This Date in Aviation History: August 11 - August 14

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Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from August 11 through August 14.

August 12, 1985 – The crash of Japan Airlines Flight 123. The age of aircraft cabin pressurization began in 1938 with the Boeing 307 Stratoliner, and today, modern airliners use bleed air from the engines at the compressor stage so that aircraft flying at 35,000 feet or higher can be pressurized to maintain the same air pressure inside the cabin as if it were flying at no more than 8,000 feet. (The FAA mandates a maximum of 8,000 feet, while most airliners maintain 6000-7000 feet, and some business jets can maintain sea-level pressure.) But pumping that much air into the fuselage puts enormous stress on the aircraft, and repeated compressions and decompressions can weaken an aircraft over time. This lesson was learned tragically when a series of fatal, explosive decompressions plagued the world’s first jet-powered airliner, the de Havilland Comet, in the 1950s. De Havilland had fitted the Comet with large, rectangular windows, and crash investigators discovered that the cyclical compression and decompression of the aircraft caused metal fatigue and cracks around the large windows, which then led to fatal aircraft breakups. The Comet was redesigned to use oval windows, which then became an industry standard.

Aside from the windows, another critical component of aircraft pressurization is the rear pressure bulkhead, a circular, dome-shaped structure that closes off the aft end of the passenger compartment tube from the rest of the empennage. This bulkhead must be regularly and rigorously inspected and, if damaged, must be repaired precisely to the standards set by the manufacturer. But that was not the case with Japan Airlines Flight 123, a Boeing 747SR (JA8119) that took off from Haneda Airport in Tokyo for a short, one-hour flight to Osaka International Airport. Just 12 minutes departure, the aft pressure bulkhead ruptured, leading to a rapid depressurization of the cabin and the loss of most of the vertical stabilizer. When the stabilizer broke free, it ruptured all four hydraulic lines, leaving the plane almost completely uncontrollable. Captain Masami Takahama, a veteran 747 pilot with over 12,000 hours of flight time (4,850 in the 747), along with his flight crew, managed to regain some measure control using engine throttle inputs. But landing the plane safely would be next to impossible. Their skilled piloting kept the plane in the air for 32 minutes, long enough for many of the passengers to write farewell notes to their families. When the plane eventually crashed near Mount Osutaka, 505 passengers and crew were killed, making it the deadliest single-aircraft accident in history. Four passengers survived, and it is surmised that more may have lived had the Japanese government acted more quickly to reach the crash site.

The cause of the bulkhead rupture was traced to an improper repair following a tail strike seven years earlier which had damaged the aft pressure bulkhead. Rather than provide a redundant overlap of the bulkhead sections as dictated by Boeing, technicians in Japan instead used two separate splice plates, leaving the bulkhead dangerously weak. Even though the aircraft had gone through over 12,000 pressurization cycles before the crash, the bulkhead finally burst on that fateful day. Though JAL officially admitted no liability, they agreed to pay $7.6 million of “condolence money” to the families of the victims, JAL’s president resigned, and a maintenance manager committed suicide in atonement for his error. JAL no longer uses the number 123 for any flight, and has changed the flight number on that particular route to 127.

August 13, 1932 – The first flight of the Gee Bee Model R. The speed at which the airplane went from its first flight in 1903 to breaking the sound barrier in 1947 years is truly extraordinary. A mere eight years after the Wright Brothers first flight, the Italians were flying heavier-than-air aircraft in war, and the fighter plane became a fixture in the skies over the battlefields of WWI. Since then, war has been one of the great drivers of advances in aviation, but the period between the World Wars, known as the Golden Age of Aviation, saw the mantle of technological evolution pass into civilian hands. Aircraft design left fabric-covered airframes behind and replaced them with metal monoplanes of increasing size, strength and speed. And, just as the first automobile drivers pitted themselves against each other in contests of speed, airplane races became hugely popular. Contests of speed such as the the Schneider Trophy drew entrants from around the world, and helped spur ever more experimentation and innovation.

