A Busy Aviation History Day
Contributor: Barry Fetzer
Happy mid-July. The autumn solstice is only two months and six days away (September 23, 2023). The eternal and unstoppable passage of the seasons…and time…continues to “fly” unabated. Yes, it’s hot but we’ll be commenting on the cold weather before we know it.
Today’s aviation history vignette is a four for the price of one—”such a deal” as the used car salesman told me when I bought my Audie sedan back in 1985 in Jacksonville, NC. And it was a good deal until I discovered the rings were worn and the four-banger engine burned oil, even thirty-weight, like it was going out of style. I lost a good bit on that car when I sold it to a guy who planned to rebuild the engine. Live and learn.
And hopefully we can also live and learn a bit of aviation history from the one good news (for peace and diplomacy) story, the one humorous (“Wrong Way” Corrigan) story, and the two tragic aviation mishap (Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and TWA Flight 800) stories recounted below, courtesy of History.com. July 17th was a busy aviation history day.
Apollo 18 and the Soviet spacecraft Soyuz 19 rendezvous
As part of a mission aimed at developing space rescue capability, the U.S. spacecraft Apollo 18 and the Soviet spacecraft Soyuz 19 rendezvoused and docked in space on July 17, 1975. As the hatch was opened between the two vessels, commanders Thomas P. Stafford and Aleksei Leonov shook hands and exchanged gifts in celebration of the first such meeting between the two Cold War adversaries in space. Back on Earth, United Nations Secretary General Kurt Waldheim congratulated the two superpowers for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project and praised their unprecedented spirit of cooperation and peace in planning and executing the mission.
U.S astronaut Thomas P. Stafford and cosmonaut Aleksei A. Leonov seen at the hatchway leading from the Apollo Docking Module to the Soyuz Orbital Module during the Apollo-Soyuz Test Program mission. Credits: NASA
During the 44-hour Apollo-Soyuz embrace, the astronauts and cosmonauts conducted experiments, shared meals, and held a joint news conference. Apollo-Soyuz, which came almost three years after the sixth and last U.S. lunar landing, was the final Apollo program mission conducted by NASA. It was fitting that the Apollo program, which first visited the moon under the banner of “We came in peace for all mankind,” should end on a note of peace and international cooperation.
Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan crosses the Atlantic
Douglas Corrigan, the last of the early glory-seeking fliers, took off from Floyd Bennett field in Brooklyn, New York, on a flight that would finally win him a place in aviation history.
Eleven years earlier, American Charles A. Lindbergh had become an international celebrity with his solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic. Corrigan was among the mechanics who had worked on Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis aircraft, but that mere footnote in the history of flight was not enough for the Texas-born aviator. In 1938, he bought a 1929 Curtiss Robin aircraft off a trash heap, rebuilt it, and modified it for long-distance flight. In July 1938, Corrigan piloted the single-engine plane nonstop from California to New York. Although the transcontinental flight was far from unprecedented, Corrigan received national attention simply because the press was amazed that his rattletrap aircraft had survived the journey.
Almost immediately after arriving in New York, he filed plans for a transatlantic flight, but aviation authorities deemed it a suicide flight, and he was promptly denied. Instead, they would allow Corrigan to fly back to the West Coast, and on July 17 he took off from Floyd Bennett field, ostentatiously pointed west. However, a few minutes later, he made a 180-degree turn and vanished into a cloudbank to the puzzlement of a few onlookers.
Stepping from his leaky aircraft in Ireland, “Wrong Way” asked, “Where am I?” Credit Plane and Pilot.
Twenty-eight hours later, Corrigan landed his plane in Dublin, Ireland, stepped out of his plane, and exclaimed, “Just got in from New York. Where am I?” He claimed that he lost his direction in the clouds and that his compass had malfunctioned. The authorities didn’t buy the story and suspended his license, but Corrigan stuck to it to the amusement of the public on both sides of the Atlantic. By the time “Wrong Way” Corrigan and his crated plane returned to New York by ship, his license suspension had been lifted, he was a national celebrity, and a mob of autograph seekers met him on the gangway. His ticker tape parade was bigger than Lindbergh’s.
