Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from September 30 through October 3.
September 30, 1975 – The first flight of the Boeing AH-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 were spoken in 1978 by US Air Force General George Brown, at a time when a large ground war against the Soviet Union was still a very serious possibility, and they spoke to the enormous gap in men and materiel faced by the West in any potential conflict with Russia. Coming so soon after the end of American involvement in the Vietnam War, where the attack helicopter had its baptism of fire and proved its mettle over the battlefield, it General Brown’s comments made it clear that the US needed a new, dedicated attack helicopter to face a potential European invasion by the Soviet Union that would be spearheaded by huge numbers of tanks and armored personnel carriers. In response to this threat, the US Army initiated the Advanced Attack Helicopter (AAH) program in 1972 to find a more capable replacement for the Bell AH-1 Cobra that had entered service during the Vietnam War. Bell Helicopter, Boeing Vertol/Grumman, Hughes, Lockheed and Sikorsky all submitted proposals, with Bell and Hughes selected to build prototypes of the YAH-63 and YAH-64 respectively for further evaluation. In 1976, the Army named Hughes the winner. Both helicopters were similar in capability and design, but the Army cited the YAH-64's four-bladed rotor that could withstand greater battle damage, and the greater stability of its tail-dragger landing gear as two of the main reasons for their selection. The AH-64 was powered by two General Electric T700 turboshaft engines for added survivability over the Cobra’s single engine and, like the Cobra, the Apache had a tandem cockpit, with pilot in the rear and co-pilot/gunner in the front. The AH-64 was armed with the new AGM-114 Hellfire missile (an acronym for “Helicopter launched, fire-and-forget missile”), as well as a single 30mm Hughes M230 chain gun holding 1,200 rounds of ammunition and mounted in a swiveling chin turret. Two stub wings were fitted with hardpoints for air-to-ground rockets, missiles, or Stinger AIM-92 air-to-air missiles for defense. The weapons load could also be tailored to the needs of the mission, whether it was anti-armor, ground support, or helicopter escort.
The Apache entered service with the US Army in 1986 and saw its first combat action during Operation Just Cause when the US invaded Panama. It has since seen extensive action in the Gulf War and in the skies over Afghanistan and Iraq, where it performed admirably in the anti-tank, counterinsurgency (COIN) and close air support (CAS) roles. By 2011, the Apache had acquired over 3 million flight hours since its maiden flight, and it has been continuously upgraded throughout its service life. The AH-64D model features the addition of the AN/APG-78 Longbow fire-control radar and Radar Frequency Interferometer to detect enemy radar emission, both of which are housed in a radome mounted on the mast above the main rotor. This variant has overtaken the scout role once held by the Bell OH-58 Kiowa. Export versions of the AH-64 serve with Israel, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Egypt, and in smaller numbers with 10 other nations. Over 2,000 have been built, and the Apache remains in production by Boeing. (US Army photo; photo by Arpingstone via Wikimedia Commons)
September 30, 1949 – The Berlin Airlift officially ends. Following the D-Day landings in France on June 6, 1944, Germany found itself squeezed on two fronts. The Allies were pushing eastward on a broad front throughout Europe, while the Russians were moving westward at a breakneck pace to reach the German capital ahead of the Western allies. Berlin fell to the Russians on May 2, 1945 and, as had been decided at the Yalta Conference held in February of that year, the city was divided into four zones. The Russians controlled the eastern quarter of the city, while the rest was divided between the French, British and Americans. As a result of the division, the capital city of Berlin ended up deep inside eastern Germany, which was fully controlled by the Russians. Though the shooting war was over, the Cold War between the Western Bloc (the US and its future NATO allies) and Russia had begun. The fragile wartime alliance between the West and the Soviet Union ended, and both sides sought to influence the political makeup of Europe, and the world, through economic and political policies and proxy wars. On June 24, 1948, in an effort to bring the city of Berlin under Soviet control, Russia cut off the western sectors of the city from the outside world, severing water connections and halting all vehicular and river traffic into or out of the Allied sectors. West Berlin was effectively cut off from the rest of Western Europe, and it became an island of democracy inside Communist East Germany. But while the Russians could effectively wall off the city by blocking the roads and bridges, they could not put a roof over the city, and the Western allies began the the greatest airlift of supplies in history to support the beleaguered city. Though the Russians controlled all ground access to Berlin, they had agreed prior to the blockade to let the Western allies use three air corridors from western Germany into Berlin, and these corridors formed the supply route. Starting haphazardly at first on June 26, 1949, the operation was taken over first by US Brigadier General Joseph Smith, who had commanded Boeing B-29 Superfortresses under General Curtis LeMay during the war. But Smith had no airlift experience, and he was soon replaced by Major General William Tunner, a veteran of airlift operations over the Himalayas during the fight against Japan. Tunner cobbled together an aerial armada of Douglas C-47 Skytrains and British C-47 Dakotas, Douglas DC-3 airliners, and Douglas C-54 Skymasters and started round-the-clock flights. He instituted strict new rules to streamline the operation by requiring IFR landings regardless of weather conditions and eliminating the stacking of aircraft while planes awaited landing. If an aircraft missed an approach, the crew was required to return to their starting point, fully laden, and try again. Tunner also required air crews to stay with their planes at all times, and refreshments were brought out to the crews on the tarmac so they could take off immediately after unloading. West Berlin citizens pitched in to help unload the planes.
