Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from October 6 through October 9.
October 6, 1977 – The first flight of the Mikoyan Gurevich 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 hold control of the airspace over the battlefield in the same way they had late in WWII, and again during the Korean War. In the 1960s, the Air Force began its F-X program to develop a new air superiority fighter, a competition which brought about the superb McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle, which was awarded a production contract in 1969 based on a technical proposal and took its maiden flight in July 1972. But the arms race being what it was, and still is, the Soviet Union had to respond to the threat posed by this new high-performance American fighter, and they began their own program in 1969 to produce a new frontline air superiority fighter to counter the Eagle.
Dubbed Perspektivnyy Frontovoy Istrebitel (PFI, or Advanced Frontline Fighter), the program called for an agile, long-range fighter with Mach 2+ speed and the ability to operate from rough or unimproved airstrips. But as development progressed, the Russians found themselves in a similar situation as the Americans, needing both a heavy air superiority fighter and a lighter multi-role fighter. Thus, the MiG-29 became roughly analogous to the General Dynamics F-16, while the larger and heavier Sukhoi Su-27 took on the role of the heavy fighter. The MiG-29 is powered by a pair of Klimov RD-33 afterburning turbofans spaced far enough apart that the area between them produces additional lift. Air intake flaps are fitted that prevent the ingestion of foreign object debris during landing and takeoff from unpaved airstrips. The MiG-29 is armed with a single 30mm cannon in the wing root, and is also fitted with a laser rangefinder and infra-red search and track (IRST) system housed in an eyeball-like bubble forward of the cockpit. This system allows the pilot to track targets that emit infrared radiation while not giving off any energy of its own, making it difficult for the target aircraft to know they are being tracked. Numerous missiles, rockets, and bombs can also be fitted to its six underwing hard points.
The MiG-29 entered service with the Soviet frontline forces in 1982 and was given the NATO designation Fulcrum. By the mid-1980s, the MiG-29 began appearing at international air shows, but the capabilities of the Fulcrum remained a mystery to the West until analysts and pilots were able to fly a number of them following the reunification of Germany in 1990. In 1997, the US bought Moldova’s stock of 21 MiG-29s to prevent their sale to Iran or other rogue states, and the purchase had the added benefit of providing an opportunity to train head to head against the Fulcrum. Western analysts 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, including two-seat training variants, an export version, a carrier-capable variant, as well as a substantially modernized MiG-35 variant. Over 1,600 aircraft have been produced, and the MiG-29 continues to serve the air forces of 26 nations.
October 7, 1934 – The first flight of the Tupolev ANT-40 / SB. Prior to the start of WWII, the design of bomber aircraft began to separate into two general trends. The first was large, heavy bombers capable of flying long distances with large bomb loads. These bombers packed a punch, but they weren’t particularly fast, and were vulnerable to interception by enemy fighters. The second was the development of medium-sized, twin-engine bombers that carried fewer bombs but used their higher speeds as protection from enemy fighters. In 1933, the Soviet Air Force ministry issued a requirement for a new high speed bomber designated Skorostnoi Bombardirovschik (SB) and work on the new aircraft began at the Tupolev design bureau at the Central Aerodynamic Institute (TsAGI). Beginning in the early 1930s, aircraft designers moved away from fabric-covered wooden frameworks to stressed skin aircraft, an arrangement where the aircraft’s metal skin helps to keep the aircraft’s box frame rigid.
Tupolev’s prototype bomber, known as the ANT-40, was the first modern stressed skin aircraft produced by the Russians in large numbers, and was initially created two versions. The first, known as the ANT-40RT, was powered by a pair of Wright R-1820 Cyclone engines and was the first to fly. The second, known as the ANT-40IS, was powered by two Spanish-made Hispano-Suiza 12Y liquid cooled V-12 engines. The bomber had a crew of three and a top speed of 280 mph, could carry up to 2,200 pounds of bombs, and was armed with four defensive machine guns. The ANT-40IS served as the production prototype for the Skorostnoi Bombardirovschik, but the first SBs started rolling off the production line before the testing program had even completed. As a result, the assembly lines faced numerous difficulties because of constant modifications to the production process. Many pilots and maintenance personnel were upset with the early shortcomings of the SB and, when the Russian Commissar for Heavy Industry, Sergo Ordzhonikidze, came for an inspection, the crews covered their aircraft with placards complaining about the problems. Andrei Tupolev was summoned for an audience with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, where he told the Russian leader that most of the defects were trivial. Stalin replied, “There are no trivialities in aviation; everything is serious and any uncorrected triviality could lead to the loss of an aircraft and its crew.”
