Voyager completes global flight


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Original:
Year
1986
Month Day
December 23

After nine days and four minutes in the sky, the experimental aircraft Voyager lands at Edwards Air Force Base in California, completing the first nonstop flight around the globe on one load of fuel. Piloted by Americans Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager, Voyager was made mostly of plastic and stiffened paper and carried more than three times its weight in fuel when it took off from Edwards Air Force Base on December 14. By the time it returned, after flying 25,012 miles around the planet, it had just five gallons of fuel left in its remaining operational fuel tank.

Voyager was built by Burt Rutan of the Rutan Aircraft Company without government support and with minimal corporate sponsorship. Dick Rutan, Burt’s brother and a decorated Vietnam War pilot, joined the project early on, as did Dick’s friend Jeanna Yeager (no relation to aviator Chuck Yeager). Voyager‘s extremely light yet strong body was made of layers of carbon-fiber tape and paper impregnated with epoxy resin. Its wingspan was 111 feet, and it had its horizontal stabilizer wing on the plane’s nose rather than its rear–a trademark of many of Rutan’s aircraft designs. Essentially a flying fuel tank, every possible area was used for fuel storage and much modern aircraft technology was foregone in the effort to reduce weight.

When Voyager took off from Edwards Air Force at 8:02 a.m. PST on December 14, its wings were so heavy with fuel that their tips scraped along the ground and caused minor damage. The plane made it into the air, however, and headed west. On the second day, Voyager ran into severe turbulence caused by two tropical storms in the Pacific. Dick Rutan had been concerned about flying the aircraft at more than a 15-degree angle, but he soon found the plane could fly on its side at 90 degrees, which occurred when the wind tossed it back and forth.

Rutan and Yeager shared the controls, but Rutan, a more experienced pilot, did most of the flying owing to the long periods of turbulence encountered at various points in the journey. With weak stomachs, they ate only a fraction of the food brought along, and each lost about 10 pounds.

On December 23, when Voyager was flying north along the Baja California coast and just 450 miles short of its goal, the engine it was using went out, and the aircraft plunged from 8,500 to 5,000 feet before an alternate engine was started up.

Almost nine days to the minute after it lifted off, Voyager appeared over Edwards Air Force Base and circled as Yeager turned a primitive crank that lowered the landing gear. Then, to the cheers of 23,000 spectators, the plane landed safely with a few gallons of fuel to spare, completing the first nonstop circumnavigation of the earth by an aircraft that was not refueled in the air.

Voyager is on permanent display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

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Malaysia Airlines flight vanishes with more than 200 people aboard


Year
2014
Month Day
March 08

On March 8, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew members, loses contact with air traffic control less than an hour after taking off from Kuala Lumpur then veers off course and disappears. Most of the plane, and everyone on board, are never seen again.

The plane departed from Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 12:41 a.m. and was scheduled to arrive in Beijing Capital International Airport at 6:30 a.m. local time. However, at 1:07 a.m., the aircraft’s last automated position report was sent, and at 1:19 a.m. what turned out to be the final voice transmission from the cockpit of the doomed jetliner was relayed to air traffic controllers: “Good night Malaysian three seven zero,” a message that suggested nothing out of the ordinary. About an hour after Flight 370 was scheduled to land in Beijing, Malaysia Airlines announced it was missing. Prior to the aircraft’s mysterious disappearance, it had been flying seemingly without incident. There were no distress signals from the plane or reports of bad weather or technical problems.

The ensuing search for Flight 370 initially was centered on the Gulf of Thailand, where the plane was traveling when radar contact was lost. Investigators looked into the possibility of terrorist involvement in the plane’s disappearance after it was discovered that two passengers had been using stolen passports; however, this theory, at least in relation to the two men, soon was determined to be unlikely. (The people onboard Flight 370 represented 15 nations, with more than half the passengers from China and three from the United States) Then, on March 15, investigators said that satellite transmissions indicated Flight 370 had turned sharply off its assigned course and flown west over the Indian Ocean, operating on its own for five hours or more. On March 24, Malaysia’s prime minister announced the flight was presumed lost somewhere in the Indian Ocean, with no survivors. As the search for the aircraft continued, with more than two dozen nations, including the United States, participating in the effort, the mystery of how a commercial jetliner could vanish without a trace received global media attention.

In June 2014, Australian officials involved in the investigation said radar records suggested Flight 370 likely was flying on autopilot for hours before it ran out of fuel and crashed into the southern Indian Ocean. The officials did not publicly speculate about who put the plane on autopilot after it veered off course or why, although they did indicate it was possible the crew and passengers had become unresponsive due to hypoxia, or oxygen loss, sometime before the plane crashed. No explanation for what might have caused the oxygen deprivation was provided by the officials. 

