On This Date

Feb. 5, 1918: Second Lt. Stephen W. Thompson, flying as a gunner on a French aircraft, became the first member of the United States military to shoot down an enemy aircraft.

Thompson arrived in France in September 1917, and was assigned to the U.S. 1st Aero Squadron for training as an observer. Training took place from a field in Amanty. The French day bombardment squadron Br.123, which flew the Breguet 14 B2, was nearby at Neufchâteau aerodrome, and Royce was occasionally able to send one of his men along with the French on a raid. On Feb. 5, 1918, the 1st Aero Squadron had not yet begun combat operations, and Thompson visited a French unit with a fellow member of the 1st Aero Squadron. Both were invited to fly as gunner-bombardiers with the French on a bombing raid over Saarbrücken, Germany. After they had dropped their bombs, the squadron was attacked by Albatros D.III fighters. Thompson shot down one of them. This was the first aerial victory by any member of the U.S. military. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palm for the action.



Feb. 5, 1929: A Lockheed Model 3 Air Express landed at Roosevelt Field, N.Y. The aircraft, piloted by Frank Hawks, had taken off the day before (Feb. 4) from Metropolitan Field in Los Angeles (now Van Nuys Airport) heading for the East Coast. Also on board the aircraft was the final assembly superintendent for Lockheed – Oscar Grubb.  The cross-country flight took 18 hours, 21 minutes, 59 seconds. The only previous non-stop West-to-East flight had been flown during August 1928 by Arthur C. Goebel, Jr., and Harry Tucker, with their Lockheed Vega. Hawks cut 36 minutes off of Goebel’s time.

Hawks was an Air Service, United States Army, pilot who served during World War I. He rose to the rank of captain, and at the time of his record-breaking transcontinental flight, he held a commission as a reserve officer in the Army Air Corps. His flying had made him a popular public figure and he starred in a series of Hollywood movies as “The Mysterious Pilot.”

On Dec. 28, 1920, Amelia Earhart took her first ride in an airplane at Long Beach Airport in California. The 10-minute flight began her life-long involvement in aviation. The airplane’s pilot was Frank Hawks.



Astronaut Edgar D. Mitchell, Apollo 14 Lunar Module pilot, moves across the lunar surface as he looks over a traverse map during extravehicular activity (EVA). Lunar dust can be seen clinging to the boots and legs of the space suit.

Feb. 5, 1971: Apollo 14, the third U.S. manned Moon expedition, lands near Fra Mauro. Commander Alan Shepard and Lunar Module Pilot Edward Mitchell walked on the Moon for four hours. This was the third manned lunar landing. It was 9 years, 8 months, 30 days, 18 hours, 43 minutes, 58 seconds since Shepard had lifted off from Cape Canaveral aboard Freedom 7, becoming the first American astronaut launched into space.  During the two walks on the surface, they collected 94.35 pounds of Moon rocks and deployed several scientific experiments. To the dismay of some geologists, Shepard and Mitchell did not reach the rim of Cone crater as had been planned, though they came close. In Apollo 14’s most famous incident, Shepard hit two golf balls he had brought with him with a makeshift club.

While Shepard and Mitchell were on the surface, Command Module Pilot Stuart Roosa remained in lunar orbit aboard the Command and Service Module, performing scientific experiments and photographing the Moon, including the landing site of the future Apollo 16 mission. He took several hundred seeds on the mission, many of which were germinated on return, resulting in the so-called Moon trees that were widely distributed in the following years. After liftoff from the lunar surface and a successful docking, the spacecraft was flown back to Earth where the three astronauts splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean on February 9.



Feb. 6, 1959: The first successful test-fire of the Titan ICBM takes place. The Martin Marietta SM-68A/HGM-25A Titan I was the United States’ first multistage intercontinental ballistic missile, in use from 1959 until 1962. Though the SM-68A was operational for only three years, it spawned numerous follow-on models that were a part of the U.S. arsenal and space launch capability. The Titan I was unique among the Titan models in that it used liquid oxygen and RP-1 as propellants. All subsequent versions used storable propellants instead.



Feb. 7, 1975: An LTV A-7D Corsair II made the first flight equipped with Honeywell’s Digitac digital flight control system. The system was designed to make tracking easier for tactical fighters by tailoring the handling qualities of the aircraft for the type of weapon delivery mission being flown.



