Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from November 3 through November 6.
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.
November 6, 1935 – The first flight of the Hawker Hurricane. There is an undeniable glamour in being a fighter pilot, wheeling above the clouds high above the battlefield in one-on-one combat with the enemy. For that reason, the Supermarine Spitfire tended to receive all the glory for the high-flying exploits of its dashing pilots in the Second World War. But much of the yeoman’s work of air combat was done at lower altitudes, down on the deck, or slugging it out with waves of incoming bombers. That mission was the bailiwick of the Hawker Hurricane. It wasn’t the most glamorous fighter in the RAF, and its design hearkened back to an earlier era of aviation, but it was a hard hitting workman of an airplane that ultimately downed more enemy aircraft during the war than all other British aircraft types combined.
Development of the Hurricane traces back to the earlier Hawker Hart and Hawker Fury, both biplanes with fixed-pitch wooden propellers. Famed Hawker designer Sydney Camm began an in-house project to develop a new fighter by creating a cantilever monoplane with fixed landing gear, before further refining the design to include retractable gear. He also replaced the underpowered Rolls-Royce Goshawk engine with the more powerful PV-12, which would later be developed into the Merlin, which became one of the greatest piston engines ever produced. Hawker progressed so far on the fighter that the Air Ministry simply wrote Specification F.36/34 specifically to match the new fighter, and the Hurricane was born.
When the “Hurry” entered service in 1937, it was the first monoplane fighter to serve the RAF. During the Battle of Britain, the Spitfire got much of the press for its high speed and high altitude performance against German escort fighters, while the Hurricane, which was 30-40 mph slower than the “Spit,”tangled the German bombers. In the Mediterranean theater, the Hurricane was outclassed with the arrival of the Messerschmitt Bf 109E, but still remained a potent ground attack aircraft, and was instrumental in the pivotal British victory at El Alamein in North Africa. Hurricanes also played a vital role in the Allied victory in the Siege of Malta, and nearly 3,000 were delivered to the Soviet Union, but its use solely as a day fighter was over by 1943. Interestingly, for all that the Spitfire was a famous dogfighter, the Hurry was actually more agile than the Spit at altitudes below 20,000 feet, having a tighter turning radius and a superior roll rate.
The prototype Hurricane came with a stressed fabric skin and a two-bladed wooden propeller, but with the addition of a variable-pitch propeller, metal wings, and armor plating, the aircraft that was known as the “Mk 1 (revised)” became the primary production model and formed the backbone of the RAF throughout the war and served in every theater of the conflict. To address the high altitude performance issues in the original Hurricane, Hawker developed the Hurricane II which had a two-stage supercharger, a strengthened wing and additional attachment points for external stores. Other variants followed, including the Sea Hurricane, which was modified for carrier operations. Over 14,000 Hurricanes were produced, though only 12 remain airworthy today.
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. Plagued by a rash of fatal crashes early in its service life, the Lansen 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 takes 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 also 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 also popular with air racers, and served the US military as a liaison aircraft, where it was designated 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.
November 6, 1957 – The first flight of the Fairey Rotodyne. Though resembling a helicopter, the Rotodyne was actually a gyrodyne, a class of aircraft where forward propulsion is provided through conventional engines while lift is provided by short wings and a large powered rotor. The Rotodyne’s rotor was turned by jets on the rotor tips which were powered for takeoff, landing and hovering, but were unpowered during flight. In this way, the Rotodyne acted as an autogyro. Intended for civilian or military transport, the Rotodyne was canceled after the construction of one prototype as no customers were found, and also amid concerns over the noise produced by the rotor’s tip-jets.
November 6, 1945 – The first jet-powered airplane lands on a US Navy aircraft carrier. The rather unfortunately named Ryan FR Fireball was a mixed-power aircraft, having both a radial engine and an early turbojet engine, as jet engines were still untrusted. The first aircraft to enter US Navy service to include a jet engine, the Fireball made the first jet-powered carrier landing unintentionally when US Marine Corps pilot J.C. West landed aboard the escort carrier USS Wake Island (CVE-65) under jet power alone after his radial engine failed. The Fireball proved fragile and unsuited to carrier operations, often breaking apart on landing. Only 71 were built, and the type was retired in 1947 in favor of pure jet fighters.
November 6, 1942 – The first flight of the Heinkel He 219. A very advanced aircraft for its day, the He 219 Uhu (Eagle Owl) was used by the Luftwaffe primarily as a night fighter in the closing stages of WWII. The 219 was fitted with a Lichtenstein SN-2 VHF radar and was the first operational Luftwaffe warplane to use a tricycle landing gear and the first operational aircraft to have an ejection seat. Coming late in the war, the He 219 fought well, claiming five RAF bombers shot down on its first night of operation. However, with less than 300 produced, there were not enough of them to make a significant impact on the outcome of the war.
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