Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from October 26 through October 28.
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 during WWII, many of them becoming the ultimate statement of what is possible with piston-powered design. It is difficult to pick a single aircraft 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. They 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 (known in the US as the T-6 Texan), and asked if North American 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. 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. (US Air Force photo; NA-73X photo via North American Aviation)
October 28, 1954 – The first flight of the North American FJ-4 Fury. Following the end of WWII, the US Navy had entered the jet age, first with the utterly unsuccessful Vought F6U Pirate, and then with the much more successful McDonnell F2H Banshee and Grumman F9F Panther. However, by the early 1950s, these straight-winged fighters were being outclassed in the skies over Korea by the faster and more maneuverable Russian MiG-15. The Navy had a couple of new fighters under development in the Vought F7U Cutlass and Grumman F9F Cougar, but those planes would not be ready in time. They needed a more modern fighter fast so, in a somewhat uncharacteristic move, the Navy looked to the US Air Force to quickly fill the void in their line up. The North American F-86 Sabre had entered Air Force service in 1949, and it was the first US aircraft that could match the MiG, ultimately becoming one of the best fighters of the Korean War. And, in an ironic twist, the Sabre itself had started out as a design for the US Navy, the North American FJ-1 Fury. But the land-based Sabre would need significant modifications to handle the specific requirements of Naval service, including the addition of catapult gear, an arrester hook, folding wings and a lengthened nose gear to increase the angle of attack during takeoff and landing. This aircraft was designated FJ-2, and the Navy’s need for the new fighter was so urgent that they ordered 200 before the prototype had even flown. The FJ-2 was soon upgraded to the FJ-3 when it was given a more powerful engine. The Fury served the Navy well and over 700 were produced. But the modifications weren’t complete yet, and the FJ-4 would be the ultimate development of the Fury line. Where the FJ-2 and -3 looked every bit like a Sabre in Navy livery, the FJ-4 bore a certain family resemblance but was an entirely new structural design. The wings were made thinner though with increased area and designed to hold fuel, and the landing gear was redesigned and given a wider track. The fuselage was deepened and stretched to accommodate more fuel, and the cockpit was enlarged. To save weight, North American removed armor plating and decreased the ammunition load, which resulted in a 50% increase in range over the FJ-3. The Navy originally ordered 221 FJ-4s, with 71 of those aircraft converted to the FJ-4B fighter-bomber version, with provisions made to carry more external stores, including a single nuclear weapon. An additional order in 1956 brought the total number produced to 374. The FJ-4 entered service in 1955 and, with the exception of one Navy training squadron, the FJ-4 was flown exclusively by the US Marine Corps while the Navy trained on and operated the FJ-4B. In 1962, when the US military standardized the naming of aircraft, the FJ-4 became the F-1E, and the FJ-4B became the AF-1E. The Fury was eventually phased out in the 1960s, ending its service with units of the US Naval Reserve. (Photo by the author)
October 28, 1952 – The first flight of the Douglas A-3 (A3D) Skywarrior. Beginning in WWII, heavy strategic bombing was the purview of the US Army Air Forces, and then the US Air Force following the war. The US Navy had historically focused on fighters and attack aircraft but, by the 1950s, they wanted to get into the strategic bombing business. Their first foray into a large, carrier-based bomber was with the North American AJ Savage, which was powered by 2 radial engines and 1 turbojet and originally intended to carry a nuclear bomb. But it soon became apparent that the Navy needed a jet-powered bomber to take over the role from the Savage, and it was replaced by the Douglas A-3 Skywarrior. Together, the two aircraft are the only strategic bombers operated in large numbers by the the US Navy. The story of the Skywarrior began in 1948, when the Navy began looking for a large, jet-powered strategic bomber that could operate from proposed United States-class super carriers that were being under development. The new carriers would be roughly the same size as today’s Nimitz-class carriers, but without an island so they could accommodate large, heavy aircraft. Specifically, the Navy required a bomber that was capable of carrying 10,000 pounds of weapons or a single nuclear bomb and have a loaded weight of 100,000 lbs. Depsite the promise of the United States-class carriers, Douglas engineer Ed Heinemann proposed an aircraft with a loaded weight of 68,000 pounds, the smallest proposal submitted to the Navy. But more importantly, it