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86th Fighter Group

86th Fighter Group


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86th Fighter Group

History - Books - Aircraft - Time Line - Commanders - Main Bases - Component Units - Assigned To

History

The 86th Fighter Group was mainly used as a close support unit, and took part in the invasions of Sicily, mainland Italy and the south of France, before ending the war operating over Germany.

The group was constituted as the 86th Bombardment Group (Light) on 13 January 1942 and activated on 10 February 1942.

The group was redesignated as the 86th Bombardment Group (Dive) in September 1942.

In March-May 1943 the group moved to North Africa, towards the end of the Tunisian campaign. However it remained in training in North Africa until July, and didn't enter combat with the Twelfth Air Force until then.

The group operated a mix of A-36 Mustangs, P-40 Warhawks and P-47 Thunderbolts during its time in combat, and was mainly used as a close support unit, although it also flew a few longer range interdiction missions and patrols.

The group entered combat just before the invasion of Sicily, and took part in the final stages of the pre-invasion bombardment before supporting the invasion itself in July 1943.

The group was redesignated as the 86th Fighter-Bomber Group in August 1943

In September 1943 the group supported the landings at Salerno. The group was able to move to Paestum on the mainland by 21 September, greeting increased its effectiveness. It then supported the attack on the Volturno Line and the advance towards the Gustav Line.

In January-June 1944 the group supported the repeated attacks on the Gustav Line and the advance on Rome, as well as the fighting at Anzio. The group was awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation for an attack on heavily defended German forces on 25 May 1944 during the final advance on Rome.

The group was redesignated as the 86th Fighter Group in May 1944.

In August 1944 the group supported Operation Dragoon, the invasion of the south of France, from bases on Corsica that allowed it to hit targets in Italy and France. By the end of August the Allies had advanced so far north that they were out of range for the 86th, and the group's attention returned to Italy.

From September 1944 until February 1945 the group's main task was to attack German communications in northern Italy, supported the attacks on the Gothic Line.

In February 1945 the group moved to Tantonville, in the north-east of France, after the winter attack on the Gothic Line was abandoned. This was originally seen as the start of a move of the entire Twelfth Air Force from Italy to France, this larger move never took place. In April the group moved again, this time to Braunshardt in south-west Germany.

In April-May 1945 the group operated over Germany, attacking the German transport system during the last campaign of the war. The group received a second DUC for an attack on airfields and convoys in northern Germany on 20 April 1945.

The group remained in Germany after the war, forming part of the United States Air Forces in Europe. It was transferred back to the US without its personnel or equipment in February 1946 and inactivated on 31 March 1946.

Books

Pending

Aircraft

1943-1945: North American A-36 Mustang, Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, Republic P-47 Thunderbolt

Timeline

13 January 1942Constituted as 86th Bombardment Group (Light)
10 February 1942Activated
September 1942Redesignated 86th Bombardment Group (Dive)
March-May 1943To North Africa and Twelfth Air Force
July 1943Combat Debut
August 1943Redesignated 86th Fighter-Bomber Group
May 1944Redesignated 86th Fighter Group
February 1946To United States
31 March 1946Inactivated

Commanders (with date of appointment)

Unkn: Feb 1942-Feb1943
Maj Clinton U True: 10 Feb 1943
Lt Col Robert C Paul: 7 Aug 1943
ColHarold E Hofahl: 4 Dec 1943
Col Earl EBates Jr: 2 Aug 1944
Lt Col George TLee: 14 Feb 1945
Maj John H Buckner:23 Sep 1945-c. 14 Feb 1946.

Main Bases

Will Rogers Field, Okla: 10Feb 1942
Hunter Field, Ga: c. 20 Jun 1942
Key Field, Miss: c. 7 Aug 1942-19 Mar1943
La Senia, Algeria: c. 12 May 1943
French Morocco: 3 Jun 1943
Tafaraoui,Algeria: 11 Jun 1943
Korba, Tunisia: 30Jun 1943
Gela, Sicily: 20 Jul 1943
Barcelona,Sicily: 27 Aug 1943
Sele Airfield,Italy: 22 Sep 1943
Serretella Airfield, Italy:12 Oct 1943
Pomigliano, Italy: 19 Nov1943
Marcianise, Italy: 30 Apr 1944
Ciampino, Italy: c. 12 Jun 1944
Orbetello,Italy: c. 19 Jun 1944
Corsica: c. 12 Jul1944
Grosseto, Italy: c. 17 Sep 1944
Pisa,Italy: 23 Oct 1944
Tantonville, France: c20 Feb 1945
Braunschardt, Germany: c.18 Apr 1945
Schweinfurt, Germany: 26Sep 1945-15 Feb 1946
Bolling Field,DC: 15 Feb-31 Mar 1946.