Meanwhile, other authorities suggested one of the pilots of Flight 370 could have deliberately flown the aircraft into the Indian Ocean on a suicide mission, although there was no conclusive evidence to support this theory.

Throughout 2015 and 2016, debris from the aircraft washed ashore on the western Indian Ocean, but the fate of Flight 370 remains a mystery.

On July 17, 2014, four months after Flight 370 vanished, tragedy struck again for Malaysia Airlines, when one of its planes was shot down over eastern Ukraine near the Russian border. All 298 people aboard the aircraft, also a Boeing 777, perished. European and American officials believe Flight 17, which took off from Amsterdam and was en route to Kuala Lumpur, was downed by a Russian-made surface-to-air missile fired from territory controlled by Russian-backed separatists battling the Ukrainian government. The rebel leaders and President Vladimir Putin of Russia denied any responsibility for the incident.

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Wiley Post flies solo around the world

Year
1933
Month Day
July 22

American aviator Wiley Post returns to Floyd Bennett Field in New York, having flown solo around the world in 7 days, 18 hours, and 49 minutes. He was the first aviator to accomplish the feat.

Post, instantly recognizable by the patch he wore over one eye, began the journey on July 15, flying nonstop to Berlin. After a brief rest, he flew on to the Soviet Union, where he made several stops before returning to North America, with stops in Alaska, Canada, and finally a triumphant landing at his starting point in New York.

Two years earlier, Post had won fame when he successfully flew around the northern part of the earth with aviator Harold Gatty. For his solo around-the-world flight in 1933, he flew a slightly greater distance–15,596 miles–in less time. For both flights, he used the Winnie Mae, a Lockheed Vega monoplane that was equipped with a Sperry automatic pilot and a direction radio for Post’s solo journey. In August 1935, he was attempting to fly across the North Pole to the USSR with American humorist Will Rogers when both men were killed in a crash near Point Barrow, Alaska.

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Flight 800 explodes over Long Island

Year
1996
Month Day
July 17

Shortly after takeoff from New York’s Kennedy International Airport, a TWA Boeing 747 jetliner bound for Paris explodes over the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 230 people aboard. Flight 800 had just received clearance to initiate a climb to cruise altitude when it exploded without warning. Because the plane was loaded with fuel for the long transatlantic journey, it vaporized within moments, creating a fireball seen almost all along the coastline of Long Island.

The tragedy came just two days before the opening of the XXVI Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia, and many suspected terrorism. Suspicions of foul play seemed to be confirmed when a number of eyewitnesses reported that they had seen what appeared to be a missile shoot up toward the airline an instant before the explosion. The U.S. Navy and the FBI, in conjunction with the National Safety Transportation Board, launched an extensive investigation of the incident, collecting the scattered wreckage of the aircraft out of the Atlantic and reconstructing the plane in a closely guarded hangar. Despite continuing eyewitness reports, authorities did not come forward with any evidence of a missile or a bomb, and the investigation stretched on.

When it was revealed that several U.S. Navy vessels were training in the Long Island area on the night of the blast, some began to suspect that Flight 800 had been accidentally downed by a navy test missile. U.S. authorities ruled out the possibility of an errant missile strike by the navy, but a number of conspiracists, including former White House press secretary Pierre Salinger, supported the theory. The much-criticized Flight 800 investigation ended in late 1998, with investigators concluding that the explosion resulted from mechanical failure, not from a bomb or a missile.

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Palestinians hijack German airliner

Year
1977
Month Day
October 13

Four Palestinians hijack a Lufthansa airliner and demand the release of 11 imprisoned members of Germany’s Baader-Meinhof terrorist group, also known as the Red Army Faction. The Red Army Faction was a group of ultra-left revolutionaries who terrorized Germany for three decades, assassinating more than 30 corporate, military, and government leaders in an effort to topple capitalism in their homeland.

The Palestinian hijackers took the plane on a six-country odyssey, eventually landing at Mogadishu, Somalia, on October 17, after shooting one of the plane’s pilots. Early the next morning, a German special forces team stormed the aircraft, releasing 86 hostages and killing three of the four hijackers. Only one of the German commandos was wounded. The Red Army Faction’s imprisoned leaders responded to the news later that day by committing suicide in their jail cell, in Stammheim, Germany.

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First Allied jet-propelled aircraft flies

Year
1941
Month Day
May 15

On May 15, 1941, the jet-propelled Gloster-Whittle E 28/39 aircraft flies successfully over Cranwell, England, in the first test of an Allied aircraft using jet propulsion. The aircraft’s turbojet engine, which produced a powerful thrust of hot air, was devised by Frank Whittle, an English aviation engineer and pilot generally regarded as the father of the jet engine.

