Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from April 17 through April 19.
April 18, 1942 – The Doolittle Raid carries out the first attack on the Japanese homeland of WWII. When the Japanese unleashed their deadly sneak attack against American military stations in Hawaii on December 7, 1941, the United States 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. Though the US was in no position to mount any sort of mission that would equal the destruction wrought upon the American Pacific fleet, the American public was in need of a morale boost that might far outweigh any damage to Japan’s war-making capabilities. Such an attack could also have the reverse psychological effect against the Japanese, as Roosevelt also hoped to show the Japanese people that their island nation was not safe from attack, 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 require extreme range, since the carriers couldn’t get too close to Japan for fear of discovery. The Army Air Corps considered a handful of different aircraft for the mission, including the Martin B-26 Marauder, the Douglas B-18 Bolo, and Douglas B-23 Dragon. But none of those aircraft 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 would be ideal for the mission, even though the Mitchell had not yet been tested in battle.
The bombers required significant modifications to have the range needed to reach Japan. The lower defensive turret was removed, some radios were taken out to reduce weight, and auxiliary fuel tanks were added in the bomb bay. The secret Norden bombsight was removed, principally to keep it from falling into enemy hands. It was replaced with a homemade sight that cost just 20 cents to produce and actually proved to be quite accurate. After three weeks of intensive training, sixteen specially modified B-25s 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 B-25s carried four munitions: three 500-pound bombs and one 500-pound incendiary bomb. The crews affixed Japanese “friendship” medals to some of the bombs, decorations that had been awarded to US servicemen before the war. Doolittle’s men saw fit to return them, given the current state of hostilities.
On the morning of April 18, the fleet was spotted by a Japanese patrol boat roughly 433 miles from Japan. The cruiser USS Nashville (CL 43) quickly sank the boat but, fearing that its crew had radioed a warning to Japan, Doolittle decided to take off earlier than originally planned. Following guidelines painted on the flight deck to make sure the bombers’ wings cleared Hornet’s island, the bombers lumbered 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. The bombers arrived over Japan at low level at about noon local time and dropped their bombs and strafed ground targets. None of the bombers was seriously hit by antiaircraft fire, and defensive gunners managed to shoot down at least three Japanese fighters. After dropping their bombs, the crews continued westward, across the Yellow Sea and 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 took part in the mission, three were killed in action and eight were captured by the Japanese. Three of the POWs were executed, one died in captivity, and the other four were eventually rescued in August 1945. The rest of the airmen were rescued by Chinese civilians and handed over to the Chinese government, though many civilians were executed by the Japanese in a fit of revenge for helping the Americans. As expected, the raid caused relatively little damage, but it gave the American public the first positive news of the war. All the surviving members of the raid were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, those killed or wounded received the Purple Heart, and Doolittle was promoted to brigadier general and awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Perhaps more important than the damage from the raid, the fact that medium-range bombers had attacked Japan accelerated Japanese plans for the capture of Midway Island, and brought about the pivotal battle that ultimately shifted the balance of power in the Pacific over to the Americans.
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 the fighting force ineffective, and has been discussed my military theorists as far back as Sun Tzu and Machiavelli. If you remove the commander of an army, as the theory goes, you could speed the ultimate victory in the conflict or, at the 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 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. So, when the US military learned that Yamamoto would be making an airborne tour of Japanese military bases, they saw a golden opportunity to eliminate Japan’s leading military strategist. There can be little doubt that this was not just a decapitation mission, but also retribution for Pearl Harbor, which explains why the mission was codenamed Operation Vengeance.
On April 14, 1943, 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.” The mission was authorized on April 17.
Now that the Americans 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 range to reach the intercept point from Guadalcanal. So the mission fell to the US Army Air Force’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. To make sure they didn’t miss their chance, the Americans sent a total of 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 escorting Yamamoto. When Yamamoto’s flight was located, 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 sea, 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 died not in the crash but from two bullets, one of which hit him in the head. 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. With Yamamoto’s death, the Japanese had lost one of their most capable military leaders, and the Americans gained yet another significant morale boost, one which came exactly one year to the day after the audacious Doolittle Raid on Japan.
