Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from October 30 through November 1.
October 31, 1943 – The first flight of the Budd RB Conestoga. The term “conestoga wagon” usually conjures up visions of intrepid American settlers moving westward in search of land and fortune. But the conestoga wagon was actually never used in westward expansion because it was too heavy to cross the prairies. The first time history records the conestoga is in 1717, and the large, boat-shaped wagons first appeared in Pennsylvania, where they were used to haul as much as six tons of cargo. They could even float if they were caulked properly. It’s no wonder, then, that the Pennsylvania-based Budd Company took the name for the innovative cargo aircraft they built for the US Navy.
The Budd Company was founded in 1912 and made its money chiefly in the production of rail cars and automobiles, and pioneered the use of stainless steel for auto bodies in 1913. The company also invented the shot weld process of joining sheets of stainless steel. Budd’s expertise in the use of stainless steel came in handy when the US Navy started looking for a new large transport and cargo aircraft. At the time, demand for aluminum was high, and the Navy wanted to explore the use of other materials that were in greater supply.
Though known for cars and trains, this wasn’t Budd’s first foray into airplane building. In 1931 the company built and flew the Budd BB-1 Pioneer, the world’s first aircraft with a framework built entirely from stainless steel. For the Conestoga, Budd worked with US Navy engineers to design a truly innovative aircraft. Not only did it primarily use stainless steel in its construction, it also incorporated other features that established the template future cargo aircraft. The Conestoga had tricycle landing gear, a raised tail with clamshell doors at the rear, and a deck that was at truck-bed height to facilitate loading and unloading. It also had a one-ton hoist for handling heavier cargo. The cockpit was placed on top of the fuselage to provide maximum unobstructed space for cargo, and the large hold could carry 24 paratroopers, 9,600 pounds of cargo, or a 1.5 ton truck. It could also hold the largest ambulance in the US military inventory. The Conestoga was powered by a pair of Pratt & Whitney R-1830 radial engines that gave it a respectable cruising speed of 165 mph, but a disappointing range of only 700 miles.
Following the Conestoga’s maiden flight, testing commenced on the first three aircraft. The Navy initially ordered 200 aircraft, and the US Army Air Forces placed an order for an additional 600 designated C-93. However, delays in production caused by difficulties in the welding of the stainless steel, plus increased availability of aluminum, led to drastic cuts in the order sheet. The Navy decided to take just 25 aircraft, and the Army canceled their order altogether.
In the end, only 20 Conestogas were produced, and they never entered squadron service with the US Navy, though they did carry out some cargo duties stateside flying between naval air stations. After less than two years of service, the aircraft were retired in 1945 and transferred to the War Assets Administration for sale to the private sector. A handful of Conestogas became the nucleus for the Flying Tigers air cargo line, named after the famous American Volunteer Group of WWII. And a single Conestoga was sold to the Tucker Motor Company to transport the Tucker 48 sedan to auto shows around the US. Today, only a single incomplete Conestoga remains. It resides at the Pima Air & Space Museum in Arizona, where it is displayed minus its engines and many other bits. But despite the passage of more than 70 years, the stainless steel fuselage looks as good as new.
October 30, 1979 – The death of Sir Barnes Wallis. Born on September 26, 1887, Wallis was an English scientist, engineer and inventor perhaps best known for his contributions to the British war effort in WWII. Wallis pioneered the use of geodetic construction to strengthen British bombers such as the Vickers Wellington, and designed the famous bouncing bombs that were used in Operation Chastise to destroy dams in the Ruhr Valley in an attempt to cripple German military production and disrupt hydroelectric power generation. Wallis also developed the 6-ton Tallboy and 10-ton Grand Slam blockbuster bombs that were used against German U-boat pens and other hardened structures. Following the war, Wallis dedicated himself to research into supersonic flight and the use of variable geometry wings, research which was later put to use in the Panavia Tornado.
October 28-30, 1977 – Pan Am Flight 50 sets a world speed record for circumnavigation over both poles. To celebrate its 50th anniversary, Pan Amscheduled a circumnavigation of the globe that took off from San Francisco on October 28. Flight 50 flew across the North Pole to London, then on to Cape Town, South Africa, over the South Pole to Auckland, New Zealand, then back to San Francisco, hoping to break the previous record set in 1965 by a Boeing 707nicknamed Pole Cat (N322F). One hundred twenty passengers paid for the trip on board the Clipper New Horizons (N533PA), a Boeing 747SP (Special Performance) variant shortened to increase range and speed. The flight totaled 54 hours, 7 minutes, 12 seconds of flying time, breaking Pole Cat’s record by more than eight hours and setting six new world records.
