Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from October 19 through October 22.
October 20, 1956 – The first flight of the Bell UH-1 Iroquois. Ever since the airplane became a weapon of war, certain aircraft have become symbols of the conflicts in which they served. In WWI, the Fokker Dr. 1 Dreidecker and the Sopwith Camel became icons of nascent aerial warfare and dogfighting, while WWII saw the propeller fighter rise to its zenith with memorable fighters like the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, Vought F4U Corsair, and Grumman F6F Hellcat slugging it out over the Pacific, while the Supermarine Spitfire, North American P-51 Mustang and Messerschmitt Bf 1o9 becoming synonymous with the air war over Europe. The North American F-86 Sabre and Soviet MiG-15 became symbolic of the Korean War in the early jet age. Helicopters entered military service at the end of WWII, and their use was greatly expanded in the Korean War. But it was the Vietnam War that came to be known as the Helicopter War, the first conflict that saw widespread use of the helicopter on the battlefield and that witnessed the maturation of the concepts of vertical envelopment. The ubiquitous presence of news cameras in a war zone for the first time brought vivid images of the Bell HU-1 Iroquois, better known as the Huey, into American living rooms, and it became an indelible icon of America’s longest war.
The arrival of the turbine engine revolutionized helicopter design, and by the early 1950s the US Army began the search for a new turbine-powered utility helicopter for medevac and general utility. No less than 20 companies submitted proposals. In 1955, the Army selected Bell Helicopter to build three prototypes of their Model 204 that were given the military designation XH-40. By 1960, the Army had ordered 100 helicopters, and the designation was changed to HU-1 (Helicopter, Utility) and the nickname “Huey” was born, a monicker that stuck despite a change in designation to UH-1 in 1965. While the turbine engine had definite advantages over earlier piston-powered helicopters in speed and lifting power, the original Hueys were still found to be underpowered. To address that shortcoming, Bell developed the first significant variant, the UH-1B, with a Lycoming T53-L-5 engine that increased the lifting power. Bell also elongated the fuselage to accommodate seven passengers or four stretchers. The follow-on UH-1C received a still more powerful engine, a new rotor system to combat retreating blade stall, and a longer tail boom.
The Huey entered service in 1959 with the 101st Airborne, the 82nd Airborne, and the 57th Medical Detachment, but its adoption was originally intended only for evaluation of the new helicopter. However, the rapidly escalating conflict in Southeast Asia meant that the Huey was quickly pressed into combat service in Vietnam in 1962. In addition to its medevac and transport roles, the Huey was soon armed with guns and rockets. These armed Hueys, nicknamed “Guns,” protected fleets of transport helicopters, known as “Slicks,” dropping troops into landing zones. By the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley in 1965, the Huey had become the modern version of the cavalry horse, transporting soldiers into battle, carrying food and ammunition to the troops, whisking away the casualties, and then extricating the soldiers when the battle had ended.
Though closely associated with the Army, the US Marine Corps and US Air Force also adopted the Huey, with each service using a model that was developed for their specific needs.The Huey continued to be upgraded throughout its production, and over 16,000 were built between 1956-1987, a number second only to the the Russian Mil Mi-8. With the introduction of the Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk in 1979, the Army began phasing out the Huey, and it was retired from active service in 2005. The Marine Corps continues using a significantly advanced version of the Huey, known as the UH-1Y Venom, while the US Air Force continues flying a modernized twin-engine version of the venerable Huey, the UH-1N, to patrol America’s nuclear missile sites.
October 21, 1947 – The first flight of the Northrop YB-49. In any fixed-wing aircraft, it is, obviously, the wings that generate the lift required to fly. The tail structure, or empennage, helps control the the pitch and yaw of the aircraft in flight, but the the fuselage provides little to no lift. While necessary for passengers and cargo, the fuselage imparts aerodynamic drag and adds extra weight. But what if you did away with the fuselage and empennage entirely, and created an aircraft that was just a wing? Jack Northrop doggedly pursued the answer to that question throughout the 1930s and 1940s with his flying wing aircraft, and the story of the jet-powered YB-49 begins with the YB-35, its piston-powered predecessor, and the story of both aircraft tells a frustrating tale of what might have been.
In April of 1941, the US Army Air Forces, fearing the fall of England and the loss of bases in Europe, identified a need for a bomber that could attack Nazi-occupied Europe from bases on the US mainland. They requested proposals for a new bomber, one that could carry 10,000 pounds of bombs on a 10,000 mile round trip. While other manufacturers responded with large, traditional bombers, Northrop proposed the YB-35, a huge flying wing that was powered by four piston engines turning contra-rotating propellers. But the piston engines proved to be the YB-35’s Achilles heel. The engines and the propellers had never been tested together, and problems with vibrations made the power plants unreliable. Jack Northrop considered them dangerous. Through a fiasco of competing interests, the Army, who supplied the engines, Hamilton Standard, the maker of the propellers, and Northrop could not agree on a resolution. So Jack Northrop himself grounded the YB-35 until a suitable powerplant could be found, or until the Army fixed the engines they had provided. But the Army now believed that the future of aviation lay with the jet engine, so they directed Northrop to replace the four propeller engines on the YB-35 with eight turbojet engines.
