Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting you caught up on milestones and important historical events in aviation from October 24 through October 27.


October 24, 1953 – The first flight of the Convair F-102 Delta Dagger. Following WWII, Air Force planners became particularly enamored with the guided missile, thinking that all modern aerial combat would take place between fighters that lobbed missiles at each other rather than duke it out over the battlefield. But firing missiles accurately required a good fire control system (FCS), so the Air Force decided first to develop the FCS and then to find a plane to put it in. In January 1950, the Air Force requested proposals for a new FCS, a competition that was eventually won by Hughes Aircraft with their AIM-4 Falcon missile, the first operational guided air-to-air missile to be used by the US Air Force. In June of the same year, the Air Force began seeking proposals for an interceptor to intercept incoming Russian strategic bombers and make use of their new missile. But supersonic science was still a relatively new field, and test results from scale models in wind tunnels didn’t always provide accurate data. Once the first prototypes were finished, Convair discovered that the YF-102 was unable to break the sound barrier, and the problem wasn’t just the underpowered engine, it was the shape of the fuselage. Using the new area rule concept developed by NACA engineer Richard Whitcomb, Convair redesigned the fuselage so that it narrowed at the waist over the delta wing. Reducing the aircraft’s cross section dramatically reduced its drag, and other improvements to the wings allowed the redesigned interceptor to pass Mach 1 with ease. The redesigned aircraft was called the YF-102A, and it was this model that first entered production after its maiden flight in December 1954. The F-102A entered service in April 1956, and a total of 889 were built before production ceased in September 1958. The Delta Dagger saw service in Vietnam primarily as a bomber escort, though some ground attack missions were carried out without much success since the aircraft was not designed for that mission, nor were the pilots properly trained. Fourteen F-102s were lost in combat, one of which was lost in air-to-air combat. The F-102 was retired from active service in 1976, and many Delta Daggers were converted to QF-102A target drones, with the final one being shot down in 1986. (US Air Force photo)


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October 24, 1944 – The beginning of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval battle in history, in which the first successful organized kamikaze attack is carried out. By October of 1944, the Allies had gained considerable territory against the Japanese, drawing ever closer to the recapture of the Philippines and the possible invasion of the Japanese homeland. Japan could not match the industrial might of the US, and as the numbers of Japanese ships, aircraft, and trained pilots dwindled, those of the US and her allies only increased. As part of the operation to invade the Philippine island of Leyte, the Battle of Leyte Gulf was fought, the largest naval battle of the entire war and possibly the greatest naval battle in history. The Japanese fleet was numerically inferior to the American fleet, and the resulting loss of carriers, submarines, and other surface ships meant that the Japanese Navy was finished as an effective fighting force. But out the desperation in which the Japanese found themselves, the kamikaze was born. The word kamikaze is usually translated as divine wind in reference to typhoons in the years 1274 and 1281 that helped the Japanese repel a Mongol invasion, but the units that carried out the suicide missions were called tokubetsu kōgeki tai which means special attack unit. Pilots of both sides had deliberately crashed their aircraft into ships in the past, but the kamikaze attacks during the Battle of Leyte Gulf were the first organized missions of the tokubetsu kōgeki ta under the direction of 1st Air Fleet commandant Vice Admiral Takijiro Onishi. Speaking to officers in Manila on October 19, Onishi said, “I don’t think there would be any other certain way to carry out the operation [to hold the Philippines], than to put a 250 kg bomb on a Zero and let it crash into a U.S. carrier, in order to disable her for a week.” On October 25, five Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighters, armed with a single bomb each, attacked escort carriers of the US fleet off the Philippine coast. Four of the kamikaze aircraft were unsuccessful, but the fifth hit the USS St. Lo (CVE-63), igniting fires which detonated the ship’s magazine, sinking her. Based on this initial success, the program was expanded and by war’s end the Japanese had undertaken over 4000 attacks, including missions to ram bombers attacking Japan. Ultimately, all the tokubetsu kōgeki ta achieved was the loss of irreplaceable pilots and aircraft, as the damage inflicted was no greater than that achieved in 1942 by traditional tactics. Only 14% of the kamikaze attackers got through, and only 8.5% of the ships that were hit were sunk, and those that weren’t sunk were quickly repaired. (Photo of explosion of USS St. Lo via US Navy)