Component Units

311th: 1942-1943
525th: 1942-1946
526th: 1942-1946
527th: 1942-1946

Assigned To

1943: 64th Fighter Wing; XII Fighter Command; Twelfth Air Force
1943: 64th Fighter Wing; XII Tactical Air Command; Twelfth Air Force
1944: 87th Fighter Wing; XII Tactical Air Command; Twelfth Air Force
1944: 87th Fighter Wing; XII Fighter Command; Twelfth Air Force
1945-46: 64th Fighter Wing


512th Fighter Squadron

The 512th Fighter Squadron is an inactive United States Air Force unit. Its last assignment was with the 86th Fighter Wing at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, where it was inactivated September 1994.

The squadron was first activated as the 628th Bombardment Squadron in 1943. While retaining its mission as a ground attack, unit, it became the 512th Fighter-Bomber Squadron a few months after activating. After training in the United States, it moved to the European Theater of Operations in the spring of 1944. It entered combat soon thereafter, and following D-Day, moved to the continent of Europe, where it gave close air support to American ground forces advancing across Europe. It earned two Distinguished Unit Citations for its actions during the war. Following V-E Day, the squadron served in the Army of Occupation until 1946, when it was inactivated and its personnel and equipment transferred to another unit.

The squadron was reactivated in 1952, when it replaced an Air National Guard unit that had been mobilized for the Korean War. The following year it assumed an air defense mission and continued with that mission until inactivated in 1959.

The squadron was reactivated as the 512th Tactical Fighter Squadron in 1976 and served in that role until 1994, when it transferred its fighters to Aviano Air Base, as its parent wing became an airlift unit.


86th Fighter Group

Command Staff of the 47th Bomb Group at Souk-el-Arba, Tunisia Top Row L to R: William J. Hanna (Group Ops Officer), Robert V. DeShazo (Group Exec Officer), Malcom Green (future Group C.O.), Frederick Terrell (Group Commander( Bottom Row L to R: Reginald Clizbe (85th BS C.O.), Richard Horner (86th BS C.O.), Marion Akers (97th BS C.O.)

1LT William C. Leep Fighter PIlot 86th FBG - 526th FBS - 12th AF KIA 28 Jan 1944

1LT Lamert Rex Guyer 86th FBG - 525th FBS - 12th AF KIA 3 February 1944

1LT Sibley Reid Fighter Pilot 86th FBG - 526th FBS - 12th AF KIA 6 Feb 1944

1LT James Walter Smedley Fighter Pilot 86th FBG - 527th FBS - 12th AF POW

1LT Herschel H. Mattes Fighter Pilot 86th FBG - 525th FBS - 12th AF KIA - 6 March 1944 His remains were not identified until 2019

1LT Bruce Wrigley Fulton Fighter Pilot 86th Fighter Group - 527th FS - 12th AF shot down and captured 10 December 1944

526th Fighter Bomber Squadron Emblem 86th Fighter Group

525th Fighter Bomber Squadron Emblem 86th Fighter Group

The Group was constituted as 86th Bombardment Group (Light) on 13-Jan 1942, and activated on 10 Feb 1942. It was redesignated 86th Bombardment Group (Dive) in Sep 1942, 86th Fighter-Bomber Group in Aug 1943, and 86th Fighter Group in May 1944.

In March through May of 1943, they moved to North Africa and trained until July, then began combat with Twelfth Air Force. They were engaged primarily in close support of ground forces, with the group moving forward to bases in Sicily, Italy, Corsica, France, and Germany as the battle line changed. Patrol and interdictory missions were also flown. A-36, P-40, and P-47 aircraft were used to attack convoys, trains, ammunition dumps, troop and supply columns, shipping, bridges, rail lines, and other objectives.

