This is today’s Aviation History Speed Round, getting you caught up on milestones and important historical events in aviation from July 4 through July 7.

July 4, 1986 – The first flight of the Dassault Rafale. Beginning in the mid-1970s, the French Air Force and Navy both needed a new fighter to replace those already in service, and both branches felt they could use the same aircraft, since each service flew similar missions and had similar requirements. Initially, France joined other European nations in a collaboration to develop a new fighter, but in 1984, France decided to go it alone and develop their own aircraft, partly because the new fighter needed to be capable of carrier operations. Development began with the Rafale A technology demonstrator, a delta-wing aircraft that featured forward canards to increase maneuverability. Development lead to the Rafale C, which was both smaller and more stealthy than its predecessor, and utilized a redesigned vertical stabilizer, radar-absorbent materials, and increased use of composite materials. Production began in 1982, and more than 133 of both the single- and two-seat variants have been produced to date. The Rafale entered service in May of 2001. (Photo by Tim Felce via Wikimedia Commons)

July 4, 1975 – The first flight of the Boeing 747SP. Hard on the heels of the successful 747 wide-body airliner, Boeing began development of a derivative airliner that would feature increased range and speed. Development was initiated by a request from Pan Am for an airliner capable of carrying passengers on its longest route at the time, New York to Tokyo. Iran Air joined with Pan Am, needing an airliner capable of flying non-stop from New York to Tehran. The variant was originally designated “SB” for “Short Body,” but the designation was subsequently changed to “SP,” meaning “Special Performance,” to reflect the increase in range and speed. To create the SP, Boeing shortened the fuselage, increased the size of the horizontal stabilizer, and simplified the wing’s trailing edge flaps. This reduction in weight brought the increased range and speed desired by the airlines. When the SP entered service, it was the longest range airliner available until the introduction of the 747-400 in 1989, but Boeing received few orders, due mainly to increased fuel costs, the reduced capacity of the airliner, and the newer, long-range airliners that would soon be entering production. Only 45 SPs were produced, and they were used primarily by Pan Am, United Airlines, South African Airways, and Iran Air. Eighteen SPs are still flying, with Iran Air being the only airline that continues to operate the SP for passenger flights. NASA also operates an SP to carry the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), with a large opening in the side of the aircraft for a reflecting telescope.


July 5, 1917 – The first flight of the Fokker Dr.1 Dreidecker. In war, an air force is usually only as effective as its best airplane, and the race to build the next best fighter is hard fought. In 1917, the first Sopwith Triplanes began to appear over the Western Front, and the new fighter was immediately better than the older, slower Albatross fighters then in use by the Deutsche Lufstreitkräfte (German Air Force). Work began immediately by Fokker to develop their own triplane to counter the Sopwith, and they began by converting one of their biplane designs already in development and designated the V.4. The initial results were poor, so Fokker revised the design, altering the ailerons and elevators and using a longer wing span to help improve roll control. The new aircraft was designated V.5, and also incorporated struts between the wings to minimize wing flexing. Two prototypes were ordered and delivered to Belgium in late August 1917 to be evaluated by Manfred von Richtofen, better known as the Red Baron. Richtofen downed two enemy planes in the first two days of flying the new plane, and reported that it was superior to the Sopwith Triplane, and recommended that all fighter groups be outfitted with the new plane as soon as possible. Despite continuing difficulties with the fighter, including wing failures and visibility issues, 320 aircraft were built, and the new plane was used to good effect. It was found to be very maneuverable, partly due to its inherent instability. Richtofen achieved his last nineteen victories in a Dr.1, before his death in April 1918. (Photo of replica Dr.1 by Alan Wilson via Wikimedia Commons)

July 7, 1946 – The first flight of the Hughes XF-11. What can we say about Howard Hughes? He was reclusive, fabulously wealthy, and probably a bit crazy, but he loved aviation, even if he wasn’t terribly good at it, and created some planes that may have been amazing if he hadn’t been such a kook. Hughes is best known for his H-4 Hercules flying boat, better known as the Spruce Goose, but he also proposed a high-flying reconnaissance plane for the US Army, the XF-11. The Army was impressed with the design at first, a high-altitude, twin-boom, twin-engine aircraft that resembled the Lockheed P-38 Lightning. Designed to compete with the Republic XF-12 Rainbow, the first XF-11 featured counter-rotating variable-pitch propellers which added so much complexity that the second prototype was fitted with traditional single propellers. Perhaps because of his unfamiliarity with the variable pitch propellers, Hughes crashed the first prototype into some homes during the first test flight while attempting to make an emergency landing on a golf course. Hughes was seriously injured, but survived. After he recovered, Hughes successfully flew the second prototype in 1947, but by then, the USAAC had lost interest in both the XF-11 and the XF-12, and both projects were canceled.


Short Take Off

July 4, 1927 – The first flight of the Lockheed Vega, a six-passenger monoplane that was used by many record-breaking pilots, including Amelia Earhart, who became the first woman pilot to cross the Atlantic, and Wiley Post, who circumnavigated the globe twice in a Vega. (Photo by Bill Larkins via Wikimedia Commons)


July 6, 1992 – The final McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom IIs are retired from the Royal Air Force. The UK was the first export customer for the Phantom, and it was operated by both the RAF and the Royal Navy.


July 7, 2003 – The launch of MER-B (Mars Exploration Rover -B), named Opportunity. Opportunity landed on Mars on January 25, 2004, on the other side of the planet from its twin rover Spirit, and has exceeded its planned 90-day exploration life by 11 years. It remains functioning and still returns good data and photographs.


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All photos are Public Domain or taken by the author unless otherwise credited.