This Day in History
January 28: T-39 Shootdown Incident, the “Challenger” Disaster, and other events of the date
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January 28: T-39 Shootdown Incident, the “Challenger” Disaster, and other events of the date


A number of important events have taken place on January 28 in U.S. history. Here is our take on the most interesting and valuable of them

1964 – Cold War: T-39 Shootdown Incident

An interesting but tragic episode occurred on this date 55 years ago when an unarmed USAF North American T-39A Sabreliner twin engine jet trainer, 62-4448, of the 7101st Air Base Wing, departed Wiesbaden, West Germany at 2:10 PM on a routine three-hour training flight. 

Three men were onboard the trainer, Captain John F. Lorraine and students Lieutenant Colonel Gerald K. Hannaford and Captain Donald G. Millard. Lorraine was the qualified instructor, while Hannaford and Millard, both pilots with experience on other types, were being trained in order to qualify on the T-39. 

The flight proceeded uneventfully until, 47 minutes after takeoff, radar at two U.S. air defense stations noticed that the trainer was heading toward East Germany at 500 miles per hour . Hoping to divert the T-39 back on course, both stations began hailing the plane on Air Force frequencies and a Soviet-monitored international distress band. Repeated calls to the T-39 went unanswered. It appeared that the T-39's radio systems malfunctioned and the crew was unable to respond. 

The T-39 eventually crossed the border of East Germany and was shot down.  As a result, all three crew members died, becoming some of the few US confirmed direct casualties of the Cold War in Europe.

1977 – The Beginning of the notorious 1977 Blizzard

Dear readers, please, stay warm, remembering what happened on this date 42 years ago!

The blizzard of 1977 hit western New York and southern Ontario from January 28 to February 1. Daily peak wind gusts ranging from 46 to 69 mph were recorded by the National Weather Service in Buffalo, with snowfall as high as 100 in. recorded in certain areas, which high winds blew into drifts of 30 to 40 ft. The weather was so harsh that there were 23 storm-related deaths in western New York and another 5 in the north of the state.

Certain pre-existing weather conditions exacerbated the blizzard's effects. Average temperatures in November, December and January were far below normal. Lake Erie froze over by December 14; when this happens lake-effect snow does not occur because the wind cannot pick up moisture from the lake's surface, convert the moisture to snow and then dump it when the winds reach shore. 

Thus, Lake Erie was covered by a deep, powdery snow; January's unusually cold conditions limited the usual thawing and refreezing, so the snow on the frozen lake remained powdery. The drifted snow on the roadways was difficult to clear because the strong wind packed the snow solidly. In addition to the roads becoming impassable, motorists had to deal with vehicles breaking down due to the combination of very cold temperatures, very high winds, and blowing snow.

1986 – the “Challenger” Disaster

One of the most well-known tragedies in the history of space aviation occurred 33 years ago today. 

On January 28, 1986, the NASA shuttle orbiter mission STS-51-L and the tenth flight of Space Shuttle Challenger (OV-99) broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven crew members, which consisted of five NASA astronauts and two payload specialists. The spacecraft disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 11:39 EST (16:39 UTC). The disintegration of the vehicle began after a joint in its right solid rocket booster (SRB) failed at liftoff. 

The failure was caused by the failure of O-ring seals used in the joint that were not designed to handle the unusually cold conditions that existed at the launch. The seals' failure caused a breach in the SRB joint, allowing pressurized burning gas from within the solid rocket motor to reach the outside and impinge upon the adjacent SRB aft field joint attachment hardware and external fuel tank. This led to the separation of the right-hand SRB's aft field joint attachment and the structural failure of the external tank. Aerodynamic forces broke up the orbiter.

The crew compartment and many other vehicle fragments were eventually recovered from the ocean floor after a lengthy search and recovery operation. The exact timing of the death of the crew is unknown; several crew members are known to have survived the initial breakup of the spacecraft. The shuttle had no escape system, and the impact of the crew compartment at terminal velocity with the ocean surface was too violent to be survivable.

As a result of this horrible tragedy all 7 crew members died.  

These are the most notable events in the U.S. history that occurred on January 28, at least in our view.


Author: USA Really