11 April 1981, 12:00:03 UTC, T minus Zero: Space Shuttle Columbia (OV-102) lifted off from Launch Complex 39A, Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Florida, on mission STS-1, the very first orbital flight of the series of reusable space vehicles. Aboard were mission commander John Watts Young and shuttle pilot Robert L. Crippen.
John Young, a former U.S. Navy test pilot and holder of 21 world flight records, was NASA’s most experienced astronaut. He had served as Pilot of Gemini III; backup pilot, Gemini IV; Commander for Gemini 10; Command Module Pilot on Apollo 10; back-up commander for Apollo 13; Commander, Apollo 16; and back-up commander for Apollo 17. Young retired from the Navy in 1976 with the rank of captain.
STS-1 was Bob Crippen’s first space flight.
On 14 April, Columbia landed at Edwards Air Force Base in the high desert of Southern California. It had completed 37 orbits. The total mission duration was 2 days, 6 hours, 20 minutes, 53 seconds.
Columbia was the second of six orbiters built by Rockwell International at Palmdale, California. Construction began 27 March 1975. It was 122.17 feet (37.237 meters) long with a wingspan of 78.06 feet (23.793 meters) and overall height of 56.67 feet (17.273 meters). At rollout, 8 March 1979, OV-102 weighed 159,289 pounds (77,252.3 kilograms), and approximately 178,000 pounds (80,740 kilograms) with its five Rocketdyne RS-25 main engines installed. At launch, the all-up weight of the vehicle was 219,258 pounds (99,453 kilograms).
Columbia was returned to Rockwell for upgrades and modifications from August 1991 to February 1992. It was overhauled and upgraded again at Palmdale in 1994 and 1999.
STS-1 was the first of 135 missions of the Space Shuttle Program. 28 were flown by Columbia (OV-102). During those flights, Columbia spent 300 days, 17 hours, 40 minutes, 22 seconds in space. It completed 4,808 orbits of the Earth and travelled 125,204,911 miles (201,497,772 kilometers).
Columbia was destroyed 1 February 2003 as it disintegrated during reentry. All seven of the astronauts aboard were lost.
12 April 1972: Famed pioneer aviator Charles A. Lindbergh, Brigadier General, United States Air Force Reserve, with a television news team investigating reports of a “lost tribe” in the Tasaday mountains of Mindanao, Republic of the Philippines, were stranded on a 3,000-foot (915 meter) jungle ridge line when their support helicopter developed mechanical trouble. Faced with a three-day walk through difficult terrain, the 70-year-old pilot was in trouble. The 31st Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron at Clark Air Base on the Island of Luzon, was called in.
Major Bruce Ware and his crew, co-pilot Lieutenant Colonel Dick Smith, flight engineer Staff Sergeant Bob Baldwin, and pararescueman Airman 1st Class Kim Robinson, flew their Sikorsky HH-3E Jolly Green Giant, 66-13289, over 600 miles (965 kilometers) to the rescue location. The helicopter, call sign “Jolly 36,” was supported by a Lockheed HC-130N Combat King for aerial refueling, navigation and communications.
The pick-up point was a knife-edge ridge. Trees had been cut for clearance, but landing the Sikorsky was impossible. Major Gray had to hover with the nose wheel on one side of the ridge, and the main wheels on the other, with the boarding steps a few feet over the ridge top. The very high temperature and humidity created a density altitude equivalent to more than 6,000 feet (1,830 meters). Hovering the helicopter out of ground effect (OGE) was difficult under these conditions and fuel had to be dumped to lighten the load. Even so, only a few persons could be carried at a time. Eight trips to a drop point 15 minutes away were required. Lindbergh was on the second load. On clearing the ridge, Major Ware rendezvoused with the HC-130N to take on fuel. They partially refueled twice during the ridge line operation. Lindbergh commented that although he had helped to develop inflight refueling, he had never been aboard an aircraft while it was taking place.
After all persons—a total of 46—had been removed from the mountain, Jolly 36 and the Combat King flew back to Clark Air Base. The total elapsed time for the mission was 12 hours, 20 minutes, with 11 hours, 30 minutes actual flight time. Major Ware had to just sit in the cockpit for a few minutes before he could leave the helicopter, but General Lindbergh refused to leave until Ware was ready.
