Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from April 1 through April 3.
April 1, 1939 – The first flight of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero. The Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 served as a deadly wakeup call to the United States, as Japanese plans for the expansion of their empire came home to the American people. But that rude awakening also extended to the US Army Air Forces and US Navy, both of whom came face to face with the remarkable Mitsubishi A6M Zero for the first time. Still fielding earlier and soon-to-be obsolescent aircraft, America was confronted with an aircraft that was clearly the best fighter in the Pacific at the time.
In early 1937, the Imperial Japanese Navy issued specification 12-shi to develop a new fighter to replace the Mitsubishi A5M, a fighter known to the Allies as Claude, which held the distinction of being the world’s first ship-based monoplane fighter. The requirements of 12-shi were rigorous, and included a top speed of 370 mph, a high rate of climb, heavy armament (two 20mm cannons, two .303 caliber machine guns, two 130-pound bombs), and enough range to cover the vast distances of the Pacific Ocean. Lead Mitsubishi designer Jiro Horikoshi realized that the only way to design a fighter to these specifications was to make it as light as possible. So, in order to save weight, the Type 0 Carrier Fighter as it was called was constructed of a new, top-secret aluminum alloy, had no armor to protect the pilot or engine, and no self-sealing fuel tanks. This made for a fighter that possessed excellent aerobatic and dogfighting characteristics, but also one that caught fire easily and could not withstand the pounding from heavier American fighters, though it would be some time before the Allies fielded a fighter that could tangle with the A6M in a head to head fight.
The Zero (also known to the Japanese as Rei shiki Kanjō sentōki, or Rei-sen for short) entered service in 1940 during the Second Sino-Japanese War where it flew against obsolete Chinese biplane fighters and quickly gained a reputation as an unbeatable dogfighter. As the Japanese expanded into areas of the British and Dutch empire, the Zero came up against some of the best Allied fighters of the time, and even provided a serious challenge to the Supermarine Spitfire which, while faster, was no match for the Zero in a turn. The Zero also far outclassed all American fighters of the early part of the war. However, American pilots soon developed new techniques for combating the Zero. Flying a Brewster F2A Buffalo or Grumman F4F Wildcat into a one-on-one dogfight with the Zero was practically suicidal, but high speed passes from above, and the development of tactics such as the Thach Weave, helped the Allies fight on a more even footing.
Though the Zero had earned an aura of invincibility early in the war, its mysteries were finally unlocked when an almost intact A6M was recovered from the Aleutian island of Akutan in 1942 after its pilot was killed in a crash landing. The fighter was shipped back to the US, repaired, and its flight characteristics were thoroughly analyzed. Testing showed where the Zero’s weaknesses lay, such as the propensity for its ailerons to freeze up at speeds above 200 knots, and a carburetor that caused the engine to quit in certain negative G maneuvers. These discoveries led to specific tactics that helped the Allies defeat the Zero in combat.
Throughout its life, the Zero was consistently updated, most significantly with more powerful engines, a supercharger, shortened wings that improved roll rates, redesigned ailerons, and trim tabs. A new exhaust system also provided a modicum of thrust. Ultimately, nearly 11,000 Zeros of all variants are produced. However, the Zero’s dominance was short lived, as Allied designs quickly improved. By the second half of the war, American fighters such as the Grumman F6F Hellcat and Vought F4U Corsair were every bit the match for the Zero, and Japan suffered a shortage of experienced pilots that could not be replaced. By the end of the WWII, the Zero was relegated to Kamikaze attacks against Allied shipping in the Pacific, an ignominious end for such a remarkable aircraft.
April 1, 1935 – The first flight of the North American T-6 Texan. In baseball, it’s rare to hit a home run your first time at bat. But that’s exactly what happened to North American Aviation with the T-6 Texan, a trainer that would become ubiquitous in the skies over the United States and abroad, and become one of the most widely-produced trainers in history.
In 1935, North American debuted the model NA-16, the first trainer aircraft they had ever designed. Two years later, they submitted the aircraft in response to a US Army Air Corps request for a “Basic Combat” aircraft. The USAAC initially ordered 180 of the BC-1 variant, which had retractable landing gear and provisions for up to three .30 caliber machine guns. Early models were powered by a single Wright R-975 Whirlwind radial engine which gave the BC-1 a maximum speed of 170 mph. North American experimented with a host of modifications including redesigned wings, different engines, fixed and retractable landing gear, open and enclosed cockpits. They also experimented with various rudder shapes before settling on the characteristic triangular shape that helped prevent a loss of control during maneuvers with a high angle of attack.