Whittle, born in Coventry in 1907, was the son of a mechanic. At the age of 16, he joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) as an aircraft apprentice at Cranwell and in 1926 passed a medical exam to become a pilot and joined the RAF College. He won a reputation as a daredevil flier and in 1928 wrote a senior thesis entitled Future Developments in Aircraft Design, which discussed the possibilities of rocket propulsion.

From the first Wright brothers flight in 1903 to the first jet flight in 1939, most airplanes were propeller driven. In 1910, the French inventor Henri Coanda built a jet-propelled bi-plane, but it crashed on its maiden flight and never flew again. Coanda’s aircraft attracted little notice, and engineers stuck with propeller technology; even though they realized early on that propellers would never overcome certain inherent limitations, especially in regard to speed.

After graduating from the RAF college, Whittle was posted to a fighter squadron, and in his spare time he worked out the essentials of the modern turbojet engine. A flying instructor, impressed with his propulsion ideas, introduced him to the Air Ministry and a private turbine engineering firm, but both ridiculed Whittle’s ideas as impractical. In 1930, he patented his jet engine concept and in 1936 formed the company Power Jets Ltd. to build and test his invention. In 1937, he tested his first jet engine on the ground. He still received only limited funding and support, and on August 27, 1939, the German Heinkel He 178, designed by Hans Joachim Pabst von Ohain, made the first jet flight in history. The German prototype jet was developed independently of Whittle’s efforts.

One week after the flight of the He 178, World War II broke out in Europe, and Whittle’s project got a further lease of life. The Air Ministry commissioned a new jet engine from Power Jets and asked the Gloster Aircraft Company to build an experimental aircraft to accommodate it, specified as E 28/39. On May 15, 1941, the jet-propelled Gloster-Whittle E 28/39 flew, beating out a jet prototype being developed by the same British turbine company that earlier balked at his ideas. In its initial tests, Whittle’s aircraft–flown by the test pilot Gerry Sayer–achieved a top speed of 370 mph at 25,000 feet, faster than the Spitfire or any other conventional propeller-driven machine.

As the Gloster Aircraft Company worked on an operational turbojet aircraft for combat, Whittle aided the Americans in their successful development of a jet prototype. With Whittle’s blessing, the British government took over Power Jets Ltd. in 1944. By this time, Britain’s Gloster Meteor jet aircraft were in service with the RAF, going up against Germany’s jet-powered Messerschmitt Me 262s in the skies over Europe.

Whittle retired from the RAF in 1948 with the rank of air commodore. That year, he was awarded 100,000 pounds by the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors and was knighted. His book Jet: The Story of a Pioneer was published in 1953. In 1977, he became a research professor at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. He died in Columbia, Maryland, in 1996.

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First commercial jet makes test flight

Year
1949
Month Day
July 27

On July 27, 1949, the world’s first jet-propelled airliner, the British De Havilland Comet, makes its maiden test-flight in England. The jet engine would ultimately revolutionize the airline industry, shrinking air travel time in half by enabling planes to climb faster and fly higher.

The Comet was the creation of English aircraft designer and aviation pioneer Sir Geoffrey de Havilland (1882-1965). De Havilland started out designing motorcycles and buses, but after seeing Wilbur Wright demonstrate an airplane in 1908, he decided to build one of his own. The Wright brothers had made their famous first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903. De Havilland successfully designed and piloted his first plane in 1910 and went on to work for English aircraft manufacturers before starting his own company in 1920. De Havilland Aircraft Company became a leader in the aviation industry, known for developing lighter engines and faster, more streamlined planes.

READ MORE: Automation of Planes Began 9 Years After the Wright Bros Took Flight—But It Still Leads to Baffling Disasters

In 1939, an experimental jet-powered plane debuted in Germany. During World War II, Germany was the first country to use jet fighters. De Havilland also designed fighter planes during the war years. He was knighted for his contributions to aviation in 1944.

Following the war, De Havilland turned his focus to commercial jets, developing the Comet and the Ghost jet engine. After its July 1949 test flight, the Comet underwent three more years of testing and training flights. Then, on May 2, 1952, the British Overseas Aircraft Corporation (BOAC) began the world’s first commercial jet service with the 44-seat Comet 1A, flying paying passengers from London to Johannesburg. The Comet was capable of traveling 480 miles per hour, a record speed at the time. However, the initial commercial service was short-lived, and due to a series of fatal crashes in 1953 and 1954, the entire fleet was grounded. Investigators eventually determined that the planes had experienced metal fatigue resulting from the need to repeatedly pressurize and depressurize. Four years later, De Havilland debuted an improved and recertified Comet, but in the meantime, American airline manufacturers Boeing and Douglas had each introduced faster, more efficient jets of their own and become the dominant forces in the industry. By the early 1980s, most Comets used by commercial airlines had been taken out of service.

