Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from November 9 through November 12.
November 9, 1946 – The first flight of the Lockheed Constitution. Throughout aviation history, there have been numerous double-deck aircraft. Some were just very large aircraft with two decks, but others were so-called “double bubble” aircraft. Since a pressurized aircraft is essentially an aluminum tube, a double bubble aircraft is one in which one tubed is stacked atop another to create more space for passengers or cargo. While some aircraft were modified as double-deckers from existing aircraft, the Lockheed Constitution was designed from the ground up to be a double bubble double decker.
Development of the R6V began in 1942 with a joint study by the US Navy, Pan Am, and Lockheed to design a large transport aircraft to supplement the Navy’s aging fleet of flying boats. Pan Am signed on to the project in the hopes that any aircraft that came out of the partnership might also have commercial applications. Design specifications stated that the fully pressurized aircraft must be capable of carrying 17,500 pounds of payload at an altitude of 25,000 feet for 5,000 miles. When it was completed, the Constitution was the largest fixed wing aircraft ever flown by the US Navy, but only two were ever built.
Ship No. 1 was completed in 1946 and took its maiden flight on November 9 of that year. Flight testing showed the engines to be significantly underpowered, so they were replaced by more powerful Pratt & Whitney R-4360 Wasp Major engines with water injection that offered 3,500 horsepower each. Rockets could also be mounted under the wings to assist in takeoffs with heavier payloads. Ship No. 2 took its maiden flight on June 9, 1948 and had an upper deck sumptuously fitted out for 92 passengers and 12 crew. The lower deck was fitted for cargo, but could also be configured to carry 76 passengers in addition to those on the upper deck. On February 3, 1949, Ship No. 2 flew 74 members of the press from Moffett Field in California to Washington National Airport, setting a record for the most passengers transported on a nonstop transcontinental flight.
In the end, the Constitution couldn’t live up to its billing. It remained underpowered, even with its engine upgrade, and problems with engine overheating led to a reduced operational range. In 1949, the Navy decided that the aircraft were just too expensive to operate and offered to lease them to the airlines. But there were no takers. Both aircraft were eventually sold for $97,785 in a deal that included 13 engines, which was quite bargain considering that the contract to build the two aircraft cost the US government $27 million. After the sale, both Constitutions suffered ignominious fates. Ship No. 1 was taken to Las Vegas where it was used as a giant billboard for Alamo Airways. It ended up being scrapped by Howard Hughes when he bought the property. Ship No. 2 was taken to Opa-Locka Airport in Florida and stored in a field. It was eventually moved off the airport to a new storage site, and there were plans to use it as a restaurant and museum. But those plans fell through, and the aircraft was finally scrapped in 1978.
November 9, 1944 – The first flight of the Boeing C-97 Stratofreighter. It is probably safe to say that the Boeing B-29 Superfortress was one of the greatest airplanes to come out of WWII. Not only was the B-29 an exceptional bomber, it proved to be such a versatile aircraft that its descendants continued serving long after the war was over, and they did so in many different guises. After its initial use as a long-range bomber, the B-29 was pressed into service as the KB-29 aerial tanker, which helped the US Air Force develop procedures for reliably refueling aircraft in flight. Later, the B-29 was developed into the B-50, the last piston-engined bomber produced for the US Air Force, as well as the KB-50 aerial tanker variant. Both were eventually replaced by newer jet-powered designs, but a more radical descendant of the venerable B-29 flew for more than 30 years, and served into the 1970s.
With the end of WWII, what the Air Force really needed was an aircraft that could carry tons of cargo or large numbers of passengers or troops, not just bombs. Starting with the proven B-29 Superfortress, Boeing retained the engines, wings, tail, and half the fuselage, but then added a second, larger tube on top, giving the C-97 a double bubble structure that significantly increased its cargo-carrying capacity. After the construction of the first 10 Stratofreighters, the engines were upgraded to the same 3,500 horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-4360 Wasp Major engines used on the B-50. The taller vertical stabilizer was also borrowed from the B-50 to compensate for the larger fuselage. Clamshell doors opened under the tail for loading, and a ramp allowed vehicles or other equipment to be driven directly into the cargo hold. However, these doors could not be opened in flight, so the C-97 was not capable of performing parachute drops of troops.