They participated in the softening up of Sicily and supported the invasion by Seventh Army in July of 1943, and provided cover for the landings at Salerno in September of that year. The Group assisted the Allied advance toward Rome during Jan-Jun 1944. They supported the invasion of Southern France in Aug 1944, and worked to take out enemy communications in northern Italy from Sep 1944 to April 1945. They attacked enemy transportation in Germany during April and May 1945.

The 86th received two DUC's: one for action on 25 May 1944 when the group repeatedly dived through intense flak to destroy enemy vehicles and troops as German forces tried to stop the Allies short of Rome the other for activity against convoys and airfield installations in northern Germany on 20 April 1945 to disorganize the enemy's withdrawal from that area.

The Fighter Bomber Group remained in Germany after the war as part of United States Air Forces in Europe. They were transferred, without personnel and equipment, to the US in Feb 1946, and inactivated on March 31, 1946.

In August of 46, the Group was activated in Germany, and assigned to the United States Air Forces in Europe. They were redesignated 86th Composite Group in May 1947, 86th Fighter Group in Jan 1948, 86th Fighter-Bomber in Jan 1950, and the 86th Fighter-Interceptor Group in Aug 1954. Equipped successively with F-47, F-84, and F-86 aircraft.

US Air Force Combat Units of World War II Description

Constituted as 86th Bombardment Group (Light) on 13 Jan 1942. Activated on 10 Feb 1942. Redesignated 86th Bombardment Group (Dive) in Sep 1942, 86th Fighter-Bomber Group in Aug 1943, and 86th Fighter Group in May 1944.

Moved to North Africa, Mar-May 1943. Trained until Jul, then began combat with Twelfth AF. Engaged primarily in close support of ground forces, with the group moving forward to bases in Sicily, Italy, Corsica, France, and Germany as the battle line changed. Also flew patrol and interdictory missions. Used A-36, P-40, and P-47 aircraft to attack convoys, trains, ammunition dumps, troop and supply columns, shipping, bridges, rail lines, and other objectives.

Participated in the softening up of Sicily and supported the invasion by Seventh Army in Jul 1943. Provided cover for the landings at Salerno in Sep 1943. Assisted the Allied advance toward Rome during Jan-Jun 194. Supported the invasion of Southern France in Aug 1944. Operated against enemy communications in northern Italy from Sep 1944 to Apr 1945. Attacked enemy transportation in Germany during Apr and May 1945.

Received two DUC’s: for action on 25 May 1944 when the group repeatedly dived through intense flak to destroy enemy vehicles and troops as German forces tried to stop the Allies short of Rome for activity against convoys and airfield installations in northern Germany on 20 Apr 1945 to disorganize the enemy’s withdrawal from that area.

Remained in Germany after the war as part of United States Air Forces in Europe. Transferred, without personnel and equipment, to the US in Feb 1946. Inuctivated on 31 Mar 1946.


86th Fighter Group - History

CBI & OTHER ARMY COMMANDS

AIR TRANPORT UNITS

Ferrying Command Air Transport Command Air Cargo Resupply Airways Detachements ICWATC Stations AAFBUs CNAC

10th AF UNITS

10th AF Eastern Air Command Bomber, Fighter, Liaison, Air Commando, Photo Recon Units

14th AF UNITS

14th AF AVG CATF CACW Bomber, Fighter, Photo Recon Units

20th AF UNITS

20th AF Bomber, Fighter, Photo Recon, Air Transport (Mobile), Photo Recon Units

AIR SERVICE COMMAND UNITS

Air Depot Groups Air Service Groups

ARMY AIRWAYS COMMUNICATIONS SYSTEM UNITS

AACS Units Air Base Comm Detachments

CORPS OF ENGINEERS UNITS

MEDICAL SERVICE UNITS

Air Evacuation Emergency Rescue Hospitals Medical Units Veterinary Units

ORDNANCE CORPS UNITS

QUARTERMASTER CORPS UNITS

SIGNAL CORPS UNITS

TRANSPORTATION CORPS UNITS


Rhein-Main Air Base was a United States Air Force air base near the city of Frankfurt am Main, Germany. It was a Military Airlift Command (MAC) and United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) installation, occupying the south side of Frankfurt Airport. Its military airport codes are discontinued. Established in 1945, Rhein-Main Air Base was the primary airlift and passenger hub for United States forces in Europe. It was billed as the "Gateway to Europe". It closed on 30 December 2005.

