This Date in Aviation History: January 27 - January 29
ttyymmnn last edited by ttyymmnn
Astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee pose for a photo 10 days before their death (NASA)
January 27, 1967 – A fire in the command module of Apollo 1 kills three NASA astronauts. John Glenn was the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth, but he is also well known for a wry comment he reportedly made about flying in spacecraft built by a government agency. While the exact words vary a bit depending on the source, the spirit is the same, as Glenn questioned the wisdom of launching into space in a vehicle that was built by the lowest bidder. Certainly, spaceflight is an inherently dangerous business. And, at the time of the Apollo program in the 1960s, it was entirely new ground for both engineers and astronauts. Though there had been earlier successful spaceflights during the Mercury and Gemini projects, Apollo was the program that would put a man on the Moon, and the scale of the program was beyond anything ever attempted. With three astronauts onboard, the stakes were higher than they had ever been.
Chaffee, White, and Grissom training in a Command Module simulator on January 19, 1967 (NASA)
Late in the afternoon of January 27, Command Pilot Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Senior Pilot Edward H. White II, and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee were strapped into their seats inside the Command Module (CM) high atop the unfueled Saturn V rocket. The astronauts were prepared for a routine series of tests for the launch of Apollo 1, which was scheduled for February 21. This was to be a “plugs out” test, in which the spacecraft was disconnected from all external power supplies to see if it could function on its own internal power. NASA, as well as North American Aviation, which had built the CM, considered the test to be relatively safe, since the huge Saturn V rocket was unfueled, and all of the pyrotechnic systems were disabled. The test was also a rehearsal for launch procedures, so the astronauts were sealed inside the command module by means of a three-part hatch, the inner section of which must be removed from the inside in order for the astronauts to exit the module. After the hatch was closed, the capsule was filled with pure oxygen, as it would be for launch, and the countdown began.
The fire inside the Command Module burned with such intensity that it blackened the exterior of the capsule (NASA)
A problem with communications, which left Grissom with a microphone that was stuck open, caused a countdown hold at T-minus 10 minutes, so the astronauts used the time to review checklists while engineers tried to repair the radios. At 6:30 pm, ground controllers detected a voltage spike, and just 10 seconds later one of the astronauts called out, “Fire!” Ground controllers could hear sounds of movement inside the command module through the open microphone, and more reports of fire inside the capsule. One of the astronauts was heard to say, “We’ve got a bad fire - Let’s get out ....We’re burning up.” The fire, fed by the pure oxygen inside the command module, quickly raced though the capsule, causing the air pressure inside to build up to 29 psi, enough to rupture the module’s inner wall and make it impossible to open the hatch from the inside. When rescuers were finally able to gain access to the capsule, they found Grissom on the floor of the module, and White, whose restraints had been burned through, was found sideways below the hatch, as if he had been trying to open it. Chaffee was still strapped into his seat, since procedure called for him to remain in communication with controllers while White opened the hatch. It took ninety minutes to recover the bodies, as the astronaut’s space suits had melted and fused their bodies to the cabin interior.
The charred remains of the interior of the Apollo 1 Command Module (NASA)
Following the accident, Apollo operations were suspended for 20 months while multiple investigations sought the cause of the tragedy. Based on recommendations that came out of the investigation, NASA redesigned the hatch, and switched back to an oxygen/nitrogen mix for the command module, similar to what they had used during the Mercury flights. The investigation also discovered that NASA had never carried out any tests to determine how a fire would behave in the enclosed space of the command module when it was filled with pure oxygen. The astronauts suits were also redesigned to make them less susceptible to fire, and other flammable components were removed from the capsule. The source of the arc of electricity was never definitely determined, but likely arose from frayed wiring near the floor of the capsule. NASA retired the Apollo 1 designation in honor of the crew, and unmanned flights resumed in November 1967 with Apollo 4. Apollo 7 would be the first manned mission, and Apollo 11 successfully reached the moon in July 1969. Over the course of 11 manned Apollo missions following the Apollo 1 disaster, six of which landed on the Moon, no further astronauts were lost.
A Convair 880 of Cathay Pacific in flight in 1965 (San Diego Air and Space Museum)
January 27, 1959 – The first flight of the Convair 880. Following WWII, the race was on to build jet-powered civilian airliners, a race that was won by the de Havilland Comet when it took its maiden flight in 1949. But being first also means dealing with teething problems, and a series of fatal accidents tarnished the image of the Comet. Despite the fact that de Havilland solved the problems, the Comet never quite recovered its reputation, and sales suffered. Boeing was poised to take advantage of de Havilland’s misfortunes in 1957 with the 707, an airliner developed from the KC-135 Stratotanker aerial refueling platform they designed for the US Air Force. With its swept wing and podded engines, the 707 set the standard for airliners of the future. Douglas entered the market a year later with their four-engine DC-8, but last, and unfortunately least, came Convair.