The C-97 was introduced in 1947, and one C-97 took part in the Berlin Airlift, but a landing accident grounded it until after the crisis ended. The Stratofreighter went on to serve in both the Korean War and the Vietnam War, and was also converted into an early airborne command post for the Strategic Air Command. And, like its B-29 predecessor, the C-97 was developed into the KC-97 aerial tanker, and the later the KC-97L was made faster by the addition of a General Electric J47 turbojet engine under each wing to help it keep pace with faster jet fighters. Later, in yet further testament to Boeing’s flexible design, the C-97 was developed into the 377 Stratocruiser, a double decker, pressurized airliner that could accommodate up to 114 passengers on its two decks. But even that wasn’t the end of the lineage that started with the B-29, as the 377 was also developed into the Aero Spacelines Guppy series of super-size cargo aircraft. A total of 888 C-97s were built, with the bulk of them serving in the aerial refueling role. After finishing its service with the National Guard, the C-97 was finally retired in 1978.
November 11, 1956 – The first flight of the Convair B-58 Hustler. The Nuclear Age dawned on August 6, 1945 when the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, followed by a second three days later on the city of Nagasaki. Fortunately for the world, no other nuclear bombs have ever been dropped, but development of nuclear-capable bombers continued after the war, and the problem facing the US Air Force was how best to deliver a nuclear weapon deep into enemy territory, specifically the Soviet Union. In the era before the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and the surface-to-air missile (SAM), conventional wisdom held that the only way to successfully complete a nuclear bombing mission was to fly at high altitude above enemy fighters and at the greatest possible speed.
In 1949, the Air Research and Development Command (ARDC) issued a Generalized Bomber Study for which numerous aircraft manufacturers submitted proposals to build a new jet-powered bomber for the Strategic Air Command. The Air Force chose Boeing and Convair to proceed. Boeing proposed their XB-59 supersonic medium bomber, while Convair proposed an aircraft known as the MX-1964. In 1952, the Air Force selected Convair as the winner, and the new bomber received the designation XB-58.
Based on experience with their XF-92 interceptor prototype, Convair’s offering was a fully delta wing aircraft and was powered by four General Electric J79 axial flow afterburning turbojets each housed in a long slender pod beneath the wings. The Hustler was capable of carrying five nuclear weapons, with four of them carried on external pylons under the wings and a fifth housed in a large pod under the fuselage that also contained fuel. The Hustler had no internal bomb bay.
To keep the fuselage as slender as possible, the B-58's three-man crew was seated in tandem, and later models featured a clamshell-like ejection capsule that also included the control stick, meaning that the pilot could continue to fly the plane even when “turtled up,” ready for ejection at a moment’s notice. The escape system could safely eject the crew at 70,000 feet and at speeds as high as Mach 2, and the ejection capsule could also double as a life raft.
The choice of Hustler for the B-58's nickname turned out to be an apt moniker, as the B-58 was the first supersonic jet bomber and could fly as fast as Mach 2. Depending on payload, the Hustler could climb at nearly 46,000 feet per minute with a light load, and it set 19 world speed records during its career, including a transcontinental flight of just over two hours. But as fast as the Hustler was, it was expensive to produce and, when compared to the much larger Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, the B-58 carried a relatively light bomb load and had a shorter range. Following the introduction of Soviet SAMs, the Hustler’s mission changed to low-level penetration which further limited its range. And the fact that it was designed exclusively as a nuclear bomber meant that it could not carry conventional weapons, further limiting its mission capability. After a relative brief 10-year career, the Hustler was retired in favor of the General Dynamics FB-111A, which could match the B-58 in speed and could carry a far more flexible weapons load, including nuclear bombs. The Hustler was retired in January 1970 and, of the 116 Hustlers produced, eight survive today as display aircraft.
November 12, 2001 – The crash of American Airlines Flight 587. In the Hollywood blockbuster movie Top Gun, an accident claims the life of Goose, Maverick’s best friend and Radar Intercept Officer, when their F-14 flies through the “jet wash” of the fighter ahead of them. In the unstable air, Maverick loses control and the Tomcat goes into a flat spin. The pair ejects, but Goose is killed. That sort of Hollywood-contrived scenario is very real, but the phenomenon that caused Maverick to lose control is actually called wake turbulence, because jet engines have nothing to do with creating the turbulent air. By the 196os, aerodynamicists finally understood that it wasn’t the air coming out of the jet engines that caused turbulence, it was the wingtip vortices, basically horizontal tornadoes of air, generated by the wings of an aircraft that can wreak havoc on those airplanes following behind. All pilots are trained to deal with wake turbulence, and air traffic controllers routinely advise aircraft during landing or takeoff to be aware of wake turbulence from aircraft in the pattern ahead. Crashes caused by wake turbulence are rare, but perhaps the best known, and most tragic, was the crash of American Airlines Flight 587.
