Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from September 16 through September 18.
September 17, 1959 – The first powered flight of the North American X-15. The decades of the 1950s and 1960s were an extraordinary time in the history of aviation. Following the adoption of the turbojet engine late in WWII, designers raced to develop aircraft that could fly ever higher and faster, even to the edges of space. At the same time seemingly bottomless Cold War defense budgets, and the burgeoning Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union, meant that money for research and development was always in good supply.
The X-15 was part of a long lineage of experimental aircraft, known collectively as the X planes. Beginning with the Bell X-1, which broke the sound barrier for the first time in 1947, these innovative and often revolutionary aircraft were developed to explore, test, and evaluate cutting edge theories about aircraft design and propulsion, and push against the edges of the flight envelope. In 1952, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, the predecessor to NASA), began investigating the possibilities of space flight. By 1954, the committee set forth guidelines for an aircraft that could investigate flight at not just supersonic speed, but at hypersonic speeds (above Mach 5), and one that would go to the limits of our atmosphere. NACA selected a team from North American Aviation led by Chief Project Engineer Charles Feltz to design the exotic plane, one that ultimately looked more like a spacecraft than an aircraft. And indeed, the X-15 was intended to fly in both regimes, using traditional flight control surfaces for flight in the atmosphere and reaction controls in the form of hydrogen peroxide thrust rockets for control in the thin air outside the atmosphere. Power for the X-15 came from a single liquid fuel Reaction Motors XLR99 rocket that produced over 70,000 pounds of thrust, though the early flights were carried out using two less powerful rocket motors.
The X-15 made its maiden flight on June 8, 1959 as part of a captive-carry mission with its Boeing NB-52A Stratofortress mother ship. For its first powered flight three months later, North American test pilot Scott Crossfield flew the X-15 to a rather pedestrian speed (for the X-15) of 1,393 mph, about Mach 2.1, at maximum altitude of 52,341 feet. Other test flights went ever faster, eventually reaching a speed of Mach 6.7 (4,520 mph) on October 3, 1967, a record that still stands for a manned aircraft. But it wasn’t all about speed. The X-15 was also about altitude, and reaching the edge of space. In arcing flights that started in Utah, flew over Nevada, and ended at Edwards Air Force Base in California, 13 of the 199 test flights took their pilots to an altitude between 50-60 miles, the entry altitude to space set by the USAF. Flights 90 and 91, piloted by Joseph Walker, reached 66 and 67 miles above the Earth. Pilots who made these flights were awarded their Astronaut wings (the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale Sporting Code sets the required altitude to be considered an astronaut as 100 km, about 62 miles).
The X-15 test program collected reams of data on hypersonic flight, as well as data that would be used for future aircraft and spacecraft design. A total of 12 test pilots flew the X-15, and over the course of 336 flights in the entire program, one pilot, Michael J. Adams, was killed on November 15, 1967 when his X-15-3 entered a hypersonic spin and broke apart at 60,000 feet. He received his astronaut wings posthumously. Pilot Jack McKay was seriously injured in a landing accident on November 9, 1962. A total of three X-15s were built during the program, and two survive. One is on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, and the other resides at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.
September 17, 1935 – The first flight of the Junkers Ju 87. On September 1, 1939, the armies of Nazi Germany smashed their way into Poland to begin WWII, and the German Blitzkrieg (lightning warfare) was soon moving like a juggernaut across the rest of Europe. Poland fell in just over one month, and concentrations of armored or motorized infantry and tanks then struck hard and fast against France and the Low Countries. One of the main reasons for the success of the Blitzkrieg strategy was the use of combined arms tactics, with aircraft in close air support of the infantry, and the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka came to symbolize both Blitzkrieg and the horrors of modern warfare.
Development of a dedicated ground attack aircraft had begun as early as 1928 and, once Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, the project became one of great importance. Development was spearheaded by Ernst Udet, a WWI fighter ace and the eventual Director-General of Equipment for the Luftwaffe. Work on the Ju 87 began in 1933 as part of Germany’s Sturzbomber-Programm (the name Stuka is derived from Sturzkampfflugzeug, or diving warplane). With some irony, the aircraft was originally powered by a British Rolls-Royce Kestrel V-12 engine. It also featured a twin tail to give the rear defensive gunner a clearer field of fire. But the weakly constructed tail broke apart during a test flight, killing the crew, and Junkers reverted to a more traditional single vertical stabilizer.