Beginning in 1920, newspaper publisher Ralph Pulitzer initiated the National Air Races in the United States, which included the Thompson Trophy races sponsored by Thompson Products (the company that would eventually become the aerospace and automotive company TRW) which began in 1929. These contests of speed and piloting skill pitted aircraft and pilots in closed-course races around pylons, and the Bendix Trophy arose to recognize the fastest time between two points. In the quest to create the fastest aircraft possible, Granville Brothers Aircraft built a series of powerful racers beginning with the Sportster in 1930. All the aircraft featured cockpits that barely rose above the fuselage, relatively short wings, and enormous radial engines. The planes were definitely fast, but they were also notoriously difficult to fly. Most of them crashed, claiming the life a number of pilots, including Zantford Granville, one of the five Granville brothers.

Undeterred, the remaining Granville brothers forged ahead in 1931 with the Gee Bee (as in GB, or Granville Brothers) Model Z, which was essentially nothing more than a Pratt & Whitney R-985 Wasp Junior supercharged radial engine with wings. The stubby design certainly was fast, with a top speed of nearly 270 mph, and it won the Thompson Trophy in 1932. But with its stubby wings and minimal vertical stabilizer it was also extremely difficult to fly, and a crash while attempting a world speed record killed pilot Lowell Bayles. Though the crash caused significant damage to the reputation of the Granville Brothers, they followed the Model Z with the Model R, perhaps the best known of the Gee Bee aircraft.

The Model R was two feet longer, and featured a refined fuselage shape that its designers hoped would make it more aerodynamic. The wings were lengthened slightly, but the cockpit was placed even farther back on the diminutive fuselage, and it was driven by a still more powerful Pratt & Whitney R-1340 Wasp radial engine which provided 800 hp. The Model R continued to be a very difficult airplane to fly, even in the hands of experienced aviators. But the new design, with a top speed of nearly 300 mph, also allowed the pilot to lap the racing pylons in a knife-edge turn without losing altitude and, in the hands of skilled aviators such as the famed aviator Jimmy Doolittle, the Model R won the Thompson Trophy in 1932 and set a land plane world speed record of 296 mph.

But the R-1 itself continued to be a handful to fly, and pilot Russell Boardman was killed flying a Gee Bee in 1933. Doolittle perhaps realized that he was cheating death and retired from air racing after his 1932 win. He went on to a storied career in the US Army Air Forces, where he commanded the audacious raid on Tokyo in April 1942. None of the original Gee Bee aircraft exist today, but some replicas are still flown by brave pilots in the quest for speed.

August 14, 1974 – The first flight of the Panavia Tornado. Throughout the history military aircraft, various schools of thought have arisen on how best to employ warplanes. In WWI, aircraft started out purely as observation planes, but then evolved into dedicated fighter aircraft. By WWII, there remained dedicated fighters, but also purpose-built ground attack aircraft, night fighters, and interceptors. These basic categories continued into the jet age, but by the 1960s designers began to investigate the concept of the multirole fighter, one plane that could do the job of several different aircraft and thus eliminate the need to develop and maintain multiple types for specific tasks. At the same time, designers in the United Kingdom began investigating the benefits of a variable geometry fighter aircraft, one that could sweep the wings out for lower speed flight or sweep them back for high speed flight.

Various European allies were working towards the same goal of a new multirole fighter, and it soon became apparent that working together would be more efficient than working individually. In 1960, four nations—the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands—agreed to form a multinational company called Panavia Aircraft GmbH to work together on the development of a Multirole Combat Aircraft (MRCA) capable of carrying out tactical strike missions, reconnaissance, air defense, and maritime patrol and attack. Britain was hoping to replace the Avro Vulcan bomber and the Blackburn Buccaneer attack aircraft, while West Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Canada were looking for a replacement for the problematic Lockheed F-104 Starfighter interceptor and ground attacker. Eventually the consortium decided on the Panavia 200, a swing-wing aircraft that would be developed into the Tornado.

The resulting design featured wings that swept between 25 and 67 degrees with hard points under the wings that swiveled as the wing swept. Power for Tornado comes from a pair of Turbo-Union RB199 afterburning (reheating) turbofans which provide a top speed of Mach 2.2. The Tornado is armed with a single 27 mm Mauser BK-27 cannon and has the ability to carry 19,800 pounds of external ordnance as well as up to four nuclear bombs. A tandem cockpit with pilot in front and navigator/weapons officer in the rear was included to reduce pilot workload.

