April 15, 1935: The Douglas TBD Devastator made its first flight. It was the U.S. Navy’s first all-metal monoplane. The Devastator was an American torpedo bomber of the United States Navy. Ordered in 1934, it first flew in 1935 and entered service in 1937. At that point, it was the most advanced aircraft flying for the Navy and possibly for any navy in the world. However, the fast pace of aircraft development quickly caught up with it, and by the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the TBD was already outdated. The Devastator performed well in early battles, most notably in the Battle of Coral Sea, but earned notoriety for a catastrophic performance during the Battle of Midway in which 41 Devastators recorded zero torpedo hits with only six surviving to return to their carriers. Vastly outclassed in both speed and maneuverability by the Mitsubishi Zero fighters they faced, most of the force was wiped out with little consequence except to distract the Zeros from the SBD Dauntless dive bombers that sank four carriers and a heavy cruiser. Although much of the Devastator’s dismal performance was later attributed to the many well-documented defects in the U.S. Mark 13 torpedo, the aircraft was withdrawn from frontline service after Midway, being replaced by the Grumman TBF Avenger.
April 15, 1952: Boeing’s Chief of Flight Test, Alvin M. “Tex” Johnston, and Air Force Lt. Col. Guy M. Townsend ran all eight turbojet engines to full power and released the brakes on the YB-52 Stratofortress prototype, 49-231. “With an awesome eight-engine roar, the YB-52 sprang forward, accelerating rapidly, wings curving upward as they accepted the 235,000-pound initial flight gross weight,” said Johnson. “At V2 (takeoff speed) the airplane lifted off the runway, because of the 6-degree angle of incidence of the wing, and at 11:08 a.m. we were airborne. The initial flight of the YB-52 had begun.”
The YB-52 remained over the Seattle area for approximately 40 minutes while Johnson and Townsend ran through a series of systems checks. When completed, they climbed to 25,000 feet and flew the new bomber to Larson Air Force Base at Moses Lake, Wash., where they stayed airborne for continued testing. The Stratofortress finally touched down after 3 hours, 8 minutes—the longest first flight in Boeing’s history up to that time. Johnston radioed that the airplane performed exactly as the engineers had predicted. The YB-52 had been ordered as the second of two XB-52s, but modifications and additional equipment installed during the building resulted in enough differences to warrant a designation change. The first XB-52, 49-230, should have been the first to fly, but it was damaged during ground testing.
April 16, 1912: Harriet Quimby becomes the first woman to fly the English Channel. Quimby took off from Dover, England, en route to Calais, France, and made the flight in 59 minutes, landing about 25 miles from Calais. Her accomplishment received little media attention, however, as the sinking of the Titanic ocean liner the day before riveted the interest of the public and filled newspapers. Quimby was a pioneering aviator, journalist, and film screenwriter. In 1911, she was awarded a U.S. pilot’s certificate by the Aero Club of America, becoming the first woman to gain a pilot’s license in the United States. On July 1, 1912, she flew in the Third Annual Boston Aviation Meet at Squantum, Mass. Although she had obtained her ACA certificate to participate in ACA events, the Boston meet was an unsanctioned contest. Quimby flew out to Boston Light in Boston Harbor at about 3,000 feet, then returned and circled the airfield. William A. P. Willard, the organizer of the event was a passenger in her brand-new two-seat Bleriot monoplane. At an altitude of 1,000 feet, the aircraft unexpectedly pitched forward for reasons still unknown. Both Willard and Quimby were ejected from their seats and fell to their deaths, while the plane glided down and lodged itself in the mud.
April 16, 1949: The Berlin Airlift began on June 24, 1948, and ended on May 12, 1949. However, from noon on April 15 to noon April 16, 1949, crews worked around the clock and delivered 12,941 tons of coal in 1,383 flights, without a single accident. A welcome side effect of the effort was that operations, in general, were boosted, and tonnage increased from 6,729 tons to 8,893 tons per day thereafter. In total, the airlift delivered 234,476 tons in April 1949.
