March 4, 1936: The last great passenger-carrying airship, a veritable behemoth in its day, takes to the air for the first time. The German dirigible LZ 129, the “Hindenburg,” is powered by four 1,320-hp Daimler-Benz DB 602 diesel engines. The “Hindenburg” makes its first Atlantic crossing in the record time of 64 hours 53 minutes on May 6. The Hindenberg was destroyed when it burst into flames May 6, 1937, at Lakehurst, N.J. Of the 36 passengers and 61 crew aboard, 13 passengers, and 22 crew died, as well as one member of the ground crew, a total of 36 lives lost.
March 4, 1954: With Lockheed test pilot Tony LeVier at the controls, the XF-104 Starfighter makes its first flight at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. The landing gear remained extended throughout the 20-minute flight. Designed by the legendary Kelly Johnson, the XF-104 was a prototype Mach 2-plus interceptor and was known in the news media of the time as “the missile with a man in it.” There were two Lockheed XF-104 prototypes. Initial flight-testing was performed with 083-1001 (Air Force serial number 53-7786). The second prototype, 083-1002 (53-7787) was the armament test aircraft. Both were single-seat, single-engine supersonic interceptor prototypes.
March 5, 1946: Winston Churchill delivered his “Iron Curtain” speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., in which he said: “From Stettin in the Baltic, to Trieste in the Adriatic, an `iron curtain’ has descended across the continent, allowing police governments to rule Eastern Europe.”
March 5, 1948: The Curtiss-Wright XF-87 Blackhawk made its first flight. This was the last Curtiss-designed aircraft. The Blackhawk was a prototype American all-weather jet fighter-interceptor. Designed as a replacement for the World War II–era propeller-driven P-61 Black Widow night/interceptor aircraft, the XF-87 lost in government procurement competition to the Northrop F-89 Scorpion. The loss of the contract was fatal to the company; the Curtiss-Wright Corporation closed down its aviation division, selling its assets to North American Aviation. The aircraft started life as a project for an attack aircraft, designated XA-43. When the U.S. Army Air Forces issued a requirement for a jet-powered all-weather fighter in 1945, the design was reworked for that request. The XP-87 was a large mid-wing aircraft with four engines paired in underwing pods, with a mid-mounted tailplane and tricycle undercarriage. Two crew members (pilot and radar operator) sat side by side under a single canopy. Armament was to be a nose-mounted, powered turret containing four 20 mm cannon, but this was never fitted to the prototypes. Instead the aircraft was armed with four fixed forward firing 20mm cannon. Although the top speed was slower than expected, the aircraft was otherwise acceptable, and the newly formed U.S. Air Force placed orders for 57 F-87A fighters and 30 RF-87A reconnaissance aircraft just over a month later. Since the performance problems were due to lack of power, the four Westinghouse XJ34-WE-7 turbojets of the prototypes were to be substituted for two General Electric J47 jets in production models. One of the two XF-87 prototypes was to be modified as a test bed for the new engines. At this point, the Air Force decided that the Northrop F-89 Scorpion was a more promising aircraft. The F-87 contract was cancelled on Oct. 10, 1948, and both prototypes were scrapped.
March 5, 1962: A Convair B-58 “Hustler” (59-2458) of the 43rd Bombardment Wing breaks three records during a round trip between New York and Los Angeles in 4 hours 41 minutes 14.98 seconds. The fastest trans-continental crossing between Los Angeles and New York is accomplished in 2 hours 58.71 seconds at an average speed of 1,214.65 mph. The third record notches the fastest time between New York and Los Angeles. The records earned the crew the Bendix Trophy and the MacKay Trophy for 1962. On March 1, 1969, the aircraft was flown to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, where it is currently on display.
March 5, 1966: The Lockheed D-21 drone made its first flight when it was launched from an M-21. The drone was released but stayed close to the M-21’s back for a few seconds, which seemed like “two hours” to the M-21 crew. The D-21 was initially designed to be launched from the back of an M-21 carrier aircraft, a variant of the Lockheed A-12 aircraft. The drone had maximum speed in excess of Mach 3.3 (2,200 miles per hour) at an operational altitude of 90,000 feet. Originally known by the Lockheed designation Q-12, the drone was intended for reconnaissance deep into enemy airspace. The D-21 was designed to carry a single high-resolution photographic camera over a preprogrammed path, and then release the camera module into the air for retrieval, after which the drone would self-destruct. Following a fatal accident when launched from an M-21, the D-21 was modified to be launched from a Boeing B-52 Stratofortress. Several test flights were made, followed by four unsuccessful operational D-21 flights over the People’s Republic of China, and the program was canceled in 1971.