The re-engined flying wing was now designated the YB-49. The eight General Electric/Allision J35 turbojet engines immediately gave the YB-49 better performance, allowing the bomber to soar to 40,000 feet and exceed 520 mph in test flights. The performance validated the flying characteristics of Northrop’s design, and indeed the entire flying wing concept, but the trade off for this performance was was a dramatic drop in the bomber’s range. The thirsty turbojets cut the YB-49's range in half, thereby eliminating it from consideration as a long range strategic bomber. Though the YB-49 lost out to the gargantuan Consolidated B-36 Peacemaker, a bomber of traditional design that was likely more appealing to Army Air Forces brass, the Army ordered testing of the YB-49 to continue, and existing YB-35 airframes were slated for conversion to jet power. Ultimately, though, only three YB-49s were produced from converted YB-35s, and two YRB-49 reconnaissance models were built before the program was cancelled and all the aircraft were scrapped.
Northrop believed that the cancellation was entirely political, but there is no question that the YB-49 was over budget and behind schedule and, even though the Peacemaker was an essentially obsolete WWII design, it offered the Air Force a more comfortable option to the radical flying wing. The Air Force tried to make amends to Northrop by awarding the company a contract to build the F-89 Scorpion interceptor, and Northrop eventually produced just over 1,000 copies, though it’s doubtful that Jack Northrop was mollified. Despite the cancellation of the YB-49, the flying wing concept did not die in vain. Northrop’s vision was eventually vindicated with the introduction of the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit bomber in 1997, and Jack Northrop was allowed to see and hold a model of the Spirit a short time before his death when the project was still top secret. Unable to speak because of his illness, Northrop reportedly wrote on a sheet of paper, “Now I know why God has kept me alive all these years.” Jack Northrop died 10 months later.
October 22, 1955 – The first flight of the Republic F-105 Thunderchief. As the nuclear bomb became the Air Force’s strategic and tactical weapon of choice in the 1950s, the doctrine of a fleet of high-flying strategic bombers carpeting a target with conventional bombs was replaced by the concept of a small number of tactical bombers or fighter-bombers flying at very high speeds and very close to the ground to penetrate enemy airspace and deliver a single nuclear weapon. Maneuverability was sacrificed for high speed, low level handling, and long range. In response to this doctrinal shift, the design team at Republic Aviation, led by Alexander Kartveli, developed the F-105 Thunderchief, the first aircraft designed specifically for this nuclear penetration mission.
The F-105 began as a private venture by Republic to find a replacement for the RF-84 Thunderflash, the ultimate development of the straight-winged F-84 Thunderjet. The US Air Force was initially interested in the project and had planned to purchase 200 of the new tactical bomber, but the realities of the Korean War led the Air Force to cut the order to just 15 aircraft. Nevertheless, Republic continued the development of the F-105, and used lessons learned from Convair’s F-102 Delta Dagger program to redesign the fuselage of the Thunderchief to take advantage of the recently discovered area rule to reduce transonic drag. The F-105A, though underpowered like so many fighters of this era, still managed to break the sound barrier on its maiden flight. The redesigned F-105B, with an afterburning Pratt & Whitney J75 axial-flow turbojet and modified with the Thunderchief’s characteristic forward-swept, variable-geometry air intakes, topped out at Mach 2.15, or about 1,420 mph. Further development led to the F-105D, the definitive production variant and the one built in the largest numbers. The D model included an all-weather attack capability provided by the AN/APN-131 navigational radar. And the Thunderchief was big. In fact, it was the largest single-seat, single-engine combat aircraft in history, weighing in at 50,000 lbs.
The Thunderchief, or “Thud” as it was called by its pilots, entered service in 1958 as the tactical nuclear bomber it was designed to be, but in 1964 it was pressed into service in the Vietnam War as the Air Force’s primary ground attack aircraft, capable of carrying a greater bomb load than the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress or Consolidated B-24 Liberator from WWII. Despite its ground attack mission, Thud pilots still managed to claw 27.5 North Vietnamese aircraft out of the sky. But the F-105 was vulnerable to antiaircraft defenses and enemy fighters, and its combat losses were high. In December 1966 alone, 14 Thuds were lost to North Vietnamese fighters. As a result, the F-105 became the first US warplane to be withdrawn due to combat losses.
