Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from October 2 through October 4.
October 2, 1942 – The first flight of the Bell XP-59 Airacomet. In the period before and during WWII, American jet engine development was far behind that of Europe. Germany had flown the first jet-powered aircraft, the Heinkel He 178, in the summer of 1939, even before the war had begun, and fielded the first operational jet fighter with the Messerschmitt Me 262. Britain had flown their first jet aircraft, the Gloster E.28/39, in 1941, and their first fighter, the Gloster Meteor, entered service in 1944. As part of an agreement between the US and Britian to share British technology in exchange for American help manufacturing military hardware, the US obtained plans for the Power Jets W.1turbojet engine, and a complete engine was flown back to the US in the bomb bay of a Consolidated B-24 Liberator. The plans were given to General Electric to manufacture the Frank Whittle-designed engine under license as the General Electric I-A.
The US Army Air Corps then approached Larry Bell, head of Bell Aircraft, to design a fighter around the new power plant. Secrecy was paramount. At the time, Bell was developing a twin-boom, pusher propeller fighter that the USAAF had designated the XP-59. America’s new jet fighter received the same designation in the hopes that observers might think it was just a development of the XP-59. The piston-powered fighter never moved beyond wind tunnel mockups, and the unrelated jet-powered fighter became the XP-59. The ruse was further perpetuated when, during ground movements of the first aircraft at Muroc Army Air Field (Edwards Air Force Base today), a wooden propeller was affixed to the nose and shrouds were placed over the engine nacelles to hide the true nature of the aircraft’s power plant.
Bell finalized his design for the Airacomet in January 1942, and even before the first prototype was flown, an order was placed for 13 aircraft. Unlike the Meteor and the Me 262, both of which had their two engines housed in wing-mounted pods, the Airacomet integrated its engines and intake nacelles into the fuselage, a arrangement that heavily influenced future jet aircraft design. The Airacomet’s first flight was accidental, as Bell test pilot Robert Stanley unintentionally lifted off the ground during high-speed taxi tests on October 1. The official maiden flight was made the following day, October 2. In testing, the Airacomet generally performed well, though it showed a tendency to yaw from side to side and was deemed unsuitable as a fighter.
With a top speed of 404 mph, it was no great leap forward from contemporary propeller fighters. Even when the P-59B was given upgraded engines it’s top speed only just equaled that of the North American P-51 Mustang. A further development of the Airacomet, with a single engine, was considered, but that project was eventually handed off to Lockheed, where Kelly Johnson developed it into the P-80 Shooting Star, the first jet fighter to be flown operationally by the US. A total of 66 Airacomets were produced and, though the aircraft saw limited service, it still proved useful for training the first generation of jet fighter pilots and mechanics, who used the P-59 to learn the characteristics of jet flight and maintenance before transitioning to more modern aircraft.
October 4, 1957 – The launch of Sputnik 1. The eighteen-month period from July 1, 1957 to December 31, 1958 was celebrated as the International Geophysical Year (IGY). Sixty-seven countries (but not China, who chose not to participate in protest of the inclusion of Taiwan) attempted to transcend the political and cultural divides of the Cold War and come together in the name of science. The ideological adversaries worked on projects that covered 11 Earth sciences, including ionospheric physics and other investigations into the near space around our planet. Despite the amicable intentions of the IGY, the Soviet Union saw the event as the perfect opportunity to make a Cold War propaganda statement by launching the world’s first artificial satellite into space, Sputnik 1 (Sputnik simply means satellite). For a generation brought up on stories of space adventure and the marvels of science fiction, Sputnik was science reality, and the American public was dismayed that the Russians had beaten the US into space.
Sputnik 1 was launched into orbit from what is now known as the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan atop the Sputnik rocket, which the Soviets derived from the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the R-7 Semyorka. At just 24 inches in diameter, the diminutive satellite trailed four antennas placed equally around the satellite so that it could transmit to Earth from any position in its axial rotation. As the satellite circled the Earth, it emitted radio pulses that could be tracked by amateur radio operators on the ground the world over, serving as a constant reminder that the Soviets were directly overhead. Sputnik 1 could also be seen from the Earth, and observers who turned their binoculars or telescopes skyward could watch the bright dot of the Russian satellite as it passed overhead.
