This Week In AFLCMC History - October 2 - 8, 2023

  • Published
  • By Air Force Life Cycle Management Center History Office
2 Oct 1918 (Armament Directorate)

The Dayton-Wright Airplane Company conducted the first flight test of the “Kettering Bug,” the primitive drone/cruise missile developed for the Army Air Service by famed Dayton inventor, Charles Kettering. He began this secret project just 10 months earlier, using design simplicity to keep the per-unit cost around $500: basic instruments, vacuum operated controls, and a cheap wood and paper airframe to deliver its 180 pound warhead. For launch, the 2-stroke, 4-cylinder engine propelled the “Bug” down a track until the vehicle lifted off of its carriage. This first flight resulted in multiple stalls and flips before crashing in “one of the most spectacular aerial acrobatic feats ever witnessed.” World War I ended a month later, before these were operational, but testing continued for another year.

3 Oct 1947 (Presidential and Executive Airlift Directorate/Tinker AFB)

Today in 1947, overhaul work began at Tinker Field on the VC-54C, the first purpose-built “Air Force One,” which served Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. Better known as the Sacred Cow, this airplane was where the National Security Act of 1947 was signed—which, among other things, established the United States Air Force as an independent branch of the military. Tinker performed maintenance and overhaul work on C-54 Skymasters between 1944 and 1953. The Sacred Cow was replaced by the VC-118 Independence, which had become the standard presidential transport two months earlier. After its overhaul at Tinker, the VC-54C returned to standard transport service in the Air Force, a duty it continued until 1961. It was later restored to its Air Force One configuration and is now on display at the National Museum of the USAF.

4 Oct 1995 (Eglin AFB)

On this date, Hurricane Opal—a category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of 150 mph—made landfall along the northern Gulf Coast. Hurlburt Field and Eglin AFB were in the line of the storm, with a storm surge of 10 to 15 feet recorded between Navarre Beach in the east and Destin in the west. Although most of the aircraft in the region were successfully evacuated to other bases, the localized damage was significant. Altogether, the storm claimed 9 lives and caused more than $2 billion in property damage as it traveled north into the United States; around Eglin, one person was killed by an F2 tornado generated by the storm, thousands of homes were destroyed or severely damaged, and large parts of U.S. Hwy 98 were largely demolished.

5 Oct 1973 (Engineering Directorate)

Fifty years ago today Maj Michael V. Love flew the X-24B Lifting Body on its first glide flight. While the biggest Air Force programs for operational aerospace vehicles had been cancelled by the mid-1960s, a vibrant development and flight test program for lifting bodies was getting underway. Lifting bodies use the shape of their fuselage to provide lift to fly farther than a NASA-type capsule, without true wings (which were a liability due to heating), during reentry from space. The early NASA and Air Force ones were dubbed “flying bathtubs,” but the X-24B grafted on an extended nose and modified tail to the earlier X-24A, resulting in the most graceful, and successful, lifting body design. Both X-24s were designed by the Air Force Flight Dynamics Laboratory (now part of AFRL) at WPAFB. However, by 1973, DoD interest in crewed aerospace vehicles had waned significantly, leaving the X-24B (on display at the NMUSAF) as the last vestige of that pro-gram. The lifting body program provided valuable data for NASA’s space shuttle program.

7 Oct 1981 (Digital Directorate)

On this day in 1981, the first NATO E-3A aircraft (N-1) completed its initial Production Acceptance Test flight. The E-3 Sentry, or “Airborne Warning and Control System” (AWACS), is a modified Boeing 707/320 with a distinctive rotating radar dome for air battle management and surveillance. Started at Wright-Patt as a technology development effort, the program transferred to Hanscom’s Electronic Systems Division (ESD) to turn it into an operational system. Its potential for command and control during tests proved so great that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) initiated acquisition of its own AWACS fleet in the mid-1970s. The first Air Force E-3A entered service in 1977, while this NATO E-3 was delivered in January 1982—shortly after these flight tests. The aircraft is still in use today, but is being phased out in favor of an Air Force version of Australia’s Boeing E-7 Wedgetail.

8 Oct 1993 (Mobility & Training Aircraft Directorate)

Today in 1993, Operation PROVIDE PROMISE surpassed the Berlin Airlift as the longest sustained humanitarian airlift operation in history. As violence erupted in the Balkans following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 (and then Yugoslavia in 1992), an increasingly complex conflict began to unfold between Bosniac (or Bosniak) Muslims, Croats, and Serbians in what is today the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Blockades and warfare soon threatened the people of the city of Sarajevo—around which much of the conflict occurred—with starvation, leading to the sustained airlifting of food and medicine to the city. Although not nearly as many sorties or as much cargo was flown to Sarajevo as went to Berlin, the 42 month operation would become the longest such operation in history before it ended in 1996 (partly as a result of peace talks that took place at Wright-Patterson AFB, known as the Dayton Peace Accords).

75 Years Ago in AFLCMC History: Robins B-29 Crash (6 Oct 1948)

“Witnesses of the blast said the whole town heard a roar like a terrific thunder clap and stood frozen as bodies and parts of the plane hurtled downward.” That’s how newspapers reported the mid-flight explosion of a Boeing B-29 Superfortress at 2 o’clock in the afternoon over the town of Waycross, Georgia, seventy-five years ago today.

The aircraft in question, tail number 45-21866, along with most of its crew, were assigned to the 3150th Electronics Squadron based out of Warner Robins AFB, Georgia. At the time, its mission was classified, but later it would be revealed that it was testing guidance and control technology for pilotless atomic bombers/missiles. It was piloted by Capt Ralph W. Irwin of Eglin AFB’s 1st Experimental Air Service Squadron. The copilot was Capt Herbert W. Moore, Jr. of the 3150th.

With Capts Irwin and Moore were six other crew members, including a civilian employee on TDY from Wright-Patterson AFB’s Aircraft Radio Laboratory, Richard E. Cox, as well as five contractor technical representatives. Three of the latter were with the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), while the other two were from the Franklin Institute of Technology.

At about 18,500 feet over the town of Waycross, the manifold pressure on the No. 1 engine suddenly dropped by half. The pilots took precautionary actions: putting out their cigarettes, feathering the propeller, and ordering the crew to don their parachutes. Suddenly that engine caught fire, causing Capt Irwin to order his crew to abandon ship as he and Capt Moore continued emergency procedures. Unfortunately, the plane went into a violent spin as they descended and just four of the thirteen on board were able to successfully bail out. The remaining nine men were killed in the crash: Capt Irwin; radio operator TSgt Melvin Walker; right scanner MSgt Jack York; AP TSgt Dervin Irvin; Navigator 1st Lt Lawrence Pence, Jr. (from Eglin); WPAFB tech Richard E. Cox; RCA contractors A. Palya & Robert Reynolds; and Franklin Institute contractor W. H. Brauner. The explosion heard from the ground was probably the engine or fuel, which blew off the left wing.

The subsequent investigation determined that neglected maintenance led to the engine fire, to which the B-29 was notoriously prone since its earliest days. The situation was exacerbated by pilot error during the emergency. The flight crew had also never flown together before, nor did they follow appropriate preflight procedures.
This incident led to the historically (and legally) significant Supreme Court case United States v. Reynolds (1953). The Air Force refused to release the accident investigation report when sued by the victims’ families, claiming national security based on the classified system under test. In its ruling, the Supreme Court formally recognized the “state secrets privilege” of the government for the first time. The Air Force later settled the lawsuit.