The Stuka’s distinctive inverted gull wings were adopted to provide clearance for the landing gear and to improve visibility for the pilot, while automatic pull-up dive brakes allowed the aircraft to recover from a diving attack even if the pilot lost consciousness from high G forces. Fixed, spatted landing gear, which hearkened back to an earlier era of aviation, added strength to the Stuka, and Jericho-Trompete wailing sirens were fitted to the struts as instruments of propaganda meant to strike fear into the Stuka’s victims. For the production aircraft, the original Rolls-Royce engine was swapped for one of German build, a Junkers Jumo 211 inverted V12, the same engine flown in the Junkers Ju 88 and Heinkel He 111.
Stukas first saw service in support of the General Francisco Franco’s Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War of 1936, and the dive bomber was instrumental in German victories in the first two years of WWII. Stuka’s worked closely with tanks and infantry to spearhead the invasion of Poland in September 1939, were instrumental in the conquering of northern continental Europe, and were also particularly effective against shipping. But in spite of its prowess as a dive bomber, the Stuka suffered from low speed and poor maneuverability, making it easy prey for faster, more agile Allied fighters. With a maximum speed of just about 240 mph, the Stuka was 100 mph slower than the Hawker Hurricane. As the war progressed, Stuka raids required fighter escort and, when Germany eventually lost air superiority over Europe, the Stuka was rendered significantly less effective. The bulk of the ground attack missions were taken over by attack variants of the Focke-Wulf Fw 190, but the Ju 87 soldiered on and served until the end of the war, when it was quickly retired. Of the more than 6,500 that were produced, only two remain. One is on display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, and the other resides at the Royal Air Force Museum in London.
September 18, 1948 – The first flight of the Convair XF-92. As the Allies moved across Germany in the closing stages of WWII, they discovered a trove of secret and experimental aircraft that the represented technologies far ahead of those of the Allies. Not only had the Germans fielded the first jet-powered and rocket-powered fighters, they had also been experimenting with innovative designs such as aircraft with swept and delta wings. One German engineer in particular, Alexander Lippisch, had made important discoveries in the use of delta wings and tailless aircraft. His work had shown that a delta wing would be effective for high speed flight, and Lippisch had begun work on the concept with the arrowhead-shaped DM-1, a delta-winged glider with delta tail. As a spoil of war, the Americans brought the DM-1—and Dr. Lippisch—back to the United States as part of Operation Paperclip.
In the summer of 1945, Consolidated-Vultee, later known as Convair, began work on a supersonic interceptor for the soon-to-be US Air Force that would be powered by mixture of rocket and turbojet power. The original plan was to employ a swept wing and V-tail, but testing showed that this arrangement was unsuitable. Meanwhile, the DM-1 arrived at the Langley Research Center in Virginia and was tested by National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) engineers. Data from these tests was then forwarded to Convair and, after a meeting with Dr. Lippisch himself, the company decided to redesign their interceptor with a delta planform, one that looked remarkably like the DM-1 glider, albeit with a more traditional cigar-shaped fuselage.
Hampered by the poor thrust of the early turbojet engines, Convair decided to combine a Westinghouse J30 jet with six nitro-methane rockets to boost the fighter’s top speed. However, that arrangement allowed for just 10 minutes of cruising time and five minutes of combat, only a minor improvement over the Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet rocket plane of WWII. Convair built a flying mockup, dubbed the Model 7002, from scavenged parts of other aircraft and fitted it with a more powerful Allison J33 engine. On June 9 1948, the world’s first tailless delta aircraft took flight. When it showed good flying characteristics, the Army promptly bought the prototype and dubbed it the XF-92A. The rocket-powered XF-92 was canceled.
