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.
May 21, 1927: Charles Lindbergh flies across the Atlantic nonstop from New York City to Paris, leaving New York on May 20, and landing in Paris on May 21. It is the first solo transatlantic flight. In his Ryan monoplane Spirit of St. Louis, he covers 3,600 miles in 33 hours, 29 min and wins the Orteig Prize of $25,000, nearly a half-million dollars today. The Spirit of St. Louis is now on display at the National Air and Space Museum.
May 21, 1956: A B-52 Stratofortress drops the United States’ first air-dropped hydrogen bomb, a 3.75 megaton device, on Bikini Atoll. The United States had been testing nuclear weapons on Bikini Atoll since 1946, but the early tests were all ground based. The B-52 dropped the bomb from more than 50,000 feet, and it exploded at about 15,000 feet. The successful test indicated that hydrogen bombs were viable airborne weapons and that the arms race had taken another giant leap forward.
May 21, 1975: The Rutan VariEze made its first flight. The aircraft is a composite, canard aircraft designed by Burt Rutan. It is a high-performance homebuilt aircraft, hundreds of which have been constructed. The design later evolved into the Long-EZ and other, larger cabin canard aircraft. The VariEze is notable for popularizing the canard configuration and mold-less composite construction for homebuilt aircraft.
May 22, 1948: Jacqueline Cochran flew her “Lucky Strike Green” North American Aviation P-51B-15-NA Mustang, U.S. Army Air Force serial number 43-24760, over a 1,242.743 miles closed circuit from Palm Springs, Calif., to Mesa Gigante, a point near Santa Fe, N.M., and return. The flight, timed by H. Dudley Wright, a representative of the National Aeronautic Association, took two hours, 46 minutes, 38 seconds.
According to contemporary newspaper reports, difficulties with the airplane’s oxygen system “prevented Miss Cochran from taking advantage of favorable winds at higher altitudes which might have boosted her speed.” Her Mustang averaged 447.470 miles per hour, setting two Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Records for Speed, and United States National Aeronautic Association speed record for its class.
Two days later, she would set another speed record in this same P-51. While the FAI records have been superseded, the United States records still stand.
May 22, 1969: Just over 100 hours after launch from Kennedy Space Center, Snoopy, the Lunar Module for the Apollo 10 mission came within 47,400 feet of the lunar surface during a full-dress rehearsal for the upcoming Apollo 11 landing. Mission Commander Thomas P. Stafford and Lunar Module Pilot Eugene A. Cernan rode Snoopy toward the surface and back, while John W. Young remained in orbit around the Moon aboard the Command and Service Module, Charlie Brown.
May 22, 1975: The Joint Test Force completed stall and spin tests on the Fairchild-Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II. It was concluded that the aircraft was highly resistant to entering spins and easy to recover from them.
May 22, 2002: The Boeing X-45 made its first flight. The X-45 was an unmanned combat air vehicle and was a concept demonstrator for a next generation of completely autonomous military aircraft, developed by Boeing’s Phantom Works. Manufactured by Boeing Integrated Defense Systems, the X-45 was a part of DARPA’s Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems project.
May 23, 1953: At Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., Jacqueline Cochran set another Fédération Aéronautique Internationale speed record with the Canadair CL-13 Sabre Mk.3, No. 19200. Flying over a 500-kilometer closed circuit without payload, the Orenda-powered Sabre averaged 591.565 miles per hour.
“The following week a morning opened up with conditions satisfactory, except for a 15-knot wind, and I went around the course five times for a 500-kilometer record of 590 miles per hour,” said Cochran in her book The Stars at Noon. “The plane, without the carrying of external tanks, had fuel for only 17 minutes of full-power low-altitude flying, so for this longer run I had to carry the external tanks, which slowed the airplane down by about 40 miles per hour.
“Even so, I only had fuel for 27 minutes of full-power flying, which was insufficient, so I had to make the runs pulling 94 per cent of full power rather than full power,” she continued. “I landed on the dry lakebed just as I did after the 100-kilometer run and again with two minutes of fuel remaining.”