The F-105 was phased out in favor of newer aircraft, particularly the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, though the F-105G Wild Weasel electronic warfare variant served until the end of the Vietnam War. The F-105B briefly served as the platform for the US Air Force Thunderbirds demonstration squadron, but after just six shows the team switched back to the North American F-100 Super Sabre following a fatal crash caused by an overstressed airframe. Ultimately, 833 Thunderchiefs were produced, and the type was fully retired by 1984.
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 USS Birmingham (CL-2) on November 14, 1910. He followed that feat by landing his Curtiss Model D onboard USS Pennsylvania (ACR-4) 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.
October 20, 1988 – The death of Sheila Scott. Born in England in 1922, Scott (née Hopkins) learned to fly in 1958 and went on to set over 100 flight records, most notably making a name for herself with long distance flights. She first flew around the world in 1966, and repeated the flight in the same aircraft in 1969-70. Her greatest feat of distance flying was a 34,000-mile flight in 1971 nicknamed “world and a half” in which she became the first person to fly over the North Pole in a single-engine aircraft. Scott was named an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1968.
October 20, 1977 – Members of the band Lynyrd Skynyrd are among those killed in a plane crash. While flying to Louisiana after a performance in South Carolina, the band’s Convair CV-300 (N55VM) ran out of fuel and crashed near Gillsburg, Mississippi, killing band members Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, and Cassie Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary, and co-pilot William Gray. Other musicians, tour manager Ron Eckerman, and members of the road crew suffered serious injuries. The investigation into the crash determined that the fuel exhaustion was caused by the flight crew’s failure to monitor the aircraft’s fuel levels, exacerbated by a malfunctioning engine that burned more fuel than expected.
October 20, 1948 – The first flight of the McDonnell XF-88 Voodoo, a fighter designed as a long-range escort for US Air Force bombers and envisioned as an aircraft that could carry out a similar role to that performed by the North American P-51 Mustang during WWII. Initially underpowered, afterburning engines were added to increase the aircraft’s speed, but by that time the long range escort concept had been abandoned in favor of high speed interceptors. Though the XF-88 never entered production, it served as the basis for the supersonic F-101 Voodoo which first flew in 1954.
October 21, 1966 – The first flight of the Yakovlev Yak-40, the world’s first commuter trijet and one specifically designed to operate from poorly equipped airports with short or unimproved runways. The Yak-40 was developed to take over shorter routes from older piston-powered airliners and could carry up to 32 passengers with a range of just over 1,000 miles. Over 1,000 were produced from 1967-1981, and they provided local service throughout Russia and served over 30 international customers. The Yak-4o remains in service today.
October 21, 1961 – The first flight of the Breguet Atlantique, a turboprop-powered, long-range maritime patrol aircraft that was designed to perform reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) missions and developed to replace the Lockheed P2V Neptune then in service with NATO forces. Aircraft were delivered in two batches, with 87 Atlantique 1 aircraft built from 1965 to 1968. The Atlantique 2 was produced from 1972 to 1974 with more powerful engines, updated avionics, and the ability to fire the Exocet anti-ship missile. A total of 115 of both variants were produced.
October 21, 1950 – The first flight of the Martin 4-0-4. The Glenn L. Martin Company made its first serious foray into the civilian airliner business when it developed the Martin 2-0-2 to compete with the Douglas DC-3. Production of the unpressurized airliner was stopped due to structural faults, so rather than fixing the 2-0-2, Martin developed it into the pressurized 4-0-4. Martin also stretched the fuselage to accommodate up to 40 passengers. The 4-0-4 entered service with Eastern Air Lines and TWA in 1951, as well as the US Coast Guard, who operated two as executive aircraft designated the RM-1. Those aircraft later served the US Navy as the VC-3A. Though superseded by newer turboprop airliners, the 4-0-4 continued to serve smaller regional airlines and charters into the 1980s. A total of 103 were produced from 1951-1953.
October 21, 1942 – A B-17 transporting American WWI ace Eddie Rickenbacker ditches in the Pacific Ocean. The public explanation for Rickenbacker’s trip was an inspection tour of American bases in the Pacific Theater. However, the true nature of the former WWI ace’s mission was to personally deliver a message of rebuke to General Douglas MacArthur from President Franklin Roosevelt for negative comments the general had made about the Roosevelt administration. The Boeing B-17D Flying Fortress departed Hawaii, but then strayed hundreds of miles off course and was forced to ditch in the Pacific Ocean far from normal travel routes. Rickenbacker and the crew drifted in life rafts for 24 days before a US Navy Vought OS2U Kingfisher crew spotted and rescued the seven survivors. After his recovery, Rickenbacker completed his mission to deliver the letter to MacArthur.
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