Happy Birthday

5th March 1936, first flight of K5054 the Supermarine Type 300 Spitfire prototype, or so the common theory says.

Jeffrey Quill in his book Spitfire: A Test Pilot’s Story is adamant that the first flight actually took place on 6th March,  because he flew Vickers’  Miles Falcon G-ADTD from Brooklands to Martlesham Heath, picking up  Captain Joseph “Mutt”  Summers (Vickers’ Chief Test Pilot) and transporting him to Eastleigh for the flight.  Quill also says he gave brief joyrides to Major H.J Payn,  R.J Mitchell’s Technical Assistant, and Stuart Scott-Hall, Air Ministry technical officer in place at Supermarine.  They were also at Eastleigh for the first flight.     It doesn’t help that Dr. Alfred Price when preparing Spitfire: A Complete Fighting History, quoted an account sheet with a note, hand written by Mitchell updating a line from “Not yet flown” to “Flew 5 Mar 36.”

While we’re in uncertain territory, what did “Mutt” Summers  say when he landed K5054 after that first flight?  Quill says he said “I don’t want anything touched”   which has been widely misquoted (the Wikipedia article says he said “Don’t touch anything”).   Bryan Swopes in This Day in Aviation quotes him as saying “Don’t change a thing!”    People wonder why I like being a history teacher.  What one person said in front of a group of witnesses 81 years ago is a matter of debate and interpretation.  Perhaps in the future our record keeping will be better, but somehow I doubt that important speeches and sayings will ever be clearly recorded or remembered.

I’m inclined to agree with Quill who says it’s unlikely  that after a test flight of a few minutes in which he didn’t even retract the undercarriage,  that Summers thought the aircraft was perfect and didn’t need any refinement.  It’s much more likely he didn’t want anyone fiddling with the aircraft before he flew it again.

Wherever the truth lies, at least we know how the story developed.

 

Spitfire Mark VB

Spitfire Mark VB (AD233, ‘ZD-F’) being flown on 25 May 1942 by Squadron Leader Richard Milne, Commanding Officer of No. 222 Squadron based at North Weald, Essex.
By RAF [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Interlude – Pardon my Intruder

There is comfort in listening to familiar pieces of music and also, in my view, from re-reading a favourite book.  From time to time I re-read Stephen Coonts’ Flight of the Intruder, and when I do, I’m always a little bit impressed with the laconic style and its evocation of life as a US Navy A-6 pilot in 1972. I’ve never read any of Coonts’ other novels, and only realized a few days ago there was actually a sequel (Final Flight, published 1988) and a prequel to the sequel – (The Intruders, published 1994!) to Flight of the Intruder.  I should have a look at them when I have time.

I’ve had two or three copies of Flight of the Intruder in paperback, one of which came free with the computer game of the same name,  and all have continued their journeys in life  – i.e. I never got any of them back.  I decided to buy a cheap copy from Alibris a few months ago, and ended up to my delight with a 1986 first edition, published by the the Naval Institute Press, for the grand total of 99 cents (plus shipping, which was more than the cost of the book.  No matter.)

Having read it again a few days ago, I was thinking a little bit more about A-6s and aircraft carriers, and cast my mind back a little.  It occurred to me that almost exactly forty years ago, in February 1977,  I found myself in the Bay of Naples,  standing on the flight deck of the USS John F Kennedy (CV-67) with a few of my secondary school friends.  It was an amazing experience, and how we got there is probably best left to another blog entry.  I still don’t know how one of the teachers wangled the visit – it was certainly more interesting to me than a free afternoon dodging the citizenry of Naples.  My visit was not long after the incidents of September 1976 in which the destroyer Bordelon collided with the JFK during night replenishment, and an F-14 dropped off the ship after a catapult issue. The resulting race with the Soviet navy to recover the aircraft and its AIM-54 Phoenix missiles was redolent of Clive Cussler or Tom Clancy.

USS John F. Kennedy , 1968.

USS John F. Kennedy (at that time designated CVA-67) underway in the Atlantic Ocean during her shakedown cruise in November/December 1968. Visible on the flight deck are EA-3B, A-4, RA-5C, and F-4 aircraft of Carrier Air Wing 1 (CVW-1).  I’ll have a look at a bigger picture another time and try to identify the helicopter. 
(U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation photo)

I remember that one of our guides on the tour was a Bombardier-Navigator (BN) from one of the A-6 Squadrons embarked on the JFK.  He had a fairly marked accent from one of the Southern states, and when one of the teachers asked him what would happen if the proverbial balloon were to go up,  he replied “This is all for one Nucular Strike” –  Cue stunned silence from group of English school kids.

