On This Date

Dec. 24, 1968: The three astronauts of the Apollo 8 mission — Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders — made a Christmas Eve television broadcast in which they read the first 10 verses from the Book of Genesis. At the time, the broadcast was the most watched TV program ever.



Dec. 25, 1914: Legendary “Christmas Truce” takes place on the battlefields of World War I between British and German troops. Instead of fighting, soldiers exchange gifts and play soccer.



Dec. 25, 1968: The crew of the Apollo 8, during their 10th orbit of the Moon, fired the Command Service Module’s service propulsion system. The trans-Earth injection maneuver would send them home to Earth. Apollo 8 was the first crewed spacecraft to leave low Earth orbit, and the first human spaceflight to reach another astronomical body — the Moon. The three astronauts — Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders — were the first humans to witness, and photograph, an Earthrise. Apollo 8 launched Dec. 21, 1968.

The crew orbited the Moon 10 times over the course of 20 hours. Apollo 8’s successful mission paved the way for Apollo 11 to fulfill U.S. president John F. Kennedy’s goal of landing a man on the Moon before the end of the 1960s. The Apollo 8 astronauts returned to Earth on Dec. 27, 1968, when their spacecraft splashed down in the northern Pacific Ocean. The crew members were named Time magazine’s “Men of the Year” for 1968 upon their return.



Dec. 25, 1999: Space Shuttle Discovery’s astronauts finished their repair job on the Hubble Space Telescope and released it back into orbit.



Convair F-106A in flight. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Dec. 26, 1956: The Convair YF-106A Delta Dart made its first flight. Convair’s chief test pilot, Richard L. “Dick” Johnson, took the delta-winged interceptor to Mach 1.9 at 57,000 feet. The 20-minute flight had to be aborted because of mechanical problems. The YF-106A was built at the Convair Division of General Dynamics in San Diego, Calif. It was trucked to Edwards on Dec. 14, and prepared for its maiden flight. The F-106A was the primary all-weather interceptor of the U.S. Air Force from 1959 to 1988, when it was withdrawn from service with the Air National Guard. The airplane was a development of the earlier F-102A Delta Dagger, and was initially designated F-102B. However, so many changes were made that it was considered to be a new aircraft.



Dec. 27, 1919: The Boeing B-1 (company designation Model 6) made its first flight. The aircraft was a small biplane flying boat designed by William Boeing shortly after World War I. The Model 6 was the first commercial design for Boeing (as opposed to military or experimental designs), hence the B-1 designation. Its layout was conventional for its day, with a Hall-Scott engine driving a pusher propeller mounted amongst the cabane struts. The pilot sat in an open cockpit at the bow, and up to two passengers could be carried in a second open cockpit behind the first. The design was reminiscent of the Curtiss HS-2L that Boeing had been building under license during the war. Only a single aircraft was built, as Boeing had trouble selling it in a market flooded with war-surplus aircraft. In 1920, it was purchased by Edward Hubbard, who used it to carry air mail between Seattle, Wash., and Victoria, British Columbia. The plane flew until 1930 before being preserved and put on display at Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry in 1954.



Dec. 27, 1950: The Douglas XF4D-1 Skyray arrived at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., for evaluation of the stability and control of the Navy’s first delta-winged fighter. The Skyray (later redesignated F-6 Skyray) was an American carrier-based fighter/interceptor. Although it was in service for a relatively short time (1956—1964) and never entered combat, it was the first carrier-launched aircraft to hold the world’s absolute speed record, at 752.943 mph, and was the first U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps fighter that could exceed Mach 1 in level flight. It was the last fighter produced by the Douglas Aircraft Company before it merged with McDonnell Aircraft and became McDonnell Douglas. The F5D Skylancer was an advanced development of the F4D Skyray that did not go into service.