The 109th Airlift Wing is a unit of the New York Air National Guard, stationed at Stratton Air National Guard Base, Schenectady, New York. If activated to federal service, the Wing is gained by the United States Air Force Air Mobility Command.

The 445th Airlift Wing is an Air Reserve Component of the United States Air Force. It is assigned to the Fourth Air Force, Air Force Reserve Command, stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. If mobilized, the wing is gained by the Air Mobility Command.

The 103d Airlift Wing is a unit of the Connecticut Air National Guard, stationed at Bradley Air National Guard Base at Bradley International Airport, Windsor Locks, Connecticut. If activated to federal service with the United States Air Force, the 103 AW is operationally-gained by the Air Mobility Command (AMC).

The 86th Airlift Wing is a United States Air Force wing, currently assigned to the United States Air Forces in Europe. The 86th AW is stationed at Ramstein Air Base, Germany.

The 435th Air Ground Operations Wing is an active unit of the United States Air Force, assigned to the United States Air Forces in Europe. It is stationed at Ramstein Air Base, Germany.

The 94th Airlift Wing is a reserve unit of the United States Air Force. It is assigned to the Twenty-Second Air Force of the Air Force Reserve Command (AFRC) and is stationed at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Georgia. When mobilized, most of the wing would be assigned to Air Mobility Command, while a smaller proportion would be retained by AFRC.

The 439th Airlift Wing is an active United States Air Force Reserve unit. It is assigned to the Air Force Reserve Command, Fourth Air Force, and is based at Westover Air Reserve Base, Massachusetts.

The 133rd Airlift Wing is a unit of the Minnesota Air National Guard, stationed at Minneapolis–Saint Paul Joint Air Reserve Station, Minnesota. If activated to federal service, the Wing is gained by the United States Air Force Air Mobility Command.

The 137th Special Operations Wing is a unit of the Oklahoma Air National Guard located at Will Rogers Air National Guard Base, Oklahoma. If activated to federal service, the wing is gained by Air Force Special Operations Command. During World War II, its predecessor, the 404th Fighter Group, flying Republic P-47 Thunderbolts, provided close air support to troops following the Operation Overlord, the Normandy landing until the close of the war. The wing is entitled to the honors won by the group by temporary bestowal.

The 146th Airlift Wing is a unit of the California Air National Guard, stationed at Channel Islands Air National Guard Station, Oxnard, California. If activated to federal service, the Wing is gained by the United States Air Force Air Mobility Command.

The 136th Attack Squadron is a unit of the New York Air National Guard 107th Attack Wing located at Niagara Falls Joint Air Reserve Station, New York. The 136th is equipped with the MQ-9 Reaper. If activated to federal service, the Wing is gained by the United States Air Force's Air Combat Command.

The 181st Airlift Squadron is a unit of the 136th Airlift Wing of the Texas Air National Guard stationed at Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth, Texas. The 181st is equipped with the Lockheed C-130H Hercules.

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The 142d Airlift Squadron is a unit of the Delaware Air National Guard 166th Airlift Wing located at New Castle Air National Guard Base, Delaware. It is equipped with the C-130H Hercules.

The 526th Fighter Squadron is an inactive United States Air Force unit. Its last assignment was with the 86th Operations Group, based at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. It was inactivated on 1 July 1994.

The 512th Fighter Squadron is an inactive United States Air Force unit. Its last assignment was with the 86th Fighter Wing at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, where it was inactivated September 1994.

The 779th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron is a provisional United States Air Force unit. Its most recent activation was in 2018 for Operation Inherent Resolve. It has also been activated for contingency operations at Ramstein Air Base.

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The 55th Aeromedical Airlift Squadron is an inactive United States Air Force unit. It was first activated during World War II as the 55th Ferrying Squadron. It deployed to Canada and managed a station on the ALSIB ferrying route.


History of 527th Fighter Squadron

The 527th Fighter Bomber Squadron was initially activated as an A-20 Havoc dive-bomber squadron in the southeast, trained under Third Air Force. It was realigned to an A-24 Banshee fighter-bomber squadron and re-designated from the 312th to 527th Fighter-Bomber Squadron in August 1943.

