Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from October 25 through October 27.
October 26, 1940 – The first flight of the North American NA-73X, the prototype of the North American P-51 Mustang. Combatants of all nations produced some truly superb aircraft leading up to and during WWII, and some of them are now considered the ultimate statement of what is possible with a piston-powered design. It is difficult to pick a single aircraft as the greatest to come out of the war, 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 somewhere on that list. However, in an interesting twist of irony, 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. They were interested in procuring large numbers of the Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk (the British designation of the Warhawk), but Curtiss was already running at capacity and was unable to fulfill the British order. So Britain turned to North American Aviation, who was already providing the RAF with the T-6 Harvard trainer (known in the US as the T-6 Texan), and asked if North American would be willing to build Tomahawks under license. Rather than produce a fighter designed by a rival company, North American told the British that they could build a better fighter using the same Allison V-1710 V-12 engine that powered the Tomahawk. The British agreed, but stipulated that the first production aircraft must be delivered by January 1941, just 8 months time. In a mere 102 days, the North American team, led by 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 Mustang’s angular lines.) While still following the traditional design principles of the day, the NA-73X introduced some 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 gave the Mustang its iconic underside air intake. The placement of the radiator also allowed designers to take advantage of the Meredith Effect, in which heated air leaving the radiator produces a small amount of jet thrust. Early Mustangs had a canopy faired into the fuselage, but that arrangement created a dangerous blind spot for pilots. The P-51D, which introduced a graceful teardrop canopy and was armed with six .50 caliber machine guns, became the definitive production model, with nearly 8,000 produced at factories in California and Texas.
As promised, the Mustang was initially fitted with an underpowered Allison engine, but even with that power plant the Mustang outperformed the Supermarine Spitfire. The British soon modified the P-51 to accept a 12-cylinder Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, transforming the Mustang into a powerful, high-flying fighter that was equal to or better than German designs and, with a top speed of 437 mph, one of the fastest fighters of its day. The Americans followed suit by installing the Packard V-1650 Merlin built under license in the US. The Mustang’s exceptional range meant that the US finally had an escort fighter that could accompany daylight bombing raids deep into Germany, resurrecting a foundering bombing campaign that had suffered from lack of fighter protection. 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. Though the Mustang, now called the F-51, was relegated to National Guard units after WWII, they were called upon to serve in the Korean war, mostly flying ground attack and interdiction missions. Mustangs were ultimately replaced by jet fighters in 1953, and the last F-51 was retired from US service in 1957, though Mustangs were flown by the Dominican Air Fore until 1984. With over 15,000 aircraft built, the Mustang ranks second only to the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt in sheer numbers of aircraft produced, and surplus Mustangs have become favorites among civilian air racing pilots and on the international air show circuit. (US Air Force photo; NA-73X photo via North American Aviation)
October 25, 1994 – The death of Kara Hultgreen, the first woman US Naval Aviator to be qualified as a carrier-based fighter pilot. While attempting a landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72), Hultgreen overshot the centerline and attempted to correct her approach with left rudder application, leading to a compressor stall in the left engine. She applied full afterburner to attempt a missed approach, but the asymmetrical power caused her Grumman F-14 Tomcat to roll inverted. The radar intercept officer initiated ejection and was shot clear of the aircraft, but Hultgreen, who ejected second in the sequence, was launched straight into the water, killing her instantly. The incident was controversial, as Hultgreen’s death came at a time when both the Navy and US Air Force were working to integrate women fighter pilots into service, and some accused the Navy of promoting women pilots regardless of their of their piloting skills. (US Navy photo)
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. Production of the A340 ceased in 2011 after 377 had been built at a time when fuel prices were high and other airliners could provide greater fuel efficiency. (Photo by Anthony Noble via Wikimedia Commons)
