Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from October 9 through October 11.
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 an enemy. But early postwar reconnaissance aircraft were vulnerable to the new breed of jet 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 contemporary 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 then 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 served as the precursor to what we know as stealth technology today.
The result of Lockheed’s work was 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 Soviet fighter. The Blackbird took its maiden flight on December 22, 1964 and entered service four years later. 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 the remarkable spy plane became part of a political tug of war 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 restarting the Blackbird would drain funds from the unmanned reconnaissance projects under development at the time.
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 11, 1990 – The first flight of the Rockwell-MBB X-31. The aerial dogfight finds its roots in WWI, when opposing pilots began shooting at each other in the air with rifles and pistols they carried aloft in their aircraft. Very quickly, though, the engagements got much more serious. Pilots armed their aircraft with machine guns, air forces produced dedicated fighter aircraft, and aerial warfare became as much a science as an art. Even in the modern era of supersonic jets and guided missiles, it’s still paramount to “get on the six” of your opponent, maneuvering into position to shoot them down. But pushing beyond and aircraft’s aerodynamic limits can lead to loss of control, putting pilots in grave danger of losing the fight—and their life.
Beginning in 1990, a team of engineers from Rockwell and Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm (Rockwell-MBB) joined together to investigate the benefits of thrust vectoring, a system that deflects and directs the engine’s exhaust to augment the traditional control surfaces of the aircraft. The test aircraft was cobbled together from existing and experimental aircraft, and included the front end of a McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet, the landing gear and other components from a General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon, parts from Boeing V-22 Osprey, F-16XL, and even a Cessna Citation. The finished aircraft featured a cranked delta wing with forward canards and a thrust vectoring system that used three computer-controlled paddles to direct the jet exhaust. Specifically, the design team wanted to investigate high angles of attack (AOA), the angle of the wing relative to the wind passing over it. At particularly high AOA, traditional aircraft are likely stall, lose lift, and enter a dangerous spin. With thrust vectoring disabled, the X-31 was capable of flight in a 30 degrees nose up attitude. Any more and the aircraft would stall. With thrust vectoring enabled, the X-31 was capable of a remarkable 70-degree AOA while maintaining control, giving the pilots previously unattainable maneuverability.
As part of the test program, the X-31 was pitted against comparable fighter aircraft that did not possess thrust vectoring. The results were quite impressive, with the X-31 tallying a potential kill ratio of 30 to 1. Rockwell-MBB built two test aircraft, and carried out a total of 580 flights before the initial testing program ended in 1995 (the first aircraft was lost in a crash that same year). The second test aircraft was transferred to the US Navy Test Pilot School at Patuxent River NAS in Maryland for additional research and, at the end of that program in 2003, the aircraft was sent to Germany where it is on display at the Deutsches Meseum Flugwerft Schleissheim. Thrust vectoring is now found operationally on the Lockheed F-22 Raptor, the Russian Sukhoi Su-30, Sukhoi PAK FA, as well as various other experimental aircraft.
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 the program was canceled in 2009 after significant cost overruns.
October 10, 1958 – A maintenance support aircraft for the US Air Force Thunderbirds crashes near Payette, Idaho. While headed to McChord Air Force Base in the state of Washington, the Fairchild C-123D Provider reportedly flew into a flock of Canada geese and crashed, killing five aircraft crew members and 14 maintenance personnel. The investigation could not definitively say that the crash was caused by bird strikes, but the recent grounding of all C-123s due to a fuel system problem was ruled out as a possible cause. However, the investigation also found that the plane was overloaded, crew rest procedures and been violated, and the pilot’s seat may not have been occupied by a qualified pilot. The crash remains the deadliest accident in Thunderbirds history.
October 10, 1933 – The bombing of a United Airlines Boeing 247. On a routine transconitental flight, the Boeing airliner (NC13304), carrying three crew and four passengers, exploded and crashed over rural Indiana. All on board were killed. Investigators determined that the cause of the explosion was most likely a nitroglycerin bomb, making the crash the world’s first documented case of air sabotage. Nobody ever claimed responsibility for the bombing, and the perpetrator was never found.
October 11, 2007 – The death of David Lee “Tex” Hill. Born July 13, 1915 in Terrell Hills, Texas, Hill began his flying career as a Naval Aviator flying the Douglas TBD Devastator before joining the American Volunteer Group, better known as the Flying Tigers, fighting on behalf of Nationalist China in WWII. After the deactivation of the AVG in 1942, Hill was one of only a handful of AVG pilots that reintegrated into the US Army Air Corps, and he tallied six more victories with the 23d Fighter Group to bring his total to 18.25. In 1944, Hill assumed command of the 412th Fighter Group, the first operational US jet fighter wing, and, in 1946, he assumed command of the 136th Fighter Group of the Texas Air National Guard (ANG). He flew combat missions in the Korean War, and became the youngest brigadier general in ANG history. For his service, Hill was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Legion of Merit, and British Distinguished Flying Cross among others.
October 11, 1984 – Astronaut Kathryn Sullivan becomes the first American woman astronaut to perform a spacewalk. During mission STS-41-G of the Space Shuttle Challenger, Sullivan, along with astronaut David Leestma, spent 3.5 hours in space working on a system to refuel satellites in orbit. Sullivan is the third American woman to fly in space (after Sally Ride and Judith Resnick), and took part in a total of three Shuttle missions before leaving NASA in 1993. She was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2004, and later served as Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator from 2014-2017.
October 11, 1984 – Aeroflot Flight 3352 crashes on landing at Omsk Airport. Flight 3352, a Tupolev Tu-154 (CCCP-85243) arriving from Novosibirsk, was cleared for landing during a heavy rainstorm while ground crews were permitted to enter the runway and dry it by a traffic controller who then fell asleep. The unlit maintenance trucks moved to the runway and, as the Tu-154 approached, the flight crew could see something on the runway but were unsure exactly what. A call to a second controller, who could not see the runway, confirmed that the runway was clear, and the first controller could not be reached while he slept. When the airliner touched down, it was unable to avoid the drying trucks, two of which carried seven tons of fuel each to power the jet dryers. All 174 passengers were killed in the crash and fire, along with four members of the ground crew. Miraculously, the five-man flight crew survived when the front section of the airliner broke off and careened down the runway away from the inferno. The crash remains the deadliest ever on Russian soil.
October 11, 1968 – The launch of Apollo 7, the first successful manned Apollo mission. After a 19-month hiatus in manned flights following the fire on Apollo 1 that killed three astronauts, Apollo 7 carried out the mission originally scheduled for the ill-fated Apollo 1 crew after improvements were made to the command module and other safety procedures were put in place. The Apollo 7 crew of Wally Schirra (Commander), Donn Eisele (Command Module Pilot) and Walter Cunningham (Lunar Module Pilot) spent 11 days orbiting the Earth. Apollo 7 was also the first manned launch of the Saturn IB launch vehicle, and the crew performed the first live American television broadcast from space.
October 11, 1938 – The first flight of the Westland Whirlwind, the first single seat, twin engined Royal Air Force heavy fighter and the first in the RAF to be armed with cannons. As part of an effort to field an fighter with heavier armament than the rifle-caliber guns of the Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire, the Air Ministry issued specification F.37/35 in 1935 to develop an aircraft capable of carrying four cannons. The Whirlwind was powered by two Rolls-Royce Peregrine V-12 engines which provided a top speed of 360 mph, and it was introduced in 1940. However, its lack of performance at high altitude limited the Whirlwind mainly to ground attack and anti-shipping missions. A total of 116 were built, and the type was retired in 1943.
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