Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from October 17 through October 19.
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. But where the Caravelle had a traditional tailplane, Douglas fitted a T-tail, which helped to keep the tailplane out of the disturbed airflow from the wings and fuselage.
The DC-9 entered service in 1965 and went on to a successful career. 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, which 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 17, 1956 – The birth of Mae Jemison. The first African-American woman to fly in space, Jemison flew as a Mission Specialist on the Space Shuttle Endeavour on STS-47 from September 12-20, 1992, logging just over 190 hours 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. 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. (NASA photo)
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, serving 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, the 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, 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 space 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, and 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.
October 19, 1911 – The death of Eugene Ely. Born in Williamsburg, Iowa on October 21, 1886, Ely began his flying career when he flew—and crashed—a Curtiss biplane purchased by the auto dealer Ely was working for. Undaunted, Ely repaired the plane, and then went to work for Glenn Curtiss. When the US Navy began investigating flying from the deck of a ship, it was Ely who made the first successful takeoff from a ship when he flew from the USS Birminghamon November 14, 1910. He followed that feat by landing his Curtiss Model D onboard the USS Pennsylvania two months later. Though he was turned down for Naval service, Ely continued flying exhibitions, but was killed in a crash and posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1933.
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