On This Date

May 14, 1941: During testing, the Grumman XP-50 prototype (39-2517) is lost, falling victim to a turbo-supercharger explosion that destroyed the aircraft. The test pilot Bob Hall bailed out while the XP-50 plunged into Smithtown Bay in Long Island Sound. The Grumman XP-50 was a land-based development of the shipboard XF5F-1 Skyrocket fighter, entered into a United States Army Air Corps contest for a twin-engine heavy interceptor aircraft. The Army Air Corps placed an order for a prototype on Nov. 25, 1939, designating it XP-50, but it lost the competition to the Lockheed XP-49.





May 14, 1943: A General Motors GM A-1 “Bug” equipped with television and three axis gyro stabilization systems was successfully launched from a power-driven launching car. The remotely piloted “flying bomb” flew for one hour and 35 minutes under marginal control before the flight was terminated. Because of the basic problems of inadequate control, the program was cancelled in late 1943.





May 14, 1973: Skylab, the first U.S. space station, was launched. In this photograph, U.S. Skylab space station is seen in or over a cloud-covered Earth, photographed February 8, 1974, by the departing third crew of astronauts from their Skylab 4 Command Module. The makeshift gold-colored sun shield and underlying parasol on the main part of the station were installed by the first two crews to cover damage done to Skylab’s protective shielding during launch. The launch mishap also tore off one of the station’s lateral solar arrays.




May 15, 1918: At approximately 11:30 a.m., the U.S. Post Office inaugurated regular airmail service, using Curtiss JN-4H biplanes to fly between Washington, D.C., and New York City, with a stop in Philadelphia. It took two more years of dogged effort and experimentation, marred by dozens of crashes and 16 fatalities, for the service to fly the mail all the way across the country.




May 15, 1930: Ellen Church became the first airline stewardess on a Boeing Air Transport flight from Oakland, Calif., to Chicago, Ill. Church, a registered nurse and licensed airplane pilot, had approached Steve Simpson at Boeing Air Transport (later, United Air Lines) to inquire about being hired as a pilot. Simpson turned her down. She then suggested the airline put registered nurses aboard BAT’s airplanes to care for the passengers. She was hired to recruit and train seven additional women as stewardesses. Because of the cabin size and weight-carrying limitations of those early airliners, they were limited to a height of 5 feet, 4 inches and maximum weight of 115 pounds. They were required to be registered nurses, but could not to be more than 25 years old. Church worked for BAT for about 18 months until she was injured in a car accident. On Dec. 5, 1942, Church enlisted in the U.S. Army and trained as a flight nurse. Church deployed to North African in early 1943, taking care of soldiers evacuated by air from North Africa and the Mediterranean areas. She served in the combat zones of Tunisia, Sicily, Italy, the invasion of Normandy and the Rhineland. She was promoted to the rank of captain. For her military service, Church was awarded the Air Medal, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with seven campaign stars, and the World War II Victory Medal.




May 15, 1942: The first Ford-built B-24 Liberator long range heavy bomber came off the assembly line at the Willow Run Airplane Plant, Mich., just 160 days after the United States entered World War II. 6,971 B-24s more would follow, along with assembly kits for another 1,893, before production came to an end, 28 June 1945. The Willow Run plant was part of Air Force Plant 31.




May 15, 1963: The Mercury-Atlas 9, carrying NASA astronaut, L. Gordon Cooper aboard Faith 7, lifted off from Launch Complex 14, Cape Canaveral Air Force Base, Fla. Cooper reported, “The liftoff was smooth, but very definite, the acceleration was very pleasant. The booster had a very good feel to it and it felt like we were real on the go, there.” The maximum acceleration experienced during launch was 7.6gs. MA-9 was the final flight of Project Mercury. Cooper flew 22.5 orbits. Due to electrical system problems that began on the 21st orbit, he had to fly a manual reentry which resulted in the most accurate landing of the Mercury program. The Mercury spacecraft, which Cooper named Faith 7, was built by McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, St. Louis, Mo., which would also build the follow-on, two-place Gemini spacecraft..