During May and June 1953, Cochran, a consultant to Canadair, flew the Sabre Mk.3 to FAI records over the 15/25 kilometer straight course, the 100-kilometer closed circuit, the 500-kilometer closed circuit and to an altitude record of 14,377 meters feet. She was the first woman to “break the Sound Barrier” when she flew the same aircraft to Mach 1.04.
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 23, 1969: Sgt. Paul Meyer was a U.S. Air Force aircraft mechanic at RAF Mildenhall in England. At the age of 23 he was already a Vietnam veteran. He had married earlier that year and was close to his wife and stepchildren. However, he had suffered flashbacks and was homesick and unhappy. A few days before the incident, he’d requested to be transferred from Mildenhall to Langley Air Force Base, Va., but the request was turned down.
On the night of May 22, 1969, he was at a military colleague’s house party where he drank heavily and began to behave erratically and aggressively. His friends tried to persuade him to go to bed but he escaped through a window. Shortly after, Suffolk Police found him on the A-11 road, and he was arrested for being drunk and disorderly.
He was escorted back to his barracks and told to sleep it off. Instead of obeying orders he assumed the alias “Captain Epstein,” went to a hangar where a Lockheed C-130E Hercules was and ordered it to be prepared. He had worked on the aircraft so knew the protocols to access it and had a working knowledge of how to fly it. The stolen aircraft took off at 5:08 a.m. During the flight he was able to make a phone call to his then wife, Jane, which lasted for more than an hour. The last twenty minutes of their conversation was recorded.
At one point he can be heard to say, “Leave me alone for about five minutes, I’ve got trouble.” Around 6:55 a.m., radar contact was lost with Meyer’s aircraft and an hour and 45 minutes after takeoff, the C-130 crashed into the English Channel. A few days later small parts from the missing C-130, including a life raft, washed up near the Channel Island of Alderney. Meyer’s body was never recovered.
May 24, 1920: The Boeing Model 8, an American biplane aircraft designed by Boeing specifically for their first test pilot, Herb Munter, made its first flight. The Model 8 design was inspired by the Ansaldo A.1 Balilla. The fuselage was covered in mahogany plywood, with a two-passenger forward cockpit and pilot rear cockpit, a seating configuration that would be the standard for all following three-seaters. The wing configuration and power plant were similar to the Boeing Model 7. The Model 8 first flew in 1920 and was the first aircraft to fly over Mount Rainier. The aircraft was destroyed in a hangar fire in Kent, Wash., in 1923.
May 24, 1978: McDonnell Douglas delivered the 5,000th F-4 Phantom II, F-4E-65-MC 77-0290, to the United States Air Force in a ceremony at the McDonnell Aircraft Company division at St. Louis, Mo. The Mach 2 fighter bomber was developed in the early 1950s as a long range, missile-armed interceptor for the U.S. Navy.
The first Phantom II, XF4H-1 Bu. No. 142259, made its maiden flight at St. Louis with future McDonnell Douglas president Robert C. Little at the controls. During flight testing, the U.S. Air Force was impressed by the new interceptor and soon ordered its own version, the F-110A Spectre.
Under the Department of Defense redesignation, both Navy and Air Force versions became the F-4. Its name, “Phantom II,” was chosen by James S. McDonnell, and was in keeping with his naming the company’s fighters after supernatural beings.
May 25, 1927: At Wright Field, now Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio, U.S. Army Air Corps 1st Lt. James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle became the first pilot to successfully perform an outside loop. Flying a Curtiss P-1B Hawk pursuit, he began the maneuver in level flight at 10,000 feet, then pushed the nose down into a dive. When he reached 280 miles per hour, Doolittle continued to pitch the nose “down” and the airplane flew through a complete vertical circle, with the pilot’s head to the outside of the loop. Doolittle attempted to repeat the outside loop at the 1929 Cleveland National Air Races, with a Curtiss P-1C Hawk. The airplane’s wings came off, but Doolittle parachuted to safety.
