Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation and spaceflight from August 5 through August 8.
August 5, 1943 – The formation of the Women Airforce Service Pilots. Prior to the enactment of the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act in 1948, which enabled women to serve as permanent, regular members of the US armed forces, most American women served in non-military support organizations such as the US Navy’s Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) and the US Army’s Women’s Army Corps (WAC). Before that time, the only way for a woman to officially serve in the active duty military was as an Army nurse. During WWII, about 400,000 American women served in support roles or as nurses, and more than 500 died, 16 from enemy fire. But with so many American men fighting overseas or serving in the military stateside, jobs that were traditionally filled only by men were being very capably filled by women for the first time. Rosie the Riveter became a symbol of the new American workforce supplying the Arsenal of Democracy, but women helped the war effort in other ways, notably as pilots. Before the war, pioneering aviators Nancy Harkness Love and Jacqueline “Jackie” Cochran each submitted a proposal to train women pilots to ferry aircraft from the factories where they were produced to their assigned bases, saying that every woman who flew an airplane stateside would free up one man for combat flying. Despite the lobbying efforts of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, their requests were denied, so Cochran traveled to England where she joined the British Air Transport Auxiliary, becoming one of the first American women to fly a military aircraft. In 1942, Love oversaw the creation of the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS), which began by ferrying US Army Air Forces trainers and light aircraft, but eventually transitioned to fighters, bombers and large transports. Cochran returned to the US as the WAFS started flying and, with approval from General Henry “Hap” Arnold, oversaw the formation of the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) in the summer of 1942. The two groups worked independently and well, and they were merged into the Women Airforce Service Pilots in 1943 under the direction of Cochran to codify training and operational standards. More than 25,000 women applied for the program, but only 1,074 earned their wings. Primary training took place at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, and their duties included not only ferrying aircraft but also carrying out test flights and towing targets for gunnery practice.
However, while women were doing the same work as their male military counterparts, the Army still resisted allowing them to become pilot officers. Cochran continued to put pressure on the Army Air Forces to grant the WASPs a commission into the AAF, but Arnold resisted. Finally, Cochran issued an ultimatum: give the WASPs a commission or disband the group. The AAF, faced with a glut of pilots and trainees, disbanded the unit in December 1944 rather than create women officers. By that time, the WASPs had delivered 12,650 aircraft and suffered 38 fatalities due to accidents. Despite giving their lives in service to their country, the Army would not afford any military honors at the funeral of a fallen WASP pilot. The pilot’s body was shipped home at family expense, and they were not allowed to place the American flag on the coffin. After the war, veteran WASPs were barred from burial at Arlington National Cemetery until legislation was signed by President Obama in 2016. Though the WASPs opened the door for women military pilots, 30 more years would pass before Barbara Allen Rainey earned her wings and became the first woman to be commissioned as a pilot, flying for the US Navy in 1974. The US Air Force followed suit in 1978, but women were still barred from official combat roles until 1993. (US Air Force photo)
August 6, 1945 – The United States drops the Little Boy atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Following the American victory in the Battle of Midway in June 1942, the tide of battle in the Pacific turned decisively to America and her allies. The methodical island hopping campaign began, as America captured strategic islands for the construction of air bases while bypassing large groups of entrenched Japanese soldiers on other islands and cutting off their flow of supplies. With the capture of Guam, Saipan and Tinian in June and August 1944, the US now had bases close enough to begin flying Boeing B-29 Superfortresses on strategic bombing missions against Japan. But even the most modern bomber in the world could only be so accurate from high altitude, and with so much of the Japanese war production spread throughout the cities and into people’s homes, the bombing wasn’t terribly effective. Even after General Curtis LeMay changed tactics in 1943 to the firebombing of Japanese cities, resulting in huge loss of life, Japan fought on. It appeared that an invasion of the island would be the only way to end the war. In the largest amphibious assault of WWII, the US secured the island of Okinawa on June 22, 1945 to serve as a launching point for the planned Operation Downfall, a two-part invasion of Japan that was slated to begin on November 1, 1945. War planners knew that the invasion would be costly, and while initial estimates expected 130,000-220,000 Allied casualties, once it became clear that the Japanese were preparing defenses at the intended landing sites, casualty estimates leapt to 1.7-4 million, with 400,000-800,000 dead. The US produced a half million Purple Heart medals in preparation for the invasion. But could the war be ended without an invasion? Could the Americans strike such a devastating blow that the Japanese would finally capitulate? Development of a nuclear bomb in the US dates back to before the war, when scientists who had fled Nazi Germany came to America with dire warnings of German advances in atomic science. In 1939, the Americans began working on their own bomb to counter the perceived German threat, with Berlin as a potential target, but the first successful test was not carried out until July 1945, after the war in Europe had ended. The organizational effort to create the group of pilots and planes that would drop the new weapon had begun in 1944 with the creation of the 509th Composite Group under the command of Colonel Paul Tibbets at Wendover Army Air Field in Utah. They would be flying the Silverplate B-29 Superfortress, which was specially modified to carry the new bombs and fitted with fuel injection, reversible pitch propellers, and special bomb bay doors that opened and closed quickly. To save weight and carry more fuel, all defensive armament was removed along with all armor plating.
