This Week In AFLCMC History – April 22 - 28, 2024

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  • By Air Force Life Cycle Management Center History Office
22 Apr 2004 (Agile Combat Support Dir./Mobility & Training Aircraft Dir.)
Twenty years ago today, Capt Earl Ardales flew the first combat mission with an operational Global Air Traffic Management (GATM) system. He was flying a KC-135R with the 92nd Air Refueling Wing. GATM was an advanced avionics system, and it was a major component of the Air Force’s Global Access, Navigation, and Safety (GANS) management effort. The system was needed to meet the progressively rigorous air traffic management requirements of the FAA and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), with the upgrade ultimately allowing for the safe flight of military aircraft operating in increasingly congested commercial air spaces. The KC-135 fleet was the leading legacy fleet to install fully-integrated GATM systems.
23 Apr 1964 (ISR & Special Operations Forces Dir./Fighters & Advanced Aircraft Dir.)
 Today, sixty years ago, the Department of Defense formally redesignated the Lockheed “AF-12” the “YF-12A.” This was a prototype interceptor version of the iconic “Blackbird” Mach 3 spyplane developed by the Lockheed Skunk Works. In a bit of semantic subterfuge to cover up the CIA’s top secret A-12 photoreconnaissance program—the first version of the Blackbird—President Lyndon Johnson publicly announced the existence of the AF-12, but called it the “A-11.” He deliberately used this obsolete designation taken from an unsuccessful proposal to avoid any obvious connection to the unacknowledged A-12. Lockheed built just three AF-12s—redesignated YF-12As—before the pro-gram was cancelled, with the only surviving example residing at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. The Air Force did procure more than thirty SR-71s, the 2-seat reconnaissance version of the Blackbird.
24 Apr 1984 (Tinker AFB/Bombers Directorate)
On this date, forty years ago, Tinker AFB held a dedication ceremony to mark the establishment of a B-52D Stratofortress display at the base. The B-52D was named “Early Riser.” Major Gen Richard A. Burpee, commander of the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center, represented Tinker at the event, while Air Force Logistics Command commander Gen James P. Mullins, also participated. The monument represented what was then twenty-five years of B-52 support at Tinker AFB (with the base completing maintenance on its first B-52 in 1959). “Early Riser” was built in 1957, and flew some 200 missions during the Vietnam War, taking part in both Operations ARC LIGHT and LINEBACKER. It was retired to Tinker AFB after 27 years of duty.
26 Apr 1939 (Eglin AFB)
Today in 1939, 85 years ago, Maj Gen Henry “Hap” Arnold, then serving as the chief of the Army Air Corps, approved the findings of the Air Corps Board to establish a proving ground at Eglin Field. The board, headed by Lt Col Douglas Blakeshaw Netherwood, felt that Eglin, which was founded a few years earlier as an adjunct of Maxwell Field, was the most suitable area for the Air Corps to begin testing new aircraft and weapons systems on the eve of the outbreak of WWII in Europe. In 1940, the Department of Agriculture transferred nearly 400,000 acres of forestland (essentially all of the Choctawhatchee National Forest) to Eglin Field, transforming the base from a small installation to a major one and giving Eglin Field plenty of room to continue its existing missions (such as gunnery training) and to also establish the proving ground, which was activated in 1941. In March 1942, the Doolittle Raiders trained for their attack on Japan at Eglin. The next month, the Army Air Forces Proving Ground Command stood up and was headquartered there. The peak of Eglin’s war-time testing occurred in 1943-1944, including developing tactics used for the D-Day invasion of Normandy in June 1944.
27 Apr 1994 (Hill AFB/Fighters & Advanced Aircraft Directorate)
On this date, thirty years ago, President Richard M. Nixon’s funeral took place at his presidential library and museum in Yorba Linda, California. Nixon had died five days earlier, aged 81, as a result of a stroke. Hill AFB’s 388th Fighter Wing took part in the memorial event, flying twenty-one F-16s overhead in five four-ship formations. The final F-16, the 21st, was flown by Lt Col Tim Brown and flew behind the others to perform the “missing man” profile (pulling up and out of sight to represent the lost or missing person—in this case, President Nixon). The event required the support of approximately 120 maintainers and pilots from Hill AFB.
