This Week In AFLCMC History - December 4 - 10, 2023

  • Published
  • By Air Force Life Cycle Management Center History Office
4 Dec 1996 (Hill AFB/Fighters and Advanced Aircraft Directorate)

Today in 1996, the 388th Fighter Wing flew the F-16 Fighting Falcon’s 5,000,000th flying hour during a special ceremony to mark the milestone at Hill AFB. To put the achievement into perspective, the 388th’s squadron paper noted that to reach 5 million miles “a single aircraft flying nonstop from the moment Christopher Columbus landed in America would still have to fly 65 years to finish the task.” Capt Kurt Gallegos made the historic flight before a crowd of some 300 dignitaries and officials. The F-16’s official first flight was in Jan 1974, with the very first operational F-16 delivered to the 388th at Hill AFB five years later.
5 Dec 1978 (Hanscom AFB/Digital Directorate)

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO’s) Defense Planning Committee met in Brussels on 5 and 6 Dec 1978 to review NATO’s defensive capabilities, and ultimately approved a plan to expand NATO’s Airborne Early Warning (AEW) network by purchasing 18 E-3A Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft, with engines and related equipment and services, from the United States for use by the Alliance. NATO’s need for AWACS resulted from ongoing changes in the air defense environment. Modern terrain-following aircraft could penetrate airspace by literally “flying under the radar” of ground-based antennas, but new airborne radar technologies developed first by the Aeronautical Systems Division at Wright-Patterson AFB and then by Hanscom’s Electronic Systems Division in the 1960s and 1970s enabled the AWACS to detect and track those targets. As an airborne command post, the AWACS could also centralize the command and control of fighters for more efficient and effective air defense, with greater deployment flexibility.
6 Dec 1954 (Propulsion Directorate)

On this day, the Curtiss-Wright Corp. unveiled the first continuously throttleable aircraft liquid rocket engine. Previous rockets changed their thrust in set increments, by activating additional valves or combustion chambers. In 1945, piston engine maker Curtiss-Wright had recruited rocketry pioneer Robert Goddard’s team specifically to gain that technology and enter this new industry. In 1945-46, the (AFLCMC predecessor) Wright Air Development Center contracted with Bell Aircraft to build the X-2 research plane and Curtiss-Wright to develop the XLR-25 engine that would power it to speeds and altitudes beyond the X-1 that “broke the sound barrier.” Two X-2s were built and flown from 1953-56, becoming the first piloted aircraft to exceed Mach 3 and 100,000 feet. Unfortunately one X-2 exploded during an in-flight fueling test while attached to its B-50 mothership, killing two people, and the other spun out of control and crashed, killing pilot Mel Apt and ending the X-2 program.
7 Dec 1923 (WPAFB)

One hundred years ago, Army Air Service Lt John Macready failed in his attempt to regain the world altitude record for aircraft, which his rival, Frenchman Joseph Sadi-Lecointe, had set at nearly 37,000 feet in September. Macready was a test pilot for AFLCMC’s predecessor, the McCook Field Engineering Division in Dayton, and had held this record (along with distance and endurance records) for two years before Lecointe topped it. For both countries, aviation records were a matter of significant national pride, leading to not a little controversy over the validity of new claims. It didn’t help that the certifying organization was based in France, though its Dayton representative was the unimpeachable Orville Wright, who witnessed nearly all of McCook’s record attempts, including this one. For McCook Field, these records served the dual purpose of testing technologies necessary for high-altitude flight, as well as making a public display of the return on investment from the tax dollars spent on Army aviation R&D. For this flight, Macready used the same LePere LUSAC-11 biplane that set their previous records going back to 1919. Unfortunately, a turbo failure cut this flight short. Despite subsequent attempts, McCook Field never again set an altitude record.
9 Dec 2003 (Mobility & Training Aircraft Directorate)

