On This Date

Sept. 17, 1959: North American Aviation Chief Engineering Test Pilot Albert Scott Crossfield made the first powered flight of an X-15 hypersonic research rocket plane. Carried aloft under the right wing of an eight-engine Boeing NB-52A Stratofortress bomber, the first of three North American Aviation X-15s was airdropped from 35,000 feet over Rosamond Dry Lake, 40 miles north of Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. The X-15 dropped 2,000 feet while Crossfield ignited the two XLR-11 engines and then started “going uphill.” During the 224.3 seconds burn duration, the X-15 reached Mach 2.11 and climbed to 52,300 feet, both slightly higher than planned. The X-15 was designed to use the Reaction Motors XLR-99 rocket engine, but early in the test program that engine was not yet available so two smaller XLR-11 engines were used. This was engine the same type used in the earlier Bell X-1 rocket plane that first broke the sound barrier in 1947. Problems developed when the rocket engine’s turbo pump case failed, and fire broke out in the hydrogen peroxide compartment, engine compartment and in the ventral fin. Crossfield safely landed on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base. The duration of the flight was 9 minutes, 11.1 seconds. Damage to the rocket plane was extensive but was quickly repaired, and flew again Oct. 17, 1959.





Sept. 17, 1947: The United States Army Air Forces are separated from the United States Army and become an independent armed service, the United States Air Force.





Sept. 17, 1976: The prototype Space Shuttle Enterprise, built by Rockwell International (North American), is rolled out in Palmdale, Calif. It’s nine-month approach and landing test program lasts from Jan. 31 until Oct. 26, 1977. Enterprise was the first orbiter of the Space Shuttle system, and was built for NASA as part of the Space Shuttle program to perform atmospheric test flights after being launched from a modified Boeing 747. It was constructed without engines or a functional heat shield. As a result, it was not capable of spaceflight. Originally, Enterprise had been intended to be refitted for orbital flight to become the second space-rated orbiter in service. However, during the construction of Space Shuttle Columbia, details of the final design changed, making it simpler and less costly to build Challenger around a body frame that had been built as a test article. Similarly, Enterprise was considered for refit to replace Challenger after the latter was destroyed, but Endeavour was built from structural spares instead.  In this photograph, Star Trek television cast members attend the roll out ceremony. From left: Dr. James C. Fletcher (NASA Administrator), DeForest Kelley (Dr. “Bones” McCoy), George Takei (Mr. Sulu), James Doohan (Chief Engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott), Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura), Leonard Nimoy (the indefatigable Mr. Spock), Gene Roddenberry (The Great Bird of the Galaxy), Democratic Congressman Don Fuqua, and Walter Koenig (Ensign Pavel Chekov).





Curtiss XP-60A 3/4 front view taken on Oct. 14, 1942. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Sept. 18, 1941: The Curtiss XP-60 made its first flight. The P-60 was a 1940s American single-engine single-seat, low-wing monoplane fighter aircraft developed by the Curtiss-Wright company as a successor to their P-40. It went through a lengthy series of prototype versions, eventually evolving into a design that bore little resemblance to the P-40. None of these versions reached production. Flight tests of the XP-60 prototype did not progress smoothly. In addition to landing gear problems, expected top speed was not being met due to shortcomings in the laminar-flow wing surface finish, relatively high radiator drag (compared to the North American P-51 Mustang, which was then flying), and less than specified engine output performance. Consequently, work on the P-60A was stopped after Dec. 20, 1941, when the U.S. Army Air Force recommended that Curtiss concentrate on license production of Republic P-47 Thunderbolts. This photograph shows an XP-60A with the Allison V-1710-75 engine.