March 6, 1965: A U.S. Navy Sikorsky SH-3A Sea King made the first nonstop transcontinental helicopter flight across the United States. The helicopter took off from the deck of the USS Hornet in San Diego, Calif., landing on the deck of the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt off Jacksonville, Fla. Cmdr. James R. Williford, Lt. David A. Beil, and Aviation Machinest Mate 1st Class Paul J. Bert were on the 2,105.64-mile flight, and made the journey in 16 hours and 52 minutes.
March 6, 1985: The Rockwell International-built Space Shuttle Atlantis (OV-104) is rolled out in Palmdale, Calif. It would later be transported, overland, to Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., for delivery to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. After flying 33 missions, it was decommissioned and is now on display at Kennedy.
March 6, 1990: A U.S. Air Force SR-71 Blackbird, tail number 61-7972, flew its final mission, setting three Fédération Aéronautique Internatioale in the process. The aircraft left Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, Calif., with Lt. Col. Raymond E. “Ed” Yeilding and Lt. Col. Joseph T. “J.T.” Vida, at the controls. After takeoff from Palmdale, the aircraft headed offshore for refueling from a KC-135. The plane entered the “west gate,” a radar reference point over Oxnard on the southern California coast, then headed east to Washington Dulles International Airport at Washington, D.C. The transcontinental flight, a distance of 2,404.05 statute miles, took 1 hour, 7 minutes, 53.69 seconds, for an average of 2,124.51 miles per hour. The same aircraft had previously set a speed record from New York to London of 1:54:56.4, averaging 1,806.957 mph. Next, 972 set a record flying London to Los Angeles, 5,446.87 miles, in 3 hours, 47 minutes, 39 seconds, averaging 1,435.49 mph. Aircraft 61-7972 is now on display at the Steven V. Udvar-Hazy Center, Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum.
March 6, 1998: The Bell Helicopter Eagle Eye, Model 918 made its first flight. The Eagle Eye was an American tiltrotor unmanned aerial vehicle that was offered as one of the competitors in the U.S. Navy’s VT-UAV (Vertical Takeoff – Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) program. The program began in 1993 with the TR911X 7/8th scale prototype. The composite airframe was originally designed and built for Bell by Scaled Composites in Mojave, Calif. The two demonstrator aircraft were powered by an Allison 250-C20 turboshaft engine mounted in the center fuselage, with a transmission system driving a tilting rotor at the end of each wing. Following its first flight, the aircraft entered a flight test program. Phase 1 (land-based operations testing) was completed in April 1998. Phase 2 (sea-based testing) started shortly after that. The first prototype was destroyed in an accident, but the second successfully completed the test program. These successes led to the entry into the Deepwater program in 2002 and construction of the full size vehicle, called the TR918, powered by a Pratt & Whitney Canada PW207D turboshaft engine. Bell had promoted the Eagle Eye for a decade without finding a buyer, but in the summer of 2002, the U.S. Coast Guard ordered the UAV as part of the service’s broad Deepwater re-equipment effort. The Coast Guard machine was slightly scaled up from the company demonstrator and was designated as Bell HV-911. It had a maximum speed of 200 knot and an endurance of 5.5 hours with a 200-pound payload. The Coast Guard then put funds marked for development and procurement of the vehicle on hold. The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps also expressed some interest, and there were inquiries from various foreign governments.
The Eagle Eye prototype crashed in 2006, and Bell could not get enough interest or money to keep the program going.
March 6, 2011: The space shuttle and space station crews hugged goodbye after more than a week together, but saved their most heartfelt farewell for Discovery, which was on its final voyage after nearly three decades. In this photograph, the crews of STS-133 and the International Space Station eat a meal together in the Unity node. The crews eating are, from left, Steve Bowen, Nicole Stott, Steve Lindsey, Paolo Nespoli and Michael Barratt. Combined, the crews of the shuttle and station totaled 12 people.
March 7, 1942: The first Tuskegee Airmen graduated from advanced pilot training at Tuskegee Army Air Field, Ala. The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African American U.S. military pilots. “No standards were lowered for the pilots or any of the others who trained in operations, meteorology, intelligence, engineering, medicine or any of the other officer fields,” The Tuskegee Airmen National Historical Museum writes. “Enlisted members were trained to be aircraft and engine mechanics, armament specialists, radio repairmen, parachute riggers, control tower operators, policemen, administrative clerks and all of the other skills necessary to fully function as an Army Air Corp flying squadron or ground support unit.”
March 7, 1961: The X-15 (s/n 56-6671) became the first aircraft in the world to reach Mach 4 when U.S. Air Force test pilot Maj. Robert M. White took the research plane to Mach 4.43 (2,905 mph) in the first flight with an XLR-99 rocket engine. The X-15 launched over Silver Lake, a dry lakebed near the California/Nevada border, at 10:28:33.0 a.m., PST. The flight plan called for a burn time of 116 seconds, an altitude of 84,000 feet and a predicted maximum speed of Mach 4. The actual duration of the engine burn was 127.0 seconds. Peak altitude was lower than planned, at 77,450 feet. The longer burn and lower altitude translated into the higher speed. The total duration of the flight, from the airdrop from the Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress carrier, 52-008, to touchdown at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., was 8 minutes, 34.1 seconds.