The flight of the first prototype took place in West Germany in 1974, and the Tornado entered service first with the Luftwaffe in July 1979 followed by other partner nations. The Tornado eventually formed the backbone of the aerial attack and defense air forces of Britain, Germany, Italy and Saudi Arabia. German Tornados took part in the Bosnian War, the first combat operations by the Luftwaffe since WWII. British and Italian Tornados saw action as part of the NATO force in Kosovo, and the RAF flew scores of missions with the Tornado during the Gulf War, eventually being complemented by older Blackburn Buccaneers which were used as target definition aircraft. A total of 992 Tornados of all variants were built by the time production ended in 1998, and continuing upgrades will ensure continued service for many years to come.

Short Takeoff

August 11, 1995 – The first flight of the Embraer ERJ-145, the largest of a family of commuter airliners that includes the ERJ 140 (up to 44 passengers) and the ERJ 135 (up to 37 passengers). With accommodation for 50 passengers, the ERJ 145 was developed as a faster and more comfortable alternative to the turboprop regional airliners in service at the time. Powered by a pair of Rolls-Royce AE 3007 high bypass turbofan engines, the ERJ 145 has a maximum cruising speed of about 515 mph, and the XR long-range variant can travel up to 2,000 nautical miles. More than 900 have been produced since 1989, and it remains in production today.

August 11, 1972 – The first flight of the Northrop F-5E Tiger II, an upgraded version of the Northrop F-5A Freedom Fighter and winner of the International Fighter Aircraft competition in 1970. In an effort to make the F-5A more competitive with the Soviet Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21, Northrop lengthened and enlarged the F-5A to provide room for more fuel and improved avionics, and fitted more powerful General Electric J85 engines for increased speed. The wing area was also increased by the addition of larger leading edge extensions for better maneuverability, and Northrop equipped the F-5E with an Emerson Electric AN/APQ-153 radar, where the F-5A/B had none. Almost 1,400 F-5E/Fs were built, and they saw extensive service with American allies. Though tested in combat by the US Air Force in 1965 during Operation Skoshi Tiger, where the F-5E received its nickname, the Tiger II never entered regular service with the USAF, though it does serve in the aggressor role for US combat flight training.

August 11, 1955 – The first flight of the Bell XV-3. Though not the first tiltrotor aircraft, the Bell XV-3 verified the tiltrotor concept and eventually completed 110 successful transitions from vertical to horizontal and back to vertical flight. The XV-3 was powered by a single Pratt & Whitney R-985 Wasp Junior radial engine located in the fuselage which turned a pair of two-bladed rotors (the prototype had a three-bladed rotor) through a drive assembly that could rotate through 90 degrees. While only two aircraft were built, data from the XV-3 program was used to develop the Bell XV-15, which then paved the way for the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey tiltrotor in service today.

August 11, 1937 – The first flight of the Boulton Paul Defiant, a “turret fighter” interceptor developed for the RAF just prior to the outbreak of WWII. At the time, the RAF envisioned waves of unescorted German bombers flying over England, and the turret fighter concept would allow the pilot to focus on flying below or alongside the bomber while the gunner, along with other Defiants, concentrated the firepower of four M1919 Browning .303 caliber machine guns on the bomber. In practice, the Defiant proved to be vulnerable to more maneuverable escort fighters such as the Messerschmitt Bf 109, and it was eventually converted to a night fighter before being replaced in the interceptor role by the de Havilland Mosquito. The Defiant was then used for gunnery practice and as a target tug. Just over 1,000 were built, and it was retired at the end of the war.

August 12, 2018 – The launch of the Parker Solar Probe, a robotic probe built by NASA and the first to investigate the Sun’s corona by passing through it. The probe will take approximately seven years to reach the sun, flying ever shrinking elliptical orbits, and scientific observations will take place each time the probe passes close to the Sun. Launched atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket, the Parker Solar Probe will pass the Sun on December 7, 2025 at 3.85 million miles at its closest while flying at a speed of roughly 430,000 mph. The goal of the mission is to study the Sun’s corona in the hopes of improving the forecast of space weather events that directly affect life on Earth.

