by 80 mph, and was even a bit faster than the Vought F4U Corsair, one of the fastest fighters of WWII. However, the early models were not able to pass carrier qualifications and Tigercats were relegated to land bases to be used as night fighters and for photo reconnaissance. It wasn’t until the F7F-4 variant that the Tigercat was cleared for carrier operations, but only 12 of that model were produced.
Delivered too late to fight in WWII, Tigercats did see limited action in Korea as a night fighter, and claimed two Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes. But this would be its only combat success. Most Tigercats were eventually sent into storage and later scrapped, though some were bought as surplus and used as firefighting water bombers. Of the 364 aircraft produced of all variants, seven remain airworthy, and two currently are being restored, one to airworthiness. Interestingly, Grumman had originally intended to call the F7F the Tomcat, but that name was considered too risqué for the era. The name Tomcat would famously appear later on the Grumman F-14.
November 5, 1981 – The first flight of the McDonnell Douglas AV-8B Harrier II. The aviators of the United States Marine Corps have a long and rich history of providing close air support, an affinity with the Marines on the ground that they symbolize through their camouflage flight helmet covers. So it’s not surprising that the Marine Corps showed an interest in the Harrier Jump Jet, an aircraft that could take off and land vertically and operate from bases close to the ground troops, or from amphibious assault ships of the US Navy offshore near the battleground.
The AV-8B Harrier II is, as its name suggests, the second generation of the AV-8A Harrier, a plane that traces its development back to the British-built Hawker Siddeley Harrier. While the original Harrier was a groundbreaking design, it suffered from a relatively short range and small payload (the AV-8A could carry only half the load of the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk), so the designers of the Harrier II sought to address these shortcomings. In 1973, McDonnell Douglas and Hawker Siddeley began a joint program to develop a more robust version of the jump jet; however, that initial project was terminated due to costs and engineering difficulties with the new larger Rolls-Royce Pegasus engine. Both companies forged ahead independently, with Hawker Siddeley working on improvements such as a larger wing that could be retrofitted to existing first generation Harriers. The Marine Corps, facing the daunting task of developing an aircraft that the Navy didn’t want to pay for, hoped that the original Harrier could be upgraded without a new engine. McDonnell Douglas focused on improving the wings, air intakes, and other aerodynamic structures, but those changes did not provide the desired increase in speed, though payload and range were increased to acceptable levels.
Then, in 1981, the newly formed British Aerospace (BAe) rejoined the project in a work-sharing role, giving it a much needed boost. Refinements to the aircraft continued, and the Harrier II eventually received larger air intakes with a redesigned inlet, and a redesign of the underside of the fuselage that allowed the Harrier II to use reflected engine exhaust to augment the lifting power of the engine. A redesigned supercritical wing reduced drag in transonic flight, and a hands-on-throttle-and-stick (HOTAS) helped reduce pilot workload. The latest and most powerful Pegasus engine provides 23,800 pounds of thrust, and a greater fuel capacity increased the range to 1,400 miles while the payload was increased to 9,200 pounds carried on six underwing pylons. A single General Dynamics GAU-12 Equalizer 25mm five-barreled rotary cannon with 300 rounds of ammunition, mounted in a pod under the fuselage, augmented the Harrier II’s ground attack capability.
The first production AV-8Bs entered service with Marine Attack Training Squadron 203 in 1983 and, after extensive testing, the Harrier II joined the rest of the Marine Corps in 1985. The BAe Harrier II, derived from the American Harrier II, also entered service in the same year. The Harrier II has since become a workhorse of Marine aviation, serving extensively in the Gulf War of 1990-1991, the 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia during Operation Allied Force, and throughout the conflict in Afghanistan and the Iraq War. In addition to service with the USMC, the Harrier II also serves the navies of Spain (EAV-8B) and Italy, while the British retired the BAe Harrier II in 2011 ahead of its pending replacement by the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II in 2019. Further upgrades produced the AV-8B Plus, which includes additional armaments and night fighting capability. The Marine Corps’ AV-8B is slated for eventual replacement by the F-35B STOVL and F-35C multi-role fighter in both the ground attack and fighter role, though current plans are for the Harrier II to serve until 2030.
November 2, 1992 – The first flight of the Airbus A330. One of a number of derivatives of Airbus’ original A300 wide-body, the A330 has a range of up to 8,300 miles and can carry as many as 335 passengers or 150,000 pounds of cargo, depending on the variant and cabin configuration. The A330 was developed alongside the four-engine A340, and shares a common airframe, though the A340 has a centerline wheel bogey. To accommodate different customers, the A330 was the first Airbus airliner to offer a choice of three different engines. Still in production today, over 1,200 A330s have been built, and they serve numerous civilian carriers, cargo companies, and militaries.
