Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from October 10 through October 12.
October 11, 1990 – The first flight of the Rockwell-MBB X-31. The aerial dogfight finds its roots in WWI, when opposing pilots began shooting at each other in the air with rifles and pistols they carried aloft in their aircraft. Very quickly, though, the engagements got much more serious. Pilots armed their aircraft with machine guns, air forces produced dedicated fighter aircraft, and aerial warfare became as much a science as an art. Even in the modern era of supersonic jets and guided missiles, it’s still paramount to “get on the six” of your opponent, maneuvering into position to shoot them down. But pushing beyond and aircraft’s aerodynamic limits can lead to a stall, putting the pilot in grave danger of losing the fight—and his life.
Beginning in 1990, a team of engineers from Rockwell and Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm (Rockwell-MBB) joined together to investigate the benefits of thrust vectoring, a system that deflects and directs the engine’s exhaust to augment the traditional control surfaces of the aircraft. The test aircraft was cobbled together from existing and experimental aircraft, and included the front end of a McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet, the landing gear and other components from a General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon, parts from Boeing V-22 Osprey, F-16XL, and even a Cessna Citation. The finished aircraft featured a cranked delta wing with forward canards and a thrust vectoring system that used three computer-controlled paddles to direct the jet exhaust. Specifically, the design team wanted to investigate high angles of attack (AOA), the angle of the wing relative to the wind passing over it. At particularly high AOA, traditional aircraft are likely stall and lose lift. Without thrust vectoring, the X-31 was capable of flight in a 30 degrees nose up attitude. Any more and the aircraft would stall. With thrust vectoring enabled, the X-31 was capable of a remarkable 70-degree AOA while maintaining control, giving the pilots previously unattainable maneuverability.
As part of the test program, the X-31 was pitted against comparable fighter aircraft that did not possess thrust vectoring. The results were quite impressive, with the X-31 tallying a potential kill ratio of 30 to 1. Rockwell-MBB built two test aircraft, and carried out a total of 580 flights before the initial testing program ended in 1995 (the first aircraft was lost in a crash that same year). The second test aircraft was transferred to the US Navy Test Pilot School at Patuxent River NAS in Maryland for additional research and, at the end of that program in 2003, the remaining X-31 was sent to Germany where it is on display at the Deutsches Meseum Flugwerft Schleissheim. Thrust vectoring is now found operationally on the Lockheed F-22 Raptor, the Russian Sukhoi Su-30, Sukhoi PAK FA, well as various other experimental aircraft.
October 10, 1958 – A maintenance support aircraft for the US Air Force Thunderbirds crashes near Payette, Idaho. While headed to McChord Air Force Base in the state of Washington, the Fairchild C-123D Provider reportedly flew into a flock of Canada geese and crashed, killing five crew members and 14 maintenance personnel. The investigation could not definitively say that the crash was caused by bird strikes, but the recent grounding of all C-123s due to a fuel system problem was ruled out as a possible cause. However, the investigation also found that the plane was overloaded, crew rest procedures and been violated, and the pilot’s seat may not have been occupied by a qualified pilot. The crash remains the deadliest accident in Thunderbirds history.
October 10, 1933 – The bombing of a United Airlines Boeing 247. On a routine transconitental flight, the Boeing airliner (NC13304), carrying three crew and four passengers, exploded and crashed over rural Indiana. All on board were killed. Investigators determined that the cause of the explosion was most likely a nitroglycerin bomb, making the crash the world’s first case of air sabotage. The perpetrator was never found, nor did anyone ever claim responsibility for the bombing.
October 11, 2007 – The death of David Lee “Tex” Hill. Born July 13, 1915 in Terrell Hills, Texas, Hill began his flying career as a Naval Aviator flying the Douglas TBD Devastator before joining the American Volunteer Group, better known as the Flying Tigers, fighting on behalf of Nationalist China in WWII. After the deactivation of the AVG in 1942, Hill was one of only a handful of AVG pilots that reintegrated into the US Army Air Corps, and he tallied six more victories with the 23d Fighter Group to bring his total to 18.25. In 1944, Hill assumed command of the 412th Fighter Group, the first operational US jet fighter wing, and, in 1946, he assumed command of the 136th Fighter Group of the Texas Air National Guard (ANG). He flew combat missions in the Korean War, and became the youngest brigadier general in ANG history. For his service, Hill was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Legion of Merit, and British Distinguished Flying Cross among others.
