Italy’s military precision jet team, Frecce Tricolori (“Tricolor Arrows”), performs over Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
Five years before the end of the cold war, the year 1986 brought technological nightmares to both of the world’s superpowers. For the Americans, it was the fiery loss of a space shuttle and crew; for the Soviets, the explosion of a nuclear reactor called Chernobyl. While their nations’ proxies battled in Central America (with the Iran-Contra affair coming to light in the fall), President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev sat down in Reykjavik, Iceland that October for an arms control summit. (Though the talks collapsed over the development of Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, the summit led to an agreement the following spring on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which reduced tensions between NATO and the Warsaw Pact.) Before the year was out, each side could claim a world-class achievement in aviation or spaceflight. The Soviets had Mir, the planet’s only space station, while a small team of American entrepreneurs built and flew an airplane nonstop around the world on a single tank of gas. This was the world that
Air & Space/Smithsonian magazine entered when it debuted in April 1986. For the next 25 years, the magazine followed stories in space technology and exploration, military aviation and missile development, and sport aviation and record-setting flights.
Click through the gallery above for a month-by-month photo album of what was happening in the year we were born.
Paul Hoversten is the Air & Space executive editor.
A stunned nation watches the televised destruction of
Challenger and seven astronauts (including teacher Christa McAuliffe) on January 28, at the start of NASA’s 25th space shuttle mission. The accident comes just a day after the 19th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire, which killed three astronauts in their capsule during a test at the launch pad in 1967. Now after a 30-year run, NASA is winding down the shuttle program. Three days before the Challenger disaster, the Voyager 2 probe flies past Uranus. Launched in 1977, the probe flew past Jupiter in 1979, Saturn in 1981, and Neptune in 1989. Today Voyager 2 is some 8.5 billion miles from Earth, and is expected to keep transmitting signals until at least 2025.
Less than a month after
Challenger, on February 19, the Soviet Union launches the first piece of its second space station, Mir. The core module, launched from Kazakhstan aboard a Proton-K rocket, provides the living quarters and main engines. The next month, Mir’s first crew (cosmonauts Leonid Kizim and Vladimir Solovyov) arrives aboard a Soyuz. After the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, the United States and the Russian Federation agree to cooperate in Mir’s development in preparation for building the International Space Station. From 1995 to 1998, space shuttles dock with Mir nine times, bringing U.S. and Russian crews and supplies to the world’s first modular space station. But after a number of harrowing incidents, including a fire and a collision with an unmanned supply ship, Mir is abandoned in 2000. The next year, it falls out of orbit and burns up in Earth’s atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean.
The U.S. Navy on March 10 selects the McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) F/A-18 Hornet as the official aircraft of the Blue Angels flight demonstration team. The F/A-18 replaces the Douglas A-4F Skyhawk II, which the team had flown since 1974. The Blues now have nine jets: six single-seaters (five F/A-18Cs and one -18A) and three two-seaters (two -18Ds and one -18B). This year, the team is scheduled to fly at 38 U.S. airshows from March 12 to November 12 (schedule information at
airspacemag.com/airshow). The F/A-18, which costs about $21 million, can reach speeds just under Mach 2 and has a maximum climb rate of 30,000 feet per minute. Each Blue Angel aircraft is capable of being returned to combat duty aboard an aircraft carrier within 72 hours.
An occasional guest pays a visit to the neighborhood. Halley’s Comet, which swings by Earth every 76 years, on April 11 passes closest to our planet on the icy object’s journey around the sun. Observers are disappointed because at a distance of 39 million miles, the famous comet is barely visible to the naked eye. (Its closest approach, on April 10 in the year 837, was three million miles.) But for the first time, scientists get a close look at the oval-shape comet, which measures about 10 by five by five miles. A fleet of six robot spacecraft—two each from Japan and the Soviet Union, one from the United States, and one from the European Space Agency—fly by to photograph and study Halley in detail as it nears the planet. The comet will next be visible from Earth in 2062.
Cessna Aircraft Company and CEO Russ Meyer are awarded the Collier Trophy, aviation’s highest honor, by the National Aeronautic Association on May 16 for the safety record of Cessna’s worldwide fleet of Citation aircraft. Later in the year, the Wichita, Kansas-based company delivers its 100th Citation III. Since it was founded in 1927, Cessna has delivered more than 192,000 airplanes, including more than 6,000 Citations, making it the largest fleet of business jets in the world. Also in May, Frank Whittle and Hans von Ohain, inventors of the jet engine, are presented the National Air and Space Museum’s lifetime achievement award while space veteran John Young, then chief of the astronaut office, is given the current achievement award. Young, who flew missions in the Gemini, Apollo, and space shuttle programs, retires from NASA in 2004 after 42 years with the space agency.