On July 26, 1945, the Allies issued the Potsdam Declaration calling for the unconditional surrender of Japan, threatening “prompt and utter destruction” if they did not comply. The Japanese, who had already shown their fanatical desire to fight to the death time and time again throughout the Pacific campaign, rejected the call for surrender. After consideration of numerous cities, Hiroshima was chosen as the first target because of its large military base, but it was also chosen because the Americans wanted a target that was visible enough to have a psychological impact on the Japanese. Tibbets and his crew departed Tinian in their B-29, named Enola Gay after Tibbets’ mother, for the six-hour flight to Hiroshima. Over Iwo Jima, they were joined by two other aircraft: the Great Aritiste, which was loaded with instruments to measure the explosion, and a second, unnamed B-29 which served as a photo ship. Thirty minutes from the target, mission commander Captain William Parsons armed the Little Boy atomic bomb. Tibbets started the bombing run completely unopposed over the unsuspecting city, and released the bomb at 8:15 am (Hiroshima time). The massive explosion killed 70,000-80,000 people in the city, both soldiers and civilians, roughly 30% of the population, and injured another 70,000. 4.7 square miles of the city were destroyed, as massive fires engulfed the many wooden buildings in the city. Those residents who survived suffered horrifying burns, radiation sickness, and a host of other maladies. The next day, President Harry S. Truman gave an address to the nation, and offered Japan a grave warning:
We are now prepared to obliterate more rapidly and completely every productive enterprise the Japanese have above ground in any city. We shall destroy their docks, their factories, and their communications. Let there be no mistake; we shall completely destroy Japan’s power to make war. . . . If they do not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth. Behind this air attack will follow sea and land forces in such numbers and power as they have not yet seen and with the fighting skill of which they are already well aware.
Despite Truman’s promise of more nuclear attacks, the Japanese government remained silent, and did not surrender. So Truman made good on his word. The bombing of Hiroshima was followed three days later by second atomic attack, this time on the city of Nagasaki carried out by a B-29 nicknamed Bockscar. It was only after this second attack that the Japanese government agreed to unconditional surrender on August 15, 1945, bringing an end to the Second World War. (Mushroom cloud and Enola Gay photos via US Air Force; Hiroshima photo via Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum)
August 8, 1946 – The first flight of the Convair B-36 Peacemaker. In the years leading up to WWII, two schools of thought on aerial bombardment came to the fore: tactical bombing and strategic bombing. Following the precepts of Italian general Giulio Douhet, and espoused by American general Billy Mitchell, strategic bombing of enemy war production centers was seen as a means to destroy the enemy’s ability to wage war, while the destruction of enemy cities and the killing of noncombatants was seen as a way of crushing morale, ultimately leading to capitulation. While the somewhat ironically named Peacemaker, which entered service one year after the end of WWII, serves as a Cold War icon of global warfare, planning for such a huge intercontinental bomber actually began before the US entered WWII. With the situation looking increasingly grim for England in the early stages of the war, the US was concerned that, should England fall to the Nazis, there would be no European base from which to launch bombing missions against Germany and occupied Europe. The only alternative would be to fly from bases in North America, and any bomber operating from there would need an unrefueled range of nearly 6,000 miles. The genesis of such a bomber began with the Boeing XB-15 and Douglas XB-19, huge piston-powered bombers with transatlantic range. Neither of these aircraft would enter production, and the project sat idle until the US Army Air Corps found the need for a bomber that could reach Japan from bases in the Pacific, beyond the range of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress. Following the war, the need also arose for a bomber that was capable of reaching the Soviet Union to deliver a nuclear weapon, as intercontinental ballistic missiles were not yet operational. While a huge piston-powered bomber seemed somewhat of an anachronism at the dawn of the jet age, no other aircraft had the range necessary for such deep strikes, as early jet engines were notoriously thirsty and had a limited combat radius.
