Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from April 16 through April 19.


April 18, 1942 – The Doolittle Raid carries out the first attack on the Japanese homeland of WWII. Nobody likes to take a sucker punch, and when it happens, one’s first instinct is usually to punch back. When the Japanese carried out their deadly sneak attack against American military stations in Hawaii on December 7, 1941, the US was desperate to hit back in any way it could. In a meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff just two weeks after the Japanese raid, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt expressed a desire to attack Japan at the earliest possible time. He knew the attack would have little affect militarily, but the boost to American morale would be immeasurable. He also hoped that it would show the Japanese people that they were not invulnerable to attack on their island, and that their leaders, who had promised to win the war, were not infallible. The idea for the raid was formulated by Navy Captain Francis Low, who had seen bombers practicing takeoffs from simulated carrier decks painted on the tarmac at Naval Air Station Norfolk. But in order to reach Japan, the bombers would have to have extreme range, since the carriers couldn’t get too close to Japan for fear of discovery. A handful of aircraft were considered, including the Martin B-26 Marauder, the Douglas B-18 Bolo, and Douglas B-23 Dragon, but none of those were as suited to the job as the North American B-25 Mitchell, whose high power, carrying capacity for fuel and bombs, and relatively short wingspan proved perfect for the mission. However, the B-25 had not yet been tested in battle. In order to have the necessary range for the flight, the Mitchells were heavily modified. The lower turret gun was removed, some radios were taken out to reduce weight, and auxiliary fuel tanks were added in the bomb bay. The Norden bombsight was removed, likely to prevent it’s falling into enemy hands. It was replaced with a homemade sight that cost 20¢ to produce, and actually proved to be quite accurate. After three weeks of intensive training, sixteen of the specially modified bombers were flown by their crews to NAS Alameda and loaded on board USS Hornet (CV-8) for the journey west. Upon reaching Hawaii, Hornet was joined by USS Enterprise (CV-6) which would provide fighter cover for the mission since all of Hornet’s fighters were stowed belowdecks to accommodate the bombers. Each of the bombers carried four munitions: three 500-pound bombs and one 500-pound incendiary bomb. The crews affixed Japanese “friendship” medals to five of the bombs. The medals had been awarded to US servicemen before the war, and Doolittle’s men saw fit to return them, given the current state of hostilities. Early in the morning of April 18, the fleet was spotted by a Japanese picket boat roughly 433 miles from Japan. The cruiser USS Nashville (CL-43) quickly sank the boat, but fearing that it had radioed Japan, Doolittle decided to take off earlier than originally planned. Following guidelines painted on the flight deck to make sure the bombers’ wings cleared the carrier’s island, the bombers struggled into the air and turned towards Japan. Though it was the first time the pilots had actually taken off from a carrier, the takeoffs proceeded without incident. Arriving over Japan at low level at about noon, the bombers dropped their bombs and strafed ground targets. None of the bombers was seriously hit by antiaircraft fire, and defensive gunners managed to dispatch at least three Japanese fighters. After dropping their bombs, the crews continued into China. Without enough fuel to reach their intended landing points, the crews all bailed out or crash landed. One crew flew to Russia. Of the 80 airmen who flew the mission, three were killed in action and eight were captured by the Japanese. Of the POWs, three were executed, one died in captivity, and the others were eventually repatriated. The rest of the airmen were rescued by Chinese civilians and handed over to the Chinese government, though many of the civilians were executed by the Japanese for helping the Americans. Though the raid caused relatively insignificant damage, it gave the American public the first positive news of the war, and the fact that medium-range bombers had attacked Japan hastened Japanese plans to capture Midway Island, bringing about the battle that ultimately shifted the balance of power in the Pacific over to the Americans. (US Navy photo)