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October 26, 1940 – The first flight of the NA-73X, the prototype of the North American P-51 Mustang. Combatants of all nations produced some truly superb aircraft during WWII, many of them becoming the ultimate statement of what is possible with piston-powered design. It is difficult to pick just one as the greatest, but if one were to make a list of the top five, or even the top three, the North American P-51 Mustang would surely be on that list. But one of the greatest fighters produced by the United States during WWII actually owes its existence to the British. In 1938, the British saw war in Europe looming on the horizon and turned to the US to purchase fighter aircraft. The British were interested in procuring the Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk (the British designation of the Warhawk) in large numbers, but Curtiss was already running at capacity and would not be able to fulfill the British order. So Britain turned to North American Aviation, who was already providing the RAF with the T-6 Harvard trainer, and asked if they’d be willing to build Tomahawks under license. North American said they could build a better fighter, and in just 102 days designers Raymond Rice and Edgar Schmued presented the British with the NA-73X, the prototype of the Mustang. (Schmued had worked for Messerschmitt before the war, and that experience may have influenced some of the Mustangs angular lines.) While still following the traditional design principles of the day, the NA-73X introduced two novel features. The first was the use of a laminar flow wing which significantly reduced drag. The second was the placement of the radiator behind the pilot which made use of the Meredith Effect where heated air leaving the radiator produces a small amount of jet thrust. It also gave the Mustang its iconic underside air intake. The Mustang was initially fitted with an underpowered Allison engine, but even with that power plant the Mustang outperformed the Spitfire. The British soon modified the P-51 to accept a 12-cylinder Merlin engine, transforming the Mustang into a high flying fighter that was every bit the match of German designs and had the range to reach deep into Germany to protect fleets of American strategic bombers. The P-51D, which introduced the teardrop canopy and was powered by a Packard-built Merlin engine, became the definitive production model, with almost 8,000 produced. The P-51 helped the Allies gain complete control of the skies over Europe by the end of the war, and Mustang pilots claimed almost 5,000 enemy aircraft destroyed. The P-51 would go on to serve in the Korean war, and surplus Mustangs became favorites of civilian air racing pilots. With over 15,000 Mustangs built, it ranks second only to the Repbulic P-47 Thunderbolt in sheer numbers of aircraft produced. (Photo via North American Aviation)


Short Take Off


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October 24, 2000 – The first flight of the Lockheed Martin X-35, the experimental prototype developed as part of the competition to produce the Joint Strike Fighter. The X-35 beat the Boeing X-32 and was selected to enter production as the F-35 Lighting II, a single-seat, all-weather, multi-role, fifth-generation fighter with Stealth capability. The F-35 is being produced in three versions, one each for the US Air Force (F-35A), Navy (F-35C) and Marine Corps (F-35B). The USMC variant is capable of vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) (US Air Force photo)


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October 24, 1947 – The first flight of the Grumman HU-16 Albatross. Designed as an improvement over the earlier Grumman G-73 Mallard, the Albatross performed search and rescue (SAR) and combat search and rescue (CSAR) for the US Coast Guard, Navy and Air Force. The Albatross was capable of operating from either sea or land, and 466 were produced from 1949-1961 for both military and civilian operators. (US Coast Guard photo)


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October 25, 1991 – The first flight of the Airbus A340, a long-range, wide-body airliner that can seat up to 440 passengers depending on variant and seating arrangement. Aimed at the long haul market that had been dominated by American aircraft manufacturers, the A340 was the largest airliner to grow from the original A300 design, featuring four engines and a twin aisle. Depending on the variant, the A340 is capable of flying routes up to 9,000 nautical miles. (Photo by Adrian Pingstone)


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October 25, 1955 – The first flight of the Saab 35 Draken. The Draken (Dragon) was a dobule-delta winged fighter developed to replace the Saab J29 Tunnan and was the first supersonic fighter to be deployed in Western Europe. Part of the design requirements of the Draken was for operation from public roadways and the ability to be serviced by minimally trained crews in a short time. The Draken proved to be a successful Cold War fighter, and was exported to Austria, Denmark, Finland. (Photo by Alan Wilson via Wikimedia Commons)


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October 26, 1973 – The first flight of the Dassault-Bruguet/Dornier Alpha Jet, a trainer and light attack aircraft designed through a partnership between France and Germany to replace the Fouga Magister and Lockheed T-33. 480 aircraft were produced from 1973-1991, and the Alpha Jet continues to serve 12 nations, though it has been retired by Germany. The Alpha Jet is also flown by the Patrouille de France demonstration team. (Photo by Alan Wilson via Wikimedia Commons)


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October 26, 1972 – The death of Igor Sikorsky. Sikorsky began his career as a designer of fixed-wing aircraft, designing the Russky Vityaz, the world’s first multi-engine fixed-wing aircraft, and the Ilya Muromets, the world’s first airliner. After emigrating to the US in 1919, Sikorsky created the Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation in 1923 and produced the S-42 flying boat for Pan American Airways. But it was in rotary-winged aircraft that Sikorsky made his greatest mark on aviation history, first with the VS-300, and then the R-4, the world’s first production helicopter.


If you enjoy these Aviation History posts, please let me know in the comments. And if you missed any of the past articles, you can find them all at Planelopnik History.

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