Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting you caught up on milestones and important historical events in aviation from December 5 through December 8.


December 7, 1941 – The Japanese launch a sneak attack on US bases at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. When Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Japan in 1853, he found a closed society that was entirely self sufficient. But following contact with the outside world, and the restoration of imperial rule, Japan quickly became an industrialized nation, and that meant that she needed increasingly more natural resources such as coal, oil and rubber to keep her factories working. By the 1870s, Japan was already stretching its tentacles outward with eyes on resources they did not possess. By 1940, Japan’s stated goal became the creation of what they called the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, which is really just a grandiose name for a hoped-for Japanese empire that would encompass most of the western Pacific, a large part of eastern China, southeast Asia, and as far south as New Guinea. Essentially, their goals were identical to the German efforts, in that they wanted to create their own Lebensraum in the Pacific. Getting bogged down in China, it became clear to the Japanese that, in order to continue their offensive, they would need to sever the supply lines coming into China from the South, which meant that the Philippines, Guam and Wake Island would have to be taken, as well as the British Imperial possessions of Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong. In order to ensure the success of that operation, they would need to neutralize the American fleet in Hawaii. By 1941, the US was already engaged in an economic war with Japan as a result of Japanese military actions in Indochina, and President Roosevelt favored American military involvement in support of the British in Europe against the Germans. However, the majority of Americans was mostly non-interventionist at that time. The Japanese attack changed all that.

Japanese planes prepare to take off from the carrier Shokaku

Early on the morning of December 7, 1941, two waves of Japanese Mitsubishi A6M fighters, Aichi D3A dive bombers and Nakajima B5N torpedo bombers launched from six aircraft carriers: the Akagi, Kaga, Sōryū, Hiryū, Shōkaku, and Zuikaku. As the first wave of 180 aircraft approached Oahu from the northwest, they were detected by American radar installations, but the radar operators believed that they were seeing a formation of Boeing B-17 bombers that were arriving from California. The Japanese attackers found Pearl Harbor completely open to attack, with ships moored side by side and defensive emplacements unmanned. The slower torpedo bombers led the way, since they would be most vulnerable once the defenders started shooting back. They headed straight for the battleships, while the dive bombers attacked ships and other targets in Oahu, including Hickam Field and Wheeler Field. The second wave was made up of 171 aircraft, and they arrived and attacked simultaneously from separate directions. Of the eight US battleships moored in Pearl Harbor, all were damaged and four were sunk. But due to the shallow draft of the harbor, all but the Arizona were raised following the attack, and six of the ships were repaired and returned to fight later in the war. The attacks also sank or damaged three cruisers, three destroyers, an anti-aircraft training ship and a minelaying ship. The attacks on the airfields destroyed 188 aircraft, including four of the twelve B-17s arriving from the US. In all, 2,403 Americans were killed, over half perishing in the Arizona when a bomb penetrated her deck and detonated the forward magazine. A third wave, which could have done crippling damage to American oil and port facilities, was not carried out.

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The destroyer USS Shaw explodes

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the island of Oahu ranks as one of the most audacious in military history. And though it was judged a tactical success, it ultimately turned out to be a fatal strategic blunder for the Japanese. The Japanese goal of keeping the Americans from interfering with their immediate plans in the Pacific was successful, but it fell short of its aim of crippling the American Pacific fleet and putting the strategic harbor out of action. Key port facilities and oil installations were not destroyed, or were quickly repaired, meaning that Oahu never stopped functioning as a forward naval base as the Japanese hoped. But most importantly, the three American aircraft carriers stationed in the Pacific—the Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown—were out at sea when the attack came. Had they been sunk or seriously damaged, it could have set back American efforts in the Pacific for a year or more. And in yet another silver lining for the Americans, the sinking or damaging of older battleships hastened the modernization of the American fleet. The Japanese attack demonstrated to the world that the aircraft carrier, rather than the battleship, was now the most potent capital ship in the modern fleet.

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Destroyed aircraft at Wheeler Field

Though some Japanese military commanders advocated the occupation of Hawaii, the nation’s leaders decided against it. The Japanese believed that simply destroying America’s ability to use Pearl Harbor as a base was enough, and they didn’t see Hawaii as a necessary place from which to attack the US. However, they failed to appreciate the importance of Hawaii as an American base from which to attack Japan. The Japanese hoped to win a quick, decisive victory in the Pacific, to gain enough territory that could be defended while eventually wearing down their enemies and finally negotiating treaties to maintain their conquered possessions. But that was not to be. By awakening the military and industrial might of the US, they sowed the seeds for their ultimate defeat. Commander-in-Chief of the Imperial Japanese Navy Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto famously said,

In the first six to twelve months of a war with the United States and Great Britain I will run wild and win victory upon victory. But then, if the war continues after that, I have no expectation of success.