A Delta Air Lines 880 departs Atlanta in 1972. After TWA, Delta was the second largest operator of the 880. (RuthAS)
Convair faced the daunting task of trying to break into an established market, and they knew that they had to offer something that Boeing and Douglas couldn’t match. For a company already famous for the supersonic B-58 Hustler strategic bomber, Convair decided that their edge would be speed. The 880 was smaller than the 707, and carried fewer passengers, but it was about 40 mph faster than its rival. Convair hoped that the speed advantage would appeal to airlines and their customers, especially in the early jet age when speed records seemingly fell every day, at least in military aviation. The airliner was powered by four General Electric CJ805 turbojets, the civilian version of the J79 engine that powered military aircraft such as the B-58, the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter and the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II. The designation 880 came from the advertised top speed of 880 ft/sec (600 mph).
TWA was the largest operator of the Convair 880. Here, an 880 taxis at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport in 1971. (RuthAS)
However, the niche market for smaller and faster jets never materialized, and Convair faced stiff competition from its more established rivals. They could not compete with Boeing on cost, because so much of the development expense of the 707 had already been spent in development of the KC-135 aerial tanker. The narrower fuselage of the 880 meant only five-abreast seating where the 707 could accommodate six abreast. And, in the vital area of fuel economy, Convair’s CJ805 turbojets were much thirstier than Boeing’s Pratt & Whitney J57s, so operating costs for the 880 were higher. Just three years in, Convair halted production of the 880 after building just 65 aircraft.
A single 880 was flown by the US Navy, where it was known as the UC-880. It was used for Tomahawk cruise missile testing and practicing refueling procedures. It is shown here refueling a Grumman F-14D Super Tomcatduring a test flight in 1992. (US Navy)
In an attempt to remedy some of the problems facing the 880, particularly in passenger load, Convair stretched the 880 to create the 990 Coronado, lengthening the original airliner by 10 feet and adding space for about 10 more passengers. But the airlines weren’t interested, and only 37 Coronados were built. By 1975, the last 880 was withdrawn by the major air carriers, and only nine aircraft exist today, none of them airworthy. Perhaps the most famous Convair 880 is the one purchased by Elvis Presley in 1975, which was preserved at his Memphis, Tennessee mansion after his death. Elvis’ plane was put up for sale in 2015, along with his Lockheed JetStar named Hound Dog II, only to be bought back by Elvis Presley Enterprises the following year.
Fresh from the factory, P-38J Yippee, the 5,000th Lightning delivered to the US Army Air Forces, flies over California in 1944. This aircraft was shipped to the Pacific Theater but was subsequently lost in an accident in the Philippines in 1945. (US Air Force)
January 27, 1939 – The first flight of the Lockheed P-38 Lightning. Lockheed, founded in 1912 by the Loughead brothers, is a name that has become synonymous with cutting edge developments in air and space technology. For many years, the drive toward innovative design was mainly the work of one of America’s greatest aviation designers, Lockheed’s Kelly Johnson. But the brilliant engineer who oversaw the development of the U-2 and the SR-71 Blackbird in the 1950s and 1960s made his first indelible mark on aviation history with an earlier innovative design, an aircraft which would become one of the greatest and most versatile fighters of WWII. Before the arrival of the P-38, American fighter design had changed little since the earliest all-metal monoplane designs. But Johnson’s twin-engine Lightning would be twice as big, nearly twice as powerful, and have twice the firepower of any other fighter of its day.
A pre-production YP-38, one of 13 built by Lockheed (US Air Force)
The Lightning arose from a US Army Air Corps request that was designed to circumvent stringent guidelines for pursuit aircraft that limited them to a single engine and no more than 500 pounds of armaments, including ammunition. The request called specifically for an interceptor (not a fighter) that would have a minimum of 1,000 pounds of armament, excellent high-altitude performance, a top speed of at least 360 mph, and the ability to climb to 20,000 ft in just six minutes. Kelly Johnson, working under Lockheed engineer Hall Hibbard, considered many different configurations for their twin-engine aircraft, including a push-pull arrangment similar to the Dornier Do 335 Pfeil, before settling on a twin boom design. The booms would house the engines, turbo-superchagers and tail, while the pilot and weapons would be housed in a central egg-shaped nacelle. Machine guns and cannons fitted in the nose removed the requirement for synchronized guns firing through the propeller. Other design innovations included a tricycle landing gear, counter-rotating propellers, extensive use of stainless steel construction, and flush-riveted aluminum panels.
