Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from October 16 through October 18.
October 18, 1979 – The first flight of the McDonnell Douglas MD-80. In the early days of jet airliner design, aircraft such as the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8 provided four-engine range and plenty of seating for large numbers of passengers. But as passenger jet aviation evolved, airlines found that they needed smaller airliners that could operate more economically on shorter routes. The Douglas Aircraft Company initially responded to that requirement with the development of the DC-9, a single-aisle airliner that appeared to take significant design cues from the Sud Aviation Caravelle, particularly with the placement of the airliner’s two engines on the rear of the fuselage, Douglas fitted its airliner with a T-tail which helped to keep the tailplane out of the disturbed airflow from the wings and fuselage. While the DC-9 proved to be a great success in its own right, its story is is more of evolution than revolution.
The DC-9 entered service in 1965 and became popular with airlines the world over. And, as the popularity of air travel grew, the DC-9 grew along with it. Following the introduction of the original DC-9, the Series 10, McDonnell Douglas (Douglas had merged with the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation in 1967) began to develop variants, stretching the fuselage to accommodate more passengers and upgrading the Pratt & Whitney JT8D engines. By the time McDonnell Douglas reached the fifth variant, the DC-9-50, passenger capacity had grown to 139 seats. But the DC-9 still had room to grow.
The second generation of the DC-9 series, originally called the DC-9-80 or DC-9 Super 80, was renamed the MD-80, which simplified the nomenclature and also reflected the newly-merged companies. The MD-80, or “Mad Dog” as it is affectionately known, kept the DC-9’s characteristic five-across seating in coach, but the fuselage was lengthened by just over 14 feet compared to the previous DC-9-50, and now allowed for 130 to 172 passengers depending on configuration. New, more efficient and quieter Pratt & Whitney JT8D high-bypass turbofan engines increased the airliner’s range and provided a higher maximum takeoff weight (MTOW). Despite changes to engines, wing design, and upgraded cockpit, the MD-80 was not considered a new aircraft by the FAA, and continues to operate under the original type certificate issued for the DC-9. The decision to change the name to MD-80 was purely a marketing choice.
Following its maiden flight, the MD-80 entered service with Swissair and Austrian Airlines in 1980, and nearly 1,200 were delivered between 1980 and 1999. The MD-80 has been continuously upgraded throughout production, and now exists in the -81, -82, -83, -87 and -88 variants, all of which are essentially similar, but with upgrades to engines or avionics. The final iteration of the series that began in 1965 with the DC-9, the Boeing 717, was initially marketed as the MD-95 before McDonnell Douglas merged with Boeing in 1997.
All four major variants of the original DC-9 are still flying today, since they all look very similar, it can be difficult for plane spotters to tell them apart. Here’s a quick guide to identifying the four basic versions.
- DC-9: Short fuselage, no strakes under the cockpit, pointy tail. (The last DC-9 variant, the DC-9-50, was equipped with strakes, but it retained the cone-shaped tail.)
- MD-80 series: Longer fuselage, strakes under the cockpit, pinch tail, skinny (low-bypass) engines.
- MD-90 series: Longer fuselage, strakes under the cockpit, pinch tail, fat (high-bypass) engines.
- Boeing 717: Shorter body, no strakes under the cockpit, pinch tail, fat engines.
Essentially, since the original DC-9 and B717 are a similar size, you can tell them apart by the tail cone and the engine size. The MD-80 and MD-90, with are also similar in size, can be differentiated by their engine size.
October 16, 1956 – Pan Am Flight 6 ditches in the Pacific Ocean. Pan Am Flight 6 was a scheduled round-the-world flight that departed Philadelphia in a Douglas DC-6 flying eastward with stops in Europe and Asia. After a change of planes in Honolulu, Flight 6 then departed for San Francisco in a Boeing 377 Stratocruiser (N90943). After reaching 21,000 feet, the No. 1 engine entered an overspeed condition, followed by problems with engine No. 4. The captain decided that he would have to ditch in the Pacific Ocean, and rendezvoused with the USCGC Pontchartrain (WHEC-70) that was on station between Hawaii and California. The airliner circled the cutter until dawn to burn off fuel and make the ditching as safe as possible, then landed on a foam path laid out by the cutter. The tail of the aircraft broke off, but all 31 passengers and crew had moved to the front of the plane prior to ditching and were promptly rescued with only minor injuries. However, 44 cases of live canaries were lost in the cargo hold.