August 12, 1960 – The launch of Echo 1A, an experimental passive communications satellite and the first of two enormous, metal-coated balloons placed into low Earth orbit. The balloons acted as passive reflectors of microwave signals that could be bounced off the balloon and back to Earth. The launch of Echo 1 on May 13, 1960 fell into the Atlantic Ocean when a stage of the newly-designed Thor-Delta launch system failed, but the launch of Echo 1A was successful, and a microwave transmission from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California was received at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. Echo 1 was followed four years later by Echo 2, which was 35 feet larger and was placed in a polar orbit that was visible from Earth with the naked eye. Echo 1A burned up in Earth’s atmosphere in 1968, followed by Echo 2 a year later.

August 13, 1976 – The first flight of the Bell 222, a light executive and utility helicopter and the first of its class to have two turbine engines. The 222 also features retractable landing gear housed in sponsons on the sides of the fuselage and an advanced vibration reduction system. A total of 199 were built from 1980-1991, and it was developed into a number of variants, including the 222B configuration with a larger main rotor, and the 222UT (Utility Twin) which replaced the landing gear with fixed skids. In 1991, Bell upgraded the 222 to the 230, which had more powerful Allison 250 turboshaft engines, and later with the still larger and more powerful Bell 430. A cosmetically modified Bell 222 appeared as the titular helicopter in the television series Airwolf that ran from 1984-1987.

August 13, 1962 – The first flight of the British Aerospace 125, a twin-engine corporate jet originally developed by de Havilland as the DH.125 Jet Dragon and designed as a replacement for the de Havilland Dove. Following the purchase of de Havilland by Hawker Siddeley in 1960, the 125 entered production as the Hawker Siddeley HS.125, while later models were known as the Hawker 800. One of the earliest business jets, the 125 found a wide open market for executives and government agencies, including the US Air Force, where it was known as the C-29, and the Royal Air Force, who flew it as a navigation trainer designated the Hawker Siddeley Dominie T1. A 125 was also owned by Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna. More than 1,600 aircraft were produced from 1962-2013.

August 13, 1939 – The first flight of the Vickers Warwick, an aircraft designed and built by Vickers-Armstrongs originally as a bomber to complement the Vickers Wellington. The Warwick went through a long and difficult development process, and was ultimately deemed to be redundant by the time it entered service in 1942, resulting in only 16 being delivered as bombers. The rest of the nearly 850 aircraft produced still found roles to fill, serving as transports, maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine patrol, and for air-sea rescue. Most of the production Warwicks were fitted with a deployable lifeboat (see photo) which was dropped to the crews of downed bombers over the English Channel or North Sea.

August 14, 1958 – The first flight of the Grumman Gulfstream I. Grumman’s work on the development of a turboprop-powerd executive transport began with discussions about converting either the Grumman Widgeon or Grumman TF-1 Trader for transport duties. Grumman eventually settled on an entirely new design which became the Gulfstream and featured a low cantilever wing monoplane plead by two Rolls-Royce Dart turboprops. Depending on the configuration, the Gulfstream can accommodate from 10-24 passengers and it became a popular commuter airliner. It was also adopted by the US military as the C-4, and a modified version known as the TC-4C was used for navigator training. A handful remain in operation today, mostly with charter airline Phoenix Air. A total of 200 were built from 1959-1969.

August 14, 1933 – The first flight of the Tupolev ANT-14, the first all-metal aircraft produced in Russia and the flagship of the Soviet propaganda squadron. The ANT-14 was an enlarged version of the three-engined Tupolev ANT-9, and was powered by five Gnome-Rhône Jupiter 9AKX radial engines, two on each wing and one in the nose. Capable of carrying 36 passengers, the ANT-14 never entered production, as there was no need at the time for such a large passenger aircraft. Consequently, it was named Pravda (Truth) and carried out sightseeing flights over the Russian capital of Moscow, carrying over 40,000 passengers before it was retired in 1941.

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