Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from April 2 through April 5.
April 4, 1957 – The first flight of the English Electric Lightning. At the beginning of the Cold War, and before the advent of the intercontinental ballistic missile, the long-range bomber was the primary means by which one nuclear power might attack another, and defense against these bombers relied on the use of interceptor aircraft. The idea was that the interceptors would fly out to meet the incoming bombers at high speeds so they could shoot down the bombers as far away from their targets as possible. Extreme maneuverability would be sacrificed for all out speed. Development of the Lightning interceptor began all the way back to 1947, when English Electric, the maker of the Canberra bomber, was awarded a contract to develop a supersonic research aircraft. Designers decided to employ a radically swept wing, and to test the concept, the Irish aircraft company Short Brothers (better known as Shorts) was hired to build the SB.5, a test aircraft that would evaluate the wing design at three different sweep angles—50, 60 and 69 degrees. Once the sweep of 60 degrees was shown to be stable in low-speed flight conditions, development of the Lightning prototypes continued. While jet fighters or interceptors with two engines were nothing new, English Electric took the unique approach of stacking the engines one atop the other, rather than the more traditional method of placing them side by side, and the first developmental aircraft, the P.1A, took its maiden flight on August 4, 1954. Even without afterburners (or “reheating,” as the British call it), the P.1A officially reached Mach 1 just a week later, though analysis of testing data showed that it had actually broken the sound barrier on its first flight. A misaligned Mach meter failed to indicate the correct speed. The next step in the development of the Lightning was the P.1B, which featured new Rolls-Royce Avon afterburning turbojet engines. Now the Lightning showed its true speed potential, reaching speeds of Mach 2, and without reheating, it became the world’s first aircraft capable of supercruise. The P.1B was the model which would enter production as the Lightning F.1, receiving its official designation in October 1958. The Lightning entered RAF service in 1960, and soon took on its designed role by intercepting high-flying Russian bombers such as the Tupolev Tu-16, Tu-22 and Tu-95. With so much power available to Lightning pilots, the fighter could achieve an altitude of 36,000 feet in less than three minutes, and tests showed that the Lightning was capable of intercepting a high-flying Lockheed U-2 spy plane at 65,000 feet, though the results of those tests were a closely held secret. However, that speed came at a cost. The Lightning was a very thirsty aircraft, and many of its missions were determined simply by the amount of fuel they could carry. The Lightning was armed with two 30mm ADEN cannons, along with hardpoints on the fuselage and both over and under the wings for mixtures of missiles, rockets or bombs. Cameras could also be housed in a ventral weapons bay. While the RAF was the primary operator of the Lightning, a number of the 337 aircraft produced were exported to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The RAF retired their Lightnings in 1988, but a small number of aircraft still flown by private pilots. (Photo by Alan Wilson via Wikimedia Commons)
April 4, 1917 – The first flight of the SPAD S.XIII. When WWI broke out on July 28, 1914, the airplane was a relative newcomer. The Wright Brothers first flight had taken place a mere 11 years earlier, and military planners were only just beginning to discover a role for the airplane in combat. Initially, they were used solely for reconnaissance, but scout plane crews soon started taking pistols and rifles into the air to take shots at enemy aircraft, and soon after, the concept of the fighter plane was born. Development proceeded apace and, before long, dedicated fighters were being produced by all the belligerents in the war, and one of the greatest of those was the SPAD XIII. The SPAD XIII (named for the Société Pour L’Aviation et sea Dérivés) was a development of the earlier, highly successful SPAD S.VII, but by 1917, the S.VII found itself outclassed by newer German designs. Principally, greater speed was needed, and Hispano-Suiza, who had upgraded the engine in the S.VII to gain more horsepower, was working on a yet more powerful, geared version of their 8A engine, an 8-cylinder, liquid cooled vee which would be used to power the S.XIII. The S.XIII was larger than its predecessor, and armed with two Vickers machine guns in place of the single machine gun of the earlier fighter. The S.XIII proved to be faster than other fighters of its day, such as the British Sopwith Camel and the German Fokker D.VII, and could outclimb them as well. Though the geared engines proved to be relatively unreliable, the Allies considered it a price worth paying when the increased performance was taken into consideration. Subsequent development of the engine, and improved construction methods, helped improve reliability. Following its first flight, the S.XIII was quickly introduced to frontline units the following month. Though deliveries were slow, the SPAD S.XIII eventually outfitted a total of 74 squadrons (Escadrilles), nearly every combat unit in action at the time. Fifteen of the 16 American squadrons also flew the S.XIII, including American Eddie Rickenbacker, America’s leading ace with 26 confirmed victories. The US and French were the primary users, but SPAD XIIIs also served with the Royal Flying Corps and the air forces of 16 other nations. Nearly 8,500 were produced, and an additional 10,000 more were slated for construction at the end of the war, though those orders were canceled following the Armistice. Despite the development of newer, more advanced fighters, the S.XIII remained in service with the US until 192o, and with France until 1923. (Photo via Tangmere Military Aviation Museum)