By the end of August 1948, 1,500 flights per day—one landing every minute—were delivering more than 5,000 tons of food, coal and other supplies, enough to keep the city fed and powered in spite of the blockade. On Easter Sunday, 1949, the airlift managed to deliver 13,000 tons of cargo, including the equivalent of 600 railroad cars of coal. The airlift continued for 11 months, making more than 189,000 flights totaling nearly 600,000 hours of flying that covered more than 92 million miles. Faced with this herculean effort, the Russians finally conceded and lifted the blockade one minute after midnight on May 12, 1949, though the flights continued for four more months. West Berlin remained a free city, and it stood as a powerful symbol of the West’s resolve to fight the spread of Communism in Europe before the reunification of Germany in 1990. (Top photo US Air Force; second photo author unknown)
October 1, 1990 – The death of Curtis LeMay. During the Second World War, strategic bombing became one of the most powerful elements of modern warfare, and one man took 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 from Ohio State University before receiving a commission in the US Army Air Corps (USAAC) in 1930, where he flew pursuit fighters, specialized in navigation, and flew as a navigator aboard the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. When WWII started, LeMay’s reputation for discipline and perfection allowed him to rise quickly through the ranks of the USAAC. He began as the commander of a squadron of B-17s based in England, where he helped to develop the combat box formation that later became standard practice for all American strategic bombing missions. Later, as the commander of a squadron of Consolidated B-24 Liberators, he personally led many dangerous missions, and threatened crews with court-martial if they failed to reach the target. His insistence on discipline and doing things his way earned him nicknames like “Old Iron Pants” and the “Big Cigar.”
In 1944, LeMay was transferred to the Pacific Theater, where he found the bombing tactics that were used in Europe were unsuitable for the war against Japan, where war industries were decentralized and spread among the civilian population. 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, where many of the cities were largely constructed of wood. These fire raids killed an estimated 500,000 Japanese civilians, and led to vicious reprisals against American POWs. However, despite the high civilian casualties, LeMay remained dedicated to his methods, believing that if his tactics could shorten the war by one day it would be worth it. The incendiary 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, with one cargo aircraft landing every minute. By the end of the Airlift in 1949, 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 (SAC), 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 US Air Force Chief of Staff from 1961 until his retirement in 1965, and was George Wallace’s running mate for Wallace’s unsuccessful presidential bid in 1968. In addition to his Air Force service, LeMay was also a sports car owner and racing enthusiast, and he allowed the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) to use SAC facilities to hold their races. For his support of the SCCA, LeMay was inducted into the SCCA Hall of Fame in 2007. 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; US Army photo)
October 1, 1947 – The first flight of the North American F-86 Sabre. North American Aviation was founded in 1928 and made an early name for the company with the production of training aircraft, notably the T-6 Texan, one of the most-produced trainers in history. During WWII, North American continued to provide aircraft for the war effort, and produced many of the iconic airplanes of the war, including the B-25 Mitchell and the remarkable P-51 Mustang. The period of WWII was a time of transition, as the design of propeller aircraft reached its zenith and the jet engine was beginning to take over as the powerplant of the future. North American made its first foray into jet fighter design with the FJ-1 Fury, an unremarkable straight-winged fighter built for the US Navy that borrowed the tail, wings and canopy of the Mustang. The US Air Force was just about purchase the Fury for themselves, designated the XP-86, but the new fighter would not be capable of reaching the speeds the Air Force required. It was here that aviation history took a fateful turn. Based on aerodynamic data obtained from Germany at the end of the war, North American took the Fury and replaced the straight wings with wings swept at 35 degrees. The iconic Sabre was born. The first Sabres were powered by a General Electric J35 turbojet manufactured by Chevrolet before Allison took over production. The majority of Sabres, however, were powered by the ubiquitous General Electric J47 turbojet, and the E model introduced the all-flying tail, or stabilator. The H model was enlarged and received the yet more powerful General Electric J73. Testing of the early Sabres showed the Air Force that they had a winner on their hands. On September 5, 1948, Air Force pilot Maj. Richard Johnson set an official world speed record of 671 mph, and the Sabre became the first jet aircraft to exceed Mach 1 while flying in a shallow dive. Soon after its introduction, the Sabre went to war in 1949 in the skies over Korea.