Testing of the XF-92A commenced, and noted test pilots such as Scott Crossfield and Chuck Yeager each took turns in the cockpit. While the interceptor proved mostly stable in flight, the pilots complained of a lack of power and maneuverability (as fighter pilots are wont to do), though Yeager was able to nudge the aircraft just past the speed of sound in a dive. The delta design also offered very low landing speeds, though with a high angle of attack. Despite the XF-92's less-than-stellar flying characteristics, it had an outsized influence on the future of Convair and the delta wing in general. The company applied lessons learned in testing to the development of the F-102 Delta Dagger, F-106 Delta Dart, and B-58 Hustler, all of which went on to successful careers with the Air Force. The sole XF-92A is now on display at the US Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio.
September 16, 2013 – The first flight of the Bombardier CSeries (CS100), a narrow-body twin-engine medium-range regional airliner manufactured by Bombardier Aerospace of Canada. Following their unsuccessful takeover of Fokker in 1996, Bombardier considered a new regional jet, but instead chose to enlarge their existing successful line of CRJ regional jets. With the launch of the Embraer E-Jet line in 2002, Bombardier revisited their original idea and developed their first regional jet with 5-across seating and engines in pods under the wing rather than at the rear of the aircraft. After a lengthy test program, the first CS100 was delivered to Swiss Global Air Lines in June 2016, with Bombardier having firm orders for 123 more CS100 airliners along with 235 of the larger CS300. In 2017, Bombardier formed a partnership with Airbus which saw the European manufacturer take a 50.01% share of the company, and the CS100 was subsequently rebranded as the Airbus A220.
September 16, 2011– A modified North American P-51D Mustang crashes into the grandstands at the Reno Air Races. Seventy-four-year-old Jimmy Leeward was piloting his highly modified North American P-51D Mustang (NX79111) around pylon number 8 at the Reno Air Races in Nevada when the aircraft suddenly pitched up violently and plunged into the grandstands, killing Leeward along with 10 spectators. During the race, Leeward reached a top speed of 530 mph, and investigators later determined that the trim tab on the left elevator began to flutter before breaking off and causing a loss of control. The sudden departure from controlled flight exerted 17Gs on Leeward, which would have rendered him unable to move and likely caused him to lose consciousness. The breakage was traced to the reuse of locknuts that were only designed to be used once. The crash was the fourth-deadliest accident in US air show history.
September 16, 1959 – The first flight of the North American Sabreliner, a mid-sized business jet designed by North American Aviation for both the military and civilian markets. Development began as part of the US Air Force’s Utility Trainer Experimental (UTX) program to find an aircraft that could function both as a utility transport and a combat readiness trainer. The name Sabreliner was chosen due to the resemblance of the tail and wings to the North American F-86 Sabre fighter. The US military adopted the Sabreliner as the T-39, while the civilian version was originally marketed as the Series 40, though subsequent variants saw the 60, 70, 75 and 80. The Navy also adopted the T-39 for radar operator training. More than 800 Sabreliners were produced from 1959-1982.
September 17, 1908 – First Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge dies in the crash of the Wright Flyer. Selfridge was born on February 8, 1882 and served in the Aeronautical Division of the US Army Signal Corps after his graduation from the United States Military Academy in 1903. In an effort to build interest from the US Army in airplanes, Orville Wright traveled to Fort Myer near Washington, DC to demonstrate the Wright Flyer to Army officials. On the fateful flight, Orville piloted the Flyer around the fort while Selfridge rode as a passenger. The aircraft reached an altitude of 150 feet when, on the fifth circuit, the right propeller broke, and pieces of the prop damaged the struts and wiring of the Flyer. The aircraft plunged straight down from an altitude of approximately 125 feet. Orville was severely injured, but Selfridge died later that day from a fracture to the base of his skull, making him the first person in history to die in a plane crash.
September 18, 1984 – Joe Kittinger completes the first solo transatlantic balloon flight. Kittinger, a retired US Air Force colonel, is perhaps best known for his role in Project Manhigh and Project Excelsior where he set a world record in 1960 for a parachute jump from a balloon floating at 102,800 feet. After his retirement from the Air Force, Kittinger retained his interest in ballooning, as well as a desire to set records. On September 14, 1984, Kittinger departed from Maine in a balloon named Rosie O’Grady’s Balloon Of Peace and, four days later, landed in Montenotte, Italy. According to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), the governing body for air sports, Kittinger’s flight of 3,544 miles set the record for the longest gas balloon distance for its class.
