Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from September 12 through September 14.
September 12, 1945 – The first flight of the Northrop XP-79. In many ways, the evolution of aircraft design has been an unending quest for speed. No matter how powerful the engine, piston-powered propeller planes can only go so fast (the official record as of today is 528.31 mph), and it wasn’t until the arrival of the jet engine that aircraft began to climb reliably above 500 mph. But before the first operational jets took to the air during WWII, aircraft designers experimented with rocket power. The German Heinkel He 176 first flew in 1939, and continuing work on rocket propulsion in Germany led to the Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet, the only rocket-powered aircraft to become operational during the war.
America came to rocket power a bit later, but beginning in late 1942, Jack Northrop began work on a rocket plane of his own. Unlike the German aircraft, though, his would be a radical flying wing aircraft, an aircraft type that would later come to be synonymous with Northrop. By 1944, he had constructed prototype gliders to test the flying wing concept, one of which, the MX-324, became the first US-built rocket plane to fly after it was towed aloft by a Lockheed P-38 Lighting. With the flying wing concept proven, Northrop received an order for three flying prototypes that were given the designation XP-79A. In addition to its radical design, the XP-79A also broke new ground in construction techniques. Due to the corrosive nature of the liquid rocket fuel, Northrop constructed the fuselage out of a magnesium alloy which required the development of new methods of welding to work with the exotic material. The aircraft was so small that the pilot flew the plane from a prone position, with his chin placed in a rest to hold his head up. While this was not the most comfortable position, it did allow the pilot to withstand up to 21 Gs in flight.
Just two months after the order was placed for the rocket planes, the decision was made to substitute two Westinghouse 19-B (J30) turbojets for the rockets, with the jet-powered version given the designation XP-79B. The magnesium construction of the airframe made for a very strong aircraft, and some thought was even given to employing the XP-79B as an aerial battering ram, using the aircraft’s wings to slice the wings and tails off of enemy bombers. A more traditional armament of four .50 caliber machine guns was also planned though never fitted.
Despite the initial plans to power the XP-79 with rockets, the decision was made to switch to turbojet power when the rockets were found to be unsatisfactory. Two Westinghouse J30 engines were fitted, and the rocket-powered version was canceled. The jet-powered flying wing was designated XP-79B. Ground testing proved troublesome, with burst tires and brake problems plaguing the taxi tests. Once those were worked out, the XP-79B made its first and only flight. Test pilot Harry Crosby took the XP-79B aloft and reached an altitude of 7,000 ft. However, the flying wing then started to roll for an unknown reason, and Crosby was unable to regain control. He managed to bail out of the aircraft, but was killed when he was struck by the wing and was unable to open his parachute. The XP-79 crashed and was consumed by a raging fire fueled in part by its magnesium structure. Soon after the crash, construction of the second XP-79B prototype was halted, and the entire program was cancelled. Despite the setback, Northrop continued his experiments, and some may say obsession, with flying wings, developing the YB-35 and YB-49 flying wing bombers, neither of which ever entered production. However, Northrop’s vision was eventually vindicated in 1989 with the flight of the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit strategic bomber.
September 14, 1939 – The first flight of the Sikorsky VS-300. While the helicopter as we know it is a relatively modern invention, the idea for vertical flight goes all the way back to 400 BC, when Chinese children played with toys that had a wing on a stick that could be spun in their hands, toys that still exist today. The first known design for a vertical flying machine can be found in the works of the Renaissance artist and engineer Leonardo da Vinci, though it’s unlikely that his aerial screw design would have been capable of flight. While it’s possible that he created flying models, there was no provision for keeping the whole craft from spinning under the influence of the rotor.
Aircraft designers continued to chase the dream of vertical flight, and it was actually achieved in aircraft such as the Focke-Achgelis Fa 223, though it had two rotors on twin booms to counteract the torque from the spinning rotors and looked more like an airplane with propellers than a helicopter. Many others tried, but it was not until Russian emigre Igor Sikorsky developed his VS-300 that the dream of vertical flight with a single rotor became a practical reality, resulting in a helicopter that we would recognize today.
Sikorsky understood that he needed some way to counteract the torque of the main rotor, and he went through numerous configurations before settling on the single, vertical tail rotor to control aircraft yaw, an arrangement that has become standard on most helicopters to this day. But perhaps his greatest breakthrough came with his development of a cyclic control that tilted the spinning rotor disc to impart motion in a desired direction. Other controls directed the tail rotor and regulated engine speed, and the system of controls that Sikorsky developed has become the standard control system on most helicopters to this day. In order to test his design safely, Sikorsky took a series of tethered flights, flying the machine himself while wearing his trademark fedora, with the first liftoff taking place on September 14, 1939.
Following refinements to the control system, the first untethered flight took place in May of the following year. Where other designers had used multiple engines to power the main rotor and tail rotor of their helicopters, the VS-300 used a single 75 horsepower engine to turn both, becoming the first in the US to use a single lifting rotor and a single engine. Sikorsky later developed the VS-300 into the R-4, which was purchased by the US Army and became the world’s first mass produced helicopter.