As effective as Sputnik 1 was as a propaganda tool, it was more than just that. The satellite also performed useful scientific experiments as it moved through the edge of space. The drag it experienced helped to ascertain the density of the upper atmosphere, and the radio signals sent back to Earth provided useful information about the ionosphere. These radio signals lasted for just 21 days before the three silver-zinc batteries ran out, and Sputnik 1 burned up on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere on January 4, 1958, just three days after the US launched their own satellite, Explorer 1. However, the Americans only managed a third place finish in the first heat of the Space Race, as the Russians had launched Sputnik 2 two months earlier.
Despite the intention of the IGY to bring nations together, the launch of Sputnik 1 marked the beginning of the Space Race, an entirely new competition between East and West, with America seemingly always one step behind. It was not until the Apollo program put a man on the Moon on July 24, 1969 that the Americans finally gained the upper hand. In the face of this momentous achievement, the Russians simply shrugged and said they never wanted to go to the Moon anyway, though they had certainly tried. Instead, the Soviet space program focused its efforts on long endurance missions in orbiting space stations.
October 2, 1981 – US President Ronald Reagan restarts the Rockwell B-1 Lancer program. The original B-1 had been developed as a supersonic nuclear and conventional bomber designed to replace both the Boeing B-52 Superfortress and Convair B-58 Hustler, and first flew in 1974. But citing cost overruns, as well as the proliferation of ICBMs, the project was canceled in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter. By the time Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, the doctrine of fighting the Soviet Union had changed, and the US was now facing regional conflicts that were seen as difficult to fight with the existing B-52. As part of his promise to rebuild the US military, President Reagan restarted the B-1 program, and the bomber was developed into the B-1B, an upgraded and more capable version of the original B-1A. Rockwell received a contract to build 100 Lancers at a cost of $2.2 billion, and production ended in 1988.
October 2, 1956 – The first flight of the Hughes TH-55 Osage. Development of the Osage began in 1955 when Hughes identified a market for a low-cost, lightweight two-seat helicopter and began work on the Model 269. Though the Army initially chose not to adopt the 269, they showed a renewed interest in the improved Model 269A, and adopted it in 1964 as the primary training helicopter to replace the Hiller OH-23 Raven. By the time the Osage was replaced by the Bell UH-1 Iroquois (“Huey”) in 1988, more than 60,000 Army pilots had trained on the TH-55. The civilian Model 269/300 is used for transport, observation and agricultural spraying. A total of 2,800 were produced from 1961-1983.
October 2, 1946 – The first flight of the Vought F6U Pirate, the first jet fighter built by Vought for the US Navy. In September 1944, the Navy announced a specification for a single-seat fighter built around the Westinghouse J34 turbojet engine. To save weight, the Pirate was constructed of “Metalite,” balsa wood sandwiched between layers of aluminum. But the Pirate was woefully underpowered and, even after the installation of a more powerful engine, the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics stated, “The F6U-1 had proven so sub-marginal in performance that combat utilization is not feasible.” The 30 production Pirates racked up only 945 hours of total flight time, and some had a mere six hours on the airframe, just long enough to certify the aircraft for acceptance and ferry it to its final resting place.
October 2, 1928 – The first flight of the Dewoitine D.520, a French fighter that entered service soon after the beginning of WWII. The D.520 was designed to compete with modern fighter aircraft and was fitted with Hispano-Suiza 12Y 12-cylinder engine, the most powerful engine available to the French at the time. Though slower than the Messerschmitt Bf 109, its chief adversary, the D.520 was more maneuverable, and proved nearly a match for the German fighter. With the fall of France, the D.520 continued to be flown by both the Vichy French Air Force and the Free French Air Force, and production was restarted in 1942 to serve the Luftwaffe and German allies. The D.520 saw combat in North Africa, Bulgaria and on the Eastern Front, and was ultimately retired in 1953 after roughly 900 had been built.