Dec. 27, 1951: The North American Aviation XFJ-2B Fury, with test pilot Bob Hoover in the cockpit, made its first flight at Los Angeles International Airport. The XFJ-2B was a prototype aircraft carrier-based fighter for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. It was modified from a standard production U.S. Air Force F-86E-10-NA Sabre day fighter. The primary difference was the substitution of four 20 mm Colt Mark 12 autocannon for the six .50-caliber Browning M-3 machine guns of the F-86E. 150 rounds per gun were carried. The aircraft was flown to the Naval Ordnance Test Station, Armitage Field, China Lake, Calif., for armament testing. The second and third prototypes were unarmed but fitted with an arrestor hook, catapult points, folding wings and a lengthened nose gear strut to increase the fighter’s static angle of attack for takeoff and landings. These two prototypes were used for aircraft carrier trials.



Dec. 27, 1968: Apollo 8 splashes down in the Pacific Ocean, south of Hawaii, and within 5,000 yards of the USS Yorktown. The spacecraft arrived before sunrise, landing in 10-foot swells. The parachutes dragged the capsule and left it floating upside down. The inflatable pontoons righted it after about six minutes. The three astronauts, Frank F. Borman II, James A. Lovell, Jr., and William A. Anders, were hoisted aboard a Sikorsky SH-3D Sea King helicopter and flown to the aircraft carrier.



An air-to-air left front view of a YF-12 aircraft.

Dec. 28, 1965: CIA pilot Mele Vojvodich, Jr. takes Lockheed A-12, 60-6929, Article 126, for a functional check flight after a period of deep maintenance, but seconds after take-off from Groom Dry Lake, Nev., the aircraft yaws uncontrollably, pilot ejecting at 100 feet after six seconds of flight, escaping serious injury. Investigation finds that the pitch stability augmentation system had been connected to the yaw SAS actuators, and vice versa. SAS connectors are changed to make such wiring mistake impossible. Said Kelly Johnson in a history of the Oxcart program, “It was perfectly evident from movies taken of the takeoff, and from the pilot’s description, that there were some miswired gyros in the aircraft. This turned out to be exactly what happened. In spite of color coding and every other normal precaution, the pitch and yaw gyro connections were interchanged in rigging.”



Dec. 29, 1931: The Grumman FF made its first flight. The Grumman FF “Fifi” (company designation G-5) was an American biplane fighter aircraft operated by the U.S. Navy during the 1930s. It was the first carrier aircraft with retractable landing gear. It was produced under licence in Canada and known as the Goblin in Canadian service and Delfin in Spanish service. The FF-1 was Grumman’s first complete aircraft design for the Navy. The Navy had asked Grumman if their retractable landing gear made for the O2U-1 Scout planes could be retrofitted to the Navy’s Boeing F4B-1 fighters; instead Grumman proposed a new fighter design. FF-1s were delivered to Fighter Squadron VF-5B of the USS Lexington beginning in June 1933. In service the FF-1 became familiarly known as the “Fifi.” Delivery of SF-1s started on March 30, 1934, and they also served aboard the Lexington, with Scout Squadron VS-3B. Both the FF-1 and SF-1 were withdrawn from first-line U.S. Navy squadrons by the end of 1936 and reallocated to reserve units, most of the FF-1s still being in service late in 1940. Later, 22 surviving FF-1s were modified with dual controls, redesignated FF-2 and used for instructional duties.



Consolidated XB-24 in flight. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Dec. 29, 1939: Taking off from Lindbergh Field, the San Diego Municipal Airport, with chief test pilot William “Bill” Wheatley at the controls, the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation’s XB-24 made its first flight. The flight crew included George Newman, co-pilot, and flight engineers Jack Kline and Bob Keith. The flight lasted 17 minutes. The XB-24 was the prototype of the B24 Liberator bomber. The U.S. Army Air Corps had approached Consolidated to set up a second production line for Boeing’s B-17 Flying Fortress four-engine heavy bomber. After looking at Boeing’s Seattle operation, Consolidated’s chief executive, Reuben H. Fleet, told the Air Corps that they could build a better, more modern bomber. During World War II, 18,482 B-24 Liberators — more than any other Allied aircraft type — were built by Consolidated at San Diego, and Fort Worth, Texas; by North American Aviation at Dallas, Texas; and by Douglas Aircraft at Tulsa, Okla. More than half of the total production was built by the Ford Motor Company at Willow Run. During World War II, the B-24 served in every combat theater. In U.S. Navy service, it was designated PB4Y-1 Privateer. It was faster, had a longer range, and could carry a heavier bomb load than the Boeing B-17, but was thought to be less survivable to combat damage. As the war came to an end, hundreds of brand new B-24s were accepted by the Air Corps, but sent immediately to be scrapped rather than placed in service.