April 16, 1949: With test pilot Tony LeVier and flight test engineer Glenn Fulkerson on board, the Lockheed YF-94 prototype made its first flight at Van Nuys Airport in California. The aircraft was the first jet-powered all-weather interceptor in service with the U.S. Air Force and was the first production aircraft powered by an afterburning engine. Built to a 1948 U.S. Air Force specification for a radar-equipped interceptor to replace the aging Northrop F-61 Black Widow and North American F-82 Twin Mustang, it was specifically designed to counter the threat of the Soviet Union’s new Tupolev Tu-4 bombers – itself a reverse-engineered Boeing B-29. The Curtiss-Wright XF-87 Blackhawk had been designated to be the Air Force’s first jet night fighter, but its performance was subpar, and Lockheed was asked to design a jet night fighter on a crash program basis. The F-94 was derived from the TF-80C (later T-33A Shooting Star) which was a two-seat trainer version of the F-80 Shooting Star. A lengthened nose area with guns, radar, and an automatic fire control system was added. Since the conversion seemed so simple, a contract was awarded to Lockheed in early 1949. The early test YF-94s used 75 percent of the parts used in the earlier F-80 and T-33As.
The Lockheed F-94 Starfire was a first-generation jet-powered all-weather, day/night interceptor of the U.S. Air Force. It reached operational service in May 1950 with Air Defense Command, replacing the piston-engined North American F-82 Twin Mustang in the all-weather interceptor role.
The F-94 was the first operational Air Force fighter equipped with an afterburner, and the first jet-powered all-weather fighter to enter combat during the Korean War in January 1953. It had a relatively brief operational life, being replaced in the mid-1950s by the Northrop F-89 Scorpion and North American F-86D Sabre. The last aircraft left active-duty service in 1958 and the Air National Guard service in 1959.
April 16, 1972: Apollo 16 was launched from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Fla. Aboard where U.S. Navy Capt. John Watts Young, the Mission Commander, on his fourth space flight; U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Thomas Kenneth Mattingly II, Command Module Pilot, who had been scheduled for the Apollo 13 mission; and U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Charles Moss Duke, Jr., U.S. Air Force, Lunar Module Pilot. Apollo 16 was the 10th manned Apollo mission, and the fifth to land on The Moon. The landing site was in the Descartes Highlands.
April 16, 1988: The McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) T-45 Goshawk made its first flight. The Goshawk is a highly modified version of the British BAE Systems Hawk land-based training jet aircraft. The T-45 is used by the U.S. Navy as an aircraft carrier-capable trainer.
April 17, 1956: The first production F-104A Starfighter was rolled out at the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation facility at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, Calif. The aircraft, one of the original 17 pre-production YF-104As, incorporated many improvements over the XF-104 prototype, the most visible being a longer fuselage. The Starfighter was a single-place, single-engine supersonic interceptor. It was designed by a team led by the legendary Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson.
Lockheed built 153 of the F-104A Starfighter’s initial production version. A total of 2,578 F-104s of all variants were produced by Lockheed and its licensees, Canadair, Fiat, Fokker, MBB, Messerschmitt, Mitsubishi, and SABCA.
April 17, 1969: Air Force Maj. Jerauld Gentry flew the Martin Marietta X-24A lifting body on its first unpowered glide flight. The X-24 was an American experimental aircraft developed from a joint U.S. Air Force-NASA program named PILOT (1963–1975). It was designed and built to test lifting body concepts, experimenting with the concept of unpowered reentry and landing, later used by the Space Shuttle. Originally built as the X-24A, the aircraft was later rebuilt as the X-24B. The X-24 was drop launched from a modified B-52 Stratofortress at high altitudes before igniting its rocket engine; after expending its rocket fuel, the pilot would glide the X-24 to an unpowered landing.