W. Stuart Symington, former Assistant Secretary of War for Air, is shown taking the oath of office as Secretary of the Air Force from Chief Justice Fred Vincent. Left to right are: Secretary Symington, Secretary of the Army, Kenneth C. Royall, Secretary of National Defense James N. Forrestal, Chief Justice Vincent and Secretary of the Navy John Sullivan.
(U.S. Air Force photo)

Sept. 18, 1947: The United States Air Force becomes its own fully independent military service. The U.S. War Department created the first antecedent of the U.S. Air Force, as a part of the U.S. Army, on Aug. 1, 1907, which through a succession of changes of organization, titles, and missions advanced toward eventual independence 40 years later. In World War II, almost 68,000 U.S. airmen died helping to win the war, with only the infantry suffering more casualties. In practice, the U.S. Army Air Forces was virtually independent of the Army during World War II, and in virtually every way functioned as an independent service branch, but airmen still pressed for formal independence. The National Security Act of 1947 was signed on July 26, 1947, by President Harry S. Truman, which established the Department of the Air Force, but it was not until Sept. 18, 1947, when the first secretary of the Air Force, W. Stuart Symington, was sworn into office that the Air Force was officially formed as an independent service branch. Prior to 1947, the responsibility for military aviation was shared between the Army Air Forces and its predecessor organizations (for land-based operations), the Navy (for sea-based operations from aircraft carriers and amphibious aircraft), and the Marine Corps (for close air support of Marine Corps operations). In this photograph, Symington, former Assistant Secretary of War for Air, takes the oath of office as the first secretary of the Air Force from Chief Justice Fred Vincent. From left: Symington, Secretary of the Army Kenneth C. Royall, Secretary of National Defense James N. Forrestal, Chief Justice Vincent and Secretary of the Navy John Sullivan.





Sept. 18, 1948: Convair’s experimental XF-92A Dart made its first flight, lifting off from Muroc Dry Lake Bed, in Southern California with Consolidated-Vultee Aircraft Corporation test pilot Ellis D. “Sam” Shannon at the controls. The Dart was the first delta-winged aircraft. For the next 18 minutes, Shannon familiarized himself with the new aircraft type, before landing back on the lake bed. The XF-92A was a difficult airplane to fly. NACA test pilot Scott Crossfield commented, “Nobody wanted to fly the XF-92. There was no lineup of pilots for the airplane. It was a miserable flying beast.” Crossfield made 25 flights in the experimental delta-winged aircraft. On its last flight, Oct. 14, 1953, the airplane’s nose gear collapsed after landing. The XF-92A was damaged and never flew again. While the XF-92A did not go into production, it did appear in several movies, including “Toward the Unknown” in 1956.





Sept. 18, 1963: The Martin/General Dynamics RB-57F Canberra arrived at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., for Project PEE WEE. The Canberra is a specialized strategic reconnaissance aircraft developed in the 1960s for the United States Air Force by General Dynamics from the Martin B-57 Canberra tactical bomber, which itself was a license-built version of the English Electric Canberra. It was operationally assigned to the Air Weather Service for weather reconnaissance involving high-altitude atmospheric sampling and radiation detection in support of nuclear test monitoring, but four of the 21 modified aircraft performed solely as strategic reconnaissance platforms in Japan and Germany. Three of the modified aircraft were destroyed with loss of their crews while performing operationally. The remainder were re-designated WB-57F in 1968. Four of the survivors were subsequently used by NASA for high-altitude atmospheric research. The others were retired from 1972 to 1974 and placed in storage. As of 2015, three WB-57Fs are the only B-57 aircraft model still flying, in service with NASA





Sept. 18, 1990: The YF-23A went supersonic for the first time. The Northrop/McDonnell Douglas YF-23 is an American single-seat, twin-engine stealth fighter aircraft technology demonstrator designed for the United States Air Force. The design was a finalist in the Air Force’s Advanced Tactical Fighter competition, battling the Lockheed YF-22 for a production contract. Two YF-23 prototypes were built, nicknamed “Black Widow II” and “Gray Ghost.” After a four-year development and evaluation process, the YF-22 was announced the winner in 1991 and entered production as the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor. The U.S. Navy considered using the production version of the ATF as the basis for a replacement to the F-14, but these plans were later canceled.