Air Force One gets bigger and grander when on June 5 the Department of Defense orders two Boeing 747-200Bs for use as presidential transports. The 747s replace two aging 707s that had dated to the Kennedy administration. The first of the jumbo jets, designated VC-25, is delivered in 1990 during President George H.W. Bush’s term. With three levels containing a total of 4,000 square feet of floor, Air Force One has advanced secure communications that enable it to function as a mobile command center in the event of an attack on the United States. The 747s are expected to be replaced in 2017 with either the 747-8 or the 787 Dreamliner, which is now in flight testing. The presidential fleet is maintained by the 89th Airlift Wing at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.
The National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall marks its 10th anniversary on July 4. In the years since, a number of galleries open, including How Things Fly (in 1996), Space Race (1997), and Explore the Universe (2001), as well as the Museum’s second location, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in northern Virginia (2003). Four days after the national holiday, on July 8, California college student Scott Zimmerman tosses an Aerobie flying ring 1,257 feet, setting a new world record for the farthest thrown object (airborne time: 28 seconds). Set at Fort Funston, a hang-gliding site in San Francisco, the record eclipses the old mark by 211 feet and stands for 17 years. The 1903 Wright Flyer (center) seems to fill the National Air and Space Museum’s Milestones of Flight gallery in this abstract photo, shot from below. Clockwise from lower left: North American X-15, Bell XP-59A Airacomet, Bell X-1
Glamorous Glennis, and Ryan NYP Spirit of St. Louis stand out among other artifacts. The photo was taken in 1997; the Flyer was moved to another gallery in the Museum in 2003.
Ciao! Italy’s military precision jet team, Frecce Tricolori (“Tricolor Arrows”), makes its first visit to North America with performances on August 2 and 3 at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s 34th Fly-in Convention in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The team flies 10 Aermacchi MB-339A two-seat jet trainers—the highest number of aircraft of any aerobatic team in the world. Officially known as the 313 Gruppo Addestramento Acrobatico (Acrobatic Training Group), the team was formed in 1961 and replaced flying groups that various Italian military commands had sponsored since the late 1920s. In 2010, Frecce Tricolori primarily flew demonstrations in Italy, with side trips to France, Hungary, Spain, and Sweden.
Japan Air Lines takes delivery of the first Boeing 767-300 on September 25. The $150 million airliner, which is completed and rolled out of Boeing’s production plant in early 1986, makes its first flight on January 30. Its direct competitor is the Airbus A330-200. More than 1,000 767s have been ordered, with 900 delivered to airlines around the world. Today, the 767-300 model accounts for two-thirds of all 767s ordered. The 767 is expected to be replaced by the 787 Dreamliner.
The Rockwell B-1B Lancer joins the Air Force fleet on October 1 as a multi-role, long-range bomber. Known to its crews as the “Bone” (for B-One), the swing-wing bomber was designed for high-speed low-altitude missions to penetrate Soviet airspace. It first saw combat in December 1998 during Operation Desert Fox in Iraq, when the aircraft destroyed Republican Guard barracks, and later flew bombing runs over Kosovo. Since 2001, the aircraft has been striking Taliban targets in Afghanistan. The Air Force, which has 66 B-1Bs based at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas and Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, plans to continue flying the Bone until 2040.
Eastern Airlines’ shareholders approve their board’s February 23 decision to sell the airline to Frank Lorenzo and Texas Air, prompting the New York Stock Exchange to drop Eastern from its listing on November 27. The sale is the beginning of the end for Eastern, which was founded in 1926. Under Lorenzo, the Miami-based airline is beset with strikes, mass layoffs, empty airplanes, and bankruptcy; finally, in January 1991, operations ended. Over the years, rumors swirl on the Web about former employees and investor groups trying to resurrect the airline once owned by World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker.
A year that began in tragedy ends in triumph. Americans Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager make the first round-the-world airplane flight without stopping or refueling. The pair flies the journey in
Voyager, an airplane designed by Rutan’s younger brother Burt, with front and rear propellers and built mainly of graphite, Kevlar, and fiberglass. They take off from Edwards Air Force Base in California on December 14 and land there nine days and 24,986 miles later. Average flight speed: 116 mph. Voyager now hangs in the National Air and Space Museum’s Milestones of Flight gallery. On December 30, Austria and Norway become the 13th and 14th members, respectively, of the European Space Agency (ESA). ESA, which began in 1975 and now has 19 member countries, is a partner in the International Space Station.