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These would turn out to be prophetic words. Just six months after the attacks on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese would be decisively defeated in the Battle of Midway, an American victory that, like the attack on Pearl Harbor, was fought entirely by airplanes, and turned the course of the war in the Pacific. And the Battle of Midway was won by aircraft from the very American carriers that escaped the Japanese bombs and torpedoes at Pearl Harbor. (US Navy photos)


Short Take Off


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December 5, 1945 – The loss of Flight 19, five TBM Avenger torpedo bombers that disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle. Flight 19 was a routine navigation and bombing training mission that departed from NAS Fort Lauderdale. They were scheduled to fly east, drop some bombs, fly north, then turn for home. The lead pilot reported an inoperative compass, and the planes became lost. The Navy presumes that they headed out to sea, ran out of fuel, and crashed, killing the 14 crewmen. Two Martin PBM Mariner seaplanes were sent to look for the missing Avengers, and one exploded in midair, killing the 13-man crew. The disappearance of Flight 19 has often been touted as an example of mysterious disappearances in the area of the Bermuda Triangle, and the planes have never been found. (US Navy photo)


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December 6, 1993 – The first flight of the Bombardier 415, an amphibious water bomber used to fight fires. The 415 is a scooper aircraft, meaning that it can land on the surface of the water, scoop up a planeload of water, then take off and drop it where needed. A development of the Canadair CL 215, an earlier radial-engine powered aircraft, the 415 is powered by two turboprop engines and can scoop to to 1,620 US gallons of water at a time. The 415 is known as the Super Scooper, and has entered service in nine countries, with ninety delivered worldwide. Older CL 215 aircraft are also being retrofitted with new turboprop engines as the CL-215T. (Photo by Maarten Visser via Wikimedia Commons)


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December 6, 1991 – The first flight of the Dornier 328, a turboprop commuter airliner originally produced by Dornier Luftfahrt GmbH and later by Fairchild Dornier after Fairchild acquired the company in 1996. The international consortium produces the 328 in Germany but conducts sales from their offices in San Antonio, Texas. The 328 entered service in 1993, and currently flies for small airlines in 15 countries, and also serves in the military surveillance and search and rescue roles. A jet-powered derivative, known as the Fairchild Dornier 3128JET, first flew in January 1998. (Photo by Ole Simon via Wikimedia Commons)


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December 6, 1957 – The first flight of the Lockheed L-188 Electra, the first large turboprop ailiner to be built in the United States. The design, which featured relatively short wings and powerful engines with very large props, gave the Electra performance capabilities that rivaled newer jet-powered airliners, but a series of crashes that were found to be caused by design deficiencies, as well as the advent of more jet airliners, meant that Lockheed sold only 170 Electras and lost large amounts of money on their production. Though the Electra’s service life as an airliner was relatively brief, Lockheed developed the L-188 into the P-3 Orion anti-submarine and maritime surveillance aircraft, which became one of only a handful of aircraft to exceed 50 years of service. (Photo by Jon Proctor via Lockheed)


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December 6, 1944 – The first flight of the Heinkel He 162. In 1944, the Germans launched a desperate program to develop jet powered fighters to combat the waves of Allied bombers over Germany. The Emergency Fighter Program produced a number of prototypes, one of which was the Heinkel 162, built primarily of wood and powered by a single BMW axial flow turbojet. Named the Volksjäger, or People’s Fighter, the He 162 was the fastest of the first jet designs of the war, and had success against bombers and fighters. But, like most of the German jet fighters, it was a case of too few aircraft coming too late to have a significant effect on the war’s outcome. (Photo via San Diego Air and Space Museum)


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December 7, 1972 – The launch of Apollo 17, the final launch of the Apollo Program. Mission Commander Eugene Cernan and Lunar Module pilot Harrison Schmitt spent just over three days on the lunar surface, performing three moonwalks and covering 22 miles in the Lunar Rover, which was left behind on the Moon. The Command Module pilot was Ronald Evans. Apollo 17 was the first nighttime launch of an Apollo mission, and the last manned launch of the Saturn V rocket. Apollo also broke the record for the longest manned lunar flight, the longest total time spent exploring the surface of the Moon, the largest return of Moon samples, and the longest time in lunar orbit. Apollo 17 returned to Earth on December 19, 1972. (NASA photo)


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December 7, 1942 – The first flight of the Bell P-63 Kingcobra, a larger and improved version of the Bell P-39 Airacobra. While the P-39 was one of the principal US fighters at the start of WWII, its lack of a turbo-supercharger hampered its high altitude performance. Development of the P-63 was meant to address these deficiencies, and the Kingcobra was redesigned with a laminar flow wing, and a second supercharger was added. When the US showed little interest in the Kingcobra, the majority of aircraft built were sent to Russia under the Lend-Lease act, where they fought with great effectiveness, and the Kingcobra proved to be one of Russia’s most successful fighters. Over 3,000 Kingcobras were produced. (US Army photo)


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December 8, 1962 – The first flight of the Bell YOH-4A, the prototype of the Bell 206 JetRanger. The Bell 206 JetRanger has become one of the most ubiquitous general aviation helicopters in the world, but it began as a failed bid to provide the US Army with a light observation helicopter (LOH). After losing out to the Hughes OH-6 Cayuse for the LOH contract, and with an eye toward civilian sales, Bell went about redesigning what was arguably an unattractive aircraft, while also enlarging the cabin to carry more passengers in greater comfort. The newly designed, and very aesthetically pleasing, Bell 206A first flew in January 1966, and 7,300 were ultimately built. The Army also revisited the JetRanger, eventually adopting it as the OH-58 Kiowa. (Photo author unknown)


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