There it became the preeminent US jet fighter of the Korean War, and often tangled with Soviet-built MiG-15 fighters in the northwest corner of North Korea along the Yalu River, an area that came to be known as “MiG Alley.” Though the MiG-15 was superior to the early Sabres, advances in engine and firepower soon brought the Sabre to parity with the MiG, and American pilots who had gained combat experience in WWII claimed 792 victories over North Korean and Chinese pilots against the loss of only 78 Sabres, though recent scholarship places the ratio at closer to 2:1. Nevertheless, of the 41 American pilots who became aces during the Korean War, 40 of them flew Sabres. The top scoring US ace of the war, Captain Joseph McConnell, claimed 16 jet-to-jet victories, and other notable pilots such as James Jabarra, Francis “Gabby” Gabreski, and others who would take part in the fledgeling American space program, such as John Glenn and Virgil “Gus” Grissom, flew the Sabre in combat. With the end of the Korean War, most Sabres were transferred stateside to fly with Air National Guard units, but export Sabres continued to be flown in combat in conflicts around the world. A total of 26 nations flew the F-86, and over 1,800 were produced under license in Canada as the Canadair Sabre. In all, a total of 9,860 Sabres were produced, the most of any Western jet fighter, and the US finally retired its last Sabres in 1970. Bolivia was the last export country to retire its Sabres in 1994. The Sabre was further developed into the F-86D “Sabre Dog” interceptor, the F-100 Super Sabre, the YF-93 which did not enter into production, and the FJ-2/-3 Fury and FJ-4 Fury for the US Navy. (Photo by Airwolfhound via Wikimedia Commons; US Air Force photo)
October 1, 1942 – The first flight of the Bell XP-59 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 bore the XP-59 designation. The first was a twin boom, pusher-propeller fighter developed by Bell Aircraft 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. At the time, American jet engine development was far behind Germany and Britain. Germany had flown the first jet-powered aircraft, the Heinkel He 178, in the summer of 1939, even before the war had begun, and Britain had flown their first jet aircraft, the Gloster E.28/39, in 1941. As part of an agreement between the US and Britian to share British technology in exchange for American help manufacturing military hardware, the US obtained plans for the Power Jets W.1 turbojet engine, and a complete engine was flown back to the US in the bomb bay of a Consolidated B-24 Liberator. The plans were given to General Electric to manufacture the Frank Whittle-designed engine under license as the General Electric I-A. The US Army Air Corps then approached Larry Bell, head of Bell Aircraft, to design a fighter around the new powerplant. 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, and the ruse was further perpetuated when, during ground movements of the first aircraft at Muroc Army Air Field (Edwards Air Force Base today), 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 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 integrated into the fuselage, a arrangement that heavily influenced future jet aircraft design. The Airacomet’s first flight was accidental, as Bell test pilot Robert Stanley unintentionally lifted off the ground during high-speed taxi tests, while the official maiden flight was made on October 2. The Airacomet generally performed well, though it showed a tendency to yaw from side to side and was deemed unsuitable as a fighter. With a top speed of 404 mph, 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. A further development of the Airacomet, with a single engine, was considered, but that project was eventually handed off to Lockheed, where Kelly Johnson developed it into the P-80 Shooting Star, the first jet fighter to be flown operationally by the US. A total of 66 Airacomets were produced and, while the aircraft saw limited service, it still proved useful for training the first generation of jet fighter pilots and mechanics, who used the P-59 to learn the characteristics of jet aviation and maintenance before transitioning to more modern aircraft. (US Air Force photos)