AA587 was a regularly scheduled flight from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to the Dominican Republic. Shortly after takeoff, the Airbus A300 (N14053) flew into the wake turbulence left behind by a Japan Air Lines Boeing 747. In an effort to maintain control, the first officer initiated a series of hard, complete deflections of the rudder. These actions, lasting approximately 20 seconds, placed twice the amount of stress on the vertical stabilizer than Airbus had designed it for, and caused the entire stabilizer to break away from the fuselage. Without the yaw control from the stabilizer, the airliner entered a flat spin, and the stresses on the airframe caused both engines to shear off the wings. The airliner came down in a Queens, New York neighborhood, killing all 260 passengers and crew plus five more on the ground. It was the second deadliest crash in New York state history, and the second deadliest accident involving an A300.
Coming just two months after the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, DC, immediate speculation focused on another act of terrorism. However, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators quickly ruled that out, and focused instead on the joint where the composite tail structure attached to the aluminum fuselage. They found that the titanium bolts and composite lugs were sufficiently strong, so attention turned to the first officer’s rudder deflections as the likely cause of the stabilizer separation. American Airlines blamed Airbus for making the rudder pedals too sensitive, and Airbus blamed American for faulty pilot training, saying that its pilots were trained to handle wake turbulence in an overly aggressive fashion. Ultimately, the NTSB investigation determined that, while both parties shared some responsibility, it was the first officer’s “unnecessary and excessive rudder pedal inputs” that caused the structural failure leading to the crash. As a result, American Airlines modified its wake turbulence training program.
November 12, 1952 – The first flight of the Tupolev Tu-95. At the close of WWII, the best bomber the Soviet Union had in their inventory was the Tupolev Tu-4 (NATO reporting name Bull), a down-to-the-last-rivet copy of a captured American Boeing B-29 Superfortress. The Tu-4 was a fine bomber (after all, it was a clone of the B-29), and the Soviets built nearly 850 of them. But what the Soviet Air Forces lacked was a truly intercontinental bomber that could make a round trip attack on the United States. Tupolev first addressed this deficiency with the Tu-85 (NATO reporting name Barge), the ultimate development of the Tu-4, and the significantly larger and heavier Tu-85 had an unrefueled range of nearly 7,500 miles. But the Tu-85, powered by massive compound radial engines, was an anachronism in an era when jets and turboprops were becoming the engines of choice, and only two were ever built. Additionally, American experience with the B-29 in the Korean War showed that piston-powered bombers were vulnerable to the new breed of jet fighters.
The Myasishchev Design Bureau began work on the M-4 (NATO reporting name Bison), but its four thirsty turbojet engines limited its range and it was never able to fulfill the transoceanic bombing mission. Tupolev, however, had begun work on a turboprop-powered bomber, similar in many ways to the Boeing Model 464, an early design concept that eventually led to the jet-powered B-52 Stratofortress.
Designated Tu-95 (NATO reporting name Bear), the bomber’s 35-degree swept wing housed four massive Kusnetsov NK-12 turboprops, the most powerful turboprops ever built, each providing 14,800 shaft horsepower and turning enormous 18-foot diameter contra-rotating propellers whose tips moved at supersonic speeds. The resulting noise made the Tu-95 one of the loudest aircraft ever built, but all that noise also made for a very fast bomber. When the Americans first encountered it, they were chagrined to find that the Tu-95's top speed of 575 mph was faster than the early straight-winged fighters in service over Korea.
The Tu-95 entered service in 1955, and immediately caused great consternation in the West. Not only was it faster than many fighters of its day, its 9,400-mile range put it easily within reach of North America. It was also capable of delivering the RDS-220 hydrogen bomb, nicknamed the Tsar Bomba, the most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated. Future variants were armed with air-to-ground missiles such as the Raduga Kh-20 nuclear cruise missile, the Kh-22 anti-ship missile designed to destroy American aircraft carriers, or up to eight Kh-101/102 cruise missiles housed on underwing pylons. Reconnaissance variants became a common sight along the Pacific Ocean borders of the United States and Canada, where they tested the reaction of NORAD air defenses. Bears were also a constant shadow to NATO fleets the world over.
