Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from April 18 through April 21.
April 18, 1942 – Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle leads the the first attack on the Japanese homeland of WWII. After 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 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¢ 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 bomber 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 American ships (two carriers, four cruisers, eight destroyers) were 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 planes 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 visiting 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 future US Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens) 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. Extra fuel tanks and drop tanks were fitted to the aircraft to complete the 1,000 mile flight, and, 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 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 of the action resulted in a counterclaim by Lt. Rex Barber. 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 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 carry 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 during 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.
April 21, 1918 – The death of Manfred von Richthofen. When the First World War broke out in 1914, the airplane was still in its infancy. The Wright Brothers had made their first flight just eleven years earlier, and when the first airplanes entered the fray they were called scout planes and flown solely for reconnaissance. Opposing pilots often shared a friendly wave as they crisscrossed the skies over the battlefield. But it wasn’t long before those amicable greetings turned hostile. Pilots and spotters started carrying pistols and rifles into the air, then machine guns. Soon, the dedicated fighter plane was born. Fighter pilots became a breed apart from other fighting men, enjoying the prestige and gallantry of their role in battle. Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, better known as the Red Baron, became the greatest of them all, the iconic fighter pilot, both feared and respected by his enemy.
Manfred von Richthofen was born to an aristocratic Prussian family in what is now a part of Poland, and served as a cavalry reconnaissance officer in the early stages of WWI. But, as the war stagnated and the cavalry became little used, he transferred to the Imperial German Army Air Service, later called the Luftstreitkräfte, and began flying as a reconnaissance officer in August 1915. Following a chance meeting with Oswald Boelcke, who has since become recognized as the father of fighter tactics, Richthofen began training to be a pilot. The following year, when Boelcke was looking for pilots to form a new squadron, he tapped Richthofen to become a member of the fledgling Jagdstaffel 2, or Jasta 2. Flying for Jasta 2, Richthofen scored his first victory on September 17, 1916. Soon, he was leading his own fighter group, Jasta 11, and then was appointed to head the larger Jagdgeschwader 1, better known as the Flying Circus.
Though Richthofen is most famously associated with the Fokker Dr.1 Dreidecker, he flew a number different aircraft during his time in the war and only scored about twenty percent of his career victories in the iconic triplane. Before the Dreidecker, Richthofen flew the Albatros D.II, then the Albatros D.III, and Albatros D.V. He scored the bulk of his victories in the D.III, and it was this aircraft that first received Richthofen’s trademark red paint. A brilliant leader and tactician, Richthofen’s unit was soon one of the most effective of the war. In April of 1917 alone, he shot down 22 British aircraft, including four in one day. He finished the war with 80 confirmed victories, making him the leading ace of WWI and the second leading ace of all time behind Erich Hartmann, who claimed an extraordinary 352 victories during WWII.
Despite Richthofen’s prowess in the cockpit, flying fighters was by no means a safe business. On July 16, 1917, Richthofen was seriously wounded when he was shot in the head during a dogfight. He managed to land his plane and, after a brief convalescent leave, he returned to flying, though the wound caused him continued nausea and headaches. The Red Baron’s reign finally came to an end on April 21, 1918, when he was shot through the heart and lungs during a dogfight. Though he was able to land his plane safely, Richthofen soon succumbed to his wounds. Controversy immediately swirled around who took the fateful shots. Initially, Captain Arthur Roy Brown, a Canadian pilot flying for the Royal Navy Air Service, was credited with the victory. However, an autopsy showed that Richthofen had in fact been killed by a single .303 British round that was most likely fired from the ground. Who actually inflicted the mortal wound will never be resolved. In a show of respect for their foe, members of No. 3 Squadron of the Australian Flying Corps buried Richthofen with full military honors in Amiens, France. In 1975, his remains were moved to a family cemetery plot in Wiesbaden, Germany.