October 31, 2012 – The first flight of the Shenyang J-31, a fifth-generation multi-role fighter with stealth capability developed by the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation of China. Due to the secrecy of the Chinese government, the first photos of the completed prototype weren’t seen by the West until September 2012. The J-31 was unveiled to the public at the Zhuhai Airshow in November 2014, and it is still unclear whether or not the J-31 will be developed for naval use, and some countries, notably Pakistan, have expressed interest in obtaining the fighter. The full capabilities of the new fighter are not yet known, but it will most likely be an immediate match to American fourth-generation fighters, and possibly fifth-generation fighters such as the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II.
October 31, 2000 – The first crew to man the International Space Station (ISS) launches from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The mission, named Expedition 1, had a three-man crew commanded by American astronaut William Shepherd and included Russian cosmonauts Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei K. Krikalev, both of whom had long-duration space experience on board the Russian space station Mir. Expedition 1 lasted 136 days, during which time the crew activated systems on board the ISS and unpacked equipment for future missions before returning to Earth on March 19, 2001. The ISS has been continuously inhabited ever since.
October 31, 1999 – EgyptAir Flight 990 crashes into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Nantucket, Massachusetts. EgyptAir 990 was scheduled Boeing 767 (SU-GAP) service from Los Angeles to Cairo, with a stop at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. The airliner carried a primary and a relief crew, including relief First Officer Gameel Al-Batouti, who took the right seat soon after takeoff, hours before he was scheduled to do so. When primary Captain Captain Ahmed El-Habashi left the cockpit, Al-Batouti was heard on the cockpit voice recorder saying, “Tawkalt ala Allah,” which can mean “I rely on God” before the airliner went into a steep dive towards the ocean. Captain El-Habashi managed to re-enter the cockpit and fought Al-Batouti for control before the aircraft broke apart and crashed into the sea, killing all 217 on board. The National Transportation Safety Board listed the cause as unexplained flight control inputs by the First Officer, with the strong suggestion that it was an act of suicide by the pilot. Egyptian authorities disputed that finding and claimed it was due to a malfunction of the airliner’s elevator, though the NTSB could not identify any malfunctions in the wreckage, nor explain the split elevator condition of the tail, which would have come from the two pilots pulling the control stick in opposite directions.
October 31, 1956 – A US Navy R4D-5 Skytrain named Que Sera Sera becomes the first airplane to land at the South Pole. The aircraft, the Navy’s version of the Douglas DC-3, was commanded by RADM George Dufek and flown by LCDR Gus Shinn, and was named after a popular Doris Day song. The six-man crew were the first Americans to set foot on the South Pole, and the first time anybody had been to the Pole since Royal Navy CAPT Robert F. Scott in 1912. The flight, which planted the first American flag at the South Pole, was part of Operation Deep Freeze, which included the establishment of bases on Ross Island and Little America, as well as scientific experiments. Dufek also took part in a circumnavigation of Antarctica on board the ice breaker USS Glacier (AGB-4). Que Sera Sera now resides at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida.
October 31, 1931 – The first flight of the Westland Wallace, a two-seat biplane developed for the Royal Air Force during the period between the World Wars. Building on the success of the earlier Westland Wapiti, the Wallace featured a lengthened fuselage and more powerful engine, while the Wallace Mk II had spatted wheels and an optional enclosed cockpit. The Wallace entered service in 1933, with the majority flying with the Auxiliary Air Force, and served in all manner of roles. During the Houston-Mount Everest Flight Expedition of 1933, a Wallace was the first aircraft to fly over the summit of Mount Everest. Though it was obsolete at the outbreak of WWII, the Wallace continued to serve as a target tug and trainer for aircraft radio operators.
November 1, 2007 – The death of Paul Tibbets. Tibbets was born in Quincy, Illinois on February 23, 1915, and enlisted in the US Army in 1937, qualifying as a pilot a year later. As the commanding officer of the 97th Bombardment Group, Tibbets flew the lead Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress in the first daylight heavy bomber mission over occupied Europe in July 1942. After returning to the US to assist with the development of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, Tibbets became commander of the 509th Composite Group which was tasked with carrying out the nuclear raid on Japan, and piloted the Enola Gay when it dropped the Little Boy atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Tibbets was also involved in the development of the Boeing B-47 Stratojet, and retired from the US Air Force in 1966 with the rank of brigadier general.
November 1, 1957 – The de Havilland Comet returns to service. When the de Havilland DH 106 Comet entered service with British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) in 1952, it was the world’s first commercial jet-powered airliner. However, two Comets broke up in midair in 1954 with the loss 56 passengers and crew. The fleet was grounded and, after extensive water tank testing, the Comet was found to be susceptible to metal fatigue from repeated pressurizations, particularly around its large windows. All new and existing Comets were fitted with strengthened fuselages and new oval windows, which solved the problem. Though sales never completely recovered, the Comet went on to a successful 30-year career and was finally retired in 1997.
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