Over 500 Tu-95s were built from 1952-1993, and even in an age of supersonic intercontinental jet bombers, the turboprop Tu-95 remains in service with the Russian Air Force. The original Bear was subsequently developed into the Tu-142 maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare variant, as well as Tupolev Tu-114 Rossiya civilian airliner, which set no less than five world records for speed and range, some of which weren’t surpassed until the arrival of the Boeing 747SP. The Rossiya remains the fastest propeller-powered airliner in history, a record it has held since 1960.
November 9, 1979 – The death of Louise Thaden, a pioneering aviatrix and the first woman to win the prestigious coast-to-coast Bendix Trophy Race. Thaden (née McPhetridge) was born on November 12, 1905 in Bentonville, Arkansas and entered the world of flying as a sales representative for the Travel Air Corporation owned by Walter Beech. As part of her pay, she received free flying lessons, and became the first woman to earn a pilot license in Ohio and later the fourth woman to earn a rating as a transport pilot. Thaden shocked the world when she and her copilot Blanche Noyes won the Bendix transcontinental race, setting a new world record time of 14 hours 55 minutes while flying a Beech C17R Staggerwing. But that wasn’t the first of Thaden’s accomplishments. She set an altitude record for woman pilots of 20,260 feet in 1928, an flight endurance record of over 22 hours in 1929, teamed up with another aviatrix, Frances Marsalis, to set a record time of 196 hours in the air, and was a founding member of the Ninety-Nines organization for woman pilots. She retired from racing in 1938 to work for the Bureau of Air Commerce, and flew with the Civil Air Patrol during WWII.
November 9, 1967 – The launch of Apollo 4, the first launch after the Apollo 1 disaster that killed three astronauts. Apollo 4 was the critical first “all up” test for NASA, which meant that all the rocket stages and the spacecraft were operational at launch, though the flight was unmanned. Apollo 4 was also the first launch of the Saturn V launch vehicle, the tallest, heaviest and most powerful rocket ever used operationally. Apollo 4 was launched from the Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39, which had been specifically built for the huge Saturn V, and the flight was the first mission to test all elements of the multi-stage rocket. The flight lasted nine hours before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.
November 10, 1949 – First flight of the Sikorsky H-19 Chickasaw, a multi-purpose helicopter and the first dedicated transport helicopter to enter service with the US Army and US Air Force. Developed privately by Igor Sikorsky after WWII, the Chickasaw was known by its civilian designation as the S-55, and was also built under license by Westland Aircraft in England where it was known as the Westland Whirlwind. The Chickasaw’s bulbous nose housed a single Pratt & Whitney R-1340 Wasp radial engine that drove the main rotor by means of a driveshaft that passed under and then behind the cockpit. Over 1,700 Chickasaws were built, and they served extensively in Korea and in the early years of the Vietnam War.
November 12, 1996 – A Saudi Arabian Airlines Boeing 747 collides in midair with a Kazakhstan Airlines Ilushin Il-76. Saudi Arabian Flight SVA763, a Boeing 747 (HZ-AIH), was flying from Delhi to Jeddah with a stop in Dhahran, while a chartered Kazakhstan Airlines Ilyuishiun Il-76 (UN-76435) was operating from Chimkent to Delhi. The 747 had taken off from Delhi, while the Il-76 was descending to land at Delhi and was ordered to hold at 15,000 feet. Both aircraft were on the same flightpath and under the direction of the same controller. However, the crew of the Kazakhstan Airlines plane descended below 15,000 and continued to drop, and when the controller called to warn him of the approaching 747 the planes had already collided. Both aircraft crashed shortly after the collision, killing all 312 passengers and crew on the 747 and all 37 on board the Ilyushin. It remains the world’s deadliest mid-air collision, and the worst accident to occur in India.
November 11, 1983 – The first flight of the CASA/IPTN CN-235, a medium-range transport and cargo aircraft developed as a joint venture between Spain and Indonesia. Powered by two General Electric T700 turboprop engines, the CN-235 was originally designed for the military for use in maritime patrol and surveillance, but it also serves as a civilian regional airliner. Turkey is the largest international operator of the CN-235, flying 50 examples, along with the militaries of 25 other nations. The US Air Force operates a small number for use with special forces, and it is also flown by the US Coast Guard as the HC-144 Ocean Sentry.