March 7, 1994: The first women to serve aboard a U.S. combatant ship received their assignments from the Navy. According to the commander of Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69), the women’s arrival on the ship on and after March 10 “produced relentless media interest that continued throughout the year.” In fact, Eisenhower accommodated more than 300 media visits that year — all squeezed into the short intervals between combat missions. Eisenhower’s crew of women and men participated in the key operations of 1994: Uphold Democracy, in the Caribbean; Southern Watch, in the Arabian Gulf; and Deny Flight, Provide Promise, and Sharp Guard, in the Mediterranean.
March 8, 1965: First U.S. combat forces arrive in Vietnam, on the beaches of Da Nang. Based in Okinawa, Japan, at the time, 3,500 Marines of the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade were deployed to Da Nang to protect the U.S. airbase from Viet Cong attacks.
March 8, 1979: Space Shuttle Columbia arrived on a trailer after a 38-mile journey from the Rockwell International plan in Palmdale, Calif., through Lancaster then on to Edwards AFB. The first step in its travels toward space was taken at 5 to 10 mph. The orbital vehicle was delivered to NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Facility to be mated with its Boeing 747 carrier aircraft.
March 9, 1918: The first American air casualty in World War I, Capt. James E. Miller, lost his life in a French SPAD while flying a practice patrol across the German lines. Miller was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in 2017. The award was presented to his great-grandson during a twilight tattoo event at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Va.
March 9, 2011: Space Shuttle Discovery landed at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on its last flight into space before retirement. It was the first of the space shuttles to be retired, and made the most flights of any space shuttle. Discovery was the third of five operational orbiters to be built, and its first mission was Aug. 30-Sept. 5 1984. In total, Discovery spent a cumulative total of nearly a full year in space. Discovery is now on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
March 10, 1948: NACA test pilot Herbert Henry Hoover becomes the first civilian to exceed the speed of sound when he flies the No. 2 Bell XS-1 to a speed of 703 mph (Mach 1.065). Hoover was awarded the Air Medal “for meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight.” During his short career with NACA, Hoover completed more than a dozen supersonic flights. Hoover was killed on August 14, 1952, while piloting a B-45A Tornado Jet Bomber near Burrowsville, Va., about 45 miles southeast of Richmond. Hoover and his copilot, John Harper, both parachuted from the exploding aircraft, with Harper landing safely, suffering only a bruised shoulder.
March 10, 1956: The British Fairey Delta 2, piloted by Lt. Cmdr. Peter Twiss, became the first aircraft to exceed 1,000 mph. It reached a top speed of 1,132 mph. The aircraft was built in response to a specification from the Ministry of Supply for a specialized aircraft for conducting investigations into flight and control at transonic and supersonic speeds. Features included a delta wing and a drooped nose. The Delta 2 held the absolute World Air Speed Record for over a year.
March 10, 1959: The first of four captive-carry flights of the X-15 mated to its Boeing NB-52A Stratofortress “mother ship” (s/n 52-003A) took place. North American Aviation test pilot A. Scott Crossfield was in the cockpit of the X-15. The purpose was to verify that all the systems on both the X-15 and the B-52 were properly functioning up to the point that the drop would occur. While earlier rocketplanes, the Bell X-1 series, the the Douglas D-558-II, and the Bell X-2, were airplanes powered by rocket engines, the X-15 was a quantum leap in technology. It was a spacecraft. Like the other rocketplanes, the X-15 was designed to be carried aloft by a “mothership,” rather than to takeoff and climb to the test altitude under its own power. The carrier aircraft was originally planned to be a Convair B-36 intercontinental bomber but this was soon changed to a Boeing B-52 Stratofortress.
March 10, 1967: U.S. Air Force Capt. Max C. Brestel, a pilot assigned to the 354th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 355th Tactical Fighter Wing at Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base, was flying a Republic F-105D-31-RE Thunderchief fighter-bomber. His call sign was “Kangaroo 03.” During an attack on the Thai Nguyen Steel Mill, the single most heavily defended target in North Vietnam, Captain Brestel engaged and shot down two enemy MiG-17 fighters. The F-105 was the largest single-seat, single-engine combat aircraft in history. It was designed as a Mach 2 plus tactical nuclear strike aircraft and fighter-bomber. The fuselage of the F-105B incorporated the “area rule” which gave the Thunderchief its characteristic “wasp waist” shape.