was capable of operating from existing carriers. Heinemann’s smaller design proved prophetic when the super carrier project was canceled in 1949. Even though the Skywarrior was the smallest of the proposals, it was still the largest and heaviest aircraft ever to operate regularly from US carriers. It was powered by two Pratt & Whitney J57 turbojets mounted on pods under the wings, and had a top speed of 610 mph. In an effort to save weight, the crew of three was not supplied with ejection seats, though they were included in the B-66 Destroyer variant produced for the Air Force. Navy pilots joked that “A3D” meant “all three dead.” The Skywarrior was introduced in 1956 but, once the Navy’s Polaris submarines became operational in 1961, the Navy no longer had a need for a deep nuclear strike aircraft. But the size of the Skywarrior made it ideal for other missions. Its large internal bomb bay could carry 12,000 pounds of bombs, filled with electronic spying equipment, or loaded with fuel. Douglas developed a reconnaissance version designated RA-3B and an electronic countermeasures variant known as the EA-3B, and both saw extensive service during the Vietnam War. An aerial refueling version was designated KA-3B, and a multi-mission version known as the EKA-3B could perform the dual role of electronic warfare and aerial refueling. And though the Navy’s strategic bombing role didn’t last that long, the Skywarrior ultimately became one of the longest serving aircraft in US Navy history. Particularly, the EA-3B had such a long service life that some even participated in the Gulf War, but most of the 282 Skywarriors produced were retired from active service by the end of that year. (US Navy photo)
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 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 Aircraft corporation 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 707 made its last scheduled passenger flight on with Saha Airlines of Iran in April 2013, the more than 1,000 707s produced had flown over 30 million hours and 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 fighting against the US and her allies flying the obsolescent Mitsubishi A5M. Though he claimed his first victory in the A5M, he soon transitioned to the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, which far outclassed Allied fighters early in the war. Later, he joined with ace Saburō Sakai and, at the time of his death, he had amassed 87 victories by his own count in the skies over New Guinea, Guadalcanal and the Philippines, and perhaps even more than 100, though an accurate tally is impossible to figure. 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 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, he 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)
October 28, 1974 – The first flight of the Dassault-Breguet Super Étendard, a carrier-borne strike fighter that began as an upgraded version of the Dassault Étendard IV strike fighter which first flew in 1958. The Super Étendard was essentially the same size as its predecessor, but it had more power, a more efficient wing, increased range, and the ability to carry nuclear weapons. The Super Étendard entered service with the French Navy in 1978, and first saw action over Lebanon during Operation Olifant. The Super Étendard also served with Iraq, as well as Argentina, who used the aircraft to sink HMS Sheffield during the Falklands War. The French Navy plans to retire all of their Super Étendards by 2016 and replace them with the Dassault Rafale M. (US Navy photo)
October 28, 1972 – The first flight of the Airbus A300, the world’s first twin-engined widebody airliner. Development of the A300 started as a collaboration between Britain, France and West Germany which led to the formation of Airbus Industrie in 1970. The first A300 was powered by two General Electric CF6 high-bypass turbofans and, after entering service with Air France, the A300 became the first twin-engine airliner to be approved for extended operations over water (ETOPS), a certification that had previously only been given to aircraft with more than two engines. Production of the A300 ceased in 2006 after 561 airliners were built, and the aircraft remains popular with freight carriers such as UPS and FedEx. (Photo by Steve Fitzgerald via Wikimedia Commons)
October 28, 1962 – The first flight of the Westland Wasp, a turbine-powered helicopter designed to perform the anti-submarine warfare role while operating from the deck of smaller Royal Navy frigates. Along with the land-based Westland Scout, the Wasp was developed from the earlier Saro P.531, and the Wasp was given a four-wheel castering undercarriage for stability. Its rotor blades could also be set at negative pitch to hold the Wasp on a rolling deck until it could be lashed down. The Wasp entered service in 1963, and could carry two torpedoes, two depth charges or a single Nuclear Depth Bomb. A total of 133 were produced, and the type was retired by the Royal Navy in 1988. (Photo by Tim Felce via Wikimedia Commons)
Recent Aviation History Posts
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.