Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting you caught up on milestones and important historical events in aviation from September 30 through October 2.


September 30, 1975 – The first flight of the Hughes YAH-64 Apache. “Soviet ground forces outnumber US ground forces by virtually every criterion: total ground force personnel; number of divisions; and ground force systems, especially tanks (5:1), personnel carriers (2.5:1), artillery pieces (4:1), and heavy mortars (2.5:1).” These words, spoken by US Air Force General George Brown in 1978, spoke to the enormous gap in men and materiel faced by the West in any potential conflict with Russia. And hard on the heels of the Vietnam War, where the attack helicopter came to the fore, it was clear that the US needed a new, dedicated attack helicopter to face the threat from the East. To address this disparity in numbers, the US Army initiated the Advanced Attack Helicopter (AAH) program in 1972 to improve upon the Bell AH-1 Cobra that served since the Vietnam War, particularly looking for an aircraft that could deal with the great number of armored vehicles operated by Russia. Proposals were entered by Bell, Boeing Vertol/Grumman, Hughes, Lockheed and Sikorsky, with Bell and Hughes being selected to build prototypes of the YAH-63 and YAH-64 respectively, with Hughes declared the winner. Reasons for their selection included a four-bladed rotor that could withstand greater battle damage and the instability of the YAH-63’s tricycle landing gear. The AH-64 featured two turboshaft engines, a tandem cockpit, with pilot in the rear and co-pilot/gunner in the front, and was armed with the new AGM-114 Hellfire missile (an acronym for “Helicopter launched, fire-and-forget missile.” The Apache is also fitted with a single 30mm M230 chain gun in a chin turret, and two small wings with hardpoints for air-to-ground rockets, missiles, or Stinger air-to-air missiles for defense. The Apache entered service with the US Army in 1986, and saw extensive service in the Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq, where it performed admirably in the anti-tank, counterinsurgency (COIN) and combat air support (CAS) roles, and has been continuously upgraded since with better engines and avionics. The AH-64 also serves with Israel, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Egypt, and in smaller numbers with ten other nations. Over 2000 have been built, and the Apache remains in production by Boeing. (US Army photo)


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October 1, 1990 – The death of US Air Force general Curtis LeMay. As the strategic bomber came to prominence during WWII, one man would take the lead in shaping the bombing program for the US, molding it into one of the most powerful—and controversial—forces in the world. Born in Columbus, Ohio in 1906, Curtis LeMay earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering before receiving a commission in the US Army Air Corps in 1930 where he specialized in navigation and piloted a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. When WWII started, LeMay’s reputation for discipline and perfection saw him rise quickly through the ranks of the USAAC. As the commander of a squadron of Consolidated B-24 Liberators during the war, he personally led many dangerous missions, and threatened any crews who failed to reach the target with court-martial. His insistence on discipline and doing things his way earned him nicknames like “Old Iron Pants” and the “Big Cigar.” By 1944, LeMay was transferred to the Pacific Theater, where he found the tactics that were used in Europe unsuitable for the war against Japan. To address the poor success rate of high-altitude bombing, LeMay had his crews switch to low level, nighttime incendiary attacks against the Japanese homeland. These attacks led to the deaths of an estimated 500,000 Japanese civilians, plus vicious reprisals against American POWs, but LeMay was dedicated to his methods, believing that it he could shorten the war by one day it would be worth it. The attacks continued until the Japanese surrender in 1945. In 1948, with Berlin under a Russian blockade, LeMay took over and reorganized the Berlin Airlift, which, at its peak, brought in 5,000 tons of supplies on 500 flights a day. By the end of the Airlift, 213,000 flights had brought in 1.7 million tons of supplies, and the Russians lifted their blockade. Also in 1948, LeMay took over the nascent Strategic Air Command, molding it into an effective tool for the nuclear age and projecting American power around the globe with high-flying strategic bombers such as the Convair B-36 Peacemaker, Boeing B-47 Stratojet, and Boeing B-52 Stratofortress. LeMay served as the USAF Chief of Staff from 1961 until his retirement in 1965, and was George Wallace’s running mate for Wallace’s unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1968. LeMay died of a heart attack at March Air Force Base, and is buried at the US Air Force Academy Cemetery in Colorado Springs, Colorado. (US Air Force photos)