October 3, 1985 – The first flight of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, the fourth of five Space Shuttles built for NASA. Atlantis was also the last Shuttle to launch into orbit on STS-135, July 8, 2011, after the cancelation of the Space Shuttle Program. The orbiter’s first mission, STS-51-J, launched on October 3, 1987, and delivered a classified Department of Defense payload to orbit before returning to Earth four days later. Over the course of 33 flights, Atlantis racked up 4,848 orbits of the Earth, flew nearly 126 million miles, carried 156 different astronauts to space, and performed the fourth and final servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope. Atlantis is now on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida.
October 3, 1943 – The first launch of the V-2 rocket, a gyroscopically guided “vengeance weapon” developed by German rocket scientist Werner von Braun. The test launch, and many following operational launches, took place from Peenemünde on the island of Usedom in the Baltic Sea. The first rocket traveled just 118 miles, but it was the precursor to more than 1,100 rockets that were fired against England and France beginning in early September 1944. Launched from mobile launchers and reaching speeds of almost 4,000 mph, the rockets were impossible to intercept and caused the deaths of more than 2,700 Britons. Following the war, captured V-2 rockets—and captured German scientists—formed the nucleus of both the American and Russian space programs.
October 4, 2004 – The death of Gordon Cooper. Born on March 6, 1927 in Shawnee, Oklahoma, Leroy Gordon “Gordo” Cooper was an aerospace engineer, US Air Force pilot and test pilot, and the youngest of the Mercury Seven, America’s first astronauts. Cooper flew F-84 Thunderjets and F-86 Sabres in Germany and served as a flight commander in the 525th Fighter Bomber Squadron. Back in the United States, Cooper met and became friends with Gus Grissom, another of America’s first astronauts. Cooper first flew in space on May 15, 1963 on Mercury-Atlas 9, the sixth and final manned mission of Project Mercury and the final mission in which a single American astronaut was launched into orbit. During the flight, problems with the guidance system required Cooper to fly the Faith 7 capsule manually, and he came down in the ocean just four miles from the recovery fleet. Cooper’s 34-hour flight marked the first time an American had spent more than a day, and slept, in space. In 1965, Cooper returned to space as Command Pilot of Gemini 5 with Pete Conrad, a 191-hour flight that proved astronauts could fly to the Moon and back. Passed over for an Apollo mission, Cooper retired from NASA in 1970, and died of Parkinson’s Disease at age 77.
October 4, 1992 – The crash of El Al Flight 1862, a cargo flight from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to Ben Gurion Airport in Israel. After departing from a refueling stop at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, fatigued fuse pins holding the number 3 engine on the Boeing 747-258B/SF (4X-AXG) failed, causing the engine to fall and swing into the number 4 engine. Both engines subsequently broke off the aircraft. The pilots attempted to return to Schiphol, but the asymmetric lift caused by the remaining engines on the left wing, combined with a lack of lift from damaged control surfaces on the right wing, led to an uncontrollable spin as the aircraft slowed for landing. The 747 crashed nose down into an apartment block, causing the deaths of the four crewmembers and 39 on the ground.
October 4, 1968 – The first flight of the Tupolev Tu-154, a three-engine narrow-body airliner that served as the mainstay of the Russian flag carrier airline Aeroflot and 17 other nations. Since its introduction in 1972, the Tu-154 has carried 137.5 million passengers a year, half of all civilian passengers flown by Aeroflot. Like many other Soviet aircraft, the Tu-154 was designed to operate from unpaved airfields, and provided service to otherwise unreachable Arctic regions of the Soviet Union. Aeroflot announced the retirement of the Tu-154 in 2010 after almost 40 years of service, and the last scheduled passenger flight took place in May 2015.
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