May 16, 1958: Air Force Capt. Walter W. Irwin set a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale World Record for Speed Over a 15/25 Kilometer Straight Course when he flew a Lockheed F-104A Starfighter to 1,404.012 miles per hour, at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. He made two runs over the course at an altitude of 40,000 feet. On the same day, Irwin set two U.S. National Aeronautic Association time-to-altitude records by flying -969 to 3,000 meters in 41.8 seconds, and to 25,000 meters in 4 minutes, 26.03 seconds. It reached a peak altitude of 91,246 feet. Irwin was part of a group of engineers and pilots awarded the Robert J. Collier Trophy by the National Aeronautic Association in 1958 for “the greatest achievement in aeronautics” because of their involvement in the Lockheed F-104 program. In addition to the Collier Trophy, Irwin won the Thompson Trophy for his F-104 speed record. The Lockheed F-104A Starfighter was a single-place, single engine supersonic interceptor. It was designed by a team lead by the legendary Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson.

In these photographs: Left; Capt. Walter W. Irwin lands at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., following his record-breaking flight. Right; Vice President Richard M. Nixon presents the Collier Trophy (left to right) Irwin and Lt. Col. Howard C. Johnson; Nixon; Neil Burgess and Gerhard Neumann, designers of the General Electric J79 engine; and Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, Dec. 15. 1959.




May 16, 1992: Space Shuttle Endeavour, returning from its maiden flight, lands at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. Originally scheduled as a seven-day mission, the flight was extended two days. The primary goal of the STS-49 mission was to retrieve an Intelsat VI satellite which failed to leave low earth orbit two years before, attach it to a new upper stage, and relaunch it to its intended geosynchronous orbit. After several attempts, the capture was completed with the only three-person extra-vehicular activity in space flight history. It would also stand until STS-102 in 2001 as the longest EVA ever undertaken.




May 17, 1943:  The B-17 Memphis Belle completed its 25th combat mission over Western Europe with an attack on the Keroman Submarine Base in Lorient, France. For an U.S. bomber crew, 25 combat missions was a complete tour, after which they returned to the United States for rest and retraining. Memphis Belle, serial number 41-24485, was only the second B-17 to survive 25 missions, so it was withdrawn from combat, and sent back to the U.S. for a publicity tour. The Memphis Belle is now on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.




May 17, 1945: The Lockheed P-2 Neptune made its first flight. The Neptune was a maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare aircraft. It was developed for the U.S. Navy by Lockheed to replace the Lockheed PV-1 Ventura and PV-2 Harpoon, and was replaced in turn by the Lockheed P-3 Orion. Designed as a land-based aircraft, the Neptune never made a carrier landing, but a small number were converted and deployed as carrier-launched, stop-gap nuclear bombers that would have to land on shore or ditch. The type was successful in export, and saw service with several armed forces.




Douglas XB-43 landing. (U.S. Air Force photo)

May 17, 1946: The Douglas XB-43 Jetmaster made its first flight. The Jetmaster was an American 1940s jet-powered prototype bomber. The XB-43 was a development of the XB-42, replacing the piston engines of the XB-42 with two General Electric J35 engines of 4,000 lbf thrust each. Despite being the first American jet bomber to fly, it suffered stability issues and the design did not enter production. Douglas Aircraft was keen to mass-produce the new bomber and the U.S. Army Air Force considered ordering 50. The company was poised to roll out as many as 200 B-43s per month in two versions: a bomber equipped with a clear plastic nose for the bombardier, and an attack aircraft without the clear nose and bombing station but carrying 16 forward-firing .50 inch machine guns and 36 5 inch rockets. Nothing came of these plans. The Army Air Force was already moving ahead with a new bomber, the XB-45 Tornado, designed from the outset for turbojet power and promising major improvement in every category of performance.