October 16, 1937 – The first flight of the Short Sunderland. One of the great flying boats to come out of the 1930s, the Short Sunderland was partially based on the Short Empire commercial airliner. Upgraded extensively for military service, the Sunderland became one of the most powerful and widely used flying boats of WWII. In wartime service, Sunderlands were primarily responsible for tracking and attacking enemy submarines, as well as rescuing victims of submarine attacks, and reportedly earned the nickname Fliegendes Stachelschwein (“Flying Porcupine”) from the Germans who faced her bristling defensive armament. After the war, Sunderlands saw service in the Korean War and the Berlin Airlift before the type was retired from military service in 1959. Remaining Sunderlands were converted to civilian use as the Short Sandringham, and flew into the 1970s. A total of 777 Sunderlands were produced between 1938 and 1946.
October 17, 1956 – The birth of Mae Jamison, the first African-American woman to fly in space. Before becoming an astronaut, Jemison was a practicing physician and a member of the Peace Corps, and cites the role of Lieutenant Uhura on the television series Star Trek as her inspiration for become an astronaut. Jemison served as a Mission Specialist on the Space Shuttle Endeavour on STS-47 from September 12-20, 1992 and logged just over 190 hours in space. Following her one mission to space, Jemison retired from NASA in 1993 to start a technology company and made an appearance on Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1993.
October 17, 1952 – The Avro Canada CF-100 Canuck enters service with the Royal Canadian Air Force. The Canuck, known to its pilots as the “Clunk” because of the sound made by the retracting nose wheel, was the only domestically-produced Canadian jet fighter to enter mass production. The CF-100 served as an interceptor for the RCAF throughout the Cold War as part of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and with NATO forces stationed in Europe before eventually being replaced by the McDonnell CF-101 Voodoo. A total of 692 Canucks were produced, and the type was ultimately retired in 1982.
October 17, 1922 – The first takeoff from the US Navy’s first aircraft carrier. When Lt. Virgil C. Griffin launched a Vought VE-7 biplane from the deck of the USS Langley (CV-1), it was not not the first aircraft to take off from a ship, nor the first takeoff from a ship equipped with a flight deck. However, Langley, converted from collier USS Jupiter (AC-3), was the US Navy’s first true aircraft carrier. The flight marked the beginning of US carrier operations and heralded the ascendancy of the aircraft carrier as the new center of naval operations, supplanting the supremacy of the battleship as the nucleus of the modern naval battle group.
October 18, 2019 – NASA astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir perform the first all-female spacewalk. The two astronauts will leave the International Space Station to repair a faulty battery charge/discharge unit (BCDU) which failed to activate after its initial battery replacement on October 11. The spacewalk began at about 7:30am EDT, and was scheduled to last between five and six hours. Cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya performed the first spacewalk by a woman in 1982, while Kathryn Sullivan became America’s first woman spacewalker two years later. This will be Meir’s first walk in space, while Koch is venturing outside the space station for the fourth time.
October 18, 1984 – The first flight of the Rockwell B-1B Lancer, a supersonic, swing-wing heavy bomber that was originally developed in the 1960s as a Mach 2+ replacement for both the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress and Convair B-58 Hustler. The B-1A, which first flew in 1974, was canceled by the Carter Administration in 1977, but resurrected in 1981 as part of the military buildup initiated by President Reagan. The B-1B received redesigns that lowered its top speed but decreased its radar cross section, and a new suite of avionics helped it perform its new mission of high-speed, low-level penetration bombing. The B-1B has since evolved into an all-around bomber, capable of delivering both precision guided and unguided munitions, mines, and stand off missiles. It is no longer capable of carrying nuclear weapons. The B-1B made its combat debut in 1998 as part of Operation Desert Fox, and has since flown in every American theater of conflict. A total of 100 were built, and the Lancer remains operational.
October 18, 1967 – Soviet space probe Venera 4 reaches Venus. Launched on June 12, 1967 atop a Molniya-M rocket, Venera 4 was the fourth of 16 probes launched during the Venera program and the first spacecraft to analyze the atmosphere of another planet. As it descended through the Venusian atmosphere, the probe’s sensors indicated that Venus is primarily carbon dioxide with some nitrogen, oxygen and water vapors. Onboard sensors also provided data on temperature and pressure. It is not clear if Venera 4 survived the descent, but Venera 7 became the first spacecraft to land on another planet when it touched down on Venus on December 15, 1970.
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