April 17, 1970: Apollo 13 splashed down in the Pacific Ocean southwest of American Samoa. The landing was just 4 miles from the recovery ship, USS Iwo Jima (LPH-2). With their spacecraft crippled by an internal explosion on April 13, the planned lunar landing mission had to be aborted. Astronauts James A. Lovell, Jr., John L. Swigert, and Fred W. Haise, Jr., worked continuously with engineers at Mission Control, Houston, Texas, to overcome a series of crises that threatened their lives.
April 18, 1942: The U.S. Army Air Corps bombed Tokyo and other locations on Honshu during World War II in what was known as the Doolittle Raid. It was the first air operation to strike the Japanese archipelago. Although the raid caused comparatively minor damage, it demonstrated that the Japanese mainland was vulnerable to American air attacks. It served as retaliation for the attack on Pearl Harbor and provided an important boost to American morale. The raid was planned by, led by, and named after Lt. Col. James Doolittle.
Under the final plan, 16 B-25B Mitchell medium bombers, each with a crew of five, were launched from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet. There was no fighter escort. After bombing military and industrial targets in Japan, the B-25 crews were to continue westward to land in China.
The raid on Japan killed about 50 people and injured 400, including civilians. Damage to Japanese military and industrial targets was minimal but the raid had major psychological effects. In the United States, it raised morale; in Japan, it raised fear and doubt about the ability of military leaders to defend the home islands, but the bombing and strafing of civilians also steeled Japanese resolve to gain retribution, and this was exploited for propaganda purposes. It also pushed forward Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto’s plans to attack Midway Island in the Central Pacific, an attack that turned into a decisive defeat of the Imperial Japanese Navy by the U.S. Navy in the Battle of Midway. The consequences were most severely felt in China, where Japanese reprisals caused the deaths of 250,000 civilians and 70,000 soldiers.
Of the 16 Army Air Force crews involved, 14 complete crews of five returned to the United States or U.S. forces elsewhere, except for one who was killed in action. Eight aviators were captured by Japanese forces in Eastern China and three of these were later executed. All but one of the B-25s was destroyed in crashes, while the 16th landed at Vladivostok, in the Soviet Union. Because the Soviet Union was not officially at war with Japan, it was required, under international law, to intern the bomber’s crew for the duration of the war, and their B-25 was confiscated. However, within a year, the crew was secretly allowed to leave the Soviet Union, under the guise of an escape, and they returned to the United States by way of Allied-occupied Iran and North Africa.
Doolittle initially believed that the loss of all his aircraft would lead to his court martial, but he instead received the Medal of Honor and was promoted two ranks to brigadier general.
Left: Lt. Col. James “Jimmy” Doolittle performs a full-throttle takeoff from the USS Hornet 650 miles from Japan. Right: James Doolittle receives the Medal of Honor from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Looking on (left to right) are Lt. Gen. H.H. Arnold, Chief of Army Air Forces, Mrs. Josephine Doolittle, and then Chief of Staff, Gen. George C. Marshall.
April 18, 1943: Acting on Top Secret decrypted radio traffic, 18 Lockheed P-38G Lightning twin-engine fighters of the 339th Fighter Squadron, 347th Fighter Group, 13th Air Force, flew the longest interception mission of World War II— more than 600 miles—from their base at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands to Bougainville. Arriving at the planned intercept point, the aircraft was just in time to see two Japanese Mitsubishi G4M1 “Betty” long-range bombers escorted by Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighters. The Americans engaged the Japanese in a massive aerial dogfight. Both Bettys were shot down. One crashed on the island and another went into the sea. One of the bombers carried Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, commander-in-chief of, the Combined Fleet. The admiral and several of his senior staff were killed in the attack. Yamamoto had planned the attack on the United States bases at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and his death was a serious blow to the Empire of Japan.