October 11, 1984 – Astronaut Kathryn Sullivan becomes the first American woman astronaut to perform a spacewalk. During mission STS-41-G of the Space Shuttle Challenger, Sullivan, along with astronaut David Leestma, spent 3.5 hours in space working on a system to refuel satellites in orbit. Sullivan is the third American woman to fly in space (Sally Ride, Judith Resnick), and took part in a total of three Shuttle missions before leaving NASA in 1993. She was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2004, and later served as Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator from 2014-2017
October 11, 1968 – The launch of Apollo 7, the first successful manned Apollo mission. After a 19-month hiatus in manned flights following the fire on Apollo 1 that killed three astronauts, Apollo 7 carried out the mission originally scheduled for the ill-fated Apollo 1 crew after improvements were made to the command module and other safety procedures were put in place. The Apollo 7 crew of Wally Schirra (Commander), Donn Eisele (Command Module Pilot) and Walter Cunningham (Lunar Module Pilot) spent 11 days orbiting the Earth. Apollo 7 was also the first manned launch of the Saturn IB launch vehicle, and the crew performed the first live American television broadcast from space.
October 11, 1938 – The first flight of the Westland Whirlwind, the first single seat, twin engined Royal Air Force heavy fighter and the first in the RAF to be armed with cannons. As part of an effort to field an fighter with heavier armament than the rifle-caliber guns of the Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire, the Air Ministry issued specification F.37/35 in 1935 to develop an aircraft capable of carrying four cannons. Powered by two Rolls-Royce Peregrine V-12 engines and with a top speed of 360 mph, the Whirlwind was introduced in 1940, but its lack of performance at high altitude limited it mainly to ground attack and anti-shipping missions. A total of 116 were built, and the type was retired in 1943.
October 12, 1997 – The death of John Denver. While Denver is best known as a successful singer and songwriter, he was also an avid pilot, with over 2,700 hours of experience and pilot ratings in both single- and multi-engine aircraft, as well as glider and instrument ratings. On the day of his death, Denver was practicing touch-and-go landings at Monterey Peninsula Airport in California in his Rutan Long-EZ (N555JD). The builder of the aircraft (not Denver) had placed the fuel gauge and switch for the two fuel tanks behind the pilot’s seat, making it difficult to monitor the fuel and operate the switch. NTSB crash investigators surmised that Denver attempted to twist his body to operate the switch, then lost control of the aircraft and crashed into Monterey Bay. Investigators also cited unfamiliarity with the aircraft and an insufficient fuel load at takeoff as factors in the crash.
October 12, 1976 – The first flight of the Sikorsky S-72, a hybrid helicopter/fixed wing aircraft that was developed by NASA and the US Army. Assembled from different parts of Sikorsky S-61 and S-67 helicopters, the goal of the research program was to allow in-flight measurements of helicopter rotor characteristics prior to fitting them on prototype helicopters, though the S-72 was also capable of flight without a main rotor. The S-72, also called the Rotor Systems Research Aircraft (RSRA), took its first full compound flight in 1978, and the program was ended in 1988.
October 12, 1964 – The launch of Voskhod 1, the seventh manned space flight of the Soviet space program. Based on the Vostok spacecraft, Voskhod 1 had an added solid-fuel retro-rocket fitted to slow its descent. The flight is notable as being the first to carry three crewmen into orbit—a cosmonaut, an engineer and a physician—and the first in which the cosmonauts did not wear spacesuits. The bulky spacesuits were removed so that all three cosmonauts could fit into a capsule designed for only two. The standard ejection seats were also removed and replaced with three simple couches. The flight set an altitude record of 209 miles above the Earth, and the crew primarily carried out biomedical research. Voskhod 1 returned to earth after 24 hours in space.
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