Lockheed P-38J Lightning Betty A III of the 383d Fighter Squadron based at RAF Honington, England in 1944 (US Air Force)
The design was indeed radical, but the Army found exactly what it was looking for in the Lightning. The P-38 was the first American fighter to exceed 400 mph, and it was also extremely maneuverable for a fighter of its size. Lockheed had developed the Lightning in secret, and used $600,000 of the company’s own money to build it. But the Army was so thrilled with the new fighter that they unveiled it in 1939 in the hopes of setting a transcontinental speed record. Even though the attempt ended in the crash of the prototype, the Army ordered 13 YP-38 prototypes. The first production aircraft were sent to Alaska in 1942, where their excellent range made them ideal for the long distances they needed to cover over the Pacific.
P-38M night fighter, with radar and a second place added behind the pilot for the radar operator (US Air Force)
While considered today to be one of the great fighters of the war, the Lightning struggled in the early years of the European war, where the powerful but complicated fighters were rushed into battle and flown by relatively inexperienced pilots. The frigid temperatures of high altitude escort missions froze both the engines and the pilots in unheated cockpits, and the complexity of the P-38's operation meant that some young pilots were shot down by more seasoned Luftwaffe pilots even before they could begin to fight. The Lightning fared better in the warmer climes of the Mediterranean and North Africa, but it was in the Pacific, with higher temperatures, lower altitudes, and more experienced pilots, that the P-38 truly showed its mettle. The Lightning’s excellent range made it ideal for long overwater flights, and pilots appreciated the added safety of a second engine. In battle, the heavily-armed Lightning was responsible for shooting down more Japanese aircraft than any other Army fighter, and America’s two top aces in WWII, Richard Bong and Thomas McGuire, ended the war with 40 and 38 victories respectively, all while flying a P-38 in the Pacific. And it was a P-38 pilot who was credited with shooting down Japanese general Isoroku Yamamoto, the mastermind of the Pearl Harbor attack, in an audacious long-range assassination mission. In all, over 10,000 Lightnings were built, and it was the only US fighter to remain in production throughout the war.
Immediately after the explosion, the still-burning solid rocket boosters made corkscrew trails as they flew away from the explosion of the external fuel tank (NASA)
January 28, 1986 – The Space Shuttle Challenger and its crew of seven astronauts is lost in a launch explosion. When the Space Shuttle Challenger lifted off from Kennedy Space Center on a frigid January morning in 1986, all eyes turned skyward to see Payload Specialist Christa McAuliffe on her way to becoming America’s first teacher in space. But just 73 seconds later, a leak from one of the Shuttle’s solid rocket boosters (SRBs) ignited the liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen in the Shuttle’s external fuel tank, causing a catastrophic explosion that destroyed the orbiter and led to the deaths of the entire crew of seven astronauts. Along with McAuliffe, Challenger carried Shuttle commander Francis Scobee, pilot Michael Smith, and mission specialists Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik and Gregory Jarvis.
The crew of STS-51-L: (front row) Pilot Michael J. Smith, Shuttle Commander Francis Scobee, Mission Specialist Ronald McNair; (back row) Mission Specialist Ellison Onizuka, Payload Specialist and teacher Christa McAuliffe, Payload Specialist Gregory Jarvis, Mission Specialist Judith Resnik. (NASA)
Following the explosion, an exhaustive investigation was carried out by the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, also known as the Rogers Commission after its chairman, former Secretary of State and former US Attorney General William P. Rogers. The commission members represented a broad range of disciplines and included former astronauts and pilots, as well as noted physicist Richard Feynman. The commission’s final determination was that the accident was caused by a failure of the O-rings that joined sections of the solid rocket boosters together. When the O-rings failed, superheated gases from the rocket motor burned through the skin of the external fuel tank and ignited the volatile mix of hydrogen and liquid oxygen inside.
Sub-freezing temperatures the night before the launch left icicles hanging from the launch tower. Though NASA was concerned enough about freezing pipes to leave the water running overnight, concerns about the integrity of the O-rings were brushed aside. (NASA)
The SRBs and the O-rings had been designed and built by Morton Thiokol, and it was known that their ability to contain the hot gases from the SRBs could be compromised by cold weather, a weakness that was exacerbated by a flawed design. On the night before the launch, the temperature had dipped to 18ºF, well below the 40ºF temperature the O-rings had been certified for. In fact, icicles had formed on the launch tower the morning of the launch. But the commission found that even though NASA and Morton Thiokol knew about the flawed design, and the susceptibility to cold, they determined it to be an acceptable risk, and the flight was allowed to take place. Feynman was particularly scathing about the poor risk assessment undertaken by NASA, saying that NASA’s belief in the Shuttle’s reliability was wildly unrealistic.