April 18, 1952: The prototype Consolidated-Vultee YB-60-1-CF, with Chief Test Pilot Beryl A. Erickson, and Arthur S. Witchell on board, made its first flight at Carswell Air Force Base, Texas. The YB-60 was a proposed competitor to Boeing’s B-52 Stratofortress and was developed from a B-36F fuselage by adding swept wings and tail surfaces and was powered by eight turbojet engines. Its bomb load was expected to be nearly double that of the B-52 and it would have been much cheaper to produce since it was based on an existing operational bomber.
The YB-60’s first flight was three days after that of the Boeing YB-52 Stratofortress. In testing, it was 100 mph slower than the B-52 prototype, despite using the same engines. A second B-60 prototype was cancelled before completion, and after 66 flight hours, the YB-60 test program was cancelled. Both airframes were scrapped in 1954, with the second prototype never having flown.
April 18, 1958: Lt. Cmdr. George Watkins, U.S. Navy, set a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale World Altitude Record of 76,932 with a Grumman F11F-1F Tiger. The flight took place at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. The F11F-1F Tiger was a higher-performance variant of the U.S. Navy F11F single-seat, single-engine swept wing aircraft carrier-based supersonic fighter. The last two regular productions F11F-1 Tigers were completed as F11F-2s. The U.S. Navy determined that the F11F-2 was too heavy for operation aboard carriers and did not place any orders. The designation was changed from F11F-2 to F11F-1F, and later, to F-11B, although the remaining aircraft was no longer flying by that time.
April 18, 1973: The U.S. Air Force announces the result of the A-X fly-off with the Fairchild YA-10 selected over the Northrop YA-9. The YA-9 (top), and the YA-10 (bottom).
April 19, 1946: The Bell X-1 made its first glide flight. Originally designated the XS-1, the program was a joint NACA-U. S. Army/U.S. Air Force supersonic research project and the first of the so-called X-planes. The X-1 was conceived in 1944 and designed and built-in 1945. It achieved a speed of nearly 1,000 miles per hour in 1948. A derivative of this same design, the Bell X-1A, having greater fuel capacity and hence longer rocket burning time, exceeded 1,600 miles per hour in 1954. The X-1, piloted by Capt. Chuck Yeager, was the first manned airplane to exceed the speed of sound in level flight on Oct. 14, 1947.
April 19, 1955: Lockheed test pilot Herman “Fish” Salmon was flying the second prototype Lockheed XF-104 interceptor conducting tests of the General Electric T171 Vulcan gun system. At 47,000 feet, Salmon fired two bursts from the T171. On the second burst, vibrations from the gun loosened the airplane’s ejection hatch, located beneath the cockpit, resulting in explosive decompression.
The sudden loss of cabin pressure and drop to subfreezing temperatures caused Salmon’s face plate to fog over. Inflating air bladders pushed his helmet high on his head. The cockpit was filled with dust, fiberglass insulation, and other debris. All this restricted his visibility, both inside and outside the airplane. The very tight pressure suit restricted his movements.
Salmon cut the throttle, opened the speed brakes, and began a descending turn to the left to reach a lower altitude. By the time he had reached 15,000 feet, he had been unable to find a place on the desert floor to make an emergency landing. It was time to eject. At 288 mph, the ejection seat fired Salmon out of the bottom of the cockpit. He had to open his parachute manually (the seat timer did not operate) and he made a safe landing. The prototype XF-104 impacted the desert approximately 73 miles east-northeast of Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., and was destroyed. Salmon landed about 2 miles away. He was found two hours later and rescued by an Air Force helicopter.
April 19, 1960: The Grumman YA2F-1 Intruder, with Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation test pilot Robert K. Smyth at the controls, made its first flight. Smyth climbed to 15,000 feet, and the landing gear remained extended during the flight. At one point, Smyth attempted to retract it, but a malfunction was indicated, so they remained down and locked. The first flight lasted one hour.
Eight Grumman YA2F-1 Intruders were built for the test program. In 1962, they were redesignated A-6A Intruder. The Grumman A-6A Intruder was a carrier-based, all-weather attack bomber powered by two turbojet engines. The Intruder was a very successful combat aircraft with 693 built-in attack, tanker, and electronic warfare variants. They remained in service with the U.S. Navy until 1997.