Advertisement

April 18, 1943 – The death of Japanese general Isoroku Yamamoto. In military terms, “decapitation” is the tactic of killing the commander of an army in hopes of rendering it ineffective, and it has been discussed my military theorists as far back as Sun Tzu and Machiavelli. If you remove the commander of an army, you could speed the ultimate victory in the conflict, or at least sow confusion to gain a tactical edge. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was the commander-in-chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet during WWII and the mastermind behind the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. So when American code breakers learned that Yamamoto would be making an airborne tour of Japanese military bases, they jumped at the chance to eliminate Japan’s leading military strategist. There can be little doubt that this would be more than just a decapitation mission, but also retribution for Pearl Harbor, which likely explains why the mission was codenamed Operation Vengeance. On April 14, US Navy listening stations intercepted coded messages that were sent to Japanese bases in the Solomon Islands and New Guinea alerting the personnel to the planned arrival of Admiral Yamamoto as part of a morale-boosting inspection tour following the Japanese loss of Guadalcanal. The messages were decoded by Navy cryptographers (one of whom was John Paul Stevens, a future US Supreme Court Justice), who were able to determine the exact timetable and location for Yamamoto’s tour. The information was relayed to Washington, where President Roosevelt ordered the Secretary of the Navy to “Get Yamamoto,” and the mission was authorized on April 17. Now that the US knew where Yamamoto would be, they needed a way to get to him. Navy fighters, such as the Grumman F4F Wildcat and Vought F4U Corsair didn’t have the necessary range to reach the target from Guadalcanal. So the mission fell to the US Army Air Corp’s 339th Fighter Squadron and their Lockheed P-38 Lightnings. To complete the 1,000 mile flight, extra fuel tanks and drop tanks were fitted to the aircraft. And to make sure they didn’t miss their chance, the Americans sent eighteen Lightnings (two returned due to mechanical problems) to intercept the two Mistubishi G4M “Betty” bombers that carried Yamamoto and his staff. Four aircraft were designated as the “killers,” while the other P-38s would provide cover and fight off the six Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighters that were sent as escorts. When Yamamoto’s flight was intercepted, the Americans turned to the attack and quickly shot down the first bomber, which crashed in the jungle. The second Betty tried to flee out to see, but it too was shot down into the ocean. The Americans also claimed two Zero fighters shot down, but those were not confirmed. The next day, a Japanese search and rescue party found the wreckage of Yamamoto’s plane in the jungle. A post-mortem examination determined that Yamamoto had been struck by two bullets, one of which hit him in the head, killing him. To this day, though, there remains much debate—and acrimony—over who actually shot down Yamamoto’s plane. Initially, Capt. Thomas Lanphier was given credit. But differing accounts led to a counterclaim by Lt. Rex Barber, and to this day, the Navy officially gives them each half a credit for the shoot down. As a result of Yamamoto’s death, the Japanese had lost one of their most capable military leaders, and the Americans gained yet another major morale boost, incidentally coming exactly one year to the day after the audacious Doolittle Raid on Japan. (Illustration author unknown)


Advertisement

April 19, 1960 – The First flight of the Grumman A-6 Intruder. During the Korean War, the US Navy found that the vast majority of sorties flown were ground attack missions, and they soon realized that they needed a dedicated ground attack jet that could carry heavier bomb loads than piston-powered aircraft such as the Douglas A-1 Skyraider. In 1955, the Navy issued requirements for an all-weather, jet-powered tactical strike aircraft, and no less than eleven designs were submitted by Bell, Boeing, Douglas, Lockheed, Martin, North American, Vought and Grumman. Grumman already had a long history and solid reputation for building naval aircraft, and on January 2, 1958 the Navy awarded a contract for development of what Grumman had designated the G-128. Unlike most aircraft of its size, the Intruder accommodated its two-man crew in a side-by-side configuration, more like a traditional bomber, rather than in tandem like a fighter. This allowed for better communication between pilot and bombardier/navigator (B/N) and, in practice, the B/N often became as much copilot as weapons officer, helping the pilot monitor aircraft systems and radios, and providing an extra set of eyes in the cockpit. The canopy covering the wide cockpit provided excellent visibility, and the bulbous nose section originally housed the Digital Integrated Attack/Navigation Equipment (DIANE). This system provided the crew with a digital display of both targets and terrain features and allowed attack missions in day or night, all weather, or other low-visibility conditions. The A-6's large wing was designed for both low-speed maneuverability and large weapons load, and the Intruder was capable of carrying as much as 15,000 pounds of munitions, including a single nuclear weapon. Later variants were capable of carrying up to 18,000 pounds of stores. Power for the Intruder was provided by a pair of Pratt & Whitney J52 non-afterburning turbojets which propelled the Intruder to a top speed of 685 mph in a clean configuration, and a range of just under 2,000 miles fully loaded with weapons. On the original prototype of the Intruder, the jet nozzles could be swiveled downward to provide extra lift on takeoff from the carrier. This system was dropped in the production aircraft, but the engine nozzles were still given a permanent slight downwards deflection. The Intruder entered service with the US Navy and US Marine Corps in 1962, becoming the primary all-weather attack platform throughout that conflict and into the 1990s. Intruders operating from US Navy carriers off the cost of Vietnam flew 35,000 sorties during the Vietnam War with the loss of sixty-nine Intruders were to enemy fire. The A-6's excellent low-level maneuverability often allowed the pilot to out-turn incoming surface-to-air missiles, and the majority of Intruder losses were attributed to anti-aircraft fire. The Intruder also proved to be a very rugged aircraft that could absorb significant punishment and still return its crew to the carrier, showing yet again why Grumman had earned the nickname “Iron Works.” Following Vietnam, the Intruder saw action in support of the Multinational Force in Lebanon in 1983 and over Libya in 1986. During the Gulf War of 1990-1991, the Intruder flew 4,700 sorties against enemy targets. In the mid-1980s, Grumman proposed a significantly upgraded Intruder, the A-6F Intruder II, which would replace the original turbojets with General Electric F404 turbofans, the same engine flown in the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet. The radar would also receive a significant upgrade, and weapons load was increased. However, the Navy passed on the Intruder II, focusing instead on the development of the McDonnell Douglas A-12 Avenger II, which was slated as the A-6's replacement, though the A-12 was ultimately canceled. Following the Intruder’s retirement in 1997, its mission briefly passed to specially equipped Grumman F-14 Tomcats and then to the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet and Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. The Navy retired the Intruder in 1997 following a production run of nearly 700 aircraft, though the EA-6B Prowler electronics warfare derivative would serve until 2015. (US Navy photo)