A telltale puff of black smoke from the starboard SRB at launch signaled the failure of the 0-ring. The failure allowed super-heated gases to escape and burn through the external fuel tank, which then ignited the hydrogen and liquid oxygen fuel inside. (NASA)
But the real bombshell for the families of the astronauts, and the nation, was the disclosure that the crew had very likely survived the initial explosion, only to perish when the reinforced crew capsule struck the water at a force of 200g after free falling for roughly three minutes after the explosion. When the crew capsule was recovered from the waters off Cape Canaveral, the bodies of the crew were still inside, strapped into their seats. Four of the astronauts had activated their Personal Egress Air Packs (PEAP) which provide them with a source of oxygen should they need to evacuate the Shuttle, an indication that they had survived the explosion. But Shuttle designers had never allowed for any sort of emergency egress once the spacecraft had taken off. There were no ejection seats on the Shuttle.
A detail of a photo following the explosion shows the intact crew cabin beginning its three-minute descent. Investigators believe that the crew survived the explosion, only to die when the crew cabin struck the ocean. (NASA)
Following the disaster, Shuttle flights were suspended for 32 months while NASA and Morton Thiokol worked to completely redesign the Shuttle’s SRBs. Based on the findings of the Rogers Commission, NASA also created the Office of Safety, Reliability and Quality Assurance to address shortcomings in the Shuttle program and allow for more oversight of launch procedures. Another of the commission’s findings was that the pressure to do as many launches as possible was unrealistic, and may have led to shortcuts in safety. Shuttle missions eventually resumed with the launch of Shuttle Discovery on September 29, 1988. Sadly, the Shuttle program would suffer the loss of another crew fifteen years later when the Shuttle Columbia broke up while re-entering the atmosphere on February 1, 2003. Despite these tragedies, the Shuttle program ultimately completed 133 successful missions before it was shuttered in 2011 following the final flight of the Shuttle Atlantis.
January 27, 2002 – The Boeing 737 becomes the first jetliner in history to amass more than 100 million flying hours. Boeing delivered its first production 737-100 to Lufthansa on December 28, 1967 in a ceremony at Boeing Field in Seattle and, by 1987, it had become the most-ordered jetliner in commercial history, a record it holds to this day. In 2012, the 737 became the first commercial airliner to surpass 10,000 orders and, with constant upgrades and modernization, the 737 has remained in production continuously since 1967, with almost 8,900 produced to date.
(US Library of Congress)
January 27, 1989 – The death of Thomas Sopwith. Born on January 18, 1888 in Kensington, London, Sopwith was an early aviation pioneer who is perhaps best known for the design of the Sopwith Camel, one of the dominant fighter aircraft of WWI. Sopwith first became interested in aviation when he witnessed John Moisant fly passengers across the English Channel in 1910, and soon learned to fly himself. With Fred Sigrist, Sopwith created the Sopwith Aviation Company in 1912 and produced more than 18,000 aircraft for Britain during WWI, including 5,747 Sopwith Camels. For his efforts, Sopwith was awarded the CBE in 1918. Sopwith Aviation went bankrupt following the war, so Sopwith started a new company with his chief test pilot Harry Hawker, and Sopwith became chairman of Hawker Aircraft. Following the nationalization of the aircraft industry, Hawker Aircraft became Hawker Siddeley, and Sopwith stayed with the company as a consultant until 1980.
January 27, 1973 – A ceasefire agreement between the United States, North Vietnam, and South Vietnam ends US participation in the Vietnam War. American participation in the Vietnam war began in earnest in 1965 and, by the time the war had officially ended ten years later, the US Air Force had flown 5.25 million sorties over Southeast Asia with the loss of 2,251 aircraft. Of that number, 1,737 fell to enemy guns. The 21 aircraft carriers of the US Navy conducted 86 war cruises with the loss of 859 aircraft, just over a third of those being operational losses. The Marine Corps lost a total of 463 fixed and rotary wing aircraft, while the US Army lost over 5,000 helicopters. The vast majority of all aircraft were shot down by anti-aircraft artillery (AAA). Approximately 6,600 pilots of all branches were killed. The last American fixed wing pilot lost was LCDR Harly Hall, a Navy F-4 Phantom II pilot who was shot down over the Demilitarized Zone on January 27, 1973. The last rotary-wing pilot lost was 2LT Richard Vandegeer, who crashed during the Mayaguez Incident on May 15, 1975.
