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 15.
September 12, 1945 – The first flight of the Northrop XP-79. Since the Wright Brothers’ successful first flight in 1903, aircraft have evolved down a number of different paths, each one attempting to find a new or more efficient way of fulfilling a certain mission. However, one goal that has remained mostly constant throughout aviation history is greater speed. Piston-engined propeller planes, no matter how big the powerplant, 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. 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.
Beginning in late 1942, Jack Northrop started work on a rocket plane of his own. Unlike the German aircraft, though, his would be a radical flying wing, an aircraft type that would come to be a hallmark of 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. With no fuselage to speak of, and to limit drag as much as possible, 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.
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 built the fuselage using a magnesium alloy which required the development of new methods of welding to work with the exotic material. 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. Northrop fitted a pair of Westinghouse J30 turbojet engines, 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 died when he was struck by the gyrating 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 in China, where children played with toys that had a wing on a stick that could be spun in their hands. Toys like this still exist today. The first known design for a vertical flying machine can be found in the works of 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 that aircraft had two rotors on twin booms to counteract the torque from the spinning rotors and looked more like an airplane with rotors 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.
Putting a large, spinning propeller on top of the helicopter was an obvious configuration, but the torque from that rotor would make the entire helicopter spin along with it. Sikorsky experimented with 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 system on most helicopters to this day.
In order to test his design safely, Sikorsky took a series of tethered flights, always flying the machine himself while wearing his trademark fedora. Following refinements to the control system, the first untethered flight took place in May 1940. 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 15, 1991 – The first flight of the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III. Napoleon Bonaparte (or perhaps Frederick the Great) famously said, “An army marches on its stomach,” meaning that, without food and supplies, an army goes nowhere and doesn’t fight. Practically the entire history of warfare has revolved around logistics—getting the army to the fight and getting the supplies to the army—no matter how far from home that fight is. By WWII, the development of large strategic airlifters made the task of supply significantly easier and, by the 1960s, the job was being done by large jet-powered aircraft like the Lockheed C-141 Starlifter and Lockheed C-5 Galaxy.
But as the US Air Force looked at the logistics problems of the 1970s, particularly after their experiences in the Vietnam War, they realized that they needed a cargo jet that could not only haul more goods farther but also land on shorter, rougher runways. To deal with these new challenges, the Air force created a set of requirements as part of its Advanced Medium STOL Transport program (AMST) and evaluated two entries: the Boeing YC-14 and the McDonnell Douglas YC-15. Both aircraft took design cues from the Lockheed C-130 Hercules, having a high wing to maximize cargo capacity and a raised tail to allow cargo loading in the rear. However, the AMST program was canceled before a winner was chosen, and it wasn’t until 1980, when the Air Force was facing the reality of a fleet of aging C-141s, that they revisited the concept, now designated the C-X program.
In response to these new requirements, McDonnell Douglas updated their earlier YC-15 design, Boeing brought an updated version of the YC-14, and Lockheed doubled down with two proposals, one based on the C-5 and a second that was an enlarged version of the C-141. Ultimately, the Air Force chose McDonnell Douglas, and gave their aircraft the designation C-17 Globemaster III, a name which pays homage to two earlier airlifters that both carried the nickname, the Douglas C-74 and C-124. Delays in development and a shortage of funds almost led to the cancelation of the project once again, and caused the program to be delayed a further five years. Finally, in 1985, a development contract was awarded, with delivery slated to begin in 1990 (McDonnell Douglas had merged with Boeing in 1997, so the C-17 would carry the Boeing nameplate).
The Globemaster III is powered by four Pratt & Whitney F117 turbofan engines which give it a cruising speed of 515 mph and a range of up to 5,600 miles, depending on the cargo load. It can carry up to 170,900 pounds of cargo, which includes as many as 134 troops or one M1 Abrams main battle tank. The C-17 can also carry three M1126 Stryker infantry vehicles or six M1117 Guardian armored security vehicles. Thrust reversers that direct the jet exhaust upward give the C-17 a stopping distance of as little as 3,500 feet while reducing the dangers of ingesting foreign object debris into the engines. During testing, the C-17 set 33 world records, including a record for STOL capability in which a C-17 took off in less than 1,400 ft, carried a payload of 44,000 pounds to altitude, and then landed in less than 1,400 ft. In recognition of the C-17's ability, it was awarded the Collier Trophy for achievement in aeronautics. The first C-17s entered service in 1993, and a total of 279 were built before production ended in 2015. Globemaster IIIs remain in service with the US Air Force, the Royal Air Force, the Royal Australian Air Force and the Indian Air Force.
