Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from June 6 through June 8.


(Author unknown)

June 6, 1944 – A huge airborne armada carries Allied troops across the English Channel to begin the D-Day invasion of Europe. On the morning of September 1, 1939, the German army unleashed its Blitzkrieg warfare with the invasion of Poland, thus beginning World War II, a global conflict that eventually claimed the lives of 70-85 million people. The fall of France on June 25, 1940 left Germany and Italy in control of almost all of Europe, and the Nazis ruled France through the Vichy Government until 1944. While the Russians strongly advocated the creation of a second front in Europe to fight the Germans and relieve pressure on the Eastern Front, Allied leaders balked, saying that they had neither the men nor the materiel to make an effective invasion.

The western allies opted instead to invade North Africa (Operation Torch) and then Italy (Operation Husky and Operation Avalanche) what British prime minister Winston Churchill the “soft underbelly” of Europe. That underbelly turned out to be much harder than hoped, and even though the invasion of Italy eventually bogged down, the Allies gained valuable experience with amphibious landing operations that they would put to use in the eventual invasion of mainland Europe. At the Trident Conference in Washington, DC in 1943, Allied leaders decided that the time to invade Europe had come, and the beaches of Normandy in Northern France were selected as the point at which the Allies would try to gain a foothold in Festung Europa.

(UK National Archives)

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Getting the troops from England to Normandy would be a mammoth undertaking, involving thousands of ships, transport aircraft, and gliders, as well as the bombers and fighters that would soften up the enemy and protect the invasion. But to get the troop safely to France, Perhaps the most important aspect of the successful landings in Normandy was the element of surprise, and the Allies went to elaborate extents to confuse the German defenders. For their part, the Germans were convinced that the Allies would attack at the Pas de Calais, where the English Channel is at its narrowest. The Allies did nothing to disabuse the Germans from this idea, and even littered the English countryside with dummy tanks and aircraft to confuse German reconnaissance flights. On the night of June 5/6, aircraft and ships were sent against Calais in the north, while others steamed slowly towards Cap d’Antifer to the south. At the same time, aircraft circled over the Channel to tie up the German coastal radars and shield the actual airborne invasion. When the airborne troops and gliders arrived over France, not a single Luftwaffe aircraft rose to meet them.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe (SHAEF), speaks with First lieutenant Wallace C. Strobel and men of Company E, 2nd Battalion, 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment on June 5, 1944. Strobel’s battalion was the first to drop into Normandy. Strobel survived Normandy and the war. (US Army)

By the end of the day, US Army Air Forces and Allied aircraft flew roughly 15,000 sorties in support of the D-Day invasion. In the predawn darkness of June 6, airborne troops landed first to pave the way for the seaborne invasion forces. These pathfinder companies were sent to deploy ground beacons for the Rebecca/Eureka transponding radar system, beacons which directed following planes loaded with paratroopers and equipment. The pathfinders were followed by an army of airborne soldiers, including 13,000 troops from the US Army 82nd Airborne Division and 101st Airborne Division, along with 6,000 British troops of the 6th Airborne Division and 500 paratroopers from 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion. These paratroops were dropped into the Norman countryside behind the invasion beaches to block German reinforcements from coming forward, capture causeway exits from the beaches, and establish river crossings so troops on the beach could fan out across the countryside. They also marked out landing zones for the nearly 4,000 glider-borne troops that would land at first light.

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Taken on June 7, or D-Day plus one, British gliders, painted with black and white recognition stripes, lie strewn around Landing Zone N north of Ranville, Normandy. These gliders transported the 6th Airlanding Brigade and the Airborne Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment during Operation Mallard. (Imperial War Museum)

The invasion started with a British glider-borne assault against the Pegasus Bridge across the Caen Canal. In an amazing feat of airmanship, six Horsa gliders brought 181 airborne soldiers to within 50 feet of their objective, completely surprising the German defenders. Capturing the bridge helped protect the eastern flank of Juno Beach from German armor. The British were followed by paratroops brought across the Channel by a fleet of over 900 Douglas C-47 Skytrains (RAF designation Dakota). Flying from England, the aerial armada was arrayed in consecutive V-formations, nine planes wide in a line that stretched nearly 300 miles. Once over the drop zones, thousands of soldiers rained from sky, while others descended in gliders that were, at times, more dangerous than any enemy fire. Many paratroops were scattered, and it took many hours for units to form up, while others joined whichever soldiers they could find and moved toward their objectives. Despite the difficulties, most of the pre-invasion objectives were met, and the airborne soldiers helped open beach exits and provide cover for the nearly 160,000 Allied troops that came ashore at dawn on D-Day, the first successful invasion of a defended European mainland in over 800 years.