Sept, 18, 1992: X-31 No. 1, fitted with strakes, achieved its design goal of 70 degrees Angle of Attack during level decelerations, doublet maneuvers, and non-abrupt bank-to-bank maneuvering. Rockwell Aerospace, North American Aircraft, and Deutsche Aerospace manufactured two airframes. They flew a total of 555 flights between 1990-1995. In a joint program involving the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the U.S. Navy, German Federal Ministry of Defense, Deutsche Aerospace, Rockwell International, the U.S. Air Force and NASA, this Enhanced Fighter maneuverability demonstrator showed the value of using thrust vectoring (by means of carbon-carbon paddles) coupled with advanced flight control systems to provide high maneuverability and controlled flight at high angles of attack. Featuring a delta-shaped, composite, twisted camber wing and strakes on the rear fuselage, the X-31 achieved stabilized flight at 70° angle of attack. With nose strakes added to increase stability, the aircraft exhibited remarkable “post-stall” maneuverability, such as a 180-degree turn at an extremely high angle of attack, known as the “Herbst maneuver.”





Sept. 18, 2000: The X-32A, Boeing’s Joint Strike Fighter concept demonstrator, landed at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., after making its first flight. Boeing JSF chief test pilot Fred Knox flew the aircraft during the 20 minute flight which began at Boeing’s facility at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, Calif. The concept was a demonstrator aircraft that was designed for the Joint Strike Fighter competition. It lost to the Lockheed Martin X-35 demonstrator, which was further developed into the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II.





Sept. 18, 2000: The first CV-22 Osprey arrived at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., from the Bell Helicopter Research Center in Arlington, Texas, to begin a two-year test program with the CV-22 Integrated Test Team. Maj. Tom Currie piloted the revolutionary twin-rotor aircraft, which was designed to combine the best features of helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft.





Sept. 19, 1942: Several well-guarded railway freight cars with crates containing the first XP-59A were delivered to the Muroc station. Bombing range personnel transported them to the Muroc test site, where reassembly began on a 24-hour basis.





Sept. 19, 1962: The Aero Spacelines Pregnant Guppy made its first flight from Van Nuys, Calif. In 1960, U.S. airlines were disposing of their obsolete piston-engined Boeing 377 Stratocruisers in favor of the newer jet-engined airliners. At the same time, NASA was finding that barge transport of their increasingly large space program components from manufacturers on the West Coast to test and launch sites on the East Coast was slow and expensive. Aircraft broker Leo Mansdorf was stockpiling surplus Stratocruisers at Van Nuys prior to resale, and ex-Air Force pilot John M. Conroy realized the potential of these aircraft to transport the large but relatively light rocket components. Conroy presented his plans for an extensively modified Stratocruiser to NASA, where an official commented that the bloated aircraft resembled a pregnant guppy. Although NASA was lukewarm on the concept, Conroy mortgaged his house and founded Aero Spacelines International to build and operate the concept aircraft. The Pregnant Guppy was built from an ex-Pan Am airframe with a five-meter section from an ex-British Overseas Airways Corporation aircraft added immediately behind the wing. The wing, engines, tail, nose, and cockpit were unchanged, but a new upper fuselage of six-meter m diameter was added, giving the aircraft a “triple-bubble” appearance in front view. The entire rear section (including tail surfaces) was detachable to allow cargo to be loaded directly into the fuselage. The aircraft made its first flight piloted by Conroy and co-pilot Clay Lacy. When Van Nuys traffic control realized that Conroy intended to take off, they notified police and fire departments to be on alert. However, the huge aircraft performed flawlessly, the only difference in handling being a slight decrease in speed caused by extra drag of the larger fuselage. Carrying the S-IV Saturn I rocket stage, the Guppy saved three weeks’ transit time versus barge, for a cost of $16 (equivalent to $133.51 today) per mile. In this photograph, the Pregnant Guppy is shown on the flight line at NASA’s Dryden (now Armstrong) Flight Research Center.





Sept. 20, 1927: Charles A. Lindbergh, en route from Los Angeles after his renowned solo transatlantic flight, landed the Spirit of St. Louis on the dry lakebed near Muroc Army Air Field, Calif., for an impromptu inspection. Charles Lindbergh is known as the first aviator to complete a solo transatlantic flight, which he did in his plane, Spirit of St. Louis, iIn 1932.  Born Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr. on Feb. 4, 1902, in Detroit, Mich., Lindbergh became famous for making the first solo transatlantic airplane flight in 1927. Before he took to the skies, however, Lindbergh was raised on a farm in Minnesota and the son of a lawyer and a congressman.  Lindbergh studied mechanical engineering at the University of Wisconsin before leaving school to pursue his interest in flight. He went to Lincoln, Neb., where he made his first solo flight in 1923. Lindbergh became a barnstormer, or a daredevil pilot, performing at fairs and other events. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1924 and trained as an Army Air Service Reserve pilot. He later worked as an airmail pilot, flying back and forth between St. Louis and Chicago.