October 25, 1979 – The 5,057th and final F-4 Phantom II rolls off the McDonnell Douglas production line. One of the iconic aircraft of the Cold War Era, the Phantom II entered service in 1960 with the US Navy and eventually became one of the few fighters to serve in the Navy, US Marine Corps and US Air Force. Production of the two-seat all-weather interceptor/fighter-bomber began in 1958 and, by the time production ended in 1981, a total of 5,195 were built to serve the US military and 11 export nations (a number that includes 138 Phantoms built by Mitsubishi in Japan), making it the third most-produced jet fighter in the US after the North American F-86 Sabre/FJ-2/3 Fury and the Republic F-84 Thunderjet. The F-4G Wild Weasel electronic warfare variant served as late as 1991 in the Gulf War and, following the Phantom’s retirement from US service in 1996, remaining F-4s were converted to QF-4 target drones. (McDonnell Douglas photo)
October 25, 1955 – The first flight of the Saab 35 Draken, a fighter developed to replace the Saab J29 Tunnan and the first supersonic fighter to be deployed in Western Europe. The Draken (Kite, or Dragon) was introduced in 1969 and was notable for its use of a double-delta (or compound delta) wing configuration that aided in performance at both low and high speeds. Following Swedish defense doctrine, the Draken was designed for operation from public roadways and with 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, with 652 aircraft produced from 1955 to 1974. (Photo by Okän fotograh via Wikimedia Commons)
October 26, 1973 – The first flight of the Dassault-Breguet/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 Shooting Star. The aircraft originally designed to fill this role, the SEPECAT Jaguar, turned into a full-fledged, nuclear-capable attack fighter-bomber, so designers revisited the trainer requirement and developed the twin-engine, subsonic Alpha Jet in its place. A total of 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)
October 26, 1972 – The death of Igor Sikorsky. Sikorsky was born on May 25, 1889 in present-day Ukraine and, though his name is now synonymous with helicopters, he began his career as a designer of fixed-wing aircraft. Among his first aircraft were the Russky Vityaz, the world’s first multi-engine fixed-wing aircraft, and the Ilya Muromets, the world’s first practical airliner. After emigrating to the US in 1919, Sikorsky created the Sikorsky Manufacturing Company in 1925 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, the world’s first successful helicopter to use a single vertical tail rotor, and then the R-4, the world’s first production helicopter.
October 26, 1958 – The first commercial flight of the Boeing 707. Boeing developed their first swept-wing airliner with engines housed in pods under the wings, thereby setting the design standard for an entire generation of airliners to follow and creating the first commercially successful airliner. Developed from the Boeing 367-80, better known as the Dash 80, the 707 made its first transatlantic flight for Pan American World Airways (Pan Am) on October 17, 1958 carrying VIPs, and its first flight with paying passengers nine days later. When the Saha Airlines of Iran flew the final scheduled 707 passenger flight in April 2013, it marked the end of more than 30 million hours of 707 service worldwide, and the 865 707s produced had transported nearly 522 million passengers. (Photo by Mike Freer via Wikimedia Commons)
October 26, 1944 – The death of Hiroyoshi Nishizawa, possibly Japan’s leading fighter ace of WWII. Nishizawa began the war flying the obsolescent Mitsubishi A5M against the US and her allies. Though he claimed his first victory in the A5M, Nishizawa soon transitioned to the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, which far outclassed Allied fighters early in the war. Later, he teamed with ace Saburō Sakai and, at the time of his death, Nishizawa had amassed 87 victories by his own count in the skies over New Guinea, Guadalcanal and the Philippines, and perhaps as many as 120, though an accurate tally is impossible to determine. Nishizawa was killed over Mindoro Island when his transport plane was attacked and shot down by US Navy Grumman F6F Hellcat fighters. Nishizawa was 24 years old. (Photo author unknown)
October 26, 1931 – The first flight of the de Havilland Tiger Moth, a primary trainer designed by Geoffrey de Havilland that he hoped would prove superior to his earlier de Havilland Hummingbird and de Havilland DH.51. The Tiger Moth was developed from DH.60 Tiger Moth and entered service with the Royal Air Force in 1932. The Tiger Moth proved to be a wild success for de Havilland, and nearly 9,000 were produced from 1931-1944. It provided primary flight training throughout WWII, and also served in reconnaissance and maritime surveillance roles. After its retirement, many surplus aircraft entered the civilian market where they remain flying today, and some Tiger Moths still provide initial flight training for pilots needing to gain experience on tail-dragger aircraft. (Photo by Chris Finney via Wikimedia Commons)
October 27, 1957 – The death of Giovanni Caproni. An Italian aeronautical, civil and electrical engineer, Caproni was born in a part of Austria-Hungary that was annexed by Italy in 1919. After a start building aircraft engines, Caproni founded his own aircraft factory in 1908 and designed his first aircraft, the Caproni Ca. 1, in 1910. A proponent of passenger airplanes, Caproni developed Italy’s first multi-engined aircraft, the Caproni Ca.31, though his first airliner, the Caproni Ca.48, crashed, killing all onboard. Between the World Wars, he designed the Stipa-Caproni, an experimental ducted fan aircraft that presaged the turbofan engine, and his company manufactured bombers and transport aircraft for Italy during WWII. (Photo authors unknown)
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