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October 1, 1942 – The first flight of the Bell P-59A Airacomet. American efforts to produce their own jet-powered fighter early in WWII were shrouded in secrecy, so much so that there are actually two aircraft that bear the “P-59” name. The first was a twin boom, pusher-propeller configuration developed by Bell which was given the designation XP-59. This aircraft was under development at the time that the US received jet engine technology from the British, and while the XP-59 was never slated for production, it provided a useful cover for the development of America’s first jet fighter. Bell Aircraft was approached to design an aircraft around the new J31 engines that were being built by General Electric, and the project was given the designation P-59A to give observers the idea that the aircraft was merely a development of the canceled XP-59. The ruse was further perpetuated when, during ground movements of the first aircraft, a wooden propeller was affixed to the nose and shrouds were placed over the engine nacelles to hide the true nature of the aircraft’s powerplant. Bell finalized his design for the Airacomet in January 1942, and even before the first prototype was flown, an order was placed for 13 YP-59A aircraft. Unlike the Gloster Meteor and the Messerschmitt Me 262, both of which had their two engines housed in wing-mounted pods, the Airacomet had its engines and intake nacelles as part of the fuselage, a design that would heavily influence future jet aircraft. The Airacomet’s first flight was actually unintended, as the fighter briefly lifted off the ground during high-speed taxi tests, and the first official flight was made on October 2. While the Airacomet generally performed well, it was no great leap forward from contemporary propeller fighters, even when the P-59B was given an upgraded engine (it’s top speed only just equaled that of the North American P-51 Mustang). Still, the aircraft proved useful for training the first generation of jet fighter pilots, who used them to learn the characteristics of jet aviation before transitioning to more modern aircraft. (US Air Force photo)


Short Take Off


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September 30, 1955 – The Ryan X-13 Vertijet is retired. The X-13 was developed to investigate the feasibility of a jet aircraft that could take of vertically, transition to flight, then back to hover and landing using only the rear engine. The idea was to launch and recover aircraft from submarines. Two were built, and while it was proved that such an arrangement is possible, the project was canceled for lack of an operational requirement. (US Air Force photo)


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September 30, 1943 – The first flight of the Northrop XP-56 Black Bullet. The XP-56 was developed as part of the USAAC’s radical R40-C proposal, but flight tests were disappointing and showed little promise for challenging the performance of traditional fighters. The project was canceled after ten test flights. However, Northrop pioneered the use of magnesium in the airframe, and patented a process for Heliarc magnesium welding. (US Army photo)


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October 1, 1975 – The first flight of the Bell YAH-63, the unsuccessful entrant into the US Army’s Advanced Attack Helicopter (AAH) competition. Bell’s entry lost to the Boeing YAH-64, which would enter production as the Apache. The Army cited Bell’s two rotor blades as being more vulnerable than the Apache’s four, and felt the tricycle landing gear was less stable. Bell would use the lessons learned with the YAH-63 to help develop an upgraded version of the Cobra attack helicopter, the AH-1W Super Cobra. (Photo author unknown)


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October 1, 1950 – The first flight of the Ilyushin Il-14, a civilian and military transport that was developed to replace the Douglas DC-3 and its Russian-built version, the Lisunov Li-2. Produced in Russia, East Germany, Czechoslovakia and China, over 1300 were built and served in many Eastern Bloc and Russian allied countries. The Il-14 was rugged and worked well from rough and unimproved airstrips. (Photo from Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons)


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October 1, 1881 – The birth of William E. Boeing. Born in Detroit, Michigan, Boeing would produce his first airplane, the Boeing Model 1, in 1916 with business partner George Westervelt, and would build 50 aircraft for the US Army during WWI. After the war, Boeing focused on commercial aircraft, but would leave the aviation industry before WWII to raise horses and develop property. The company he founded is now one of the world’s largest producers of civilian and military aircraft and spacecraft. Boeing died on September 28, 1956 at age 74.


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October 2, 1981 – US President Ronald Reagan restarts the Rockwell B-1 program. In an effort to rebuild the US military after his election, and to address delays in the Advanced Technology Bomber (ATB) program, President Reagan decided to restore production of the supersonic bomber that previous president Jimmy Carter had canceled due to cost overruns. Contracts were awarded to Rockwell to produce 100 of the bombers, now upgraded to the B-1B at a cost of $2.2 billion. (Photo by Tim Shaffer)


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October 2, 1956 – The first flight of the Hughes Model 269 (TH-55 Osage), a low-cost, lightweight two-seat helicopter that entered production in 1960 and was adopted in 1964 by the US Army as a training helicopter to replace the Hiller OH-23 Raven. Continuously upgraded throughout its production history, the Model 269/300 is used for transport, observation and agricultural spraying. 2,800 were produced by 1983.


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