November 2, 1929 – The founding of The Ninety-Nines, an international organization of woman pilots that provides professional opportunities for women in aviation and “promotes advancement of aviation through education, scholarships, and mutual support while honoring our unique history and sharing our passion for flight.” Founded at Curtiss Field in New York by 99 of the then-117 licensed female pilots, the organization counts Amelia Earhart among its charter members, and includes such notables as Jackie Cochran, Patty Wagstaff, Jeana Yeager, Sheila Scott, and astronaut Eileen Collins.
November 3, 1957 – The launch of Sputnik 2, the second spacecraft to be launched into Earth orbit and the first to carry a live animal into space. Launched atop a modified R-7 Semyorka ICBM just 32 days after Sputnik 1, Sputnik 2 carried a dog named Laika to provide data on how spaceflight would affect a living creature. Laika survived the launch, but by the third orbit the temperature in the cabin rose to 109ºF and telemetry data indicated that Laika was most likely dead by the third day in orbit, either from the heat or a carbon dioxide buildup. The manner of Laika’s death caused some controversy, but the dog would have died anyway, as it was 162 days before Sputnik 2 returned to Earth and burned up on reentry.
November 3, 1952 – The first flight of the Saab 32 Lansen, a two-seat transonic fighter-bomber developed by Saab for the Swedish Air Force. Originally designed as one of the first dedicated ground attack jets, Saab produced three principal variants: the A 32A for ground attack, the J 32B for aerial combat, and the S 32C for reconnaissance. The Lansen was plagued by a rash of fatal crashes early in its service life, and was phased out beginning in 1971 in favor of the Saab 37 Viggen, though some continued operations into the 1990s as a target tug and as an electronics warfare platform. A total of 450 Lansens were produced from 1954-1960, and it was the last purpose-built ground attack aircraft developed by Sweden.
November 3, 1944 – The first Japanese Fu-Go balloon bombs are launched against North America. The Fu-Go (balloon bomb) was a hydrogen-filled balloon launched from Japan and intended to travel to North America carried by the Pacific jet stream. The first-ever weapon designed with an intercontinental range, the balloons were armed with either a small antipersonnel bomb or multiple incendiary devices, or both, and were intended to kill civilians or start forest fires in the Pacific Northwest. Over 9,000 were launched, but only one Fu-Go attack resulted in fatalities when a group of picnickers discovered one on the ground in Oregon. One of the anti-personnel bombs detonated, killing a pregnant woman and five children.
November 4, 1968 – The first flight of the Aero L-39 Albatros, a two-seat jet trainer developed by the Czech aircraft manufacturer Aero Vodochody as a replacement for the Aero L-29 Delfin. The Albatros was the first jet trainer to be equipped with a turbofan rather than a turbojet engine, and its straight wing helps provide stable flying characteristics at lower speeds. The L-39 has become popular on the air show circuit with private flight demonstration teams and, while it was designed as a trainer, it has also proven itself as a ground attack aircraft for nations with smaller military budgets. The L-29 was subsequently developed into the L-59 Super Albatros/L-159 ALCA, which features a strengthened fuselage, longer nose, updated cockpit and avionics, and a more powerful engine. More than 2,800 L-29s were produced from 1971-1990.
November 4, 1932 – The first flight of the Beechcraft Model 17 Staggerwing. Arguably one of the most graceful aircraft to come out of the Golden Age of Flight, the Staggerwing took its name from the negative wing stagger that placed the lower wing ahead of the upper wing. This arrangement offers improved visibility for the pilot, and also reduces aerodynamic interference between the wings while providing a home for the retracting landing gear ahead of the center of gravity. The Model 17 was one of the earliest airplanes marketed to flying executives, with an enclosed cabin that carried a pilot and three passengers. Its retractable landing gear was a rarity at the time. The “Stag” was popular with air racers, and served the US military as a liaison aircraft as the UC-43 Traveler.
November 5, 1911 – Calbraith Rodgers completes the first coast-to-coast flight across the United States. Hoping to claim a $50,000 prize purse offered by publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, Rodgers set out from Sheepshead Bay, New York on September 7 flying a Wright Model EX named the Vin Fiz Flyer after its soft drink company sponsor. Rodgers headed for Texas to skirt the Rocky Mountains, and eventually landed in Pasadena, California. Unfortunately for Rogers, he missed the deadline, and the prize money, by 19 days due to 70 stops caused by mechanical troubles and crashes along the way. Rodgers died just five months later when he flew into a flock of birds and crashed while making an exhibition flight.
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