September 18, 1962 – The US Air Force and US Navy adopt the Tri-Service Aircraft Designation System. Prior to 1962, aircraft of the US Air Force, US Navy, and US Marine Corps followed different systems for designating their aircraft, even if the same plane flew for multiple branches. For example, the North American Mitchell bomber was known as the B-25 (B for bomber) in the US Army Air Forces, while the same aircraft in Marine Corps service was known as the PBJ (PB for Patrol Bomber, J being the designation for North American Aviation). With the new system enacted in 1962, all aircraft would follow the Air Force system, with a prefix denoting the aircraft’s main mission: F for fighter, A for attack, B for bomber, X for experimental, and so on. Existing Navy aircraft were given the new designations.
September 18, 1947 – The US Air Force becomes an independent branch of the US military. On July 16, 1947, President Harry S Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947, which mandated a sweeping reorganization of US military structure in the wake of WWII. The US Army Air Forces had grown to enormous size during the war, and it was separated from the Department of the Army to become the Department of the Air Force. The Act also called for the formation of the National Security Council, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Air Force officially became active on September 18, 1947 when Stuart Symington was sworn in as the first Secretary of the Air Force. General Carl A. Spaatz, former commander of Strategic Air Forces in Europe, was named its first Chief of Staff. Throughout the Cold War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and through all the conflicts to this day, the US Air Force has remained at the forefront of technological advancement and readiness, and is arguably the most powerful and capable arm of military aviation in the world today.
September 18, 1930 – The death of Ruth Alexander, a pioneering American aviatrix who began her brief flying career in 1929. Within days of becoming the 65th woman licensed to fly in the US, she set an altitude record for women with a flight that reached 15,718 feet. She was also the second woman in the US to become a licensed glider pilot, and the first woman to act as a glider instructor. In July 1930 Alexander set a new world altitude record of 26,000 feet for both men and women, but died just two months later when she crashed into a hillside while piloting her Barling NB-3 during an attempt at a transcontinental flight.
September 18, 1928 – The first flight of the Graf Zeppelin (LZ 127), a German rigid airship and the first airship to provide transatlantic passenger service. The airship was named after Count (Graf) Ferdinand von Zeppelin, a former general in the German army and the founder of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin. His name has since become synonymous with rigid airships. In its lifetime, LZ 127 made 590 flights totaling more than one million miles, including a circumnavigation of the globe in 1929. Despite its years of service, the Graf Zeppelin was scrapped in 1940 and its duralumin frame was used for the production of warplanes.
September 18, 1928 – Spaniard Juan de la Cierva flies from London to Paris in an autogyro. De la Cierva was a Spanish aeronautical engineer and pilot who is best know for the invention of the autogiro, or autogyro, an aircraft that uses a free spinning, unpowered rotor to generate lift while a traditional puller or pusher propeller moves the aircraft forward. De la Cierva’s first successful autogyro was flown in 1923 and, in 1928, de la Cierva himself piloted his Cierva C.8 autogyro from London to Paris, becoming the first to pilot a rotorcraft across the English Channel. Autogyros gained in popularity, and the Cierva Autogiro Company was founded in England in 1926. However, de la Cierva was killed on December 9, 1936 in the crash of a KLM DC-2 known as the Croyden accident.
September 18, 1913 – The first flight of the Avro 504, a biplane fighter of WWI that served both the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service. The 504 was developed from the earlier Avro 500 and was powered by a Gnome Lambda 7-cylinder rotary engine to a top speed of 90 mph. Over 10,000 were produced from 1913-1930, and it holds the distinction of being the most-produced aircraft of any kind in WWI. Of all wood construction, the 504 was quickly rendered obsolete by more modern fighters after the war, but remained in service as the standard RAF trainer while many surplus aircraft entered the civilian market. A number have survived 100 years after their production, and at least two remain airworthy.
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