Feb. 7, 1984: Space shuttle Challenger astronauts Bruce McCandless II and Robert L. Stewart went on the first untethered spacewalk, which lasted nearly six hours. The STES-11 mission launched Feb. 3, and landed Feb. 11, after deploying two communications satellites.



Feb. 8, 1933: The Boeing Model 247 made its first flight. The 247 was an early United States airliner, considered the first such aircraft to fully incorporate advances such as all-metal (anodized aluminum) semimonocoque construction, a fully cantilevered wing and retractable landing gear. Other advanced features included control surface trim tabs, an autopilot and de-icing boots for the wings and tailplane. Ordered off the drawing board, the 247 entered service in 1933. Subsequent development in airliner design saw engines and airframes becoming larger and four-engined designs emerged, but no significant changes to this basic formula appeared until cabin pressurization and high altitude cruise were introduced in 1940, with the Boeing 307 Stratoliner.



Feb. 8, 1974: After 83 days, four hours, 38 minutes and 12 seconds, the Skylab 4/ Apollo command module undocked from the Skylab space station in Earth orbit. Following several orbits, the Apollo capsule reentered the atmosphere and landed in the Pacific Ocean southwest of San Diego California. The crew — Mission Commander Gerald P. Carr, Mission Scientist Edward G. Gibson and Pilot William R. Pogue — were recovered by USS Okinawa (LPH-3), a helicopter carrier. Skylab was an orbital laboratory built from a Saturn S-IVB third stage. It was launched from Cape Canaveral May 14, 1973, as part of a modified Saturn V rocket. The Skylab 4 crew was the third and final group of astronauts to live and the space station. The Skylab 1 mission was unmanned. Skylab’s orbit gradually decayed and it re-entered the atmosphere near Perth, Australia, July 11, 1979.



Feb. 8, 2012: NASA 911, the Boeing 747-146 that was used as a space shuttle carrier, made its last flight, a 20-minute hop from Edwards Air Force Base to Palmdale Plant 42 in California. In 38 years, the aircraft accumulated 33,004.1 flight hours, which is relatively low time for an airliner. NASA 911 made its first flight Aug. 31, 1973, and flew in commercial service with Japan Airlines for 15 years. It was obtained by NASA in 1989 and turned over to Boeing for modification as the second Space Shuttle Carrier Aircraft. NASA 911 is on display at the Joe Davies Heritage Airpark, Palmdale, Calif.



Feb. 9, 1937: The prototype Blackburn B.24 “Skua” two-seat fighter/dive-bomber makes its maiden flight, piloted by “Dasher” Blake at Brough, Yorkshire. It is Britain’s first dive-bomber. The Skua was a carrier-based low-wing, two-seater, single-radial engine aircraft operated by the British Fleet Air Arm, which combined the functions of a dive bomber and fighter. It was designed in the mid-1930s and saw service in the early part of the Second World War. It took its name from the sea bird.



Feb. 9, 1942: The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff held its first formal meeting to coordinate military strategy during World War II.



Feb. 9, 1969: The Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet makes its first flight. The 747 entered commercial service on Jan. 22, 1970, with Pan Am’s New York-London route. Raised above the main deck, the cockpit creates a hump. This raised cockpit allows front loading of cargo on freight variants. Despite no longer being in commercial service, and Boeing’s announcement it would cease 747 production in 2022, there are several 747 aircraft still in service including VC-25, the U.S. Air Force VIP version of the aircraft used to fly the U.S. president and known by the call sign Air Force One (used when the president is on board); the E-4 Advanced Airborne Command Post flown by the U.S. Air Force; and the NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), based in Palmdale, Calif. While NASA’s space shuttle program was operational, NASA operated two specially modified 747s as Shuttle Carrier Aircraft; used to transport the shuttles from the landing site at Edwards AFB, Calif., back to the launch site in Florida.



Feb. 9, 1971: Apollo 14 returns to Earth. Apollo 14 was the eighth crewed mission in the Apollo program, the third to land on the Moon, and the first to land in the lunar highlands. It was the last of the “H missions”, landings at specific sites of scientific interest on the Moon for two-day stays with two lunar extravehicular activities (EVAs or moonwalks). The mission was originally scheduled for 1970, but was postponed because of the investigation following the failure of Apollo 13 to reach the Moon’s surface, and the need for modifications to the spacecraft as a result. Commander Alan Shepard, Command Module Pilot Stuart Roosa, and Lunar Module Pilot Edgar Mitchell launched on their nine-day mission on Jan. 31, 1971. En route to the lunar landing, the crew overcame malfunctions that might have resulted in a second consecutive aborted mission, and possibly, the premature end of the Apollo program.