Major Ware was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. The other crew members of Jolly 36 and all those aboard the Combat King received the Air Medal. Ware retired from the Air Force in July 1989, after 29 years of service.
Sikorsky HH-3E 66-13289 (c/n 61-588) was delivered to the U.S. Air Force 8 December 1967 as a CH-3E. By July it was in South East Asia, operating as Jolly Green 03. It was lost in the South China Sea following a rescue from a freighter west of Luzon, Philippine Islands.
Notified by the accompanying HC-130 that the helicopter was trailing smoke, the crew made an emergency landing at sea. It was determined that the main transmission had cracked and was leaking oil. A U.S. Navy helicopter hoisted the Air Force crew and the rescued man aboard, while a tug boat had been dispatched to recover 66-13289.
Unfortunately the Jolly Green Giant overturned during a squall and sank in 12,900 feet (3,932 meters) of water.
12 April 1963: At Edwards Air Force Base, California, Jacqueline (“Jackie”) Cochran, Colonel, U.S. Air Force Reserve, established a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Speed Record when she flew a two-place Lockheed TF-104G Starfighter named Free World Defender, FAA registration N104L, named Free World Defender, over a 15/25 kilometer (9.32/15.53 miles) closed circuit at an average speed of 2,048.88 kilometers per hour (1,273.115 miles per hour).¹
Jackie Cochran wrote about flying the 15/25 kilometer straight course in her autobiography:
“Picture in your mind a rectangular tunnel, 300 feet high, a quarter of a mile wide, and extending 20 miles long through the air at an altitude of 35,000 feet. I had to fly through that tunnel at top speed without touching a side. There were no walls to see but radar and ground instruments let me know my mistakes immediately. Up there at 35,000 feet the temperature would be about 45 degrees below zero. Not pleasant but perfect for what I was doing. Inside the plane you are hot because of the friction of speeding through the air like that. The cockpit was air-conditioned, but when you descend, things happen so fast the plane’s air-cooling system can’t keep up with it. I was always hot and perspiring back on the ground.”
—Jackie Cochran: An Autobiography, by Jacqueline Cochran and Maryann Bucknum Brinley, Bantam Books, New York 1987, Page 314.
N104L was retained by Lockheed for use as a customer demonstrator to various foreign governments. In 1965 Lockheed sold N104L to the Dutch Air Force, where it served as D-5702 until 1980. It next went to the Turkish Air Force, remaining in service until it was retired in 1989.
12 April 1961: At 0607 UTC, Vostok-1 with Cosmonaut Yuri Alexseyevich Gagarin was launched into Earth orbit from the Kosmodrom Baykonur, Kazakhistan. The spacecraft was a spherical Vostok 3KA-3 capsule carried aloft by a Vostok-K rocket.
Gagarin made one orbit of the Earth, with an apogee of 315 kilometers and perigee of 169.kilometers. The orbital period was 89.34 minutes. The orbit was inclined 64.95° with reference to Earth’s axis.
While still in Earth orbit, Senior Lieutenant Gagarin received a field promotion to the rank of major.
His reentry began over Africa. As the spacecraft was descending through 7,000 meters (20,966 feet), he ejected from the capsule and parachuted to the ground, landing near Engels, Saratov Oblast, at 0805 UTC.
Yuri Gagarin was the first human to travel in space.
Yuriy Alekseyevich Gagarin (Юрий Алексеевич Гагарин) was born at Klushino, a village in Smolensk Oblast, Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, 9 March 1934. He was the third of four children of Alexey Ivanovich Gagarin and Anna Timofeyevna Gagarina. The family, workers on a collective farm, were displaced by the German invasion of 1941.
Gagarin was drafted by the Soviet Army in 1955 and was sent to flight school. Gagarin received a commission as a lieutenant in the Soviet Air Force in 1957 and was promoted to senior lieutenant two years later.
Lieutenant Gagarin was one of nineteen pilots selected for the space program in 1960. This was further reduced to six cosmonaut candidates. Gagarin and Gherman Titov were the final Two candidates for the first manned space launch, with Gagarin being chosen.
Yuri Gagarin was killed in an airplane crash, 27 March 1968.