May 25, 1953: North American Aviation Chief Test Pilot George S. Welch took the YF-100A Super Sabre, U.S. Air Force serial number 52-5754, for its first flight at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. The airplane reached Mach 1.03. Development of the Super Sabre began with an effort to increase the speed of the F-86D and F-86E Sabre fighters. The wings had more sweep and the airfoil sections were thinner. A much more powerful engine would be needed to achieve supersonic speed in level flight. As design work on the “Sabre 45” proceeded, the airplane evolved to a completely new design. Initially designated XF-100, continued refinements resulted in the first two aircraft being redesignated YF-100A.
May 25, 1961: Capt. Walter C. McMeen, U.S. Air Force., flew a Kaman HH-43B Huskie, 60-0263, to an altitude of 8,037 meters (26,368 feet) over Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. This established a new Fédération Aéronautique Internationale World Record for Altitude with a 1,000 Kilogram Payload. McMeen was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his achievement. This same helicopter set a World Record for Altitude Without Payload at 32,841 feet), Oct. 18, 1961.
May 25, 1964: The Ryan XV-5 Vertifan, American jet-powered V/STOL experimental aircraft made its first flight. The Vertifan was a jet-powered V/STOL experimental aircraft in the 1960s. The U.S. Army commissioned the Ryan VZ-11-RY (re-designated XV-5A in 1962) in 1961, along with the Lockheed VZ-10 Hummingbird (re-designated XV-4 in 1962). It successfully proved the concept of ducted lift fans, but the project was cancelled after multiple fatal crashes unrelated to the lift system.
The aircraft was difficult to control during landing for several reasons. Yaw control was provided by changing the angle of the lift fans in opposing directions, but this proved to have far too little yaw control for precise low speed handling. The duct doors also caused difficulty with control, as even at low speeds opening them caused significant changes in pitch. The aircraft also suffered from very poor acceleration during standard runway takeoffs.
Although the program was cancelled, the ducted fan concept had been judged successful and several follow-up programs were proposed. The ducted fans were considered very quiet for their time and were capable of operating from standard surface materials. Other VTOL aircraft often require protective mats to avoid damaging ground surfaces with their exhaust. This is not a problem with the much cooler exhaust from ducted fans.
May 25, 1968: The Northrop Grumman EA-6B Prowler, a twin-engine, mid-wing electronic warfare aircraft, developed from the Grumman A-6 Intruder, made its maiden flight. The Prowler was in service with the U.S. Armed Forces from 1971 until 2019. It has carried out numerous missions for jamming enemy radar systems, and in gathering radio intelligence on those and other enemy air defense systems.
From the 1998 retirement of the U.S. Air Force EF-111 Raven electronic warfare aircraft, the EA-6B was the only dedicated electronic warfare plane available for missions by the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Marine Corps, and the U.S. Air Force until the fielding of the Navy’s EA-18G Growler in 2009. Following its last deployment in late 2014, the EA-6B was withdrawn from U.S. Navy service in June 2015, followed by the Marine Corps in March 2019.
May 25, 1973: Skylab 2, the first manned mission to Skylab, launched from Launch Pad 39A at Cape Canaveral, Fla. Skylab 2 was the first manned flight to the U. S. orbital space station. The mission was launched on an Apollo command and service module by a Saturn IB rocket, and carried NASA astronauts Pete Conrad, Joseph P. Kerwin, Paul J. Weitz to the station.
The Skylab 2 mission established a 28-day record for human spaceflight duration. Furthermore, its crew was the first space station occupants ever to return safely to Earth – the only previous space station occupants, the crew of the 1971 Soyuz 11 mission that had crewed the Salyut 1 station for 24 days, died upon reentry due to unexpected cabin depressurization. The crewed Skylab missions were officially designated Skylab 2, 3, and 4. Miscommunication about the numbering resulted in the mission emblems reading “Skylab I,” “Skylab II,” and “Skylab 3” respectively.
May 26, 1920: The Boeing GA-1, an armored triplane, made its first flight at McCook Field, Ohio. Designed in 1919, it was powered by a pair of modified Liberty engines driving pusher propellers. The first of the Engineering Division’s heavily armored GAX series (ground attack, experimental) aircraft, the ponderous airplane was intended to strafe ground troops while remaining immune to attack from the ground as well as from other enemy aircraft.