April 19, 1960 – The First flight of the Grumman A-6 Intruder. During WWII, aircraft of the US Navy mainly focused their efforts on Japanese shipping and coastal targets. But during the Korean War, which followed quickly on the heels of the Second World War, Navy and US Marine Corps pilots found themselves flying the majority of their sorties against targets on land, far away from their carrier bases. Most of those missions were carried out by the remarkable Douglas A-1 Skyraider and WWII-era Vought F4U Corsair, so the Navy decided in 1955 to develop a jet-powered aircraft that could perform the same ground attack mission but carry a significantly larger payload. They 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 an aircraft that 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 arrangement allowed for better communication between the pilot and bombardier/navigator (B/N) and, in practice, the B/N often became as much a copilot as a weapons officer, helping the pilot monitor aircraft systems and radios. The large canopy covering the wide cockpit provided excellent visibility, and the bulbous nose section supplied ample room for electronic equipment. The first Intruders were fitted with the Digital Integrated Attack/Navigation Equipment (DIANE), a system that 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 or 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. To get all that armament off the deck, the original prototype of the Intruder was fitted with jet nozzles that could be swiveled downward to provide extra lift on takeoff. This system was eventually dropped, but the engine nozzles of production aircraft were still given a slight downwards deflection.
The Intruder entered service with the Navy and Marine Corps in 1963 and served as the primary all-weather attack platform following American entry into the Vietnam War. The A-6 proved to be a rugged aircraft that could absorb significant punishment and still return its crew to the carrier, reaffirming the “Iron Works” nickname that Grumman earned during WWII. Operating from carriers off the coast of Vietnam, Intruder crews flew 35,000 sorties during the war, with the loss of 69 aircraft 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 artillery. Following Vietnam, the Intruder saw action in support of the Multinational Force in Lebanon in 1983 and over Libya in 1986. The Intruder flew its final combat missions during the Gulf War of 1990-1991, flying 4,700 sorties against Iraqi targets. Intruders also served as aerial refueling platforms designated KA-6D.
In the mid-1980s, Grumman proposed a significantly upgraded Intruder, the A-6F Intruder II, which would have replaced the original turbojets with General Electric F404 turbofans, the same engine flown in the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet. The radar also would have received a significant upgrade, and weapons load would be increased. However, the Navy passed on the Intruder II, focusing instead on the development of the stealthy McDonnell Douglas A-12 Avenger II, which was slated as the A-6's replacement. But when cost overruns led to the cancelation of the A-12, the Navy was left without a dedicated attack aircraft. After nearly 35 years of service, the A-6 was finally retired in 1997 following a production run of nearly 700 aircraft, and its mission was briefly passed to specially equipped Grumman F-14 Tomcats. The attack mission is now carried out by the multirole and Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, and the Lockheed Martin F-35C Lightning II, which is expected to make its first deployment in 2020.
April 17, 1973 – Federal Express delivers its first overnight package. Starting with 14 Dassault Falcon business jets aircraft and 389 employees, Federal Express began operations from Memphis, TN by delivering 186 packages to cities on the East Coast of the United States. Adopting the name FedEx in 2000, the company now employs more than 425,000 workers and operates a fleet of more than 650 aircraft serving more than 375 airports worldwide. Each day, FedEx delivers more than 14 million packages. 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.
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 the 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 gathered over the course of 28 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.
April 17, 1934 – The first flight of the de Havilland Dragon Rapide, a short-range biplane airliner constructed 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 Royal Air Force 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.
April 17, 1934 – The first flight of the Fairey Swordfish. Designed in the 1930s, the Swordfish torpedo bomber was 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 unable to maneuver. Bismarck was then sunk by surface ships of the Royal Navy. Nearly 2,400 Swordfish were produced, and it was retired at the end of the war.
