Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting you caught up on milestones and important historical events in aviation from October 21 through October 23.


October 21, 1947 – The first flight of the Northrop YB-49. In a traditional aircraft, the parts of the structure that provide little to no lift also produce a lot of drag and weight. So, in order to create an aircraft that is almost entirely lift, why not remove the entire fuselage and just fly the wing by itself? That was the question that Jack Northrop tried to answer throughout the 1930s and 1940s with his flying wing aircraft, but the story of the YB-49 really begins with the YB-35, its piston-engined predecessor, and the story of both aircraft is a tale of what might have been. In April of 1941, the US Army Air Forces wanted a bomber that could attack Nazi-occupied Europe from the US mainland, so they made a request for a new bomber that could carry 10,000 lbs of bombs on a 10,000 mile round trip. Northrop responded with their YB-35, a huge flying wing that was powered by four piston engines. But the piston engines proved to be the YB-35’s Achilles heel, as the engines and propellers had never been tested together and problems with vibrations made the powerplants unreliable or even 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 jet power was the future, so they directed Northrop to replace the four propeller engines on the YB-35 with eight turbojet engines, and the YB-49 was born. The new engines immediately gave the YB-49 better performance, soaring to 40,000 feet and exceeding 520 mph in test flights, thus validating the flying characteristics of the design. But the trade off for this performance was range. Early turbojets were notoriously thirsty, and the flying wing’s range was cut in half, thereby eliminating it from consideration as a long range strategic bomber. Even though the YB-49 lost out to the Consolidated B-36 Peacemaker, a traditional design that was likely more appealing to Army Air Forces brass, the Army ordered testing to continue, and existing YB-35 airframes were to be converted to jet power. In all, three YB-49s were produced from converted YB-35s, and two YRB-49 reconnaissance models were built before the program was canceled and all the aircraft scrapped. Northrop believed that the cancellation was entirely political, but there is also evidence that the YB-49 would have had problems completing the long range, high level bombing missions that were doctrine at the time. Northrop would eventually be vindicated, though, with the development of the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit bomber. (US Air Force photo)


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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 idea of a fleet of high-flying strategic bombers carpeting a target with bombs was replaced by the concept of a tactical bomber or fighter-bomber flying at very high speeds and very close to the ground to penetrate enemy airspace and deliver a single nuclear weapon. Maneuverability would be sacrificed for high speed, low level handling, and range. The design team at Republic, led by Alexander Kartveli, would develop the first aircraft specifically for this purpose. With the ongoing Korean War, the Air Force lowered their original order of 199 aircraft to just 37, and eventually just 15. But while the work on the XF-105A was underway, Republic continued its development of the aircraft, using lessons learned from Convair’s F-102 Delta Dagger program to redesign the fuselage of the Thunderchief to take advantage of the area rule in order to reduce drag. They also developed the F-105’s characteristic forward-swept, variable-geometry air intakes. This variant would enter production as the F-105B. 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. But like so many fighters of this era, the Thunderchief was initially underpowered, but even with the early Pratt & Whitney engines the XF-105A managed to break the sound barrier on its maiden flight. The redesigned F-105B, with afterburner, could top out at 1,420 mph, or Mach 2.15. Though the Thunderchief, or “Thud” as it was called by its pilots, was designed as a low level tactical bomber, it was pressed into service in the early years of 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. And though mainly used for ground attack, the Thud managed to claw 27.5 North Vietnamese aircraft out of the sky. But the F-105 was also vulnerable to antiaircraft defenses, and its combat losses were high, and it became the first US aircraft to be withdrawn due to combat losses. The F-105 was eventually 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 war. Ultimately, 833 Thunderchiefs were produced, and the type was retired in 1984. (US Air Force photo)