Grumman A-6E Intruder, 1976

Typical of what I might have seen at the time – US Navy Grumman A-6E Intruder Bu No 154142 “AB-504” of Attack Squadron VA-34 “Blue Blasters” aboard the USS John F Kennedy, 1976.
By RuthAS (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Looking back, it was quite an experience.  I sorely regret that I ran out of 35mm film for my camera and hadn’t had a chance to stock up before the excursion.  There were F-14s,  S-3s, A-6s of different kinds, (they didn’t want us to photograph an EA-6B on the flight deck), A-7s, a couple of E-2s and apparently a C-2A Greyhound which one of the guides said looked like “something Jimmy Doolittle would have flown”.  One of our hosts was an S-3 pilot (I think) who seemed like the archetypal well groomed ROTC youth transposed into uniform on his first tour – he didn’t seem much older than us, although he clearly was. The A-6 guy was much older and a little more grizzled, and it pains me when I think back, that no-one asked him if he or any of the A-6 crews had been in action in South East Asia.  I am sure some of them must have done so.  This was only 1977 after all,  and even Steven Coonts was still serving in the US Navy – he was honorably discharged in 1977 with the rank of Lieutenant.

Now, CV-67 has been decommissioned and the new Gerald R Ford Class CVN-79 will take the JFK name in 2020.  The A-6, A-7 and F-14 are all retired from the US Navy.  The S-3 retired from front-line service in 2009 although there is some unconfirmed speculation that mothballed S-3s could be returned to USN service in 2019 as tankers, in the face of perceived ballistic missile threats from the naval forces of the People’s Republic of China.

I’ve said in some other piece of writing, familiar books and familiar records are a time machine.  Listening to a piece of music I first heard in 1981 transports me instantly to the location where I first heard it because of some vivid memory.   I hadn’t quite made the connection between Flight of the Intruder and my cruise round the Mediterranean in 1977, but I have now. I tip my hat in a little salute to that day 40 years ago.

Coming Soon to a Museum in Ohio

I happened to be perusing Facebook a couple of days ago (as you do these days, “ubiquity” being the watchword) when I saw this little item from the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

I wondered about the date, but May 17, 2018 is the 75th anniversary of the Belle’s last mission.  It’s very fitting and I shall be on of the throng making their way up to Dayton to take a look. I missed it on the only occasion I was in Memphis, I was catching a connecting flight and there wasn’t enough time to go and take a look.  It was also some time in the evening and pelting with rain, which wouldn’t have helped.

There are a lot of familiar pictures of Memphis Belle on the Interwebs,  but thanks to a recent effort by Senior Airman Nathan Clark of the 97th Mobility Air Wing at Altus Air Force base, Oklahoma,  I am able to share a photo of Memphis Belle which a few people may not have seen.  I had never seen it before.  Thank you!!

Students from Altus schools pose with the Memphis Belle, in 1946

Students from Altus schools pose with the Memphis Belle, in 1946 at Altus Army Air Field. The famous World War II bomber was stored in Altus AAF briefly after the war. Altus Air Force Base began as a twin engine training base in World War II and since then has supported many air mobility, missile, and training missions as well as routinely deployed Airmen and aircraft overseas and to humanitarian missions. (U.S. Air Force Photo by 97th Air Mobility Wing Historian/ Released)

I think I said in my FB post at the time, that this does raise the question of what the NMUSAF are going to do with their other Combat veteran B-17,  the much-travelled B-17G 42-32076 Shoo Shoo Shoo Baby when the Belle is installed.  A page on Wikipedia speculates that Shoo Shoo Shoo Baby will be transferred to the Udvar V. Hazy site in Washington DC  “once restoration of the Memphis Belle is completed in 2015.”

B-17G 42-32076

B-17G 42-32076 “Shoo Shoo Shoo Baby” at the National Museum of the USAF in Dayton, OH.

B-17G 42-32076 "Shoo Shoo Shoo Baby" 1944

B-17G 42-32076 “Shoo Shoo Shoo Baby” after her forced landing in Sweden, 1944

Speaking purely personally,  I would love to see her go back into the restoration hangar to try and correct or update some of the cosmetic aspects of the restoration done in the 1980s,  specifically the Olive Drab/Neutral gray paint scheme applied to cover the sheet metal work that was carried out to restore her to her original bomber configuration.   See the pictures above for an idea of how she looks now and how she looked after landing in Sweden in May 1944.