April 18, 2002 – A small aircraft crashes into Pirelli Tower in Milan, Italy. Completed in 1958 to house the offices of the eponymous Italian tire company, Pirelli Tower was the tallest building in Italy until 1995 and the architectural inspiration for the Pan Am Building in New York City. While flying a planned route from Locarno to Milan, pilot Gino Fasulo, at the controls of a Rockwell Commander 112, was preparing to make an emergency landing while low on fuel when, perhaps while attempting to manually lower the aircraft’s landing gear, he veered off course and crashed into the 25th floor of the tower. The crash killed the pilot along with four people inside the building, set fire to four floors, and initially raised fears of another terrorist attack similar to those carried out on September 11, 2001 in the US.
April 18, 1986 – The death of Marcel Dassault. Born Marcel Bloch on January 22, 1892, Dassault made his first contribution to aviation by designing an aircraft propeller during WWI, then founded his own aircraft manufacturing company, the Société des Avions Marcel Bloch. Of Jewish parentage, Bloch took the name Dassault, deriving it from char d’assaut, the French work for battle tank. During WWII, Dassault refused to collaborate with the Bordeaux-Aéronautique, a French company created during the German occupation of France, so he was sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp and remained there until the camp was liberated in 1945. In 1947, Dassault’s company became the Société des Avions Marcel Dassault, which designed the Dassalut Ouragan, the first French jet fighter to enter production. Dassault Aviation is now the premiere manufacturer of military, business and regional jets in France.
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 the YA-9 and YA-10 were 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.
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-percent 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 B-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 B-52. The YB-60 test program was canceled in January 1953 after just 66 hours of flight testing, and the flying prototype, along with a second unfinished prototype, were scrapped.
April 19, 2006 – The death of Scott Crossfield. Crossfield was born on October 2, 1921 and served in the US Navy as a flight instructor and fighter pilot during WWII. After obtaining a degree in aeronautical engineering, Crossfield went to work for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, later NASA), where he took part in test flights of nearly every aircraft under development at the Dryden Flight Research Center, including the Bell X-1, Convair XF-92, Northrop X-4 Bantam, Bell X-5, Douglas D-558-1 Skystreak. Crossfield also became the first pilot ever to exceed Mach 2 while flying the Douglas D-558-2 Skyrocket. As the chief test pilot for North American Aviation, Crossfield played a major role in the development of the North American X-15, performing the first glide flight of the aircraft on June 8, 1959 and making a total of 14 test flights. After leaving North American, Crossfield worked as an executive for Eastern Air Lines and Hawker Siddeley, and died at the age of 84 in the crash of his Cessna 210A while flying in adverse weather conditions.
April 19, 1951 – The first flight of the de Havilland Sea Venom, a carrier-based all-weather interceptor developed from the de Havilland Venom NF.2 two-seat night fighter. The Sea Venom was fitted with folding wings, an arrestor hook, and strengthened landing gear, and the canopy was modified to allow underwater ejection. The production model was fitted with a single de Havilland Ghost 105 turbojet which gave the Sea Venom a top speed of 575 mph, and it was armed with four Hispano Mk.V 20mm cannons and a combination of rockets and bombs. The Sea Venom saw action in the Suez Crisis of 1956, as well as during other conflicts in the Middle East before being replaced by the de Havilland Sea Vixen starting in 1959. It was retired by 1970.
April 19, 1944 – The first flight of the de Havilland Hornet, a twin-engined fighter that was developed from the larger de Havilland Mosquito, though it was an entirely new design. Like the Mosquito, the Hornet used wooden laminate construction to save weight, but was powered by a pair of Rolls-Royce Merlin “slimline” 12-cylinder engines which provided a top speed of 475 mph, making it one of the fastest propeller fighters ever built. Though it came too late to serve in WWII, the Hornet was flown as a strike fighter during the Malayan Emergency, and set numerous speed records at air races. A navalized variant, the Sea Hornet, was also developed. A total of 383 Hornets were built from 1945-1950, and the type was retired in 1956.
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