September 30, 1982 – H. Ross Perot and J.W. Coburn complete the first circumnavigation of the globe in a helicopter. In an effort to beat Australian Dick Smith, who had started his own attempt at a circumnavigation by helicopter, Texas billionaire Perot and his pilot purchased a stock Bell 206 LongRanger II, christened Spirit of Texas, and modified it to hold more fuel, deployable pontoons and upgraded navigational equipment. The pair set out from Dallas on September 1 and made 56 refueling stops while crossing 26 countries and flying 26,000 miles before returning to Dallas. One stop was made aboard a container ship in 15-foot seas and 40 mph winds since Russia would not allow the team to land in the Soviet Union. Perot also paid for a Lockheed C-130 and crew to support the flight. The circumnavigation took a total of 246 flight hours at an average ground speed of 117 mph, and an overall average of 35 mph, setting a world record for flight time in a helicopter. The Spirit of Texas now resides at the National Air and Space Museum. (Photo Bettman/Corbis)
September 30, 1943 – The first flight of the Northrop XP-56 Black Bullet, an experimental fighter developed in response to the US Army Air Corps’ 1938 R40-C proposal which was intended to stimulate new, radical aircraft design to stay ahead of European advances in aircraft design. The Black Bullet was built around the Pratt & Whitney X-1800 engine, which ultimately never entered production, and it was essentially a flying wing design with bent wings and no vertical stabilizer, though a stabilizer was added later to improve handling. Flight tests were disappointing and showed little promise for challenging the performance of traditional fighters, and 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)
September 30, 1942 – The death of German Luftwaffe ace Hans-Joachim Marseille. Marseille was born on December 13, 1919, and joined the Luftwaffe in 1938. He fought his first battles during the Battle of Britain, but his wild lifestyle away from battle caused him to be transferred to the Mediterranean theater. Flying from North Africa, and fighting his entire career in the Messerschmitt Bf 109, Marseille scored 158 victories, all but seven against experienced British pilots, including a remarkable 17 victories in one day. Marseille perfected the method of deflection fire, aiming in front of the enemy fighter rather than chasing it from the rear. Nicknamed the Star of Africa for his tally of victories, Marseille was killed when he struck the tail of his Bf 109 while bailing out following engine failure. (Photo author unknown)
October 1, 1975 – The first flight of the Bell YAH-63, the unsuccessful entrant into the US Army’s Advanced Attack Helicopter (AAH) competition announced in 1972. Bell’s entry lost to the Hughes YAH-64, which would enter production in 1983 as the AH-64 Apache (now produced by Boeing). The Army cited Bell’s two rotor blades as being more vulnerable to ground fire 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 the AH-1 Super Cobra, an upgraded version of the earlier AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter. (Photo author unknown)
October 1, 1958 – The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) becomes operational. NASA has its origin in NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, an agency created in 1915 to further the efforts of aeronautic research and technological development in the United States. But as America entered the space age following WWII, it became clear that the country needed an organization for a new era. The National Aeronautics and Space Act carries this simple preamble “To provide for research into problems of flight within and outside the earth’s atmosphere, and for other purposes.” The Act goes on to say that “The Congress hereby declares that it is the policy of the United States that activities in space should be devoted to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind.” In addition to NASA’s high profile space programs such as Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, the Space Shuttle, and the International Space Station, the organization continues to fund research into all aspects of space exploration, space travel, aviation, and related sciences. NASA’s latest large project, the Space Launch System and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, will see astronauts return to the Moon, create a permanent lunar station, and one day journey to Mars.