The squadron was deployed to Twelfth Air Force in North Africa in May 1943, being initially stationed in Algeria. Flying operations began 15 May from Médiouna Airfield, near Casablanca, French Morocco. It moved eastward supporting the Fifth Army with close air support missions. In the North African Campaign, the squadron engaged German positions in Tunisia.

In July, initial elements of the squadron moved to Sicily. From the Gela West airfield, it began flying combat missions, supporting the 1st Division of II Army Corps. On 27 August, the squadron provided air support for the first Allied landings on the European mainland at Salerno, Italy. On 10 September, three days after the invasion of Salerno, advance echelons of the squadron moved to Sele Airfield, near the beachhead. Enemy shelling of the beaches caused considerable difficulty during the move, and the 527th flew its first missions on 15 September.

The 527th squadron moved north through Italy during the Italian Campaign, supported Allied forces by attacking enemy lines of communication, troop concentrations and supply areas. In April 1944 the squadron attacked the German Gustav Line. It also attacked rail and road targets and strafed German troop and supply columns during late spring.

The 527th was an active participant in Operation Strangle, the attempt to cut German supply lines prior to the Allied offensive aimed at rail and road networks, and attacking German troop and supply columns. While Strangle did not significantly cut into German supplies, it did disrupt enemy tactical mobility and was a major factor in the Allies’ eventual breakthrough. During this period the 527th received P-40 Warhawks to augment its aging A-36s, but the obsolescent P-40s were only a stopgap measure. The 527th welcomed its first P-47 Thunderbolts a few weeks later, on 23 June.

The squadron moved to Corsica in July 1944. From Poretta Airfield, the squadron flew bombing missions against coastal defenses in direct support of Operation Dragoon, the Allied invasion of Southern France 15 Aug. 1944. Allied forces met little resistance as they moved inland twenty miles in the first twenty-four hours. Once the invasion was completed, the squadron moved back to Northern Italy and continued its coastal basing by attacking enemy road and rail networks in Northern Italy and, for the first time, flying regular escort missions with heavy bombers. The 527th also conducted armed reconnaissance against the enemy in the Po Valley region.

The 527th continued combat in Northern Italy until February 1945, when it left the Mediterranean Theater and moved to Tantonville Airfield (Y-1), France, in the Lorraine region, and operations shifted from targets in the Po Valley to those in Southern Germany. The 527th's first mission to Germany – a cause of some excitement – was on 25 Feb. 1945, and by March most missions were flown into Germany against rail lines, roads, supply dumps, enemy installations and airfields. The squadron transferred from Tantonville to Braunshardt Airfield (R-12), near Darmstadt, Germany,

The 527th Fighter Squadron flew its final combat mission on 8 May 1945.

Just after the war, the squadron performed military occupation duty in Germany, with personnel demobilizing throughout the summer. The squadron's last personnel were sent back to the United States from AAF Station Schweinfurt, Germany, on 15 February 1946, with the squadron inactivated as an administrative unit in March.


86th Fighter Group - History

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F-4, also called Phantom Ii, two-seat, twin-engine jet fighter built by the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation (later the McDonnell-Douglas Corporation) for the United States and many other countries. The first F-4 was delivered to the U.S. Navy in 1960 and to the Air Force in 1963. By the time it went out of production in 1979, more that 5,000 Phantoms had been built, and it had become one of the most successful fighter aircraft since World War II.

In its original versions the F-4 had a wingspan of 38 feet 5 inches (11.7 m) and a length of 58 feet 3 inches (17.7 m). The wings folded for carrier stowage in the navy version. Powered by two General Electric turbojets, each generating almost 18,000 pounds (80 kilonewtons) of thrust with afterburners lit, the plane could accelerate to more than twice the speed of sound. Its operating ceiling was over 50,000 feet (15,000 m).

The first F-4s were armed only with air-to-air missiles, but, after suffering serious losses to Soviet-built MiG fighters over North Vietnam, they were fitted with 20-millimetre cannon for more effective close-range dogfighting. They also carried bombs and missiles under the wings for attacking surface targets—as they did in the Vietnam War and also in the Arab-Israeli War of 1973, when they spearheaded Israeli assaults on Egyptian and Syrian airfields and missile batteries.