The Spirit of St. Louis (formally the Ryan NYP, registration: N-X-211) was the custom-built, single-engine, single-seat, high-wing monoplane that was flown by Charles Lindbergh on May 20–21, 1927, on the first solo nonstop transatlantic flight from Long Island, New York, to Paris, France, for which Lindbergh won the $25,000 Orteig Prize.  Lindbergh took off in the Spirit from Roosevelt Airfield, Garden City, N.Y., and landed 33 hours, 30 minutes later at Aéroport Le Bourget in Parish, France, a distance of approximately 3,600 miles.  One of the best-known aircraft in the world, the Spirit was built by Ryan Airlines in San Diego, Calif., owned and operated at the time by Benjamin Franklin Mahoney, who had purchased it from its founder, T. Claude Ryan, in 1926. The Spirit is on permanent display in the main entryway’s Milestones of Flight gallery at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.





North American XB-45 (S/N 45-59479) as a testbed for rocket assisted take-off. Taken Sept. 24, 1958. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Sept. 20, 1948: During a flight test at Muroc Army Air Field, Calif., the first prototype North American XB-45 Tornado was put into a dive test to test design load factor. The aircraft suffered an engine explosion, tearing off cowling panels that shear several feet from the horizontal stabilizer. The aircraft pitched up, and both wings tore off under negative g load. The aircraft had no crew ejection seats, and George Krebs and Nick Piccard were killed. The Tornado was an early American jet-powered bomber, and has the distinction of being the first operational jet bomber to enter service with the U.S. Air Force, as well as being the first multiengine jet bomber in the world to be refueled in midair.





Sept. 20, 1951: The Grumman F9F/F-9 Cougar, a carrier-based fighter aircraft for the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps, made its maiden flight. The aircraft was based on Grumman’s earlier F9F Panther, the Cougar replaced the Panther’s straight wing with a more modern swept wing. Thrust was also increased with the installation of a newer, more powerful engine. The Navy considered the Cougar an updated version of the Panther, despite having a different official name, and thus Cougars started off from F9F-6.





Sept. 20, 1988: The Special Operations Combined Test Force conducted the first flight of the MC-130H Combat Talon II evaluation program. The MC-130H Combat Talon II provides infiltration, exfiltration and resupply of special operations forces and equipment in hostile or denied territory. Secondary missions include psychological operations, and helicopter and vertical lift air refueling.





Sept. 21, 1942: The Boeing B-29 Superfortress made its first flight. The Superfortress was an American four-engined propeller-driven heavy bomber flown primarily by the United States during World War II and the Korean War. Named in allusion to its predecessor, the B-17 Flying Fortress, the Superfortress was designed for high-altitude strategic bombing but also excelled in low-altitude night incendiary bombing and in dropping naval mines to blockade Japan. B-29s dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and became the only aircraft that has ever used nuclear weapons in combat. One of the largest aircraft of World War II, the B-29 had state-of-the-art technology, including a pressurized cabin, dual-wheeled, tricycle landing gear, and an analog computer-controlled fire-control system that allowed one gunner and a fire-control officer to direct four remote machine gun turrets. The $3 billion cost of design and production (equivalent to $43 billion today), far exceeding the $1.9 billion cost of the Manhattan Project, made the B-29 program the most expensive of the war. The B-29’s advanced design allowed it to remain in service in various roles throughout the 1950s. The type was retired in the early 1960s after 3,970 of them had been built. A few were used as flying television transmitters by the Stratovision Company. The Royal Air Force flew the B-29 as the Washington until 1954. The B-29 was the progenitor of a series of Boeing-built bombers, transports, tankers, reconnaissance aircraft and trainers. The re-engined B-50 Superfortress became Lucky Lady II, the first aircraft to fly around the world non-stop, during a 94-hour flight in 1949. The Boeing C-97 Stratofreighter airlifter, which was first flown in 1944, was followed in 1947 by its commercial airliner variant, the Boeing Model 377 Stratocruiser. This bomber-to-airliner derivation was similar to the B-17/Model 307 evolution. In 1948, Boeing introduced the KB-29 tanker, followed in 1950 by the Model 377-derivative KC-97.