May 17, 1997: The McDonnell Douglas X-36 tailless fighter technology demonstrator made its first flight at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. The X-36 was built to 28 percent scale of a possible fighter aircraft, and was controlled by a pilot in a ground-based virtual cockpit with a view provided by a video camera mounted in the canopy of the aircraft. For control, a canard forward of the wing was used as well as split ailerons and an advanced thrust vectoring nozzle for directional control. The X-36 was unstable in both pitch and yaw axes, so an advanced digital fly-by-wire control system was used to provide stability. The X-36 made 31 successful research flights. It handled very well, and the program is reported to have met or exceeded all project goals. McDonnell Douglas merged with Boeing in August 1997 while the test program was in progress; the aircraft is sometimes referred to as the Boeing X-36.




May 17, 1998: A 411th Flight Test Squadron pilot, Lt. Col. Steven M. Rainey, became the first U.S. Air Force pilot to fly the F-22 Raptor during a mission to evaluate flying qualities, speed brake handling and formation flying. The eighty-minute mission in Raptor 01 was considered the start of formal flight test for the Engineering and Manufacturing Development phase of the program.




May 18, 1953: Jacqueline Cochran flew the 100th Canadair Sabre — a Sabre Mk.3, serial number 19200 — over a 100 kilometer closed circuit and set two Fédération Aéronautique Internationale World Speed Record at 652.55 miles per hour. The flight was at Edwards AFB, Calif. In her autobiography, she said about the flight, “In those days you were clocked around pylons, with a judge and a timer at each pylon to clock you with special electronic devices and to make sure you stayed just outside the black smoke markers that rose into the sky. We’d throw a couple of tires on top of each other and then, when all was ready, start a smoky fire in the middle. Twelve towers of smoke marked the 100 kilometer for instance.

“The 100 kilometer course would take in about 63 miles. I’d have to fly only 300 feet off the ground in order for the photographic equipment to catch and record me. But there were hills to one side so I’d be skimming a little up and over them. I’d get two chances—just two—to set my record because that’s all the fuel the plane could carry. If all went well, I’d have a margin of two minutes of fuel after two complete passes. But could I hold that plane in a banked position of 30 degrees for a 63-mile circular flight and beat Colonel Ascani’s mark of 635 mph? Edwards pilots weren’t so sure. Opinions varied. And what about taking the ‘G’s I’d be experiencing in those sharp turns? One ‘G’ is the force of gravity, and the turns would offer me more than one.

“None of those record runs entail easy flying — 100 kilometer, 15, or 3. They’re possible when you’ve been taught by the best.”

Part of the speed run was in excess of Mach 1. Jackie Cochran was the first woman to break the sound barrier. Over the next two weeks, she would set three more world speed records and an altitude record with the Canadair Sabre Mk.3. She was awarded the Harmon Trophy for 1953, her fourth. The Canadair Sabre Mk.3 was a one-of-a-kind CL-13 Sabre (an F-86E Sabre manufactured by Canadair Ltd. under license from North American Aviation, Inc.) built to test the prototype Avro Canada Gas Turbine Division Orenda 3 engine. Modifications to the F-86 airframe were required to install the new, larger engine.




May 18, 1953: The Douglas DC-7 made its first flight. The DC-7 was an American transport aircraft built by the Douglas Aircraft Company from 1953 to 1958. A derivative of the DC-6, it was the last major piston engine-powered transport made by Douglas, being developed shortly after the earliest jet airliner — the de Havilland Comet — entered service and only a few years before the jet-powered Douglas DC-8 first flew. Unlike other aircraft in Douglas’s line of propeller-driven aircraft, no examples remain in service in the present day, as compared to the far more successful DC-3 and DC-6.