As production of the SB continued, refinements and improvements slowly made their way into the fleet, and the SB first saw action with the Spanish Republicans during the Spanish Civil War in 1936. There, the SB proved to be faster than contemporary fighters, and significantly faster than the older biplane fighters it faced. The SB also saw service in China, Mongolia, Finland, and some captured aircraft were flown against the Russians by the German Luftwaffe and Finnish Air Force. Despite its speed, the rapid pace of fighter development rendered the SB obsolete by 1941, and the remaining aircraft were used as transports and cargo aircraft. A total of 6,656 SBs were produced between 1936 and 1941, making it one of the most numerous aircraft of its day.
October 7, 1932 – The first flight of the Stipa-Caproni. The decades of the 1920s-1930s are known as the Golden Age of Flight, an era marked by an explosion in the popularity of flying as well as rapid technological advancement. While many designers worked to refine more traditional aircraft, others took the opportunity to experiment with radical aircraft of entirely new design. Some of those innovative aircraft were developed into successful production designs, while others, though ultimately unsuccessful, paved the way for aircraft of the future.
One of the more exotic ideas to come out of this period was the Stipa-Caproni, also known by the reverse name Caproni Stipa. Created by Italian engineer Luigi Stipa and built by manufacturer Caproni, the barrel-like fuselage was a tapered airfoil shape which created a venturi that compressed the air moved by the propeller and sped it up, putting into practice the principles of fluid dynamics first described by Daniel Bernoulli in 1738. Stipa called his invention an intubed propeller, and he rigorously calculated the shape of both the tube and the propeller, as well as the speed of the propeller, for optimal efficiency. The aircraft’s elliptical wing passed through the oversized fuselage behind the propeller, and the rudder and elevators were mounted directly behind the tubular fuselage to benefit from the passage of air through the fuselage. Two pilots sat in tandem high atop the aircraft.
In 1932, Stipa convinced the Italian government to fund the construction of his unorthodox airplane. Test pilots found that the aircraft was extremely stable, almost to the point of being difficult to turn. And the fact that the entire aircraft helped generate lift meant that extremely slow landing speeds were possible. Despite promising test results, the Stipa-Caproni failed to outperform contemporary aircraft, and the project was canceled. However, Stipa’s work was quite influential and widely studied, and some consider his intubed propeller, which is essentially a ducted fan, as the precursor to the modern turbofan engine.
October 9, 1999 – The final flight of the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird. Before the advent of reliable reconnaissance satellites, it was up to aircraft to perform the often dangerous job of spying on the enemy. But postwar reconnaissance aircraft, often not the fastest aircraft available, were vulnerable to fighters, and a number of American spy planes were shot down as they probed the borders of the Soviet Union. The high-flying Lockheed U-2, which could reach altitudes beyond the reach of fighters, removed much of the danger, but it remained vulnerable to anti-aircraft missiles. In 1957, Lockheed began investigating an aircraft that could take over the job of spying on the Soviet Union from the vulnerable U-2. This task became more urgent in 1960 when a U-2 flown by Francis Gary Powers was shot down by a surface-to-air missile over the Soviet Union while photographing nuclear missile sites. Lockheed’s goal was to create a plane that was untouchable by any fighter or missile in existence. In addition to making a plane that flew still higher and faster, Lockheed also experimented with technologies that reduced the aircraft’s radar signature and was the precursor to what we know as stealth technology today.
The result of Lockheed’s work led to the single-seat Lockheed A-12, which first flew in 1962. The A-12 was followed by the SR-71 Blackbird, and though it was not as fast as the lighter A-12, its increased range and more advanced sensors made the Blackbird a more capable aircraft. The SR-71 also added a second crewmember to handle the reconnaissance work, allowing the pilot to concentrate on flying the plane. Powered by two Pratt & Whitney J58-1 continuous bleed afterburning turbojets, the Blackbird was capable of speeds up to Mach 3.3 at 80,000 feet. It could not be shot down by the surface-to-air missiles of the day, and it was faster than any contemporary Soviet fighter. The Blackbird took its maiden flight on December 22, 1964 and entered service in 1968. Blackbirds based in Okinawa were soon flying as many as two missions a week over enemy territory, most often North Vietnam and Laos. Flying from European bases, Blackbirds probed the edges of the Soviet Union and provided intelligence during US military operations in Libya.