Dec. 29, 1986: The Scaled Composites Model 133-4.62 ATTT, or Advanced Technology Tactical Transport was a technology demonstration project built by Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites in 1986 under contract to DARPA. In the mid-1980s, DARPA developed a concept for a tandem wing STOL transport, intended to act as a technology demonstrator and to meet a requirement for a long-range high-speed transport for U.S. Special Forces, intended to fill the gap between helicopters and larger transport aircraft such as the C-130 Hercules. In 1986, DARPA placed a contract with Scaled Composites, a company set up by Burt Rutan to build prototypes for advanced aircraft, for a 62 percent scale proof-of-concept demonstrator for the concept, called the Advanced Technology Tactical Transport. The ATTT had high-aspect ratio tandem wings, which were joined by long nacelles which carried the aircraft’s engines, tractor configuration turboprops, large fuel tanks as well as the main undercarriage units for the aircraft’s retractable tricycle landing gear.  As first built, it had a conventional, cruciform tail. A novel arrangement of eight fast acting fowler flaps was fitted, inboard and outboard of the engines on each of the wings. These would be extended rearwards in a low-drag configuration prior to commencing the take-off run then quickly lowered to increase lift at the point of take-off. The aircraft was of composite construction, mainly glassfiber and carbon fiber. It was powered by two Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-135 turboprops. The ATTT demonstrator made its maiden flight from Mojave Airport, base of Scaled Composites. It completed its initial test program of 51 test flights, with a total of 112 flying hours, on Nov. 8, 1988. It was then rebuilt with a revised tail, with a twin-boom configuration replacing the original single cruciform tail unit, with the fuselage shortened and a rear-loading ramp fitted. The revised layout improved handling, lowering minimum single-engine safety speed (which was previously significantly higher than the stall speed). A further 13 test flights were flown to evaluate the revised layout. The aircraft has been de-registered and is currently in storage at the Air Force Flight Test Center Museum at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.



Dec. 30, 1934: The Martin M-130 made its first flight. The Martin M-130 was a commercial flying boat designed and built in 1935 by the Glenn L. Martin Company in Baltimore, Md., for Pan American Airways. Three were built: the China Clipper, the Philippine Clipper and the Hawaii Clipper. All three had crashed by 1945. A similar flying boat, (the Martin 156), named Russian Clipper, built for the Soviet Union, had a larger wing (giving it greater range) and twin vertical stabilizers. Martin named them the Martin Ocean Transports, but to the public they were the “China Clippers,” a name that became a generic term for Pan Am’s large flying boats: the Martin M-130, Sikorsky S-42 and Boeing 314.



Dec. 30, 1941: Nine Martin B-26 Marauder bombers of the 33rd Bombardment Squadron, 22nd Bombardment Group, depart Muroc Army Air Field for March Field, Calif., but only eight arrive. In bad weather, B-26, 40-1475, snags a pine tree and crashes on Keller Peak in the San Bernardino Mountains, killing nine. Wreckage not found until 14 January 1942. Late the next day, a recovery team of sheriff officers and members of the 33rd Squadron reaches the site after a four-mile trek with toboggans from Snow Valley. All of the crew had been thrown from the plane except for one, whose body was trapped beneath the fuselage. A plaque was installed on a rock near the crash site in August 1995 commemorating the lost crew.