May 18, 1969: Apollo 10 lifted off from Launch Complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Fla., on a full dress rehearsal for the landing on the Moon that would follow with Apollo 11, two months later. On board were Air Force Col. Thomas P. Stafford, Mission Commander, on his third space flight; Navy Cmdr. John W. Young, Command Module Pilot, also on his third mission; and Navy Cmdr. Eugene A. Cernan, Lunar Module Pilot, on his second space flight. This was the first Apollo mission in which all three flight crew members had previous space flight experience. During the Apollo 10 mission, everything except an actual landing was done. The Lunar Module separated from the Command Service Module in lunar orbit and descended to within 47,400 feet of the surface. The CSM and LM were in lunar orbit for 2 days, 13 hours, 37 minutes, 23 seconds before returning to Earth. The Apollo capsule and the three astronauts splashed down in the Pacific Ocean 400 miles east of American Samoa. The duration of the mission was 8 days, 3 minutes, 23 seconds.




May 19, 1943: The first Northrop N-9M-1, a one-third scale flying testbed for the Northrop XB-35 flying wing design, crashed approximately 12 miles west of Muroc Army Air Base, Calif., killing pilot Max Constant. First flown Dec. 27, 1942, the airframe had only logged 22.5 hours, and little data was accumulated before the loss. Post-crash investigation suggested that: “… while Constant was conducting stalls and aft centre of gravity stability tests, aerodynamic forces developed full aft, which were too strong for Constant to overcome, trapping him in the cockpit. To prevent this happening on future flights, a one-shot hydraulic boost device was installed to push the controls forward in an emergency.”

When Northrop’s Flying Wing bomber program was canceled, all remaining N-9M flight test aircraft, except for the final N-9MB, were scrapped. For more than three decades, it slowly deteriorated until the Chino, California Planes of Fame Air Museum acquired the aircraft in 1982 and began the labor-intensive restoration process. For the next two decades, former Northrop employees and other volunteers restored the N-9MB to its final flight configuration. Since 1993, the yellow-and-blue Flying Wing was exhibited, with flight demonstrations at several air shows every year. On April 22, 2019, the N-9MB was destroyed shortly after takeoff, when it crashed into a prison yard in Norco, Calif. The pilot and sole aircraft occupant was killed but no ground casualties were reported. The National Transportation Safety Board attributed the crash to the “pilot’s loss of control for undetermined reasons”, stating that “given the significant fragmentation of the wreckage, the reason for the loss of control could not be determined.”




May 19, 1952: The Grumman XF10F Jaguar made its first flight. The Jaguar was a prototype swing-wing fighter aircraft offered to the U.S. Navy in the early 1950s. Although it never entered service, its research pointed the way toward the later General Dynamics F-111 and Grumman’s own F-14 Tomcat. Originally conceived as a swept-wing version of the earlier F9F Panther, in February–March 1948, the design was reconfigured with a T-tail and ultimately a variable-geometry wing. It featured a T-tail, with the horizontal stabilator, a small pivoting center body with a delta servo control at the nose and a larger rear delta main wing, mounted atop the vertical fin. The single turbojet engine was fed by cheek intakes. The high, shoulder-mounted wing could be moved to two positions: a 13.5-degree sweep for takeoff and landing, and a 42.5-degree sweep for high-speed flight. The Jaguar’s configuration presented many of the same handling problems as the earlier Bell X-5 experimental aircraft, with some vicious spin characteristics. The prototype was used for some 32 test flights throughout 1952, but in April 1953, the Navy canceled the program, and with it, the 112 production aircraft that had been ordered.




May 20, 1941: The North American Aviation XP-51, with company test pilot Robert Creed Chilton at the controls, made its first flight at Mines Field, Calif. The XP-51 was the fourth production Mustang Mk.I built for the Royal Air Force. The Mustang was reassigned to the U.S. Army Air Force, designated as XP-51 and sent to Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio, for evaluation. Later, the XP-51 was extensively tested by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, Langley Field in Virginia. The XP-51 would be developed into the legendary P-51 Mustang. In production from 1941 to 1945, a total of 16,766 Mustangs of all variants were built.




May 20, 2003: SpaceShipOne made its first, unmanned, captive flight at the Mojave Air and Space Port. The Burt Rutan-designed spacecraft features a unique “feathering” atmospheric reentry system where the rear half of the wing and the twin tail booms folds 70 degrees upward along a hinge running the length of the wing; this increases drag while retaining stability.


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