April 19, 2006: Former experimental test pilot Albert Scott Crossfield, Jr., was en route from Prattville, Ala., to Manassas, Va. Scott Crossfield was flying his personal Cessna 210A. The Cessna was cruising at 11,000 feet under Instrument Flight Rules, under the control of the Atlanta Air Route Traffic Control Center. During the flight, he encountered a Level 6 thunderstorm. Crossfield requested permission to deviate from his planned course to avoid the severe turbulence, a request that was approved. Approximately 30 seconds later radar contact was lost near Ludville, Ga. The last indication was that the Cessna was descending through 5,500 feet. The wreckage of N6579X was found the following day by a Civil Air Patrol search team. Crossfield’s body was inside.
Crossfield was born Oct. 2, 1921, in Berkeley, Calif., the second of three children. He graduated high school in 1939 and then studied engineering at the University of Washington until taking a job at Boeing in late 1941. During this time, Scotty learned to fly in the Civilian Aviation Training Program.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry into World War II, Scott Crossfield enlisted as an aviation cadet in the U.S. Army Air Corps. After numerous delays, he joined the U.S. Navy on Feb. 21, 1942. He received his gold Naval Aviator wings in December 1942 and was commissioned as an ensign in, U.S. Naval Reserve.
Following the War, Scotty returned to the University of Washington to complete his degree. He took a part-time job operating the University’s wind tunnel. At the same time, he remained in the Naval Reserve, assigned to VF-74, a fighter squadron that flew both the Grumman F6F Hellcat and Chance Vought F4U Corsair out of NAS Sand Point, back where his naval career began.
In 1950 Crossfield joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics as a research test pilot at the High-Speed Flight Station, Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. He flew the Republic YF-84, F-84F Thunderstreak, and North American Aviation F-86 Sabre. Crossfield made 25 flights in the delta-winged Convair XF-92A, which he described as “the worst flying airplane built in modern times.” He also flew the Northrop X-4 and Bell X-5. He made 17 flights conducting stability tests in the Douglas D-558-1 Skystreak. He made 65 flights in the North American Aviation F-100A Super Sabre, including a test series that discovered a fatal flaw that led to the death of North America’s chief test pilot, George S. Welch.
Crossfield is known as a rocket plane pilot. He made 10 flights in the Bell X-1, and 89 in the Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket. He became the first pilot to exceed Mach 2 when he flew the Skyrocket to Mach 2.005 on Nov. 20, 1953.
Crossfield flew for NACA for approximately five years. During that time, approximately 500 flights were made at Edwards by NACA test pilots. Scott Crossfield flew 181 of them.
Crossfield left NACA in 1956 to join North American Aviation, Inc., as a chief engineering test pilot for the X-15 project. Between June 8, 1959, and Dec. 6, 1960, he made 14 flights in the X-15. Crossfield made 114 flights in rocket-powered aircraft, more than any other pilot.
After completing his work on the X-15, Crossfield followed Harrison “Stormy” Storms, who had been the Chief Engineer of North America’s Los Angeles Division (where the X-15 was built) to the Space and Information Systems Division in Downey, Calif., where he worked in quality assurance, reliability engineering and systems testing for the Apollo Command and Service Modules and the Saturn S-II second stage.
April 20, 1934: The Boeing P-29 made its first flight. A U.S. fighter prototype, the aircraft had fully-cantilevered wings, wing flaps, and an enclosed “greenhouse” retractable canopy. It was an attempt to produce a more advanced version of the highly successful P-26. Although slight gains were made in performance, the U.S. Army Air Corps and U.S. Navy did not order the aircraft.
April 20, 1962: During re-entry from 207,000 feet in X-15-3 (56-6672), Neil Armstrong inadvertently established a positive angle of attack during pull-out, and overshot Edwards AFB, heading south at Mach 3 and 100,000 feet altitude. In this photograph, Armstrong poses with the X-15A, number 56-6670, on Rogers Dry Lake after a 1960 flight. His right hand is resting on the rocket plane’s ball nose sensor.