October 1, 1950 – The first flight of the Ilyushin Il-14, a civilian and military transport aircraft that was developed to replace the Douglas DC-3 and its Russian-built version, the Lisunov Li-2. Developed from the Ilyushin Il-12, the Il-14 was produced in Russia, former East Germany, former Czechoslovakia and China. Over 1,300 were built, and they served in many Eastern Bloc and Russian allied countries. Following the Soviet aircraft design ethos, the Il-14 was of rugged construction and designed to operate from rough and unimproved airstrips. The last Russian aircraft were retired in 2005, though a handful remain operational today. (Photo from Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons)
October 1, 1881 – The birth of William E. Boeing. Boeing was born to German and Austrian parents (Wilhelm Böing) in Detroit, Michigan. The family made a fortune selling timber, and William at first entered the family business. On a visit to Seattle in 1909, Boeing saw his first airplane, took flying lessons, and purchased his first aircraft, a Martin TA hydroaeroplane. When that plane crashed, rather than wait on parts, Boeing approached his friend George Westervelt and said they should build their own airplane. The Boeing Model 1 took its maiden flight in 1916, and their company built 50 airplanes for the US Army during WWI. After the war, Boeing focused on commercial aircraft, but he left the aviation industry in 1937 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. (Boeing and factory photos via San Diego Air & Space Museum; Model 1C photo via US Library of Congress)
October 2, 1981 – US President Ronald Reagan restarts the Rockwell B-1 Lancer program. The original B-1 had been developed as a low level, supersonic nuclear and conventional bomber, and first flew in 1974. But citing cost overruns, as well as the proliferation of ICBMs, the project was canceled in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter. By the time Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, the doctrine of fighting the Soviet Union had changed, and the US was now facing regional conflicts that were seen as difficult to fight with the existing Boeing B-52 Stratofortress. As part of his promise to rebuild the US military, President Reagan restarted the B-1 program, and the bomber was developed into the B-1B, an upgraded and more capable version of the original B-1A. Rockwell received a contract to build 100 Lancers at a cost of $2.2 billion, and production ended in 1988. (Photo by the author)
October 2, 1956 – The first flight of the Hughes TH-55 Osage. Development of the Osage began in 1955 when Hughes identified a market for a low-cost, lightweight two-seat helicopter and began work on the Model 269. Though nitially turned down by the US Army, they showed a renewed interest in the improved Model 269A, and adopted it in 1964 as the primary training helicopter to replace the Hiller OH-23 Raven. By the time the Osage was replaced by the Bell UH-1 Iroquois (“Huey”) in 1988, more than 60,000 Army pilots had trained on the TH-55. The civilian Model 269/300 is used for transport, observation and agricultural spraying. A total of 2,800 were produced from 1961-1983. (US Army photo)
October 2, 1946 – The first flight of the Vought F6U Pirate, the first jet fighter built by Vought for the US Navy. In September 1944, the Navy announced a specification for a single-seat fighter built around the Westinghouse J34 turbojet engine. To save weight, the Pirate was constructed of “Metalite,” balsa wood sandwiched between layers of aluminum. But the Pirate was woefully underpowered and, even after the installation of a more powerful engine, the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics stated, “The F6U-1 had proven so sub-marginal in performance that combat utilization is not feasible.” The 30 production Pirates racked up only 945 hours of total flight time, and some had a mere six hours on the airframe, just long enough to certify the aircraft for acceptance and ferry it to its final resting place. (US Navy photo)
October 2, 1928 – The first flight of the Dewoitine D.520, a French fighter that entered service soon after the beginning of WWII. The D.520 was designed compete with modern fighter aircraft was fitted with Hispano-Suiza 12Y 12-cylinder engine, the most powerful engine available to the French at the time. Though slower than the Messerschmitt Bf 109, its chief adversary, the D.520 was more maneuverable, proving almost a match for the German fighter. With the fall of France, the D.520 continued to be flown by both the Vichy French Air Force and the Free French Air Force, and production was restarted in 1942 to serve the Luftwaffe and German allies. The D.520 saw combat in North Africa, Bulgaria and on the Eastern Front, and was ultimately retired in 1953 after roughly 900 had been built. (Photo by Loverdet via Pinterest)
October 3, 1985 – The first flight of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, the fourth of five Space Shuttles produced and the last Shuttle to launch into orbit, STS-135, July 8, 2011, after the cancelation of the Space Shuttle Program. It’s first mission, STS-51-J, delivered a classified Department of Defense payload to orbit and returned to Earth on October 7. Over the course of 33 spaceflights, Atlantis racked up 4,848 orbits of the Earth, flew nearly 126 million miles, carried 156 different astronauts to space, and performed the fourth and final servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope (STS-125). Atlantis is now on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. (NASA Photo)
October 3, 1943 – The first launch of the V-2 rocket, a gyroscopically guided “vengeance weapon” developed by German rocket scientist Werner von Braun. The test launch, and many following operational launches, took place from Peenemünde on the island of Usedom in the Baltic Sea. The rocket traveled just 118 miles, but it was the precursor to more than 1,100 rockets that were fired against England and France beginning in early September 1944. Launched from mobile launchers and reaching speeds of almost 4,000 mph, the rockets were impossible to intercept and caused the deaths of more than 2,700 Britons. Following the war, captured V-2 rockets—and captured German scientists—formed the nucleus of both the American and Russian space programs. (Photo author unknown)
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