Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting you caught up on milestones and important historical events in aviation from October 3 through October 6.

October 4, 1957 – The launch of Sputnik 1. The eighteenth-month period from July 1, 1957, to December 31, 1958 was celebrated as the International Geophysical Year, a time when sixty-seven countries (but not China, who was protesting the inclusion of Taiwan and refused to participate) tried to transcend the divides of the Cold War and come together on scientific projects covering eleven Earth sciences, including ionospheric physics and other investigations into the near space around our planet. But since this was still the Cold War, the Soviet Union saw the IGY as the perfect opportunity to make a propaganda statement by launching into space the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1 (Sputnik simply means satellite). For a generation that was brought up on stories of space adventure and the wonders of science fiction, this was science relaity, and the American public was shocked that the Russians had beaten the US into space. As Sputnik 1 circled the Earth, it emitted radio pulses that could be tracked by amateur radio operators on the ground, a constant reminder that the Russians were directly overhead. Sputnik could also be seen from the Earth, and those who turned their binoculars and telescopes skyward could watch the Russian satellite pass overhead. In addition to the obvious propaganda coup that Sputnik provided the Russians, the basketball-sized satellite did perform some useful scientific experiments. As the satellite moved through the upper atmosphere, 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. The radio signals lasted for 21 days before the batteries ran out, and Sputnik burned up on re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere January 4, 1958, just three days after the US launched their own satellite, Explorer 1, which was actually the third satellite in space following the launch of Sputnik 2 in November of 1957. Despite the intention of the IGY to bring nations together, the launch of Sputnik marked the launch of the Space Race, an entirely new competition between East and West, with America seemingly always one step behind, until the Apollo program put a man on the Moon. But the Russians would shrug and say they never wanted to go there anyway (but they sure tried). (NASA Photo)


October 6, 1977 – The first flight of the MiG-29. During the Vietnam War, the US Air Force discovered that using high speed fighter aircraft in the ground attack role left them vulnerable to attack from above. Air superiority became the watchword, as the US sought to regain control of the airspace over the battlefield in the way they had during the Korean War. By the late 1960s, the Air Force began its F-X program to develop a new fighter that could control the skies, bringing about the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle, and, to counter the threat perceived by this new American fighter, the Soviet Union, in 1969, began their own program to produce a new frontline air superiority fighter. Dubbed Perspektivnyy Frontovoy Istrebitel (PFI, or Advanced Frontline Fighter), the program called for an agile, long-range fighter with speed Mach 2+ speed and the ability to operate from rough or unimproved airstrips. This program was eventually split into two different types of aircraft, one heavy and one light, with Mikoyan given the task of producing the lighter aircraft, which would become the MiG-29. The MiG-29A entered service with the Soviet frontline forces in 1983, and was given the NATO designation Fulcrum. It bore a resemblance to the larger Sukhoi Su-27 (and the American F-15, it must be said), though it is somewhat smaller than its American counterpart. It features intake flaps that can be closed during takeoff to prevent ingestion of debris from rough airstrips, widely spaced engines with the center area providing additional lift, and is armed with a single 30mm cannon in the wing root. Numerous missiles, rockets, and bombs can also be fitted to its six underwing hardpoints. The capabilities of the Fulcrum remained a mystery to the West until Western analysts and pilots were able to fly a number of them following the reunification of Germany in 1990 and also in 1997, when the US bought Moldova’s stock of MiG-29s to prevent their sale to Iran. They found the Fulcrum to be a capable dogfighter, notable for its helmet-mounted sight that could target an air-to-air missile while the aircraft’s nose was pointed in another direction. But it also had a relatively short range and a somewhat primitive cockpit that limited the pilot’s situational awareness of the battle space. Like most Russian warplanes, the Fulcrum has been continuously updated throughout its service life and exists in a myriad of variants, and now includes the substantially modernized MiG-35 which remains in production. Over 1600 aircraft have been produced, and they can be found flying currently in the air forces of 26 nations. (Photo by Krasimir Grozev via Wikimedia Commons)