January 29, 2010 – The first flight of the Sukhoi Su-57, a fifth generation fighter under development by Sukhoi as part of the Perspektivny Aviatsionny Kompleks Frontovoy Aviatsii program to develop a new, high-technology fighter for Russian Frontal Aviation. The successor to the Mikoyan MiG-29 and Sukhoi Su-27, the prototype is known as the T-50 and is the first operational Russian fighter to employ stealth technology. The T-50 will be used in both the air superiority and ground attack roles and, like the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, its closest Western competition, the T-50 will feature supercruise and supermaneuverablilty. In May 2018, as many as four Su-57s were deployed to Syria for combat testing, and at least one reportedly launched a cruise missile. Ten prototypes have been built to date.
(San Diego Air and Space Museum)
January 29, 1973 – Frontier Airlines hires Emily Howell Warner, the first woman to command a passenger airliner. Though not the first woman to fly as a commercial pilot, Warner became the only woman working as a pilot for a major airline when she was hired by Frontier in 1973. Within six months of her hiring, Warner was promoted to First Officer, and became the first female member of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) in 1974. In 1976, Warner became the first woman captain, commanding a de Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otter. Warner was also the first woman to command an all-female crew. When Frontier went out of business in 1986, Warner went to work as captain of a UPS Boeing 737, and also flew the Douglas DC-8. In 1990, she left UPS to work for the Federal Aviation Administration. Warner was elected to the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2014.
I hope you have enjoyed today's installment of This Date in Aviation History. If you enjoy these posts, please let me know in the comments. Head over to Wingspan to see more articles about aviation and aviation history
HammerheadFistpunch last edited by
@ttyymmnn Did you get a chance to read the hack job on Jalopnik regarding the challenger? oh man.
Roadkilled last edited by
@ttyymmnn I was in college when the Challenger disaster occurred. We had a friend who had slept late that morning and had not heard any news. We asked him "Did you hear that the shuttle exploded?". His response was "I wonder if I knew anybody onboard?". This led to a few minutes of confusion until we realized that he thought we were telling him that the campus shuttle bus had exploded.
facw last edited by facw
@roadkilled I was in college for the Columbia disaster and woke up and read the headline "Columbia is lost" and briefly assumed that FARC or the military or someone had overthrown the government of Columbia, before actually seeing what was going on.
ttyymmnn last edited by
@ttyymmnn Did you get a chance to read the hack job on Jalopnik regarding the challenger? oh man.
No, I don't read Jalopnik. Not sure I want to.
ttyymmnn last edited by
@roadkilled I was in college too. Spent the day listening on the radio as I was driving around town. I was asleep when Columbia broke up. My wife woke me up to tell me. It wasn't until I assembled this post that I realized how tragic this anniversary is.
MM54 last edited by
I don't think it's ever occurred to me that Apollo 1 and Challenger were one day (and many years) apart. Columbia again only a couple days (and years) thereafter. Maybe we should stay on the ground in late January.
Future Next Gen S2000 Owner last edited by
@hammerheadfistpunch I'm not sure how they allowed that one to be published. Oh right, to get clicks. sigh
The unsubstantiated leaps are ridiculous.
BicycleBuck last edited by
I was still in high school. We ended up watching it on one of the AV cart TVs. It was a bad day.
pyroholtz last edited by
@hammerheadfistpunch what a hack job it was! The FP makes me sad, most of the time.
HammerheadFistpunch last edited by
@pyroholtz I don't know what's going on over there. I haven't seen much Rory and I don't see a lot of encouraging signs from the old authors. The new authors are keeping the place afloat with their optimism and energy as far as I can see. There could be a lot of politics and business running the show. Eric, Erin, Bradly...they are not doing the site any favors. Tom and rob are some serious meat in the diet. I don't even know whats going on with torch and orlove and some of the other old gaurd.
ranwhenparked last edited by
@hammerheadfistpunch Is it worth clicking over and subjecting myself to it, or can you give an executive summary?
oldmxer last edited by
I was watching a huge printing press cylinder getting sandblasted when it happened. I headed out to deliver it to the customer and the radio in the truck broke in with the news, when I got to the destination I asked them if they heard the news, they hadn't. my nickname was bad news from then on. When I got home I turned on the TV and they were showing Christa McCauliff"s students watching their teacher die. My wife came in the front door at that moment and I looked at her and just started crying my eyes out.