The B-36 was the largest mass-produced piston-powered aircraft ever built, dwarfing the B-29 and, at 230 ft, its wingspan was greater than any combat aircraft ever produced. Initially, the B-36 was powered by six massive Pratt & Whitney R-4360 Wasp Major 28-cylinder radial engines in a pusher configuration, the same engines that powered the Boeing B-50 Superfortress and host of other large American warplanes. Later, four General Electric J47 turbojets were added to augment take off power and increase speed during bombing runs. The Peacemaker’s four bomb bays could carry up to 86,000 pounds of bombs, more than ten times the load carried by the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. It was also the only bomber capable of delivering the 43,600-pound T-12 Cloudmaker “earthquake bomb.” And though not originally designed to carry nuclear weapons, whose development was top secret at the time, the Peacemaker was modified to carry the Mark-17 hydrogen bomb, the biggest and heaviest nuclear bomb ever produced. For defense, the B-36 had six retractable, remote-controlled turrets each armed with a pair of 20 mm cannons. The Peacemaker entered service with the Strategic Air Command in 1948 and, in addition to its role as a nuclear deterrent, the RB-36 reconnaissance variant was flown on spying missions around the periphery of the Soviet Union and its client states. Despite being a weapon of war, no B-36 ever dropped munitions on an enemy, and with the introduction of Soviet jet fighters like the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG 15, the B-36 was quickly rendered obsolete. A total 384 Peacemakers were built, and it was retired in 1959 with the introduction of the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress. (US Air Force photos)
August 5, 1930 – The birth of Neil Armstrong. Born near Wapakoneta, Ohio, Armstrong took his first flight at age 5 on board a Ford Trimotor and, after starting an engineering degree at Purdue University at age 17, he joined the US Navy, where he flew the Grumman F9F Panther in Korea. Upon leaving the Navy, Armstrong served as a test pilot before joining the astronaut program, where he was selected as Command Pilot for the Gemini 8 mission in 1966 which performed the first successful docking in space. In 1967, Armstrong was chosen along with 17 other astronauts as the crew for the Apollo missions to the Moon. After the loss of the Apollo 1 crew, Armstrong was tapped as the commander of Apollo 11, the mission that landed the first man on the Moon. Uttering the famous words, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind,” Armstrong set foot on the Moon at 2:56 UTC on July 21, 1969. Armstrong never flew in space again, and died in 2012 at the age of 82. (NASA photo)
August 6, 1996 – The first flight of the Kawasaki OH-1, a military scout and observation helicopter developed for the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force and the first helicopter entirely produced in Japan. The OH-1 was created as a replacement for the Hughes OH-6 Cayuse light observation helicopter (LOH or “Loach”) and entered service in 2000. The OH-1 is powered by two Mitsubishi TS1 turboshaft engines which provide a maximum speed of 173 mph, and is fitted with an asymmetric Fenestron tail rotor that reduces noise and vibration. Development included an attack variant that was rejected in favor of the Boeing AH-64 Apache. A total of 38 helicopters had been produced as of 2013 and it remains in production. (Photo by Rikujojieitai Boueisho via Wikimedia Commons)
August 6, 1945 – The death of Richard Bong, one of the United States’ most decorated fighter pilots and the highest-scoring American ace of WWII. Bong was born in Superior, Wisconsin on September 24, 1920, and received his wings in January 1942. During the war, Bong flew the Lockheed P-38 Lightning exclusively, and made the first of his 40 total victories on December 27, 1942. For his service, Bong was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1944 and was sent home to help sell war bonds. Following the war, Bong became a test pilot for Lockheed, but was killed when the fuel pump of his Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star malfunctioned during takeoff. Bong ejected, but was too close to the ground for his parachute to open fully. (US Air Force photo)
August 7, 1990 – Operation Desert Shield begins. Following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, US President George HW Bush deployed US forces to Saudi Arabia to protect America’s strategic ally from further aggression by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Air assets of the US Air Force and US Navy teamed with aircraft from Saudi Arabia, Great Britain and France, eventually forming a coalition of 48 nations resolved to oust Saddam from Kuwait. Following 5 months of air operations to protect the buildup of 120,000 soldiers, Operation Desert Shield became Operation Desert Storm, with the Coalition invasion to liberate Kuwait beginning on January 17, 1991 in what would come to be known as the First Gulf War. (US Air Force photo)
August 7, 1963 – The first flight of the Lockheed YF-12, a two-seat interceptor variant of the Lockheed A-12 reconnaissance aircraft. The YF-12 was developed in response to an Air Force requirement for an interceptor to replace the Convair F-106 Delta Dart that would be capable of speeds up to Mach 3. Following the cancelation of the North American XF-108 Rapier, Lockheed’s Kelly Johnson proposed version of the A-12 that would be fitted with the Hughes AN/ASG-18 fire control system and armed with Hughes AIM-47 Falcon missiles, specially modified to be fired by the YF-12 from internal missile bays. The Air Force ordered three prototypes and, during flight testing, the YF-12 set speed and altitude records for an interceptor of 2,070 mph and 80,257 feet. The YF-12 program was canceled in 1968, though the prototypes served as NASA test aircraft until 1979. (NASA photo)
August 7, 1951 – The first flight of the McDonnell F3H Demon, a single-seat fighter and interceptor developed for the US Navy as the successor to the McDonnell F2H Banshee. Unlike other fighters that were swept-wing variants of earlier sraight-winged aircraft, the Banshee was designed from the start with swept wings in an effort to counter Soviet fighter aircraft, though it was not capable of supersonic flight. Problems with engines plagued the Demon throughout its service life, and it was retired before it could serve in the Vietnam War. Despite difficulties with the Demon’s development, it ultimately served as the basis for the design of the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, which replaced the Demon in Navy service. (US Navy photo)
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