Sept. 21, 1961: The Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopter made its first flight. The Chinook is an American twin-engined, tandem rotor, heavy-lift helicopter developed by American rotorcraft company Vertol and manufactured by Boeing Vertol (later renamed Boeing Helicopter and now named Boeing Rotorcraft Systems). The CH-47 is among the heaviest lifting of Western helicopters. The Chinook was originally designed by Vertol, which had begun work in 1957 on a new tandem-rotor helicopter, designated as the Vertol Model 107 or V-107. Around the same time, the U.S. Army announced its intention to replace the piston engine-powered Sikorsky CH-37 Mojave with a new, gas turbine-powered helicopter. During June 1958, the U.S. Army ordered a small number of V-107s from Vertol under the YHC-1A designation; following testing, it came to be considered by some Army officials to be too heavy for the assault missions and too light for transport purposes. While the YHC-1A would be improved and adopted by the U.S. Marine Corps as the CH-46 Sea Knight, the Army sought a heavier transport helicopter, and ordered an enlarged derivative of the V-107 with the Vertol designation Model 114. Initially it was designated as the YCH-1. In 1962, the HC-1B was redesignated CH-47A under the 1962 United States Tri-Service aircraft designation system.





Sept. 21, 1964: North American Rockwell’s XB-70 Valkyrie experimental aircraft made its first flight from Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, Calif., to Edwards Air Force Base. It was flown by North American test pilot Alvin S. White and Col. Joseph F. Cotton. Originally conceived as a strategic bomber with the ability to cruise at Mach 3 speeds, the two XB-70s completed were used as joint Air Force/NASA high-speed research vehicles only.





Sept. 22, 1942: A GMA-1 power driven controllable bomb swerved out of control and was destroyed during a high-speed taxi run. The incident took place during a series of tests of the remotely controlled Bug equipped with tricycle landing gear.

The Aviation Section of the Signal Corps* first became involved with missiles shortly before America s entry into World War I when it sponsored Charles F. Kettering’s research on a remotely controlled aircraft dubbed the “Bug.”  A renowned engineer, Kettering collaborated on the project with several associates, including Orville Wright, Elmer A. Sperry, Edwin S. Votey, and Childe H. Wills. Also called a flying bomb, an aerial torpedo, and Project Liberty Eagle, the small craft was built by the Dayton Metal Products Company. It performed well enough after several test flights for the Air Service to order 100 of the pilotless aircraft in October 1918. Col. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, another of those involved in the project, wanted to persuade Gen. John J. Pershing, Commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, to organize tactical missile units in Europe.

Unfortunately for missile enthusiasts, Arnold became ill and before he could see General Pershing the war had ended. With the cessation of hostilities, production was canceled and the project abandoned. The Navy, which had started a similar program in 1916, continued its research until about 1919, but then it too scrapped the work. In 1923, the Chief of the Air Service Engineering Division at McCook Field, Ohio, recommended adapting radio controls to the aerial torpedo and the following year obtained support for the project. Despite such signal achievements as preset flights to a distance of 30 miles and radio-controlled flights of up to 90 miles, the project was canceled a second time for a lack of funds. It was revived in 1928, as part of a scheme to adapt remote control and guidance, with various-sized bombs, to commercial aircraft and to file the data for future reference in the event of war. After a promising start, however, the effort foundered in 1932 and then lay dormant until the eve of World War II.





Sept. 22, 1959: The Strategic Air Command B-47 short reaction takeoff project was successfully completed. The bombers practiced day and night fighter-style takeoffs.





Sept. 23, 1989: On its fifth flight, the B-2 bomber completed the first increment of its envelope expansion tests. These included steep banks at altitude and aerial refueling proximity tests that normally came much later in a new aircraft’s test program.


More Stories