80 Years Ago on April 25, 1944:
The First Military Combat Helicopter Rescue
Eighty years ago, Army Air Forces Lt Carter Harman completed the first combat search and rescue operation by helicopter, a grueling four-day effort to extract a fellow American pilot and three wounded British soldiers trapped behind enemy Japanese lines in Burma.
Helicopters are a subset of “rotary wing” aircraft, where the airfoil-shaped blades spin rapidly to move air over them and generate the lift that gets them off the ground (compared with “fixed wing” airplanes that require forward motion to generate lift from their wings). The idea had been around for centuries, famously conceptualized by Leonardo da Vinci, but it was in the first decade after the Wright Brothers flew that more practical, though ultimately unsuccessful, attempts at building actual helicopters were made.
The Engineering Division at McCook Field in Dayton, AFLCMC’s predecessor, sponsored the Army Air Service’s first foray into rotary wing craft in 1921. It expended over $200,000 for Russian scientist George de Bothezat to design a 4-rotor helicopter that was built at McCook Field and first took flight—just barely—in December 1922. After more than 100 flights proved the craft was unstable and couldn’t rise more than a few feet off the ground, McCook cancelled the program, de Bothezat hastily left town, and the Army didn’t look seriously at helicopters again for 15 years.
The autogiro was another rotary wing alternative, resembling a hybrid between and airplane and a helicopter. They had a propeller for forward motion, but used rotor blades for lift instead of fixed wings. Unlike a helicopter, the rotor was not powered by the engine but instead spun freely in the air to generate lift. That setup meant autogiros had very short takeoff and landing capabilities, but not true vertical flight. A few of these were developed commercially in limited numbers, but they inadvertently contributed to their own obsolescence by their primary competitor: helicopters.
The Pitcairn company of Pennsylvania was the leading autogiro manufacturer and successfully lobbied its congressman in 1938 to appropriate $300,000 for the Army Air Corps to expend on “rotary wing aircraft research, development, procurement, experimentation, and operation.” The coincidental debut of a practical helicopter in Germany convinced the Air Corps technical experts at Wright Field that those were the future, not autogiros. As a result, they allocated the funds entirely to helicopters.
One of the beneficiaries of that money was Igor Sikorsky, a Russian émigré who had worked at McCook Field, like de Bothezat, and built America’s first successful helicopter in 1940, the VS-300 “Hoverfly,” though “one of the minor engineering problems we have not yet solved” was forward motion. After an initial $3000 contract, Wright Field allocated $60,000 to procure an improved version of the Hover-fly VS-316, dubbed the XR-4 by the Army.
The Sikorsky XR-4’s first flight was in January 1942, barely a month after Pearl Harbor, at the company’s plant in Connecticut. It was subsequently flown from there to Wright Field on 17 May 1942, in view of Gen Hap Arnold, Orville Wright, Army Chief of Staff George Marshall, and the Secretary of War. Its success led to the acquisition of 29 YR-4As for service test with the Army, Navy, and British. Most were converted or produced as YR-4Bs, which had up-graded engines and attachments for carrying 300 pounds of bombs or an external litter for medical airlift patients. The Army’s first 16 helicopters were used for testing at various sites, including 6 sent to Wright Field.
While the program office at Wright Field was initially reluctant to send any of these helicopters to an operational theater without even accelerated testing, vehement lobbying on the part of special operators in the China-Burma-India theater convinced Army Air Forces chief Gen Hap Arnold to order their deployment. As a result, the Army’s first operational helicopters were four YR-4Bs sent to India for rescue work. Of those, one was destroyed in the crash of the C-46 cargo plane that was carrying it overseas and two others were wrecked by the same pilot, who had crashed two other aircraft—perhaps justifying Wright Field’s reticence.
In April 1944, an Army liaison plane was transporting three wounded British soldiers in Burma when it crashed behind Japanese lines. The 1st Air Commando Group was called in for rescue, with Lt Harmon receiving the assignment in his Sikorsky YR-4B (tail number 43-28247) on the 21st. It took him over a day to traverse the more than 700 miles between his base and the rescue site. Once there, the high temperatures and altitudes and mechanical problems impacted his helicopter’s performance. Nevertheless, Lt Harmon managed to extract the men one by one over the next day and a half, while surrounded by enemy forces. For his bravery in completing the first helicopter-based military combat rescue on 25 April, Lt Harmon earned the Distinguished Flying Cross. -