November 11, 1946 – The first flight of the Sud-Ouest Triton, the first jet-powered aircraft to be built in France. Development of the Triton by SNCASO (Société nationale des constructions aéronautiques du sud-ouest), which later became known as Sud Aviation, began in 1943 as a clandestine program hidden from the Germans who had occupied France. The first Triton was powered by a Junkers Jumo 004 turbojet engine, and later aircraft received the Rolls-Royce Nene centrifugal compressor turbojet. Only five Tritons were produced before the project was abandoned. Note the air intake under the nose, which passed through the cockpit and between the pilots.
November 11-12, 1940 – The Battle of Taranto. The location of a powerful Italian fleet in the port of Taranto on the heel of Italy created significant problems for the British who sought to ply the Mediterranean and supply its troops in North Africa. Plans to eliminate the fleet had been drawn up even before the war began, and a pause in Italian operations in North Africa afforded the opportunity for a British strike. In an audacious nighttime raid, a naval task force built around HMS Illustrious (87) attacked with obsolete Fairey Swordfish biplanes armed with either torpedoes or bombs and managed to sink one battleship and seriously damage two others. Three other ships were also damaged and 59 Italians were killed, against the loss of two British aircraft with two airmen killed and two captured. Though it was hoped that the Italian Navy would cease to be a force in the region, this was not the case. However, the attack was the first naval engagement carried out entirely by aircraft, and it signaled the ascendancy of the airplane over the battleship as the most powerful weapon for the future of naval warfare. It is also likely that the British attack heavily influenced the Japanese in their plans for a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor one year later.
November 11, 1918 – World War I ends. World War I was the first war in which 20th century technology came to the battlefield. The machine gun, which was believed to be so fearsome a weapon as to make war unthinkable, decimated armies as they tried to advance from trenches, and the tank made its first appearance on the battlefield in an attempt to break the stalemate of trench warfare. Beginning just 11 years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight, WWI also saw the first widespread use of aircraft in battle. At first, observation planes, known as scouts, reconnoitered enemy lines, and opposing pilots passed with a friendly wave. That soon gave way to small arms carried aloft, and eventually dedicated fighters and bombers. By the end of the Great War, the British, French and Americans had suffered roughly 20,000 air crew casualties (killed, wounded, missing, or POW), while the German Air Service suffered over 15,000. The airplane had found its place as an indispensable part of modern warfare.
November 12, 1981 – The launch of Space Shuttle Columbia on STS-2, the second Space Shuttle mission, the second flight of Columbia, and the first time a spacecraft was reused and returned to orbit. It was also the first mission to utilize the robotic arm developed for the Shuttle by Canada. Officially called the Remote Manipulator System, it is more popularly known as the Canadarm, and is used to maneuver payloads out of and into the Shuttle’s cargo bay. STS-2 was originally envisioned as a boost mission to push the Skylab space station into a higher orbit, but delays in the Shuttle program made that impossible, and Skylab fell to earth in 1979, two years before the the launch of STS-2.
November 12, 1932 – The first flight of the de Havilland Dragon. Building on the success of the single-engine de Havilland Fox Moth, de Havilland responded to a request by Hillman’s Airways for a larger, twin-engine design. Using the same engine and construction techniques of the Fox Moth, the Dragon had capacity for a pilot and 6-10 passengers and a maximum speed of 128 mph. Though production had stopped before WWII, the Dragon re-entered production to serve as a navigational trainer for the Royal Australian Air Force. A total of 2,002 Dragons were built, and it was subsequently developed into the larger and more powerful de Havilland Dragon Rapide.
November 12, 1921 – The first air-to-air refueling is completed. While the 1923 aerial refueling via a long hose strung between two Airco DH.4 biplanes is considered the first official and even remotely practical aerial refueling of an airplane, a wing-walking daredevil named Wesley May laid claim to the actual first refueling when he strapped a five-gallon can of gas weighing approximately 40 pounds onto his back and climbed from a Lincoln Standard biplane in flight onto a Curtiss Jenny flying alongside. This stunt was clearly not meant to be a practical solution, but barnstorming was never about being practical.
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