April 18, 2002 – A small aircraft crashes into Pirelli Tower in Milan, Italy. Completed in 1958 to house the offices of the famous Italian tire company, Pirelli Tower was the tallest building in Italy until 1995 and the architectural inspiration for the landmark 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. He 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 to become the new primary ground attack aircraft for the US Air Force. 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 rather traditional-looking YA-9, while Fairchild Republic offered the more radical 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 better-performing 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 beginning in 1959. It was retired from service 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.
April 20, 1978 – Korean Air Lines Flight 902 is shot down by Russian fighters. On a flight from Paris to Anchorage, Alaska, the crew of the KAL Boeing 707 (HL7429) made an error in calculating magnetic declination as they neared the North Pole and mistakenly turned back towards Russia. Russian fighter pilots initially identified the aircraft as a Boeing RC-135 reconnaissance plane before realizing it was actually a civilian airliner. The Russians claimed that the KAL crew ignored attempts at communication, and the order was given to shoot the plane down. One missile struck the airliner’s wing, and the pilots were forced to make a crash landing in Russia on a frozen lake near the Finnish border. Two passengers died, and the remaining passengers and crew were detained for two days before being released. The Russian government then billed South Korea $100,000 for expenses related to the care of the passengers.
April 20, 1964 – The first flight of the Lockheed L-100 Hercules, the civilian variant of the famous military cargo aircraft. The civilian Hercules arose in 1959 with an order from Pan Am for 12 of Lockheed’s planned GL-207 Super Hercules, but that project was eventually canceled. Instead, Lockheed chose to develop a variant of the C-130E, and produced it in three lengths designated L-100, L-100-20 and L-100-30. A total of 114 of all types were completed by 1992 when production ended. Lockheed plans to upgrade the L-100 by using the C-130J Super Hercules to produce the LM-100J, which took its maiden flight on May 25, 2017.
April 20, 1916 – The Lafayette Escadrille, a squadron of American fighter pilots flying for France in WWI, is deployed. Prior to the United States’ entry into WWI, US pilots went to Europe on their own to fight for England and France. The squadron was originally called the Escadrille Américaine, but was later renamed in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette, a French aristocrat who fought for the United States in the Revolutionary War. Though American by nationality, the pilots wore French uniforms and had French commanders. With so many Americans arriving in France to fight, a larger group was formed, the Lafayette Flying Corps, and the Lafayette Escadrille was officially disbanded on February 8, 1918. Some of its members transferred to American air units, while others trained incoming US pilots.
April 21, 1964 – The first flight of the HFB-320 Hansa Jet, a ten-seat business jet manufactured by Hamburger Flugzeugbau that was notable for its use of a forward-swept wing, the only example of a civilian aircraft to use such a wing configuration. This arrangement allowed the wing spar to pass through the fuselage behind the passenger compartment and provided more internal space for passengers or cargo. Only 47 were built before production ceased in 1973, with almost half of the aircraft being purchased and operated by the West German Air Force.
April 21, 1956 – The first flight of the Douglas F5D Skylancer, a fighter designed for the US Navy and originally conceived as an larger variant to the F4D Skyray. Though it began simply as an upgrade to the Skyray, the Skylancer soon became different enough to warrant its own designation. Aside from its larger size and more powerful engine, the F5D had numerous aerodynamic enhancements to increase its speed, including application of the area rule to the fuselage. Possibly due to political pressure, the Skylancer was canceled after completion of only four aircraft in favor of the Vought F8U (F-8) Crusader, and the completed Skylancers were used for testing by the US Air Force and NASA.
April 21, 1933 – The first flight of the USS Macon (ZRS-5), a rigid airship operated by the US Navy that served as a reconnaissance platform and flying aircraft carrier. The Macon and her sister ship USS Akron (ZRS-4) were the largest helium-filled airships in the world, and both could launch and recover five Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk scout planes or two-seat Fleet Model 1 training aircraft. The Macon served for only two years before she was damaged in a storm and crashed off the California coast with the loss of two members of her 76-man crew.
If you enjoy these Aviation History posts, please let me know in the comments. You can find more posts about aviation history, aviators, and aviation oddities at Wingspan.