It is my belief that restoration techniques have advanced sufficiently – citing B-29 Doc as an example –  to allow her to be restored in her original unpainted state. I do acknowledge though, that Doc hasn’t undergone the same degree of modification that Shoo Shoo Shoo Baby experienced.   That’s just me. I have no desire to cause any offense to anyone who may have worked on the restoration.  Times were different then, and some techniques were simply not available.

On a positive note, the other delightful prospect is that yet another B-17 is in the works at Dayton,  this being B-17D 40-3097 The Swoose  (seen below in 1944)which was transferred from the Smithsonian Institution to the NMUSAF in 2007.  There are pictures of the two veteran B-17s side by side in the restoration facility at Dayton.  I may be an old romantic but it would be wonderful to see the three combat veterans sitting together somewhere before the illustrious group is dispersed, although I suspect that timing may not allow this to happen.

B-17D 40-3097 "The Swoose"

B-17D 40-3097 “The Swoose” in bare metal finish, 1944. (Smithsonian Institution, Public Domain)

 

 

 

On Another Day in December

Harrison H. Schmitt

Scientist-astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt stands by the American flag during a moonwalk on the Apollo 17 mission. Home, that small dot in the blackness of space above the flag, is a quarter-million miles away. 
Schmitt, Gene Cernan and Ron Evans made the Apollo program’s final journey to the moon in December 1972. (NASA – Public Domain)

I don’t have much to add to this as the picture itself is amazing.   The minute Earth floats just above the American flag, 44 years ago,  as Harrison Schmitt and Gene Cernan walk on the lunar surface in the final Apollo Mission.  Apollo 17 lasted from December 7 to December 19, 1972, and had many memorable features including the only night launch of an Apollo mission.  Harrison Schmitt,  in a conversation I heard a few years ago said of the launch”Did you see it?  I missed it!”

I was asking my history class last week if they thought 17 was a strange number  for the last Apollo mission.   I will have to read the official history again but I do believe that enough Saturn Vs were built for numbers 18, 19 and 20, but the Nixon administration’s budget cuts of the early 70s put paid to the effort.

On a personal note (since there ought to be one)  I actually met Harrison Schmitt a couple of times a few years ago (I think it was 2009) in a previous job.  Once as a speaker in a series of talks about the Manned Space Program and once again to talk about his book.   I found him to be a very sociable guy  – he has after all been a politician and public figure for many years,  and he chatted easily with his audience, and was very much at ease for a talk he gave.   I dutifully joined the line to purchase and have him sign a copy of his book  Return to the Moon:  Enterprise, and Energy in the Human Settlement of Space. (New York,  Copernicus, 2006) in which he advocates a series of privately funded return missions to re-establish a colony on the Moon for energy extraction and low gravity manufacturing.   Interesting stuff.

Since we saw the tiny blue dot which is the earth floating above the flag in the first picture,  it would be appropriate to note that Harrison Schmitt is probably (I think he says he is) the man responsible for another fairly classic image of the Earth  from any Apollo mission,  this is the picture commonly known as the “Blue Pearl”

Earth seen from Apollo 17

The Apollo 17 crew caught this breathtaking view of our home planet as they were traveling to the Moon on Dec. 7, 1972. It’s the first time astronauts were able to photograph the South polar ice cap. Nearly the entire coastline of Africa is clearly visible, along with the Arabian Peninsula. (NASA – Public Domain)

One Day in December – Tom and Wally meet Jim and Frank

Whenever I get a quiet moment I go and look at Bryan Swopes’ excellent This Day in Aviation,  and frequently find something I would like to re-broadcast. Sometimes I just share the entry on my Facebook page,  and sometimes I want to expand or amplify something he’s written usually because I find something interesting that I’ve looked up in addition to the original article.   This is one of those occasions.

 Gemini 7 spacecraft photographed from Gemini 6

This photograph of the Gemini 7 spacecraft was taken from Gemini 6 during rendezvous and station keeping maneuvers at an altitude of approximately 160 miles above the Earth. Gemini 6 and Gemini 7 launched on December 15, 1965 and December 4, 1965, respectively. Walter M. Schirra, Jr. and Thomas P. Stafford on Gemini 6 and Frank Borman and James A. Lovell on Gemini 7 practiced rendezvous and station keeping together for one day in orbit. (NASA – Public Domain)

December 4th 1965  was the launch date of Gemini VII  with Frank Borman and Jim Lovell, both on their first space flights.  Gemini VII was a long-duration mission, and although they were to be target,  they would be part of the first rendezvous in space with another manned spacecraft, in this case Gemini VI, which by a series of mischances would be launched later than its sequential successor.