April 20, 1964: The longest-ever first flight was made by the Lockheed Model 3e82, serial number 2946, the commercial version of the military C-130E. The aircraft took off from Marietta, Ga., and flew for 25 hours and one minute. The flight crew, led by Chief Production Pilot Joe Garrett, flew the Hercules in a racetrack pattern over Georgia and Alabama, and for all but 36 minutes of the flight, the outboard engines were shut down and their propellers feathered.
April 20, 1982: Production crews from Chartoff-Winkler Productions, Inc., arrived at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., to prepare for six weeks of filming for The Right Stuff. The Air Force Flight Test Center provided extensive support to the filming of the movie version of Tom Wolfe’s bestselling novel about test pilots and the birth of the space age.
April 20, 1987: The new control tower at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., was officially opened with the takeoff in an F-15. The new facility, stressed to withstand an 8.0 earthquake as well as 120-plus mph winds, replaced the 10-story red and white structure that had been a landmark since 1956. Today, the cab of the old tower is at the Century Circle exhibit outside the West Gate entry point.
April 21, 1918: Rittmeister Manfred Albrecht Freiher von Richthofen, “The Red Baron,” was killed in combat at Morlancourt Ridge, near Vaux-sur-Somme, France. He was 25 years old. A cavalry officer turned airplane pilot, Baron von Richthofen is considered the leading fighter ace of World War I, officially credited with 80 aerial victories. In January 1917, he had his airplane, an Albatross D.III, painted bright red. It was in this airplane that he scored most of his victories, and earned his nickname. Flying his Fokker Dr. I Dreidecker (tri-plane), von Richthofen was in pursuit of a Sopwith Camel F.1, flown by Royal Air Force Lt. Wilfred Reid May when he was attacked by a second Sopwith Camel BR piloted by Capt. Arthur Roy Brown, D.S.C., May’s commanding officer. During the battle, the Red Baron was wounded in the chest and crash-landed near Vaux-sur-Somme, France. He was still alive when he was reached by Australian infantry, but died almost immediately. He was buried with full military honors by No. 3 Squadron, Royal Australian Flying Corps.
April 21, 1944: The first military helicopter combat rescue began when Lt. Carter Harman, 1st Air Commando Group, was ordered to proceed from Lalaghat, India with his Vought-Sikorsky YR-4B, 43-28247, 600 miles to Taro in northern Burma. Tech. Sgt. Ed “Murphy” Hladovcak, a pilot of a Stinson L-1A Vigilant liaison airplane, had crashed in the jungle behind Japanese lines while transporting three wounded British soldiers. Harman was assigned to attempt to rescue the four men. It would be a marathon operation. It took Harman and Sikorsky 24 hours to arrive at Taro and, after short rest, he continued for another 125 miles to a jungle airstrip. The first two airmen were evacuated, but on the next flight, the helicopter engine seized. Harman managed to restart the engine on April 25, and one at a time, he rescued the two remaining airmen. For his actions, Harman was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
April 21, 1956: The Douglas F5D Skylancer made its first flight. The Skylancer was a development of the F4D Skyray jet fighter for the U.S. Navy. Starting as the F4D-2N, an all-weather version of the Skyray, the design was soon modified to take full advantage of the extra thrust of the Pratt & Whitney J57 eventually fitted to the Skyray, instead of the Westinghouse J40 originally planned. The aircraft proved easy to handle and performed well. After four aircraft had been constructed, however, the Navy cancelled its order. The stated reason was that the aircraft was too similar to the already-ordered Vought F8U Crusader, but it is believed by some historians that politics played as big a part; Douglas was already building a very large proportion of the Navy’s planes, and giving them the F5D contract would have made it even closer to monopoly. The project test pilot was Lt. Cmdr. Alan B. Shepard Jr. whose report stated that it was not needed by the Navy.