But along with the unsurpassed capabilities of the SR-71 came very high operating costs, and it became a political issue in an era of shrinking budgets and competition for funds. In 1989, the Blackbird was retired from service, even at a time of escalating tensions in the Middle East when it could have performed valuable reconnaissance in the upcoming Gulf War. When the US government realized that it still had a need for the high-flying spy plane, the SR-71 was updated with real-time data transmission capabilities and reactivated in 1993, despite stiff opposition from the US Air Force who said they didn’t have the funds to operate it. The Air Force also claimed that the Blackbird competed for funds with unmanned reconnaissance projects currently under development.
After another political battle over funding the aircraft, the SR-71 was permanently retired in 1998, and the last two airworthy Blackbirds were transferred to NASA for research. The book on the Blackbird was finally closed on October 9, 1999 when the last flying aircraft, an SR-71A (61-7980/NASA 844), landed at Edwards AFB in California and was placed in storage with the other NASA Blackbird. As of its official retirement, the Blackbird had logged 53,490 flight hours with only one pilot lost to an accident. None were lost to enemy fire. All remaining aircraft (as far we know) are now housed at aviation museums around the country.
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 Kiowa Warrior variant was a product of the Advanced Helicopter Improvement Program (AHIP) which included improved radar for nap-of-the-earth flight, a quieter four-bladed rotor, and a mast-mounted sight (MMS) for locating targets from behind the cover of terrain. The OH-58D is fitted with pylons that can hold two Hellfire missiles, seven rockets, two air-to-air Stinger missiles or one fixed .50 caliber machine gun.
October 6, 1954 – The first flight of the Fairey Delta 2, a British research aircraft that was developed to explore the regimes of transonic and supersonic flight. The Fairey Delta 2 was powered by a single Rolls-Royce Avon 200 axial flow jet engine and was the first aircraft to exceed 1,000 mph, a world speed record that it held for more than a year before being surpassed by the McDonnell F-101 Voodoo. The Delta 2 was also the first British aircraft to have all of its flight surfaces hydraulically controlled. Two prototypes were built, and one was significantly modified to become the BAC 221 which was used for high-speed delta wing testing in the development of the Concorde supersonic transport.
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-12 engine, the Seamew was withdrawn from frontline units in 1944 in favor of the older biplanes it was meant to replace. Nearly 800 were built, and it was retired in 1945.
October 7, 1995 – The first flight of the Mitsubishi F-2, a fighter built in cooperation between Lockheed Martin and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. Based on the General Dynamics F-16A Fighting Falcon, the F-2 features a larger wing made of composite materials, larger tail plane, larger nose housing a more a powerful radar, a larger air intake and a three-piece canopy. Under the terms of the partnership, advances made in the F-2 were transferred back to Lockheed Martin for use in future US fighters. Produced from 1995-2011, 94 aircraft have been built and serve with the Japan Air Self-Defense Force.
October 7, 1963 – The first flight of the Learjet 23, the world’s first light business jet. A true pioneer in the world of business jet (bizjet) aviation, the LearJet 23 originated in Switzerland where it was conceived by William Lear and designed by Hans-Luzius Studer, who had worked previously on the FFA P-16 fighter for Switzerland. The six-passenger bizjet became an instant success, and production was moved to the US where 105 aircraft were produced from 1962-1966. The LearJet has been continuously upgraded and enlarged since, and newer variants remain in production.
October 9, 2009 – The Centaur module of NASA’s Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) crashes on the Moon. In an effort to determine whether or not the polar regions of the Moon contain subsurface frozen water, NASA launched LCROSS along wth the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter on June 8, 2009 atop an Atlas V rocket. LCROSS consisted of a Shepherding Spacecraft that was attached to the spent Centaur upper stage of the Atlas rocket. Once over the southern pole of the moon, the rocket stage was launched into a shaded crater and followed down to the surface by the Shepherding Spacecraft with its sensors. The Atlas stage impacted the crater at approximately 5,600 mph and, while the debris plume was not as large as scientists hoped for, the trailing spacecraft was still able to confirm the presence of water on the Moon.
October 9, 1987 – The first flight of the AgustaWestland AW101, a joint venture of the Italian company Augusta and the British company Westland to produce a medium-lift naval helicopter. Known by Britain, Denmark, Norway and Portugal as the Merlin, the AW101 is powered by three Rolls-Royce Turbomeca turboshaft engines and entered service in 1999 in the transport, anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and ship-based utility roles. It now serves with both military and civilian operators of 11 nations. In 1999, the US Navy and Marine Corps initiated the VXX program to find a replacement for the Sikorsky VH-3 Sea King used to transport the US president, and the AW101, designated the Lockheed Martin VH-71 Kestrel, was considered in the competition before being canceled in 2009 after significant cost overruns.
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