According to Plane and Pilot magazine, “Wrong Way’s” explanation was clearly a lie…a ruse to get him off the hook for disobeying the aviation authorities who forbade him to make the “cross the pond” flight he had originally intended and ultimately flew. “In a movie clip taken of him shortly after his return from Ireland—he had wisely shipped his plane back to the States—the aviator explains his misadventure in a winking, smiling way that would leave no student of human expression in the dark about the nature of the story.”
One of the most famous NY Times headlines with the mirror image headline of “Wrong Way’s” feat. Credit: NY Times.
Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 shot down over the Ukraine-Russia border
On July 17, 2014 halfway through a flight from Amsterdam to Malaysia, a passenger plane was shot down over the war-torn Ukraine-Russia Border. All 298 people on board, most of whom were citizens of the Netherlands, died in the explosion.
It was the second Malaysian Air flight to disappear in 2014, after flight 370 crashed over the Indian Ocean on March 8.
The plane took off from Amsterdam at 10:31 GMT. It was expected to fly over the Ukraine-Russia border which, due to a war between Ukrainian fighters and Pro-Russia separatists, had instituted a minimum-altitude restriction just three days earlier to keep planes from being caught in any potential crossfire. The plane made contact and flew into country lines in accordance with restrictions, but disappeared a few hours later, just 30 miles from the border. No distress signal was received.
Questions arose about the flight path. Was it safe? As it turned out, the path had been approved by the International Civil Aviation Organization, and by the countries that controlled the airspace through which the plane was set to travel.
While it wasn’t clear in the beginning, it was suspected the plane had been shot down by “ill-trained” Russian separatists. Four days later, after investigators were finally able to get their hands on the plane’s black box, these suspicions were confirmed. The explosion had definitely not come from within. The recorder revealed that, as the plane approached the border, a “high-energy object” exploded a yard from the cockpit, breaking it completely off from the rest of the plane. The pilots were killed instantly. The rest of the plane flew for more than five miles before finally breaking apart. The debris scattered over more than 20 square miles of field.
It took 15 months to figure out which side of the war the projectile had come from. In October, 2015, Dutch investigators were able to discern that the blast had been caused by a Russian-made missile. In June 2016, over two years after the plane was shot down, an international group of investigators published a photo of large part of a Russian-made Buk missile that was found at the crash site.
Finally, in May of 2018, after four years of gathering evidence, a release from the Netherlands and Australia said that it wasn’t just a Russian-made missile that had taken down Flight 17, but that they were officially holding Russia accountable.
“We call on Russia to accept its responsibility and cooperate fully with the process to establish the truth and achieve justice for the victims of flight MH17 and their next of kin,” Dutch foreign minister Stef Blok said. The families of the victims have also begged them to take responsibility.
For their part, Russia has repeatedly denied the accusation, claiming that the missile “more than likely belongs to the Ukrainian armed forces.”
TWA Flight 800 exploded over Long Island, NY
Minutes after its take off from New York’s Kennedy International Airport, a Boeing 747 headed for Paris exploded midair over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Long Island on July 17, 1996, leaving all 230 people aboard dead. The four-year investigation into what caused the crash of Trans World Airlines Flight 800 was the longest, and at $40 million, the priciest in the history of the National Transportation Safety Board.
The flight departed at 8:19 p.m. in muggy, but “fairly clear” weather, according to The New York Times, blowing apart in a fiery explosion 12 minutes later. Among the dead were 18 crew members and 212 passengers, including 16 students and five chaperones from Pennsylvania’s Montoursville Area High School French Club.
Witnesses in the area of the crash reported seeing an explosion in the night sky, followed by a shower of flaming debris. Almost immediately there was speculation that the plane had been the target of a terrorist attack, with many claiming they’d spotted what appeared to be a missile heading toward the plane just before it exploded.
Although the source that led to the explosion was never discovered, the investigation concluded the crash’s cause was not a terrorist attack, but an electrical failure that ignited a nearly empty center wing fuel tank in the 25-year-old aircraft. The event remains one of the deadliest plane crashes in U.S. history.
“The investigation of the crash of T.W.A. Flight 800 is a seminal moment in aviation safety history,” the safety board’s managing director said in a 2021 statement. “From that investigation we issued safety recommendations that fundamentally changed the way aircraft are designed.”
Nearly all pieces of the 170-ton jet were recovered from the ocean floor and reconstructed as part of the ensuing investigation. Following the NTSB’s ruling, the plane was used in training plane crash investigators and families of the victims were allowed to visit it, although it was never opened to the public.