3. The Airmen might have never gotten off the ground without Eleanor Roosevelt’s help.


In April 1941, months before the United States entered World War II, Eleanor Roosevelt visited Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama, where the Tuskegee airmen had begun training. Charles 𠇌hief” Anderson, Tuskegee’s chief flight instructor at the time, offered to take the first lady around the field. Anderson had taught himself to fly years earlier in a used plane he bought with his own savings. Roosevelt agreed, and the photos and film that came out of the 40-minute flight helped convince people in power to support the creation of a Black fighter group.


Challenger Explosion: How Groupthink and Other Causes Led to the Tragedy

By January of 1986 America was already bored with spaceflight.

It was, in part, NASA’s own fault. The government agency had debuted the space shuttle program five years earlier with an aggressive public-relations message that the reusable vehicles would make access to space both affordable and routine. Projected frequency: more than 50 flights a year.

But had space flight become…too routine? Even as the shuttle undertook fewer than one-tenth that many flights, excitement quickly waned. Television coverage slacked. Missions—to conduct research, repair satellites, and build the International Space Station�iled to ignite popular imaginations the way a moon landing had. For many Americans, shuttle flights carried little of the bravado and romance of the Apollo era.

The launch on January 28, 1986, was different. The sun had been up for less than an hour and air temperatures were a few notches above freezing when the crew of STS-51L boarded the orbiter Challenger that Tuesday morning. All around the country people were getting excited—in large part because the seven-person crew’s included Payload Specialist Christa McAuliffe, a schoolteacher and mother of two chosen to fly as part of NASA’s Teacher in Space program. As a civilian, she was PR catnip: infinitely relatable and proof that space was now truly open to average Americans, not just hot-shot fighter jocks. Kids nationwide would watch the launch live and know that no dream was beyond reach.

The space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after lift off. (Credit: Bruce Weaver/AP Photo)

But 73 seconds after Challenger’s launch, that dream quickly became a nightmare. Challenger disappeared as white vapor bloomed from the external tank. Spectators were stunned. Teachers scrambled to get their kids out to recess. And images of the grotesque, Y-shaped explosion dominated the news cycle for days to come. For the first time in its history, NASA had lost a crew on a mission—with the nation watching.

More than three decades later, the image of that explosion remains as iconic as Buzz Aldrin standing on the moon. Challenger not only taught America a lesson about faulty O-rings and hubris it forever changed our relationship with spaceflight and our tax-funded space agency. We’re now in a new era where private companies, eyeing Mars, are starting to shift the spaceflight spotlight away from government efforts. Will these billionaire dreamers avoid the mistakes of the past? Whoever participates in the next space wave can learn a lot from Challenger’s ill-fated flight.

Wreckage from the Challenger being studied in the Logistics Facility at Kennedy Space Center. (Credit: Time Life Pictures/NASA/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Breaking Down the Accident

In the months that followed the accident, a Presidential Commission led by former Secretary of State William P. Rogers—the so-called Rogers Commission—went through every piece of data to identify the disaster’s root cause. What they found was a very different launch than the one people had watched on TV. Pictures of the shuttle on the launch pad showed a puff of black smoke issuing from the bottom of the right solid rocket booster. Video of the shuttle’s flight showed that the smoke disappeared, only to be replaced by a flame 66 seconds after launch. That flame grew alarmingly rapidly and was forced towards the big orange fuel tank by the slipstream as the shuttle rose ever higher.

Data on the ground confirmed it was a leak in the booster, but no one could do anything about it. The solid rocket boosters couldn’t be shut down, and there was no abort option while they were firing. That flame eventually burned through the shuttle’s external tank, rupturing the liquid-hydrogen tank milliseconds before the right booster crashed into the liquid-oxygen tank. The two liquids mixed and exploded, destroying the orbiter with it.

The source of the leak, as America soon learned, was traced to a tiny rubber part called an O-ring, which formed the seal between sections of the solid rocket boosters. It was just one of many known “potentially catastrophic” elements of the space shuttle, sensitive to a number of factors—including extreme cold. If exposed to near-freezing temperatures, the O-ring lost its elasticity. Famed theoretical physicist Dr. Richard Feynman demonstrated what this meant at a press conference five months later. He twisted a small O-ring in a vice, then dipped it in a glass of ice water. When he pulled it out, it kept its twisted shape, showing its lack of resilience to cold. In Challenger’s case, the O-ring got so cold it hadn’t expanded properly and allowed the leak.