12 April 1953: An air battle between Soviet Air Force MiG-15 fighters and American F-86 Sabres took place in the skies over North Korea. Captain Joseph C. McConnell, Jr., leading a flight of fighters of the 39th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing, based at K-13, near Suwon, Republic of South Korea. He was flying his usual airplane, North American Aviation F-86F-15-NA Sabre 51-12971, which he had named Beautious Butch, in honor of his wife, Pearl “Butch” Brown McConnell.
Captain McConnell saw an American F-86 being attacked by a Russian MiG-15 and went in pursuit.
Captain Semyon Alekseyevich Fedorets, commanding the 913th IAP (Istrebitel’nyy Aviatsionnyy Polk, Fighter Aviation Regiment), 32nd IAD (Istrebitel’naya Aviatsionnyy Diveeziya, Fighter Aviation Division), based at Antung Air Base, China, was leading a flight of MiG-15s. Captain Fedorets was also flying his usual fighter, a camouflaged MiG-15bis, serial number 2315393 (393 Red).
Fedorets saw McConnell.
Captain Fedorets had just shot down F-86A-5-NA 49-1297, flown by 2nd Lieutenant Norman E. Green, 335th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, 4th Fighter Interceptor Group, his fifth combat victory of the Korean War. Green safely ejected and was rescued from the Yellow Sea by an Air Rescue Service SA-16 Albatross flying boat.
Captain Fedorets closed on McConnell from behind and below. McConnell’s wingman saw the MiG and called “Break!”—a single word that told McConnell that he was in immediate danger and to take evasive action. But the call came to late. Fedorets fired at McConnell with his MiG-15’s three autocannon (a single Nudelman N-37 37 mm gun and two Nudelman-Rikhter NR-23 23 mm guns). He saw a hit which opened up a hole in the Sabre’s right wing root of about one square meter.
McConnell rolled right and Fedorets lost sight of the damaged F-86, and assumed that it had gone down. But McConnell completed a barrel roll and came up behind Fedorets. McConnell opened fire with the Sabre’s six Browning AN-M3 .50-caliber (12.7 × 99 NATO) machine guns. Fedorets’ fighter was on fire and fuel was leaking into the cockpit. Leveling the airplane at an altitude of about 11,000 meters (36,090 feet), Fedorets bailed out.
McConnell’s Sabre was also severely damaged. Its engine was producing limited power and his radio was shot out. With the right wing so badly damaged, it was unlikely that he could make it to a safe landing field. Heading out over the Yellow Sea, Joe McConnell ejected and Beautious Butch went down into the sea. 1st Lieutenant Harold Chitwood, leading the second element of McConnell’s flight, called for rescue and watched McConnell’s parachute descending. He saw a Sikorsky H-19, flying over the water below, make a course change and head directly to McConnell.
2nd Lieutenant Robert F. Sullivan, 581st Air Resupply and Communications Wing, based on the island of Chŏ-do, saw the parachute descending right in front of his Sikorsky H-19A Chickasaw helicopter. Hovering over the downed pilot, a rescue hoist was used to recover McConnell, who was in the water only about two minutes. He later remarked, “I barely got wet.”
The 581st ACRW was a special operations detachment operating from Chŏ-do island, but often participated in rescue operations with the 3rd Air Rescue Group. Early in the unit’s deployment the H-19As had been painted as Air Rescue Service helicopters, however the the 3rd ARG commanding officer ordered those markings removed.
Joe McConnell’s F-86 was Semyon Fedorets’ sixth aerial victory of the war. Fedoret’s MiG-15 was McConnell’s eighth victory. Both pilots returned to combat, with McConnell shooting down another eight enemy airplanes, making him the leading U.S. Air Force fighter ace of the Korean War. Captain Fedorets had been injured during the engagement, but after a month’s recuperation, he also returned to combat. In July 1953 he shot down two more F-86 Sabres, and was then rotated out of combat.
(Because the gun camera film was lost when 393 Red went down, Captain Fedorets was officially credited with only one enemy aircraft shot down on 12 April 1953. He is credited with 7 air-to-air victories.)
Fedorets was promoted to the rank of major and was made a Hero of the Soviet Union for his actions during World War II and the Korean War. Colonel Semyon Alekseyevich Fedorets died in 2003 at the age of 81 years.
Captain Joseph C. McConnell, Jr., was killed 6 August 1953 when an F-86H Sabre fighter bomber that he was flying crashed near Edwards Air Force Base. The cause of the accident was determined to be a missing bolt in the flight controls.