Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from October 31 through November 2.
November 2, 1947 – The first flight of the Hughes H-4 Hercules. There’s no question that Howard Hughes was an eccentric man. Known for his reclusive behavior, he was also one of the wealthiest people of his generation. Through his varied interests and investments, Hughes managed to grow a $1 million inheritance into a billion-dollar empire that encompassed interests in investing, film making, real estate and philanthropy. But Hughes is also known for his efforts in aviation, first with the formation of Hughes Aircraft Company in 1932 and later with his purchase of a controlling investment in Trans World Airlines in 1939. Hughes had a fascination with speed and air racing, and built the Hughes H-1 Racer, in which he set numerous speed records. The H-1 was also the last privately-developed aircraft to set a world speed record. He developed other aircraft for the US military, none of which were particularly successful, and he is perhaps best known for his greatest failure, the H-4 Hercules.
Popularly known as the Spruce Goose, the Hercules was conceived early in WWII by shipbuilder Henry J. Kaiser and built by Hughes Aircraft in the hopes of providing the US Army with a transatlantic cargo plane that would be capable of carrying either 150,000 pounds of cargo, 750 fully equipped troops, or two M4 Sherman tanks weighing 30 tons each. Hercules was an apt name for the plane, because it was a true behemoth and the largest flying boat ever built. Its wingspan of 320 feet 11 inches remains the longest in the history of aviation, though it is expected to be surpassed by the Scaled Composites Stratolaunch by 2019. In an effort to save weight and conserve metal, the Hercules was constructed almost entirely of birch (not spruce, but Spruce Goose sounds better), and was powered by eight Pratt & Whitney R-4360 Wasp Major radial engines each producing 3,000 horsepower. The H-4 was constructed in Hughes’ Los Angeles factory, then a house moving company transported the disassembled aircraft to Long Beach, where it was reassembled for flight testing.
With Hughes at the controls, the Hercules made two uneventful taxi runs in the waters off Cabrillo Beach; then, on the third run, Hughes lifted the Spruce Goose off the surface of the water. The giant aircraft rose to about 70 feet above the surface of the water, flew at 135 mph for about a mile, then settled back onto the water—and never flew again. It is impossible to know if the Spruce Goose would have met its design objectives. Its first flight came more than two years after VJ Day and the US government was no longer interested in such a huge, propeller-powered cargo plane. The Spruce Goose was maintained in a climate-controlled hangar for 30 years, then put on display in a special hangar before being acquired by the Disney company, who had plans to develop a theme park around it, but those plans never came to fruition. The Hercules now resides at the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon.
November 2, 1943 – The first flight of the Grumman F7F Tigercat. During WWII, the piston powered fighter reached the zenith of its development. Unfortunately for the war effort, however, some of the greatest propeller planes ever produced came too late make a difference in the outcome of the war, and were soon displaced by jet-powered aircraft during the Korean War. Such was the fate of the Tigercat, one of the fastest piston-powered fighters ever built and, in the words of Navy test pilot Frederick Trapnell, “...the best damn fighter I’ve ever flown.”
Grumman has a storied history of providing powerful and rugged warplanes for the US Navy, but the aircraft that became the Tigercat actually started out as a project by Grumman to build a twin-engine interceptor for the US Army Air Corps, the XP-50, which itself was a development of the radical XF5F Skyrocket. But when the XP-50 prototype was lost in a crash, funding was shifted to a new design, the XP-65, and development of the Army interceptor took place simultaneously with development of the Navy version, which bore the designation XF7F-1. The new interceptor kept the twin engines of its predecessors, but was otherwise a traditional design, albeit with a very narrow fuselage to reduce its frontal area.
Initially, the main difference between the Army and Navy versions was the inclusion of superchargers in the Army’s XP-65. But as development continued, it became clear that the Army and Navy had very different requirements, and those needs could not be met by a single airplane (a situation that would plague the development of the General Dynamics F-111 twenty years later). So when the Army stopped pursuing the XP-65, Grumman used its considerable experience building naval aircraft and focused entirely on the XF7F. The Navy envisioned their new aircraft both as a fighter and as a ground attack aircraft, and the Tigercat had a serious bite, with four 20mm cannons and four .50 caliber machine guns firing forward, as well as hardpoints on the wings and fuselage for bombs and torpedoes. And not only could the Tigercat hit hard, it was fast. With a top speed of 460 mph, it outpaced the Grumman F6F Hellcat by 80 mph, and was even a bit faster than the Vought F4U Corsair, one of the fastest fighters of WWII. However, the early models were not able to pass carrier qualifications and Tigercats were relegated to land bases to be used as night fighters and for photo reconnaissance. It wasn’t until the F7F-4 that the Tigercat was cleared for carrier operations, but only 12 of that variant were produced.
Delivered too late to fight in WWII, Tigercats did see limited action in Korea as a night fighter, shooting down two Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes. But this would be its only combat success. Most Tigercats were eventually sent into storage and later scrapped, though some were bought as surplus and used as firefighting water bombers. Of the 364 aircraft produced of all variants, seven remain airworthy, and two currently are being restored, one to airworthiness. Interestingly, Grumman had originally intended to call the F7F the Tomcat, but that name was considered too risqué for the era. The name Tomcat would famously appear later on the Grumman F-14.
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, 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.
November 2, 1992 – The first flight of the Airbus A330. One of a number of derivatives of Airbus’ original A300 wide-body, the A330 has a range of up to 8,300 miles and can carry as many as 335 passengers or 150,000 pounds of cargo, depending on the variant and cabin configuration. The A330 was developed alongside the four-engine A340, and shares a common airframe, though the A340 has a centerline wheel bogey. To accommodate different customers, the A330 was the first Airbus airliner to offer a choice of three different engines. Still in production today, over 1,200 A330s have been built, and they serve numerous civilian carriers, cargo companies, and militaries.
November 2, 1929 – The founding of The Ninety-Nines, an international organization of woman pilots that provides professional opportunities for women in aviation and “promotes advancement of aviation through education, scholarships, and mutual support while honoring our unique history and sharing our passion for flight.” Founded at Curtiss Field in New York by 99 of the then-117 licensed female pilots, the organization counts Amelia Earhart among its charter members, and includes such notables as Jackie Cochran, Patty Wagstaff, Jeana Yeager, Sheila Scott and astronaut Eileen Collins.
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