Short Take Off


Advertisement

April 16, 1988 – The first flight of the McDonnell Douglas T-45 Goshawk, a fully carrier-capable trainer developed from the British Aerospace Hawk Mk 60 to replace the older North American T-2 Buckeye for the US Navy and US Marine Corps. Used for intermediate and advanced pilot training in carrier operations, the Goshawk became operational in 1991 and, with upgrades, is expected to be in service until at least 2035. (US Navy photo)


Advertisement

April 16, 1949 – The first flight of the Lockheed F-94 Starfire. Developed from the Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star, the all-weather, day/night interceptor entered service in 1950 to replace the North American F-82 Twin Mustang. The Starfire was the first operational US Air Force fighter to employ an afterburning engine and the first all-weather fighter to see service in the Korean War. Though produced in large numbers, the Starfire served for just 8 years in frontline service before being replaced in the interceptor role by the Northrop F-89 Scorpion and North American F-86D Sabre. (US Air Force photo)


Advertisement

April 16, 1912 – Harriet Quimby becomes the first woman to fly across the English Channel. In 1911, Quimby was the first woman to earn a pilot’s license in the United States, and her exploits were an inspiration to many women of her day who railed against male-dominated society. Quimby’s cross-Channel flight was unfortunately overshadowed by news of the sinking of the Titanic just one day after her historic flight. Quimby was killed on July 1, 1912 when, for unknown reasons, her Blériot XI monoplane suddenly pitched forward, ejecting both her and her passenger at an altitude of 1,500 feet. Ironically, the plane came to earth relatively undamaged. (Library of Congress photo)


Advertisement

April 17, 1973 – Federal Express delivers its first package. Starting with 14 aircraft and 389 employees, Federal Express began operations from Memphis, TN, delivering packages to cities on the East Coast of the United States. Adopting the name FedEx in 2000, the company now employs 300,000 employees and operates a fleet of 669 aircraft. FedEx’s first airplane, a Dassault Falcon 20 nicknamed Wendy, is on display at the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington, DC. (Photo by the author)


Advertisement

April 17, 1969 – The first powered flight of the Martin Marietta X-24A, the fourth in a series of experimental aircraft developed to explore the concept of lifting body design following the NASA M2-F1, the Northrop HL-10, and the Northrop M2-F2. Built without traditional wings, lifting bodies rely on the aerodynamic shape of the fuselage to generate lift and allow for controlled flight. The X-24A was carried aloft by a Boeing B-52 Stratofortress mothership, then released to fly under rocket power before gliding back to Earth. Data gleaned over the course of twenty-eight X-24A flights, along with the other lifting body aircraft, would be used in the Space Shuttle program to develop landing characteristics for the unpowered Shuttle landings. (US Air Force photo)


Advertisement

April 17, 1934 – The first flight of the de Havilland Dragon Rapide, a short-range biplane airliner built primarily of plywood that had accommodations for six to eight passengers. Designed as a successor to the de Havilland DH.84 Dragon, the Dragon Rapide was a scaled down derivative of the larger four-engine de Havilland DH.86 Express and entered service in 1934, providing flights around England, Northern Ireland and Scotland. During WWII, the Rapide was pressed into service with the RAF and Royal Navy for passenger and communications duties, where it was known as the Dominie. A total of 731 Rapides were produced, and it became one of the most successful small airliners of the 1930s. (Photo by Trevor Marron via Wikimedia Commons)