Following the mid-air collision, Joe Walker’s F-104 Starfighter erupts in flames. Note the missing and damaged vertical stabilizers on the Valkyrie. (US Air Force)

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June 8, 1966 – The crash of the second North American XB-70 Valkyrie prototype. Accidents during the development and testing of new aircraft aren’t inevitable, but all test pilots know that they are a distinct possibility. When mishaps occur in the normal testing process, while many are tragic, the understanding that test work is inherently dangerous makes accidents understandable, and perhaps even acceptable. However, when a deadly accident comes during a flight that has nothing to do with the testing program of a new aircraft, it can be a bitter pill to swallow. Such was the case with the loss of the second XB-70 Valkyrie prototype, a high-flying supersonic bomber designed to carry out nuclear strikes deep within the Soviet Union.

North American XB-70 Valkyrie, tail number 20207, the prototype that was involved in the accident. (US Air Force)

The story of the Valkyrie goes back to 1955, when the US Air Force issued a requirement for a new bomber that would combine the payload capacity of the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress with the supersonic speed of the Convair B-58 Hustler. North American responded with its radical XB-70, a bomber that could reach Mach 3 while flying at more than 77,000 feet. But advances in surface-to-air missiles soon put the entire project in doubt. Air Force doctrine changed from high altitude supersonic bombing to low altitude penetration, which meant that the Valkyrie would have to be flown at lower levels, where it was barely faster than the B-52, and with a smaller payload. When the first ICBM installation became operational in Russia in 1959, the emphasis shifted from the nuclear bomber to the nuclear-tipped missile, and for that reason, the giant XB-70 became an anachronism, a bomber for an earlier age. The Valkyrie project soon became a Cold War era political football, the stuff of campaign promises and political bargaining, before the project was finally canceled in 1961.

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A photo taken shortly before the crash. Joe Walker’s F-104, with its orange tail stripe, can be seen below and behind the Valkyrie. (US Air Force)

But the two XB-70 prototypes remained valuable research assets and, on June 8, 1966, engine manufacturer General Electric requested a photo flight to be staged with the second XB-70 (20207) and four other GE-powered aircraft: a McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, a Northrop F-5 Freedom Fighter, a Northrop T-38 Talon, and a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter. As the cameras rolled and chase planes snapped photos, the five aircraft flew in close formation, with the Valkyrie in the lead. Without warning, the Starfighter, piloted by NASA Chief Test Pilot Joe Walker and flying just off the XB-70's starboard wing, collided with the Valkyrie and then rolled inverted across the top of the huge bomber. The Starfighter destroyed both of the Valkyrie’s rudders before striking and damaging the port wing. The F-104 broke up in the air, killing Walker, while the Valkyrie, without its rudders, flew on briefly before the crew lost control and the plane rolled over and headed earthward. Alvin White, the XB-70's pilot, managed to eject, though he suffered serious injuries, including a crushed arm caused when the clamshell escape pod, which had been designed to protect the pilot during high-speed ejection, closed on him. Co-pilot Carl Cross never initiated the ejection sequence and rode the aircraft into the ground.

The Air Force produced this film which explains the accident.

The investigation concluded that, due to the XB-70's tremendous width at the back and long narrow fuselage, it would have been difficult for Walker in his F-104 to maintain his position off the Valkyrie’s wing without proper sight cues. Once the two aircraft collided, the wake vortices from XB-70's wingtip likely caused the Starfighter to roll over the top of the Valkyrie. Despite the accident, the remaining XB-70 continued its research duties for three more years, until it was retired and flown to the National Museum of the United States Air Force in 1969 where it is currently on display.

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Short Takeoff


The heavily damaged Mikuma lies dead in the water shortly before her sinking. The wreckage of an American Vought SB2U Vindicator dive bomber lies on top of the aft gun turret. (US Navy)

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June 6, 1942 – Carrier aircraft from USS Enterprise and USS Hornet sink the Japanese heavy cruiser Mikuma. In one of the final actions of the Battle of Midway, American Douglas SBD Dauntless and Douglas TBD Devastator dive bombers from USS Enterprise (CV-6) and USS Hornet (CV-8) sighted Mikuma, along with her sister ship Mogami, both of which had been damaged early in the battle when they collided with each other. Mogami was struck by at least six bombs, while Mikuma was hit by five. The bombs struck the forecastle and amidships, setting off numerous explosions inside the ship and rendering her forward guns inoperable. Mogami was able to limp back to port, but Mikuma sank, taking 650 of her sailors down with her. The attack also marked the final combat action of the Devastator.