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Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and “The Big Bopper” die in a plane crash


Year
1959
Month Day
February 03

Rising American rock stars Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson are killed when their chartered Beechcraft Bonanza plane crashes in Iowa a few minutes after takeoff from Mason City on a flight headed for Moorehead, Minnesota. Investigators blamed the crash on bad weather and pilot error. Holly and his band, the Crickets, had just scored a No. 1 hit with “That’ll Be the Day.”

After mechanical difficulties with the tour bus, Holly had chartered a plane for his band to fly between stops on the Winter Dance Party Tour. However, Richardson, who had the flu, convinced Holly’s band member Waylon Jennings to give up his seat, and Ritchie Valens won a coin toss for another seat on the plane.

Holly, born Charles Holley in Lubbock, Texas, and just 22 when he died, began singing country music with high school friends before switching to rock and roll after opening for various performers, including Elvis Presley. By the mid-1950s, Holly and his band had a regular radio show and toured internationally, playing hits like “Peggy Sue,” “Oh, Boy!,” “Maybe Baby” and “Early in the Morning.” Holly wrote all his own songs, many of which were released after his death and influenced such artists as Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney.

Another crash victim, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, 28, started out as a disk jockey in Texas and later began writing songs. Richardson’s most famous recording was the rockabilly “Chantilly Lace,” which made the Top 10. He developed a stage show based on his radio persona, “The Big Bopper.”

The third crash victim was Ritchie Valens, born Richard Valenzuela in a suburb of Los  Angeles, who was only 17 when the plane went down but had already scored hits with “Come On, Let’s Go,” “Donna” and “La Bamba,” an upbeat number based on a traditional Mexican wedding song (though Valens barely spoke Spanish). In 1987, Valens’ life was portrayed in the movie La Bamba, and the title song, performed by Los Lobos, became a No. 1 hit. Valens was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.

Singer Don McLean memorialized Holly, Valens and Richardson in the 1972 No. 1 hit “American Pie,” which refers to February 3, 1959 as “the day the music died.”

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Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan crosses the Atlantic

Year
1938
Month Day
July 17

Douglas Corrigan, the last of the early glory-seeking fliers, takes off from Floyd Bennett field in Brooklyn, New York, on a flight that would finally win him a place in aviation history.

Eleven years earlier, American Charles A. Lindbergh had become an international celebrity with his solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic. Corrigan was among the mechanics who had worked on Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis aircraft, but that mere footnote in the history of flight was not enough for the Texas-born aviator. In 1938, he bought a 1929 Curtiss Robin aircraft off a trash heap, rebuilt it, and modified it for long-distance flight. In July 1938, Corrigan piloted the single-engine plane nonstop from California to New York. Although the transcontinental flight was far from unprecedented, Corrigan received national attention simply because the press was amazed that his rattletrap aircraft had survived the journey.

Almost immediately after arriving in New York, he filed plans for a transatlantic flight, but aviation authorities deemed it a suicide flight, and he was promptly denied. Instead, they would allow Corrigan to fly back to the West Coast, and on July 17 he took off from Floyd Bennett field, ostentatiously pointed west. However, a few minutes later, he made a 180-degree turn and vanished into a cloudbank to the puzzlement of a few onlookers.

Twenty-eight hours later, Corrigan landed his plane in Dublin, Ireland, stepped out of his plane, and exclaimed, “Just got in from New York. Where am I?” He claimed that he lost his direction in the clouds and that his compass had malfunctioned. The authorities didn’t buy the story and suspended his license, but Corrigan stuck to it to the amusement of the public on both sides of the Atlantic. By the time “Wrong Way” Corrigan and his crated plane returned to New York by ship, his license suspension had been lifted, he was a national celebrity, and a mob of autograph seekers met him on the gangway.

READ MORE: 6 Little-Known Pioneers of Aviation 

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U.S. warship downs Iranian passenger jet

Year
1988
Month Day
July 03

In the Persian Gulf, the U.S. Navy cruiser Vincennes shoots down an Iranian passenger jet that it mistakes for a hostile Iranian fighter aircraft. Two missiles were fired from the American warship—the aircraft was hit, and all 290 people aboard were killed. The attack came near the end of the Iran-Iraq War, when U.S. vessels were in the gulf defending Kuwaiti oil tankers. Minutes before Iran Air Flight 655 was shot down, the Vincennes had engaged Iranian gunboats that shot at its helicopter.

Iran called the downing of the aircraft a “barbaric massacre,” but U.S. officials defended the action, claiming that the aircraft was outside the commercial jet flight corridor, flying at only 7,800 feet, and was on a descent toward the Vincennes. However, one month later, U.S. authorities acknowledged that the airbus was in the commercial flight corridor, flying at 12,000 feet, and not descending. The U.S. Navy report blamed crew error caused by psychological stress on men who were in combat for the first time. In 1996, the U.S. agreed to pay $62 million in damages to the families of the Iranians killed in the attack.

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