On June 7, 1920, Boeing was awarded a contract for 20 production models designated GA-1. Before the first was delivered in May 1921, the order had been reduced to 10. The GA-1 was sent to Kelly Field, Texas, in early 1923 for service tests with the only U.S. aerial attack formation, the 3rd Attack Group.
These tests showed the aircraft to be unacceptable. They had poor visibility and performance, particularly in rate of climb, maneuverability, and range. The aircraft suffered from noise and vibrations caused by the 3/16-inch-thick armor. Takeoff runs were very long by the standards of the day. The GA-1s were extremely unpopular with the pilots conducting the evaluation.
May 26, 1942: The prototype Northrop XP-61-NO Black Widow, 41-19509, made its first flight at Northrop Field, Hawthorne, Calif., with free-lance test pilot Vance Breese at the controls. The first American airplane designed specifically as a night fighter, the XP-61 was the same size as a medium bomber: 48 feet, 11.2 inches long with a wingspan of 66 feet meters, and overall height of 14 feet, 8.2 inches. The prototype was equipped with a mockup of the top turret. Its empty weight was 22,392 pounds, gross weight of 25,150 pounds and maximum takeoff weight of 29,673 pounds.
May 26, 1950: The Douglas XA2D-1 Skyshark, an experimental turboprop-powered version of the company’s AD-1 Skyraider, made its first flight at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., flown by George Jansen. The aircraft’s turboprop engine transmitted power to two large counter-rotating propellers through a complicated gearbox.
May 26, 1961: The Lockheed CF-104 Starfighter Canadian prototype (Canadair CL-90) was test flown at Palmdale, Calif. The CF-104 is a modified version of the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter supersonic fighter built in Canada by Canadair under license. It was primarily used as a ground attack aircraft; despite being designed as an interceptor. It served with the Royal Canadian Air Force and later the Canadian Armed Forces until it was replaced by the McDonnell Douglas CF-18 Hornet.
May 26, 1969: The Apollo 10 astronauts – Thomas Stafford, John Young and Eugene Cernan — returned to Earth after a successful eight-day dress rehearsal for the first manned moon landing. Apollo 10 was the fourth crewed mission in the Apollo program, and the second (after Apollo 8) to orbit the Moon.
It was the F mission: a “dress rehearsal” for the first Moon landing, testing all the components and procedures just short of actually landing. While Young remained in the Command Module orbiting the Moon, Stafford and Cernan flew the Apollo Lunar Module to a descent orbit within 8.4 nautical miles of the lunar surface, the point where powered descent for landing would begin. After orbiting the Moon 31 times, Apollo 10 returned safely to Earth, and its success enabled the first actual landing (Apollo 11) two months later.
May 26, 2010: The X-51A Waverider Scramjet Engine Demonstrator vehicle completed the longest ever, supersonic, combustion, ramjet-powered, hypersonic flight, during a mission performed off the coast of southern California. The more than 200-second burn by the Waverider’s Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne-built air-breathing scramjet engine, accelerated the test vehicle to Mach 5.
The longest scramjet burn during a flight test lasted a mere 12 seconds (in a NASA X-43A). Air Force officials called the test an unqualified success and considered the mission the first use of a practical hydrocarbon-fueled scramjet in flight. The X-51 departed Edwards AFB, at about 10 a.m., carried aloft under the left wing of an Air Force Flight Test Center B-52H Stratofortress.
The engine vehicle flew at 50,000 feet over the Point Mugu Naval Air Warfare Center Sea Range. Four seconds after the Waverider released from the B-52, an Army Tactical Missile solid rocket booster accelerated the X-51 to approximately Mach 4.8 before it and a connecting inter-stage jettisoned. At that point, the X-51’s SJY61 engine ignited.
The successful flight reached an altitude of nearly 70,000 feet and a top speed of Mach 5. The speed of sound consists of traveling a mile in 4.7 seconds or less. Mach speed is calculated by taking the speed of an object and dividing that by the speed of sound. Mach 1.0 or less is considered Subsonic; Transonic is defined as reaching Mach 1.0; faster than Mach 1.0 is Supersonic and faster than Mach 5.0 defines Hypersonic.