(Author unknown)

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June 6, 1915 – Zeppelin LZ 37 becomes the first Zeppelin destroyed in air-to-air combat. During WWI, the Germans used Zeppelins to carry out strategic bombing missions against France and England. On the night of June 6-7, LZ 37 of the German Imperial Navy (Kaiserliche Marine) took part in a three-airship raid on Calais and was attacked by Royal Naval Air Service pilot Reginald Warneford flying a Morane-Saulnier L fighter. Warneford climbed above the Zeppelin and dropped bombs on the airship, setting it on fire and causing it to crash. The explosion caused Warneford’s fighter to roll and lose power and he was forced down behind enemy lines, but was able to restart his fighter and return to base. Eight members of the nine-man Zeppelin crew were killed, along with two people on the ground. For his actions, Warneford was awarded the British Victoria Cross and French Légion d’honneur.


(Israeli Defense Forces)

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June 7, 1981 – Israeli fighters destroy the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak. As part of a program to develop what they maintained was a peaceful nuclear power program, the Iraqi government, with the help of French engineers, constructed a nuclear reactor at Osirak near the capital city of Baghdad. Following attempts at sabotage, including the assassination of a French scientist working on the program, the Israeli government carried out Operation Opera, sending six General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcons, each carrying two 2,000 pound unguided bombs and protected by six McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagles, to destroy the Iraqi facility. Ten Iraqi soldiers were killed in the attack, along with one French civilian. Iraq vowed to rebuild the facility, but it was finally completely destroyed by the US in 1991 during the Gulf War.


(US Navy)

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January 8, 1967 – Israeli jets and torpedo boats attack the USS Liberty. The USS Liberty (AGTR-5) was a Belmont-class technical research ship (spy ship) that was sent to the Mediterranean Sea in 1967 to monitor increasing tensions between Israel and a coalition of Arab nations. When the Six-Day War broke out on June 5, 1967, Liberty was in international waters off the Sinai Peninsula when she was attacked by Israeli jets and torpedo boats who allegedly mistook her for an Egyptian ship. Though Liberty’s captain had requested a US destroyer escort before the attack, the request was denied because the ship was clearly marked as a US vessel, and radio messages instructing Liberty to move farther away from the area were not received until after the attack. Thirty-three crew members died in the attack, along with one civilian. The Israeli government officially apologized and paid $7 million to the families of the victims, and later paid an additional $6 million for the damage to the ship.


(US Postal Service; US Navy)

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June 8, 1959 – The delivery of the first Missile Mail. The idea to deliver mail by some sort of projectile goes all the way back to 1810, when author Heinrich von Kleist first suggested using rockets and artillery batteries to deliver mail. In 1959, the US Postal Service experimented with using a Regulus cruise missile launched from the US Navy submarine USS Barbero (SS-317), with the missile’s normal nuclear payload replaced by post office mail containers. The mail reached its intended target of Naval Station Mayport, and the USPS went as far as creating a post office station onboard Barbero. Despite the successful test, the high cost made it impractical, and the service was mainly used as a promotion for the Post Office, and missile testing for the US Navy and Air Force.


(NASA)

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June 8, 1959 – The first unpowered flight of the North American X-15, a rocket-powered hypersonic research aircraft developed by the US Air Force and NASA to explore flights at extreme speed and altitude. Considered the world’s first operational spaceplane, the X-15 carried out 199 test flights, and Air Force pilots who exceeded 50 miles of altitude were awarded astronaut wings. Civilian pilots did not receive their astronaut wings until 2005. Three X-15s were built, and the spaceplane still holds the world record for the highest speed ever attained by a manned, powered aircraft when Pete Knight flew at Mach 6.72 (4,519 mph) on October 3, 1967. The record for highest altitude was set by Joseph Walker when he flew the X-15 to 67 miles above the Earth in 1963. The X-15 was retired in 1968.


(Author unknown)

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June 8, 1940 – The sinking of Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Glorious. Glorious was commissioned in January 1917, the second of the Courageous-class battlecruisers. During the late 1920s, she was rebuilt as an aircraft carrier, and spent most of the period before WWII patrolling the Mediterranean Sea. After hunting the German cruiser Admiral Graf Spee in the Indian Ocean, she was sent to support British operations in Norway. While ferrying aircraft to Norwegian land bases, Glorious and her escort carriers came under attack by the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, which had not been spotted because Glorious had no aircraft aloft, nor did they have anybody manning the crow’s nest. In less than two hours of bombardment, Glorious sank with the loss of 1,472 men. Only 43 survived.


Connecting Flights


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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. You can also find more stories about aviation, aviators and airplane oddities at Wingspan.

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