September 12, 1994 – Frank Corder deliberately crashes a plane on the White House lawn. Corder, a former US Army soldier and truck driver, was distraught, depressed and suicidal after his wife left him. Highly intoxicated, Corder stole a Cessna 150 (N1405Q) from Aldino Airport in Maryland and flew to the White House. Though detected minutes before the crash by radar operators at National Airport, Corder managed to crash the small aircraft on the South Lawn of the White House, killing himself. He had stated that he bore no animus toward President Clinton, and the president was unhurt. Rumors persist that the White House is defended by surface-to-air missiles, though the Secret Service has neither confirmed nor denied their existence, and none were fired at the aircraft. The incident led to a significant reevaluation of security procedures.
September 12, 1934 – The first flight of the Gloster Gladiator, a biplane fighter and the last biplane to be flown by the Royal Air Force and Fleet Air Arm. Though considered obsolete at the start of WWII, the Gladiator nonetheless served in combat in all theaters early in the war, with a few export fighters even serving the Axis forces. The Gladiator entered service in 1937, though it was soon replaced in frontline operations by the Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire. Also capable of operating from carriers, many Gladiators were redeployed to serve as cover for British trade routes, particularly in the Mediterranean Sea, and was last flown in combat by the Finnish Air Force. A total of 747 were built. British author Roald Dahl spent some time flying Gladiators during the war, and had this to say about the old fighter:
Those old Gladiators aren’t made of stressed steel like a Hurricane or a Spit. They have taut canvas wings, covered with magnificently inflammable dope, and underneath there are hundreds of small thin sticks, the kind you put under the logs for kindling, only these are drier and thinner. If a clever man said, ‘I am going to build a big thing that will burn better and quicker than anything else in the world,’ and if he applied himself diligently to his task, he would probably finish up by building something very like a Gladiator.
— Roald Dahl, “A Piece of Cake”, from the short story collection The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar
September 12, 1916 – The first flight of the Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Airplane, a project to develop a pilotless aerial torpedo or flying bomb and the progenitor of the modern cruise missile. Elmer Sperry is credited with developing the first gyroscopically-controlled autopilot system, and Sperry then adapted his system to to control the aircraft remotely by radio. Though flight tests of the system were promising, WWI ended before the flying bomb could be perfected, and development was shelved until 1925 when the US Navy took over the program.
September 13, 1994 – The first flight of the Airbus Beluga, a modified Airbus A300-600 widebody airliner that was developed to carry oversize cargo, particularly sections of Airbus aircraft destined for final assembly in France, Germany and Spain. Before the Beluga, Airbus used a fleet of Aero Spacelines Super Guppy Turbine aircraft in that role, but the idea of Airbus aircraft sections being delivered in Boeing airplanes made for poor publicity. The Beluga entered service in 1995 and is capable of carrying 50,000 cubic feet of cargo weighing up to 50 tons. A total of five were built, and they remain in service today. A new larger Beluga XL, based on the Airbus A330, took its maiden flight on July 19, 2018.
September 14, 2006 – The crash of USAF Thunderbird Number 6 during an air show at Mountain Home Air Force Base. Immediately after takeoff, Thunderbirds opposing solo pilot Captain Chris Stricklin attempted a Split S maneuver after incorrectly entering the mean-sea-level of the air base into his altimeter. Coming out of the maneuver too low, Stricklin ejected eight-tenths of a second before impact and suffered only minor injuries. His aircraft was destroyed. Following the crash investigation, procedures for the Split S were changed to add 1,000 ft more altitude before attempting the maneuver. Annotated video of the crash can be found here. Video with pilot radio can be found here.
September 14, 1963 – The first flight of the Mitsubishi MU-2, a twin-turborop utility aircraft for civil and military use and one of the most successful aircraft to be produced in postwar Japan. Following the flights of the prototypes, Mitsubishi partnered with Mooney Aircraft in the United States to assemble the aircraft in their San Angelo, Texas factory, with major components shipped from Japan. The Japanese Self-Defense Forces became the only military operator of the MU-2, though they are also flown under government contract by the US Air Force to provide students with battle management training. A total of 704 were produced from 1963-1986.
September 14, 1959 – The Soviet probe Luna 2 crashes onto the Moon. During the Space Race with the United States, the Soviet Union carried out the Luna program which attempted to send a series of 24 robotic spacecraft to the moon. Luna 1, launched in January 1959, missed the Moon but, in the process, became the first spacecraft to orbit the Sun. Luna 2, launched on September 12, 1959, did make it to the Moon, becoming the first man-made object reach the Moon and the first to land on another celestial body. Luna 2 carried instruments to measure the electron spectrum of the outer Van Allen Radiation Belt of the Earth and also searched for radiation belts around the Moon.
September 14, 1917 – The first flight of the Fairey III, a reconnaissance biplane built during WWI to meet a specification for a carrier-based seaplane. The Fairey III, also known as the F.128, was powered by a series of engines culminating in the Napier Lion 12-cylinder engine and had wings that could fold for carrier storage. Though seeing only limited service in WWI, development of the aircraft continued between the wars and included a version with floats for operation from the surface of the water. Ultimately a very successful design, a total of 964 were built, and some were still in use in the early years of WWII.
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