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October 23, 1939 – The first flight of the Mitsubishi G4M. When the Japanese laid their plans for the conquest of the western Pacific, which they grandiosely called the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, they knew that they would have vast stretches of ocean or large swaths of Southeast Asia to cross. Their aircraft carriers would cover the ocean, but any land-based aircraft would have to have exceptional range. Work on the G4M began in 1937 as the Japanese Navy sought a replacement for the G3M, which the Allies called the Nell, specifically to increase range and speed over the earlier bomber. The prototype was completed in 1939 and the Betty entered service in June 1941, six months before the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the US into the war. But the increase in range over the Nell was bought at a dear price. Mitsubishi had wanted to build a four engine bomber, but under pressure from the Japanese Navy they reduced it to two engines, and, to save more weight, the designers chose not to fit their bomber with protective armor plating for the crew or self-sealing fuel tanks. So while the Betty had exceptional range, it was extremely susceptible to gunfire from heavily armed Allied fighters, often bursting into flames with the slightest hit. US pilots took to calling the Betty the “one shot lighter,” while the Japanese pilots referred to it as “Cigar”, which was a reference to its shape but may also have been an allusion to how readily it burned. The G4M formed the backbone of the Japanese bomber force and served throughout the Pacific theater. In the early years of the war, the Betty fought very effectively when it had sufficient fighter cover, but losses began to mount as the Allies gradually gained air supremacy. Final variants of the Betty did add armor protection and rudimentary sealing for the fuel tanks, but these upgrades came too late to have a significant impact on the outcome of the war. In addition to its bombing duties, the Betty was also used to bomb shipping and as a torpedo bomber, and, late in the war, it served as the mother ship for the Ohka suicide aircraft, a parasitic, rocket powered, piloted bomb used in Kamikaze attacks. But by the final stage of the war, with dwindling numbers of Japanese fighters to protect them, the Bettys were mauled by US Navy fighters and many of the bombers were shot down before they could launch their attacks. The Betty would also take center stage in a pivotal event in the Pacific War, when Japanese General Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack and commander in chief of the Japanese combined fleet, was shot down and killed in 1943 while flying as a passenger in a G4M on an inspection tour of Japanese bases. (Photo author unknown)


Short Take Off


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October 21, 1966 – The first flight of the Yakovlev Yak-40, the world’s first commuter trijet, and specifically designed to operate from poorly equipped airports with short or unimproved runways. Over 1000 were produced from 1967-1981, and they provided local service throughout Russia and served over thirty international customers. (Photo by Eduard Heisterkamp via Wikimedia Commons)


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October 21, 1961 – The first flight of the Breguet Atlantic, a turboprop-powered, long-range maritime patrol aircraft performing reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and built to replace the Lockheed Neptune among NATO forces. Produced from 1961-1981, eighty-seven Atlantic 1 aircraft were built, along with twenty-four upgraded Atlantic 2 variants. (Photo by Adrian Pingstone)


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October 22, 1968 – Apollo 7 splashes down in the Atlantic Ocean after orbiting Earth 163 times, ending the first manned Apollo mission to go to space after a pre-launch fire in the command module of Apollo 1 killed its three-man crew the previous year. Apollo 7 was the first launch using the upgraded Saturn IB launch vehicle, made the first live TV broadcast from space, and was the final manned launch from Cape Kennedy Air Force Station. (Photo via YouTube)


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October 23, 2003 – The final commercial flight of Concorde, flying from John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) in New York to Heathrow Airport (LHR) in London. The flight closed the book on the Concorde, the world’s first supersonic passenger airliner, which entered service with British Airways (BA) in 1976. Following a crash in 2000, Concorde flights were suspended for a year, but, after returning to service in 2001, the Concorde remained unprofitable and BA and Air France suspended operations. (Photo by Eduard Marmet via Wikimedia Commons)


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October 23, 1967 – The first flight of the Canadair CL-215, also known as the Scooper, the first in a series of amphibious firefighting aircraft developed by Canadair and later Bombardier. Powered by two radial engines, it is designed to pick up water from lakes or rivers and drop it over wildfires, with special design considerations for operations at low speeds or in the gusty conditions often found over forest fires. (Photo by Alain Rioux via Wikimedia Commons)


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October 23, 1952 – The first flight of the Hughes XH-17, a super heavy lift helicopter, and the first project developed by the helicopter division of Hughes Aircraft. Built from parts scavenged from several different aircraft, the XH-17 was capable of lifting over 10,000 pounds with a maximum takeoff weight of 43,500 pounds. The XH-17 was powered by two turbojet engines that ducted bleed air through the hollow rotor blades to tip-mounted jets, and still holds the record for the world’s largest rotor system. Only one was built before the program was cancelled. (US Government photo)


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