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October 3, 1985 – The first flight of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, the fourth and penultimate Space Shuttle produced. It’s first mission, STS-51-J, delivered a classified Department of Defense payload to orbit and returned to Earth on October 7. Atlantis was also the last Shuttle to fly before the cancellation of the Space Shuttle Program on July 8, 2011. (NASA Photo)


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October 4, 1968 – The first flight of the Tupolev Tu-154, a three-engine narrow-body airliner that was the mainstay of the Russian airline Aeroflot and 17 other nations. Since its introduction in 1972, the Tu-154 has carried half of all civilian passengers flown by Aeroflot. Aeroflot announced the retirement of the Tu-154 in 2010 after almost 40 years of service, with the last scheduled passenger flight of the type taking place in May 2015. (Photo by Aktug Ates via Wikimedia Commons)


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October 5, 1967 – The first flight of the Shin Meiwa US-1A, a large, amphibious STOL aircraft developed from the Shin Meiwa PS-1 and used by the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force for maritime patrol, anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and search and rescue (SAR). The hull of the US-1A is based on a refinement of the the Grumman HU-16 Albatross hull design, and a special boundary layer control system helps to reduce the takeoff distance. In 23 years of service, the US-1A and her crews have reportedly saved 550 lives. (Photo by Richard Vandervord via Wikimedia Commons)

October 5, 1918 – French WWI pilot Roland Garros is shot down and killed. Eugène Adrien Roland Georges Garros was an aviation pioneer who competed in air races and set a world altitude record of 18,410 ft in 1911. During WWI, Garros helped develop a system of bullet deflectors that allowed gunnery through the propeller, and on August 3, 1914, Garros shot down a German Zeppelin, receiving credit for the first aerial victory in history. Garros was shot down and killed just one day short of his 30th birthday, and five weeks before the Armistice. Despite his fame, though, Garros was not officially an ace, having downed only 4 aircraft during the war.

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October 5, 1914 – The first air-to-air combat kill in history, when a Voisin III pusher biplane of Escadrille VB24, piloted by Sgt. Joseph Frantz with observer Cpl. Louis Quénault, shot down a German Aviatik B.II over Reims, France. Frantz fired nearly 100 rounds from his Hotchkiss machine gun, while the German observer returned fire with his rifle. After running out of ammunition, the French observer continued firing with his rifle, and the German plane crashed, killing both crewmen.

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October 6, 1983 – The first flight of the Bell OH-58D Kiowa Warrior. The OH-58 Kiowa, a development of the Bell Model 206 JetRanger, entered service in 1969 in response to an Army requirement for a light observation helicopter (LOH). The OH-58D variant was a product of the Advanced Helicopter Improvement Program (AHIP) which included improved radar for nap-of-the-earth flying, a quieter four-bladed rotor, and a mast-mounted sight (MMS) for sighting targets from behind the cover of terrain. (US Army photo)

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October 6, 1954 – The first flight of the Fairey FD.2, a British research aircraft that was built to explore the regimes of transonic and supersonic flight. The FD.2 was the first aircraft to exceed 1000 mph and held a world speed record for more than a year before being surpassed by the McDonnell F-101 Voodoo. The ogee delta wing shape developed for the FD.2 was later used on the Concorde, as was the characteristic droop nose.

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October 6, 1939 – The first flight of the Curtiss SO3C Seamew, a monoplane seaplane designed for the US Navy to replace the SOC Seagull. Per the US Navy requirement, the Seamew could be equipped with either a float or landing gear. To address stability problems, the wingtips were curved upward, and the vertical stabilizer extended across the observer’s cockpit. Due to unresolved problems with the Ranger V-770 inline V engine, the Seamew was withdrawn from frontline units in 1944 in favor of the older biplanes it was meant to replace. (US Navy photo)

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