This raised a more pressing question. The O-ring was known to be sensitive to cold and could only work properly above 53 degrees. Temperature on the launch pad that morning was 36 degrees. Why did NASA launch at all?

William Rogers, right, chairman of the presidential commission investigating the shuttle Challenger accident, testifing before the Senate Science, Technology and Space subcommittee on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Credit: Scott Stewart/AP Photo)

Faulty Decisions

To find an answer, the Rogers Commission interviewed engineers and decision-makers at both NASA and Morton Thiokol, the company that built the solid rocket boosters. What it found was a stunning lack of communication𠅊lmost as if officials had been playing a game of broken telephone, with the result that incomplete and misleading information reached NASA’s top echelons. And among that ill-translated information were concerns about the O-rings. The issue was completely absent from all the flight-readiness documents.

That wasn’t the end of it. During a teleconference some 12 hours before launch, Thiokol engineers told NASA management about their concerns over the O-rings. Overnight temperatures were set to drop to 20 degrees, which raised an additional ice concerns. An early morning inspection confirmed that the launch structure was covered in foot-long icicles, and no one knew what would happen if they broke off and became sharp debris. The risks were deemed appropriate for launch.

The Commission ultimately flagged the root cause of the accident as 𠇊 serious flaw in the decision-making process leading up to the launch.” Seven lives could have seen saved if concerns about the O-rings had reached the right people, or if Thiokol had worried more about safety than satisfying its major customer. But this was only part of the accident’s cause. There remained the question of why NASA didn’t delay the launch.

President Ronald Reagan and members of his staff viewing the Challenger explosion from the White House. (Credit: Corbis via Getty Images)

Chasing Publicity

The space shuttle was the realization of NASA’s long-standing goal of reusability. Touted as the program that would truly open space for human exploration, it promised to turn spaceflight into something akin to air travel. Orbiters would be refurbished between missions to keep the overall program cost down and number of missions per year up. But five years after the inaugural launch, the program averaged just five missions a year as the agency was forced to acknowledge that four orbiters weren’t enough for its original ambitious schedule. There were some notable parts of the program: NASA had diversified its astronaut corps with scientists, women and people of color, but this wasn’t enough to sustain public interest. The missions were still esoteric and infrequent—which, coupled with NASA’s insistence that spaceflight was routine, gave people little reason to care.

When the world perked up at the news that a teacher would be flying in space, what NASA needed more than anything was a win. The mission had already been delayed from mid-1985 to early 1986, and that Tuesday was the only real option NASA had to launch. There were technical considerations: the satellites and science payloads on board had to be deployed at certain times. The publicity goals, however, weighed heavier. According to the mission plan, Christa McAuliffe would broadcast a lesson live from orbit on her fourth day in space. A Tuesday launch meant a Friday broadcast, but a Wednesday launch meant a Saturday broadcast, when no students were in school. NASA needed the publicity of her broadcast.

Another factor was political. President Ronald Reagan was due to mention McAuliffe and the Teacher in Space in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night. If the launch was delayed, NASA would miss out on another big public mention. If the agency was going to justify continued spending on the program, Challenger had to launch on time.

There had never really been any thought of delaying the launch. NASA had leaned on its past successes as evidence that it was master over technology. But Challenger showed that technology can easily turn on its creator.

The five astronauts and two payload specialists that made up the STS 51-L crew aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger in January of 1986. Crew members are (left to right, front row) astronauts Michael J. Smith, Francis R. (Dick) Scobee and Ronald E. McNair and Ellison S. Onizuka, Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis and Judith A. Resnik.

Spaceflight After Challenger

It was nearly three years before NASA launched another shuttle mission. In the interim, a handful of changes were recommended—some technical, but most focusing on repairing the damaged communications pathways, management culture and safety organization at NASA.

America’s relationship with spaceflight would be harder to fix. Challenger was the beginning of the end in a lot of ways. The nation that had watched NASA land men on the moon just 11 years after its inception expected a space station, Mars missions and even space tourism in short order. Instead it got a problematic vehicle that failed to deliver on its promises and a harsh reminder that spaceflight isn’t air travel. It may never be truly routine, and the average person may never have a chance to see the Earth from orbit.



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