But it was with the BC-2 variant of the Texan, now called AT-6 to signify its role as an advanced trainer, that the aircraft finally received its iconic shape and name, with squared wingtips and triangular rudder. The addition of a more powerful Pratt & Whitney R-1340 Wasp radial increased the Texan’s top speed to just over 200 mph, and the USAAC ordered more than 1,500 of that model, designated AT-6A. North American also produced 400 aircraft for export to the RAF where it was known as the Harvard I, and a handful for the US Navy, where it was known as the SNJ-1. The Texan became the primary trainer for the USAAF, where it proved to be an extremely reliable and sturdy aircraft. It was responsible for training the vast majority of pilots who flew during WWII, providing student pilots with a more powerful and maneuverable aircraft as they transitioned from basic trainers to frontline fighter aircraft.
The Texan had excellent flight characteristics, and could perform all the necessary aerobatic maneuvers that combat pilots needed to learn, including dogfighting, dive bombing, and ground attack. The armed AT-6B variant was used for gunnery practice, and armed Texans saw actual combat in low-intensity conflicts following WWII. During the Korean War and Vietnam War, Texans were used for forward air control and went by the name T-6 Mosquito. By the time production ended, 15,495 Texans had been built, and they were in service in 34 countries around the world. The Texan remains a workhorse today, where it is popular on the air show circuit and forms the basis for numerous historical squadrons and aerobatic teams. Others have been modified to mimic Japanese Zero fighters for historic reenactments and roles in movies. And the Reno Air Races in Reno, Nevada still maintains a unique racing class for Texan and Harvard aircraft.
April 1, 2001 – Chinese fighters force down a US Navy reconnaissance aircraft in what became known as the Hainan Island incident. While operating approximately 70 miles from the Chinese island province of Hainan, a US Navy Lockheed EP-3E Aries II reconnaissance aircraft was intercepted by two Shenyang J-8 fighters. One of the fighters collided with the American plane, resulting in the death of the Chinese pilot. After regaining control of the heavily damaged aircraft, pilot Lt. Shane Osborne ordered the destruction of sensitive data and surveillance equipment before making an emergency landing on Hainan Island. The American crew of 21 men and 3 women was held and interrogated for 10 days before being released, and the Aries was dismantled and flown off the island on a chartered Russian Antonov An-124. For his actions in saving the aircraft and its crew, Lt. Osborne was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for “heroism and extraordinary achievement” in flight.
April 1, 1918 – The Royal Air Force is founded. Just eleven years after the Wright Brothers first flight, the airplane became a weapon of war in World War I and England was at the forefront of military aviation. As the war raged in 1917, British general and future Prime Minister of South Africa Jan Smuts prepared a report which advocated an Air Force independent from both the army and navy. Following the war, the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Naval Air Service(RNAS) were combined to create the Royal Air Force, the oldest independent air service in the world. The RAF was also the largest air force at the end of WWI, and went on to play a pivotal role WWII and all future conflicts in which England has taken part. Today, the RAF has approximately 34,000 active duty personnel and more than 800 operational aircraft.
April 3, 1982 – The first flight of the Airbus A310, a medium- to long-range wide-body airliner and the second airliner built by Airbus Industrie to enter production. The A310 was developed as a smaller derivative of the Airbus A300 (initially designated the A300B10) at a time when airlines were showing interest in smaller airliners for shorter routes with fewer passengers. Still, the A310 has a greater range than its larger predecessor, and became popular on many transatlantic routes. The A310 has also been developed into a convertible freight version and an aerial tanker for the military. Produced between 1983-1998, a total of 255 have been built, and it remains in limited service today.
April 3, 1933 – The US Navy airship USS Akron (ZRS-4) crashes into the Atlantic Ocean. Commissioned in October of 1931, Akron was the world’s first purpose-built flying aircraft carrier and one of the largest airships ever built. After encountering severe weather off the coast of New Jersey, Akron crashed into the sea, killing 73 of her 76 crew members, including Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, a leading proponent for the military applications of airships. The disaster caused the largest loss of life for any airship crash, and signaled the beginning of the end of the use of airships by the Navy.
April 3, 1933 – The first flight over Mt. Everest. Twenty years before the first successful ascent of Mt. Everest, Flight Lieutenant D.F. McIntyre and Douglas Douglas-Hamilton (Lord Clydesdale), along with two observers, piloted a Westland PV-6 and a Westland Wallace over the summit of the tallest mountain in the world with just 100 feet of altitude to spare above the 29,029-foot summit. The aircraft had been modified with a supercharged Bristol Pegasus engine, an enclosed rear cockpit, cockpit heating, and oxygen for the crew. The mission was called the Houston-Mount Everest Flight Expedition in honor of its patron, Lady Houston. The observers provided the first aerial survey of Everest and the surrounding area, and the flight emphasized the need for the development of pressurized aircraft.
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