Feb. 10 1962: American U-2 pilot Gary Powers, shot down and arrested in the Soviet Union May 1, 1960, is exchanged along with American student Frederic Pryor, in a well-publicized spy swap for Soviet KGB Colonel Vilyam Fisher (aka Rudolf Abel), a Soviet colonel who was caught by the FBI and put in jail for espionage, at the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin, Germany. Powers had been flying a CIA U-2 reconnaissance mission from Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, over the Ural Mountains. Pictured is Powers while in Soviet custody (left) and the Glienicke Bridge over the Havel River, the border between West Berlin and East Germany. Powers spent one year, nine months and 10 days in Soviet custody.



Convair XF-81 in flight. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Feb. 11, 1945: The Consolidated Vultee XP-81 made its first flight at Muroc Army Airfield, Calif. Two prototype aircraft were ordered on Feb. 11, 1944, that were designated XP-81. The engine selection was an attempt to couple the high-speed capability of the jet engine with the endurance offered by the propeller engine. The XP-81 was designed to use the General Electric TG-100 turboprop engine (later designated XT31 by the U.S. military) in the nose, driving a four-bladed propeller and a GE J33 turbojet in the rear fuselage. The turboprop would be used for normal flight and cruising and the turbojet added for high-speed flight.

The first XP-81 (serial 44-91000) was completed in January 1945 but because of developmental problems, the turboprop engine was not ready for installation. A decision was then made to mount a complete V-1650-7 engine package from a P-51D aircraft in place of the turboprop for initial flight tests. This was done in a week and the Merlin-powered XP-81 was sent to the Muroc. During 10 flight test hours, the XP-81 displayed good handling characteristics, except for inadequate directional stability due to the longer forward portion of the fuselage (this was rectified by enlarging the vertical tail). While 13 YP-81 pre-production aircraft had been ordered, the capture of Guam and Saipan eliminated the need for long-range, high-speed escort fighters and then, just before VJ Day the contract was cancelled, after 85 percent of the engineering was completed. The YP-81 was to be essentially the same as the prototype but with a lighter and more powerful GE TG-110 (XT41) turboprop engine, the wing moved aft 10 inches (0.25 m), and armament of either six .50 caliber machine guns or six 20 mm cannon.

After the XP-81 was returned to Vultee Field, the TG-100 turboprop was installed and flight testing resumed, including the first flight by an American turboprop-powered aircraft on Dec. 21, 1945. However, the turboprop engine was not able to produce its designed power; producing only the same output as the Merlin (1,490hp or 1112 kW) with the resultant performance limited to that of the Merlin-engined version. With the termination of hostilities, the two prototypes continued to be tested until 1947, when they were both consigned to a bombing range as photography targets.



Feb. 11, 1975: Mission control personnel used the new automated flight test data system operationally for the first time, to monitor the third test sortie of the B1-A Lancer.



Feb. 11, 2006: Steve Fossett set the absolute world record for “distance without landing” by flying his GlobalFlyer from the Kennedy Space Center, Fla., around the world eastbound, then upon returning to Florida, continuing across the Atlantic a second time to land in Bournemouth, England. The official distance was 25,766 statute miles and the duration was 76 hours 45 minutes.

This was Fossett’s second of three record breaking flights. The first was Feb. 28 to March 3, 2005, when he took off from Salina, Kansas, returning to Salina after 67 hours, 1 minute and 10 seconds. The third was in March 2005, when Fossett made a third flight around the world in order to break the absolute record for “Distance over a closed circuit without landing” (with takeoff and landing at the same airport). He took off from Salina on March 14, 2006, and returned on March 17, 2006 after flying 25,262 statute miles. His aircraft, the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer, had a carbon fiber reinforced plastic airframe with a single Williams FJ44 turbofan engine. It was designed and built by Burt Rutan and his company, Scaled Composites, for long-distance solo flight. The fuel fraction, the weight of the fuel divided by the weight of the aircraft at take-off, was 83 percent.

There are only seven absolute world records for fixed-wing aircraft recognized by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale and Fossett broke three of them in the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer. All three records were previously held by Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager, from their flight in the Voyager in 1986. Fossett contributed the GlobalFlyer to the Smithsonian Institution’s permanent collection. It is on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. Fossett flew the plane to the Center and taxied the plane to the front door.

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