Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from November6 through November 8.
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 over 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 during 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 whose pilots 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 and 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 with 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. However, in the face of superior Axis fighters, 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. Although more than 14,000 Hurricanes were produced, only 12 remain airworthy today.
November 6, 1957 – The first flight of the Fairey Rotodyne. Though resembling a helicopter, the Rotodyne was actually a gyrodyne, a class of rotorcraft 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 just one prototype as no customers were found, and also due to 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 a turbojet engine, as early 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.
November 7, 2001 – The Concorde resumes passenger flights. On July 25, 2000, Air France Flight 4590 (F-BTSC) crashed shortly after takeoff from Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport. The official cause of the crash was cited as debris on the runway that damaged a tire and lead to a ruptured fuel tank and catastrophic fire. Though it was the only crash in the history of Concorde, all of the supersonic transports were grounded during the investigation. Remaining aircraft were updated with Kevlar-lined fuel tanks and burst-resistant tires before retuning to service. Despite its return to revenue service, the Concorde could not overcome a downturn in air travel following the Flight 4590 crash and the September 11 terrorist attacks. High maintenance and fuel costs added to the Concorde’s woes, and all of the Concordes were retired in 2003.
November 8, 1935 – The death of Charles Kingsford Smith. Kingsford Smith, known by his nickname “Smithy,” served as a motorcycle dispatch rider during the Gallipoli Campaign in WWI before joining the Royal Flying Corps in 1917. Following the war, he worked as a barnstormer in the US and flew airmail in Australia, and initially became famous for completing the first crossing of the Pacific Ocean in 1928 when he flew from California to Australia with copilot Charles Ulm in a Fokker F.VII/3m named Southern Cross. Kingsford Smith followed that with the first flight across Australia and the first flight across the Tasman Sea from Australia to New Zealand in the same year, and a westward crossing of the Atlantic Ocean from Ireland to Newfoundland in 1930. He also made the first eastward crossing of the Pacific in 1934 in a Lockheed Altair named Lady Southern Cross. During an attempt to break the record for flying from England to Australia, Kingsford Smith and copilot John Pethybridge, flying the Lady Southern Cross, disappeared over the Andaman Sea near Burma, and their bodies were never found.
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