Advertisement

April 17, 1934 – The first flight of the Fairey Swordfish. Designed in the 1930s, the Swordfish torpedo bomber was clearly obsolete by the start of WWII. However, the “Stringbag” continued in front line service throughout the war. It’s most significant victory came in the hunt for the German battleship Bismarck, when Swordfish pilots crippled the ship by disabling her rudder with a torpedo strike, rendering the ship unmaneuverable. Bismarck was then sunk by ships of the Royal Navy. Nearly 2,400 Swordfish were produced, and it was retired at the end of the war. (Photo by Tony Hisgett via Wikimedia Commons)


Advertisement

April 17, 1886 – The birth of Glenn L. Martin. Born in Macksburg, Iowa, Martin was an early American aviation pioneer who founded his own aircraft company in 1912. His first successful aircraft was the Martin MB-1, a large biplane bomber that served in WWI. Martin went on to create many successful aircraft during WWII, notably the B-26 Marauder and the Maryland bombers, as well as large flying boats such as the PBM Mariner and the JRM Mars. Following the war, Martin found success in the aerospace industry, building the Vanguard rocket, the first American rocket built specifically for orbital launch. Martin followed the Vanguard with the Titan series of larger rockets. Following Martin’s death in 1955, his company merged to form Martin-Marietta, and that company eventually merged with Lockheed to form Lockheed Martin in 1995. . (Photo via San Deigo Air and Space Musem)


Advertisement

April 17, 1847 – The birth of Nikolay Yegorovich Zhukovsky, a Russian scientist who is considered the founding father of modern aero- and hydrodynamics. Zhukovsky was the first to undertake the study of airflow in the hopes of one day creating a flying machine, and he created the world’s first Aerodynamic Institute near Moscow in 1904. He was the first to explain mathematically the origin of lift, and the first to determine that the amount of lift of a body is proportional to its velocity and the circulation around it. Zhukovsky also built Russia’s first wind tunnel.


Advertisement

April 18, 1973 – The Fairchild YA-10 is chosen over the Northrop YA-9. In 1966, the US Air Force issued a request for a low-cost attack aircraft, one that would have long loiter time, good low-speed maneuverability, tremendous firepower and excellent survivability. Both planes would be built around the General Electric GAU-8 30mm rotary cannon. Northrop offered the YA-9, while Fairchild Republic offered the YA-10. After a fly off between the two prototypes, the Air Force selected the YA-10, which would become known as the A-10 Thunderbolt II. The YA-9 prototypes were given to NASA for testing, but were quickly retired. (US Air Force photos)


Advertisement

April 18, 1952 – The first flight of the Convair YB-60, a jet powered, swept-wing version of the Convair B-36 Peacemaker. With a 72% parts commonality with the B-36, it was considerably cheaper to produce than the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, its unofficial competitor. However, the YB-60 was 100 mph slower than the YB-52, and had severe handling problems. While it could carry a heavier bomb load, the Air Force didn’t see that as a major factor to favor it over the YB-52. The YB-60 test program was canceled in January 1953 after just 66 hours of flight testing, and both prototypes, one unfinished, were scrapped. (US Air Force photo)

April 19, 1922 – The birth of Erich Hartmann, the most successful fighter pilot in history with 352 victories to his credit. All but seven of his victories came against Russian aircraft. Over the course of 1,404 sorties, Hartmann crash landed 14 times. However, these were all due to mechanical problems or damage to his fighter caused by debris from the aircraft he shot own. Hartmann was never shot down or forced down by enemy fire. Following the war, Hartmann spent 10 years in Soviet prison camps before his release in 1955, and the following year he joined the newly-formed West German Luftwaffe as the first commander of Jagdgeschwader 71, appropriately named after Manfred von Richtofen, better known as the Red Baron. Hartmann resigned from the Luftwaffe in 1970 over his opposition to the Luftwaffe’s adoption of the Lockheed F-104G Starfighter, and died of natural causes in 1993. (Hartmann photo author unknown; Bf 109 illustration by Jerry Crandall)

Advertisement


Recent Aviation History Posts


Advertisement


If you enjoy these Aviation History posts, please let me know in the comments. And if you missed any of the past articles, you can find them all at Planelopnik History.

Advertisement