I wanted to know who was in Gemini VI,  since Bryan Swopes recorded the date simply as the launch of Gemini VII.   The information was forthcoming from Wikipedia.  The crew of Gemini VI was Wally Schirra, on his second space flight,  and Tom Stafford, on his first.

Gemini VI was scheduled for launch on October 26th 1965 and was supposed to rendezvous and dock with an Atlas-Agena rocket which was launched shortly after the astronauts boarded their craft.   Apparently something went horribly wrong in staging, and the Agena exploded on separation from the Atlas booster.  Gemini VI was canceled.

The Gemini VI-A mission  was conceived after Gemini VII was launched – Stafford and Schirra in VI would rendezvous with Bormann and Lovell in Gemini VII.   The next putative launch of VI was scheduled for December 12, 1965 and failed when the main engines shut down prematurely.   Standard procedure should have been for the Astronauts to eject, but Schirra declined to do so, as he didn’t feel the booster was vibrating or showing signs it was liable to explode.  He also had considerable doubts about ejecting through the hatch of the Gemini capsule which had also been on 100% oxygen for some considerable time.  “”We would have been two Roman candles going out, because we were 15 or 16 psi, pure oxygen.”

Eventually Gemini VI launched on December 15, 1965. The rendezvous was made on that day. The Gemini spacecraft got as close as 1 foot. They were not equipped to dock, but clearly would have been able to do so had it been feasible.

Gemini VI re-entered and splashed down on December 16th, 1965.  Gemini VII returned on December 18th, 1965. According to Borman the last couple of days of the mission were “bad.” The novelty had worn off after 14 days in orbit in a Gemini capsule.

If you’re in my part of the world, you might be interested to know that the  Gemini VI capsule is  currently on display at the Oklahoma History Center in Oklahoma City.  Gemini VII is  at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

Thomas P. Stafford (left), pilot, and Walter M. Schirra Jr. Gemini 6

Astronauts Thomas P. Stafford (left), pilot, and Walter M. Schirra Jr., command pilot, pose during a suiting up exercise in preparation for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Gemini VI two-day mission. Image ID: S65-56188

James A. Lovell, Jr (left) and Frank F. Borman - Gemini VII

James A. Lovell, Jr (left) and Frank F. Borman, II, Prime Crew of Gemini VII (NASA – Public Domain)

 

One Hit Wonder

There are certain anniversaries that I would like to cover, and I haven’t looked at This day in Aviation yet. On 2nd November 1947 the world witnessed the first and only flight of the Hughes H-4 “Hercules” NX37602 better known as the “Spruce Goose” even though it was largely made of birch. Intended to carry 750 troops across the Atlantic, it was revolutionary in its construction, being of birch and resin composite, and aroused much controversy and speculation as the project lagged.

Hughes H-4 Spruce Goose

First and only flight of the Hughes H-4 “Hercules” (aka Spruce Goose”)
at Long Beach, California on 2 November, 1947

It’s probably a measure of Hughes’ capricious nature that having proved the concept, the H-4 was shelved after its first and only flight. A Hughes crew maintained the aircraft in flying condition in a climate-controlled hangar, but this crew was reduced in size over the years and disbanded entirely after Howard Hughes’ death in 1976.

The Aero Club of Southern California put the aircraft on display in 1980 in a large dome adjacent to the RMS Queen Mary. The Walt Disney Company acquired both attractions and some years later told the aero club it no longer wished to display the Hercules. The aircraft was transported by barge, train, and truck to its current home in McMinnville, Oregon at the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum, where it arrived on February 27, 1993.

Hughes H-4 Hercules flying boat, the

Hughes H-4 Hercules flying boat, the “Spruce Goose” at the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum, Oregon
By Drew Wallner (Own work) CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Some nice footage exists of the H-4 on YouTube, including this documentary excerpt.

Trafalgar Day

In two previous articles on the Battle of Britain, and the commemoration of Battle of Britain Day on September 15th, I have mentioned Trafalgar Day (October 21st) and opined that there was a danger that Trafalgar Day is fading from our consciousness and that Battle of Britain Day will do likewise. It seems appropriate and consistent with my opinions to mention Trafalgar Day even on an aviation-themed blog.

I think  J.M. W. Turner’s painting of the Battle of Trafalgar says more than my words ever could.

The Battle of Trafalgar

The Battle of Trafalgar, as seen from the starboard mizzen shrouds of the Victory by J. M. W. Turner (oil on canvas, 1806 to 1808) (Public Domain)