Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from September 18 through September 20.
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 advanced aircraft that the Germans had been working on. Not only did the Germans field the first jet-powered and the first rocket-powered fighters, they had also been experimenting with innovative designs such as aircraft with swept wings. One German engineer in particular, Alexander Lippisch, had made important discoveries in the use of delta wings and tailless aircraft. Lippisch’s work had shown that a delta wing would be effective for high speed flight, and he 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, along with 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 and feature a swept wing and V-tail. However, testing showed that this arrangement was unsuitable. Meanwhile, the DM-1 had arrived at the Langley Research Center in Virginia and had been 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, though with a more traditional 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 mostly stable in flight, the pilots complained of a lack of power and maneuverability, though Yeager was able to nudge the aircraft just past the speed of sound. 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, 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 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, the flight set the record for the longest gas balloon distance for its class at 3,544 miles.
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 and US Navy and US Marine Corps followed different systems for designating their aircraft, even if the same plane flew for different 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, aircraft of the Department of the Navy were redesignated, and 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.
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 since, 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 licensed woman pilot 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 glider instructor. In July 1930 Alexander set a new world altitude record for both men and women of 26,000 feet, 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 so its duralumin frame could be used for the production of warplanes.
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.
September 19, 1980 – A Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile explodes in its silo in Damascus, Arkansas. While performing routine maintenance on the Titan II missile, a member of the two-man propellant transfer system (PTS) team dropped an 8-pound socket which fell 80 feet and struck the missile, piercing the first-stage fuel tank. The puncture caused a leak of the aerozine 50 fuel, which would ignite if it came in contact with the nitrogen tetroxide which was used as an oxidizer. At 3:00 am, the mixture ignited, blew off the 740-ton silo door, and ejecting the second stage, with its W53 warhead, roughly 100 feet outside of the missile complex. The launch station was completely destroyed, but the safety measures on the warhead prevented it from detonating. Senior Airman David Livingston, who had entered the silo prior to the explosion, was killed, and 21 others were seriously injured.
September 19, 1969 – The first flight of the Mil Mi-24, a large and heavily armed helicopter gunship that is also capable of carrying eight passengers or troops. With armament to provide close air support (CAS) and room to transport soldiers, the Mi-24 (NATO reporting name Hind) is essentially a flying infantry fighting vehicle. The Mi-24 was developed from the earlier Mil Mi-8, and has a heavily armored fuselage and titanium rotor blades that can withstand hits from 12.7mm rounds. The Hind entered service with the Soviet Union in 1972, and an estimated 2,300 have been produced for the Russian Air Force and more than 30 export countries.
September 19, 1962 – The first flight of the Aero Spacelines Pregnant Guppy, an oversized cargo aircraft that was developed from the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser. Aero Spacelines founder and former USAF pilot John Conroy conceived the idea, and obtained former Pan Am and BOAC Stratocruisers to construct the giant cargo hauler. The addition of the large cargo area gave the Pregnant Guppy a triple-bubble cross section which could carry 50,000 pounds of cargo, and the giant cargo plane was used to transport the first and second stages of NASA’s Titan II rockets to Cape Canaveral as part of Project Gemini. Only one Pregnant Guppy was built, but it was followed by the larger and more capable Super Guppy. The original Pregnant Guppy was scrapped in 1979.
September 19, 1949 – The first flight of the Fairey Gannet. The Gannet arose out of a 1945 Admiralty requirement for a turboprop-powered antisubmarine warfare (ASW) and strike aircraft. The Gannet had a crew of three and was powered by an Armstrong Siddeley Double Mamba engine, which was comprised of two turboprop engines mounted side-by-side and turning a contra-rotating propeller via a gearbox. After the Gannet entered service in the ASW role, it was further developed into AEW.1 Airborne Early Warning (AEW) variant to replace the Douglas AEW.1 Skyraider and made the first carrier deck landing by a turboprop aircraft in 1950. When the ASW mission was taken over by helicopters, some Gannets transitioned to the carrier onboard delivery role (COD). A total of 348 were built in both AEW and ASW variants, and they served Australia, Germany, Indonesia and the United Kingdom until their retirement in 1978.
September 20, 1993 – The death of Erich Hartmann. Born on April 19, 1922, Hartmann was taught to fly by his mother, one of the first female glider pilots in Germany. During WWII, Hartmann became the most successful fighter pilot in history with 352 victories to his credit, all but seven coming against Russian aircraft on the Eastern Front. Over the course of 1,404 sorties, Hartmann, known as the Blonde Knight, was never shot down or forced down by enemy fire, though he did crash land 14 times, all due to mechanical problems or damage caused by flying through the debris from aircraft he had dispatched. Following the war, Hartmann spent 10 years in Soviet prison camps before his release in 1955, and then joined the newly-formed West German Luftwaffe as the first commander of Jagdgeschwader 71, named after Manfred von Richtofen, better known as the Red Baron. Hartmann resigned from the Luftwaffe in 1970 over his opposition to the Luftwaffe’s adoption of the Lockheed F-104G Straighter, and ended his career as a flight instructor before his death at age 71.
September 20, 1951 – The first flight of the Grumman F9F (F-9) Cougar, a carrier-based fighter developed for the US Navy. Orginally conceived as an improved version of the Grumman F9F Panther, the Cougar was such a significant upgrade to its predecessor that the Navy gave it a new nickname, even though it was essentially a Panther with swept wings and much more powerful engines. The development of the swept-wing Cougar was spurred by the arrival of the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 over Korea, though the Panther was too late to see service in the war. The Cougar was then replaced by the Grumman F11F Tiger and Vought F8U Crusader before the outbreak of the Vietnam War. Following their retirement from Navy service, many Cougars ended their life as as QF-9 target drones.
September 20, 1945 – A modified Gloster Meteor F.1 is the first aircraft to fly under turboprop power. A single Meteor F.1, serial number EE227, had its Rolls-Royce Derwent turbojets removed and replaced with Rolls-Royce Trent turboprops. The undercarriage was lengthened to provide clearance for the 7-foot 7-inch diameter Rotol props which were turned through a reduction gear. Following its first flight, the turboprop Meteor was flown at higher power and with smaller props to help develop what was a very complicated engine control system. The testing program ended in 1948.
September 20, 1943 – The first flight of the de Havilland Vampire, the second jet fighter to enter service with the RAF following the Gloster Meteor and the first to use a single engine. The Vampire is notable for its twin tail design, with the engine housed in a central, egg-shaped fuselage. This arrangement shortened the tailpipe and allowed full use of the limited power available in the early turbojet engines. The Vampire entered service in 1945, where they acted as a ground attack aircraft while the Meteor took on the role of fighter. Vampires saw action in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the Malayan Emergency, and the Rhodesian Bush War, and were phased out by the RAF by the end of the 1950s. The last export Vampires were retired by the Rhodesian Air Force in 1979.
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