20 years ago, a JB Lewis-McChord C-17 Globemaster III was struck by enemy fire as it departed Baghdad International Airport on a mission carrying 13 servicemembers home. The attack resulted in the explosion of their No. 2 engine. In describing the damage, TSgt Jim Alexander, a Reserve loadmaster with the 446th Airlift Wing who was sitting behind aircraft commander Capt Paul Sonstein, said: “It looked like the wing was on fire. It was a big, huge fire, bigger than I ever imagined an engine fire would be.” Despite the damage, Capt Sonstein and his flight crew managed to make a successful emergency landing. 26-year-old SSgt Eric M. Olson, the other loadmaster, was the only one of the five crew members in the back of the plane and was able to safely evacuate the passengers once they landed. All five crew received Air Medals from Vice President Richard B. Cheney at a ceremony later that month. SSgt Olson would later have his medal upgraded to a Distinguished Flying Cross in recognition of his heroic efforts to keep the passengers safe. The USAF received its 223rd and final C-17 ten years ago in Sep 2013, and the type has flown over 4 million hours since its first flight in 1991.
10 Dec 1986 (Eglin AFB)

On this date, four F-15s with the 33rd Tactical Fighter Wing began their return to Eglin AFB following a successful training exercise. En route, they noticed a plume of smoke over the Gulf of Mexico, about 30 miles south of Destin, Florida. When one of them dipped down to investigate, they realized that a ship was on fire. This turned out to be the Geco Alpha, a 300-foot-long Norwegian seismographic research vessel exploring the Gulf for oil and gas deposits. The fighters called the emergency in to Eglin, which sent an HC-130 that dropped lifesaving supplies to the crew as they worked to fight the fire. Both they and Tyndall AFB also sent helicopters to rescue 19 of the ship’s 34 crew, flying them to Eglin for medical treatment. The Coast Guard eventually arrived to help the remaining sailors put out the flames, and the ship was saved in mostly good condition. All of the ship’s crewmembers were safe, as well, with no serious injuries, and those evacuated by the Air Force were later returned to their vessel.
AFLCMC History Highlight: Samuel Langley’s Failed Flying Machine (8 Dec 1903)

Samuel Langley attempted to fly his experimental airplane just nine days before the Wright Brothers’ historic first flight at Kittyhawk, NC.
Despite only a high school education, Langley built his reputation as an astronomer and astrophysicist before becoming the head of the Smithsonian Institution in 1887, making him America’s most famous scientist. At that time, respectable scientists scoffed at aviation “research,” thanks to the many absurd “flying machines” tested in very public, and often fatal, fashion, but Langley’s interest was piqued. In 1891, he published a treatise arguing that flight was theoretically possible. The ensuing criticism motivated him to demonstrate his theories in practice.
Five years of abject failure followed before Langley finally devised a successful model airplane in 1896. His “Aerodrome” boasted a pair of 14-foot wings mounted front-to-back atop a 10-foot fuselage, with a small steam engine driving a pair of propellers. It had no controls to speak of, since it flew on its own. After launching from a houseboat on the Potomac River, near Washington, it stayed aloft for 90 seconds. That modest success was enough to make the news around the globe, though in highly-exaggerated fashion, drawing much interest, including from two notable parties. One was a pair of bicycle-building brothers in Dayton, Ohio, who then wrote to the Smithsonian requesting any information on aeronautics.
The other was the US military, which allocated an astounding $50,000 (~$2 million today) grant to Langley to build a piloted aircraft. From 1898-1903, Langley scaled-up his design, only with more power and basic controls. When his “Great Aerodrome” was ready in October 1903, Langley’s engineering assistant, Charles Manly, served as the test pilot. Using the same catapult system as before, the Aerodrome surged from the platform... and immediately plunged into the cold river. Langley believed that the launcher mechanism was at fault, not his design, and had the craft quickly refurbished with minimal changes. The next “flight” happened on 8 December 1903, but it too ended with Manly being fished from the water just a few feet away. Langley gave up, with little indication that further work would have been productive. His failure to conduct incremental testing, research, and analysis proved to be his undoing, as he lacked any intuitive understanding of stability and control or structural design.
That’s not to say the Great Aerodrome wasn’t influential. With nothing to show for its $50,000 but bad publicity, the Army adamantly refused to consider another flying machine without concrete proof of its capabilities, which delayed its contracting with the Wright Brothers for about two years. A decade later, the Wrights’ industry rival, Glenn Curtiss, resurrected (and significantly modified) the Aerodrome in an attempt to demonstrate that Langley could have flown first, thereby nullifying the Wrights’ airplane patent that was hindering his business. After the Smithsonian went along with this ultimately unsuccessful ploy, Orville Wright refused to donate the original Flyer to them, sending it instead to England. He finally gave it to the Smithsonian in the 1940s after they expressly admitted that the Wrights—and not their former head—were the first to fly.