April 3, 1982 – The first flight of the Airbus A310, a medium- to long-range wide-body airliner and the second aircraft to enter production built by Airbus Industrie. The A310 was developed as a smaller derivative of the Airbus A300 (and was initially designated the A300B10) when airlines began to show an interest in smaller airliners for shorter routes with fewer passengers. Still, the A310 has a greater range than its larger predecessor, and has become popular on many transatlantic routes. The A310 has also been developed into a convertible freight version and an aerial tanker. Produced between 1983-1998, a total of 255 have been built. (Photo by Laerent Errera via Wikimedia Commons)
April 3, 1933 – The US Navy airship USS Akron (ZRS-4) crashes into the Atlantic Ocean. Commissioned in October of 1931, the Akron was the world’s first purpose-built flying aircraft carrier and one of the largest airships ever built. After encountering severe weather off the coast of New Jersey, the Akron crashed into the sea, killing 73 of her 76 crew members, including Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, a leading proponent for the use of airships. The disaster caused the largest loss of life in any airship crash, and marked the beginning of the end of the use of airships by the Navy. (US Navy photo)
April 3, 1926 – The birth of Virgil Ivan “Gus” Grissom. Born in Mitchell, Indiana, Grissom was a test pilot, mechanical engineer, US Air Force combat pilot in Korea and one of the original seven Project Mercury astronauts. As part of the Mercury program, Grissom was the second American to fly in space after John Glenn, and the first US astronaut to go to space twice when he flew aboard Gemini 3. Grissom was chosen as the Command Pilot for Apollo 1, but he and astronauts Ed White and Roger Chaffee were killed on January 27, 1967 when a fire broke out in the Command Module during a ground test. All three astronauts were posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor. (NASA photo)
April 4, 1993 – The first flight of the Fokker 70, a medium-range airliner derived from the larger Fokker 100, both being developments of Fokker’s first airliner, the Fokker F28 Fellowship. The Fokker 70 was designed to fit a capacity gap between the smaller Fokker 50 or ATR 42 turboprop airliners and the larger Boeing 737 or McDonnell Douglas MD-80. The Fokker 70 is powered by a pair Rolls-Royce Tay 620 turbofans and can accommodate up to 85 passengers in a single-class configuration at ranges of up to 2,119 miles. A total of 47 production aircraft were built, and they serve mostly shorter routes in Europe. (Photo by Johan Menten via Wikimedia Commons)
April 4, 1983 – The first flight of the Space Shuttle Challenger. This was the sixth Space Shuttle mission (STS-6), and the maiden flight of Challenger, the second orbiter to enter service following Columbia. During the flight, astronauts deployed the first Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS-A), and conducted the first spacewalk from a Shuttle, employing the Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) spacesuit for the first time. Challenger returned to Edwards Air Force Base in California on April 9 after 5 days in orbit. Challenger completed nine missions before it was lost in an explosion during launch on January 28, 1986 with the loss of its seven-member crew. (NASA photo)
April 5, 1996 – The first flight of the Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules, the latest version of the venerable Hercules aircraft and the only model remaining in production. Upgrades incorporated into the J model include new Rolls-Royce AE 2100 turboprop engines with composite scimitar propellers and digital avionics. The Super Herk enjoys a 40% increase in range, a 21% increase in speed and a 41% shorter takeoff distance compared to the E and H models. The J is operated by the US Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard, as well as numerous international partners. (Photo by the author)
April 5, 1976 – The death of Howard Hughes, a famous yet reclusive tycoon whose business interests included investments, filmmaking and aerospace engineering. In 1932, Hughes formed the Hughes Aircraft Company, and set numerous world records in the aircraft he produced. Hughes is best known for building and briefly flying the H-4 Hercules, better known as the Spruce Goose, the largest flying boat ever built, with the largest wingspan of any aircraft in history. Perhaps fittingly, Hughes died on board an aircraft, though even the details of his death remain unclear, a further testament to his reclusive nature. (Photo author unknown)
April 5, 1959 – The first flight of the Aero L-29 Delfin, the standard Warsaw Pact jet trainer throughout the 1960s and the first aircraft to be designed and produced by Czechoslovakia. The Delfin is a simple, rugged aircraft designed to operate from unimproved runways and is powered by a single Motorlet M-701C turbojet which provides a maximum speed of 407 mph. The student and instructor are seated in a tandem configuration, with the rear instructor’s seat slight higher. In addition to pilot training, the Delfin also served as a weapons training platform, carrying gun pods, bombs or rockets. A total of 3,500 were produced from 1963-1974. (Photo by Dmitry A. Motti via Wikimedia Commons)
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