Dec. 31, 1934: Helen Richey made the first scheduled civil flight by a female pilot, flying a Ford Trimotor on the Washington to Detroit route. Central Airlines of Greensburg, Penn., later part of United Airlines, had hired her earlier in the year. She was eventually forced to step down from the cockpit by the all-male pilots union. After leaving Central Airlines, Richey continued to perform at air shows. In 1936 she teamed with Amelia Earhart in a transcontinental air race, the Bendix Trophy Race. Richey and Earhart came in fifth, beating some all-male teams. Later, Richey flew with the British Air Transport Auxiliary during World War II. In addition to being the first female commercial airline pilot, Richey also was the first woman sworn in to pilot air mail and one of the first female flight instructors.



Dec. 31, 1938: The Boeing Model 307 Stratoliner NX19901 made its first flight at Boeing Field, Seattle, Wash. At the controls were test pilot Eddie Allen, and co-pilot Julius A. Barr. The Model 307 was a four-engine commercial airliner that used the wings, tail surfaces, engines and landing gear of the production B-17B Flying Fortress heavy bomber. The fuselage was circular in cross section to allow for pressurization. It was the first pressurized airliner and because of its complexity, it was also the first airplane to include a flight engineer as a crew member. The Boeing Model 307 was operated by a crew of five and could carry 33 passengers. During World War II, TWA sold its Stratoliners to the United States government which designated them C-75 and placed them in transatlantic passenger service. In 1944, the 307s were returned to TWA and they were sent back to Boeing for modification and overhaul. The wings, engines and tail surfaces were replaced with those from the more advanced B-17G Flying Fortress. The last one in service was retired in 1951.



Dec. 31, 1958: The Zero-Length Launch Program using an F-100, was completed. The zero-length launch system was a method whereby jet fighters and attack aircraft could be near-vertically launched using rocket motors to rapidly gain speed and altitude. Such rocket boosters were limited to a short-burn duration, being typically solid-fuel and suitable for only a single use, being intended to drop away once expended. The majority of ZELL experiments, which including the conversion of several front-line combat aircraft for trialling the system, occurred during the 1950s amid the formative years of the Cold War. As envisioned, the operational use of ZELL would have employed mobile launch platform to disperse and hide aircraft, reducing their vulnerability in comparison to being centralised around established airbases with well-known locations. While flight testing had proved such systems to be feasible for combat aircraft, no ZELL-configured aircraft were ever used operationally. The emergence of ever-capable missiles had greatly reduced the strategic necessity of aircraft for the nuclear strike mission, while questions over practicality had also played a role.



Dec. 31, 1968: The Tupolev Tu-144 made its first flight. The Tu-144 was a Soviet supersonic passenger airliner designed by Tupolev in operation from 1968 to 1999. The Tu-144 was the world’s first commercial supersonic transport aircraft with its prototype’s maiden flight two months before the British-French Concorde. The Tu-144 was a product of the Tupolev Design Bureau, an OKB headed by aeronautics pioneer Aleksey Tupolev, and 16 aircraft were manufactured by the Voronezh Aircraft Production Association in Voronezh. The Tu-144 conducted 102 commercial flights, of which only 55 carried passengers, at an average service altitude of 52,000 feet and cruised at a speed of around 1,400 mph) (Mach 2). The Tu-144 first went supersonic on June 5, June 1969, four months before Concorde, and on May 26, 1970, became the world’s first commercial transport to exceed Mach 2. Reliability and developmental issues, together with repercussions of the 1973 Paris Air Show Tu-144 crash and rising fuel prices, restricted the viability of the Tu-144 for regular use. The Tu-144 was introduced into passenger service with Aeroflot between Moscow and Almaty on Dec. 26, 1975, but withdrawn less than three years later after a second Tu-144 crashed on May 23, 1978. The Tu-144 remained in commercial service as a cargo aircraft until cancellation of the Tu-144 program in 1983. The Tu-144 was later used by the Soviet space program to train pilots of the Buran spacecraft, and by NASA for supersonic research until 1999. The Tu-144 made its final flight on June 26, 1999.


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