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 Washington, DC. 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. The wreckage came to rest against the White Hose, causing minor damage. Corder 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, the last biplane fighter to be flown by the Royal Air Force and Fleet Air Arm. The Gladiator had entered service in 1937 and, though considered obsolete at the start of WWII, it nonetheless served in combat in all theaters early in the war, with a few export fighters even serving the Axis forces. It was soon replaced in frontline operations by the Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire. The Gladiator was also capable of operating from carriers, and many were redeployed to serve as cover for British trade routes, particularly in the Mediterranean Sea. A total of 747 were built, and Finland was the last country to fly the Gladiator in combat.
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, the result of 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 control an 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 13, 1929 – The first flight of the Fokker F-32, a large transport aircraft created by the Fokker Aircraft Corporation of America and the first four-engine transport to be designed and built in the United States. A large aircraft for its era, the F-32 could accommodate 32 seated passengers or 32 sleeping passengers, and had a crew of three. It was notable for having two engines mounted together in a push-pull configuration, with the tractor engine turing a two-bladed prop while the pusher engine turned a three-bladed prop. The aft engine, turing in disturbed air, was prone to overheating, and the F-32 became notorious for a lack of power, even when the original Pratt & Whitney Wasp radial engines were replaced with more powerful Pratt & Whitney Hornet engines. Though seven were built, only two F-32s were purchased, both by Western Air Express. Poor performance, coupled with the Great Depression, meant the F-32 had a relatively short service life and was soon replaced by more modern designs.
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, though in doing so it became the first spacecraft to orbit the Sun. Luna 2, launched on September 12, 1959, did make it to the Moon and became the first man-made object to 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 it saw only limited service in WWI, development of the Fairey III 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.
September 15, 2017 – The Cassini orbiter is intentionally crashed on Saturn. Launched on October 15, 1997 as a combined effort between NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency, Cassini-Huygens was a two-part robotic spacecraft comprised of the Cassini orbiter and the Huygens lander. The paired spacecraft passed by Venus and Jupiter before beginning its orbit of Saturn on July 1, 2004, and the Huygens lander descended to the moon Titan on January 14, 2005. The landing was the first on a body in the outer Solar System and the first landing on a moon other than Earth’s moon. Huygens transmitted photos and other data via Cassini back to Earth, while Cassini continued to orbit Saturn. The so-called Grand Finale of the mission saw Cassini fly between the planet and its rings 25 times and return photographs of Saturn’s atmosphere. In order to avoid potential contamination of Saturn’s moons, which might have conditions suitable for life, Cassini was intentionally deorbited into Saturn’s atmosphere to burn up the orbiter and destroy the spacecraft’s plutonium fuel.
September 15, 1978 – The death of Willy Messerschmitt. Born in 1898, Messerschmitt began his design career building sail planes during WWI, then moved on to build small sport planes and small passenger planes. In 1936, he won the competition to provide the Luftwaffe with a new frontline fighter, the Bf 109, one of the war’s iconic fighters and an aircraft which was produced in greater numbers than any other aircraft in history. Faced with restrictions placed on the production of military equipment following the war, Messerschmitt turned to the manufacture of sewing machines, prefabricated buildings, and the Messerschmitt Kabinenroller automobile. He also exported his aircraft design talents to other countries. For Spain, he designed the Hispano HA-200 jet trainer in 1952, and lather he manufactured the Fiat G91 and the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter under license for the West German Luftwaffe. His final design was the Helwan HA-300, supersonic interceptor for the Egyptian air force.
September 15, 1969 – The first flight of the Cessna Citation I, a business jet developed by the Wichita-based Cessna Aircraft Company and the first in a family of business jets. Development began in 1968 when Cessna chose to market a smaller bizjet that would compete with current turboprop aircraft instead of the established bizjet market. Unlike the competing Learjet 25, which was powered by turbojets, the Citation I was powered by Pratt & Whitney Canada JT15D turbofans. Though it was slower, the addition of thrust reversers made it compatible with shorter airfields. The Citation I was produced from 1969-1985, and a total of 689 were built.
September 15, 1911 – The death of Édouard Nieuport, a French aviation pioneer and founder, along with his brother Charles, of the Société Anonyme Des Éstablissements Nieuport, better known simply as Nieuport. Édouard was known for his monoplane designs in an era when most manufacturers were producing biplanes, and he set speed records flying his own aircraft powered by engines of his own design. Édouard was killed in a flying accident in 1911, followed two years later by the death of his brother Charles, also in a flying accident. Despite the brothers’ deaths, their company went on to become one of the major manufacturers of fighter aircraft in WWI.
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