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 9.
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. This signaled the 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 puppet 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 early in the war.
The western allies opted instead to invade North Africa in 1942 (Operation Torch), followed by the invasion of Italy in 1943 (Operation Husky and Operation Avalanche), what British prime minister Winston Churchill the “soft underbelly” of Europe. That underbelly turned out to be much tougher than Churchill imagined, and 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.
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 force. To disguise their plans and preserve the element of surprise, the Allies went to elaborate extents to confuse the German defenders. As a result, the Germans were convinced that the Allies would attack at the Pas de Calais, the narrowest point of the English Channel between England and France. The Allies did nothing to disabuse the Germans of 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.
In the predawn darkness of June 6, airborne troops descended over the Normandy countryside to pave the way for the airborne invasion forces. These pathfinder companies were tasked with deploying ground beacons for the Rebecca/Eureka transponding radar system which directed following planes loaded with paratroopers and equipment. The pathfinders were followed by a force of airborne soldiers which included 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 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 to follow. At first light, the British launched a 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. By the end of June 6, US Army Air Forces and Allied aircraft flew roughly 15,000 sorties in support of the D-Day invasion. 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.
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 necessarily inevitable, but all test pilots know that they are a distinct possibility. When tragic mishaps occur in the normal testing process, the understanding that test work is inherently dangerous makes accidents understandable, and perhaps even acceptable to a degree. 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.
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 of enemy airspace, 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 reduced 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 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.
But the two XB-70 prototypes remained valuable research assets, and on June 8, 1966, engine manufacturer General Electric asked the Air Force to stage a promotional photo flight 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 and the other aircraft in echelon off each wing. 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 careening 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 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.
June 9, 1974 – The first flight of the Northrop YF-17. When the first dedicated fighter aircraft took to the skies in WWI, they were relatively small and simple affairs. Powerful and nimble, fighters were designed to duke it out one-on-one in the skies over the battlefield, where agility and speed could mean the difference between life and death. During WWII, fighters started getting larger and more complex, as did the engines, but with the advent of the jet engine at the end of the war, and then during the 1950s and 1960s, fighters started getting still bigger and heavier to accommodate larger engines, greater weapons loads, and more complex onboard radars. Aircraft that were once just fighters were now becoming multi-role aircraft that could dogfight as well as carry missiles and bombs for ground attack and in all weather conditions. And not only were the fighters getting bigger, the price tags were also growing at an alarming rate.
In an attempt to reverse that trend, the US Air Force initiated the Lightweight Fighter program (LWF) in 1972 to encourage the development of a simple and inexpensive fighter that would still be effective in the modern era. The LWF was limited to a weight of 20,000 pounds and was expected to provide speeds of up to Mach 1.6 at 40,000 feet. The Northrop Corporation already had considerable experience building low-cost fighters, having won the International Fighter Aircraft competition in 1970 with their F-5 Freedom Fighter, an aircraft that was designed to provide America’s allies with an inexpensive yet modern fighter. And it was the F-5 that provided the inspiration for Northrop’s entry into the LWF competition.
The YF-17 began as an internal development of the Freedom Fighter, called the N-300, which featured a lengthened fuselage, leading-edge wing root extensions (LERX), twin vertical stabilizers canted outward, and more powerful engines. As that design matured into the P-530 and P-600, the wing was moved to a mid-fuselage position, and the leading-edge extensions were lengthened further until they reached the cockpit, giving the new fighter its characteristic “cobra hood” shape and inspiring its unofficial Cobra nickname. In a carryover from the F-5, the YF-17 was also powered by two engines, in this case General Electric YJ101 afterburning turbofans. For ease of maintenance, the design allowed for the engines to be lowered directly from the aircraft without requiring disassembly of the empennage. The YF-17 also supported partial fly-by-wire control surfaces.
The YF-17 was entered into the LWF competition following its roll out on April 4, 1974, and its four competitors were quickly reduced to just one, the single-engine General Dynamics YF-16. Though the two fighters both performed well, the new General Electric turbofans fitted in the Cobra were never able to deliver full rated power, hampering the YF-17's speed performance over its rival. But top speed was not the only reason that the Cobra eventually lost out to the YF-16, which ultimately became the F-16 Fighting Falcon. The Air Force cited the YF-16's lower operating costs, greater range, and better acceleration and maneuverability. The YF-16 also shared the same Pratt & Whitney F100 turbofan that was currently being used by the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle, and that commonality appealed to the Air Force for its significant cost saving over development and maintenance of an entirely new power plant.
While many unsuccessful aircraft soon disappear into obscurity, the loss of the LWF competition was not the end of the Cobra. In an industry where second chances are rare, the US Navy, who had a preference for fighters with two engines, selected the YF-17 in 1974 as the winner of their Air Combat Fighter competition which was initiated to find a replacement for the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk and LTV A-7 Corsair II, as well as the remaining McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom IIs. Northrop partnered with McDonnell Douglas, who had extensive experience designing carrier-based aircraft, and developed the Cobra into the multirole McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet, which formed the backbone of the US Navy fighter fleet from its introduction in 1983 to its withdrawal from frontline service in 2018. The two YF-17 prototypes are on display at the Western Museum of Flight in California and Battleship Memorial Park in Alabama.
June 6, 1942 – Aircraft from the carriers 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 one 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 sailors down with her. The attack also marked the final combat action of the obsolete Devastator.
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 which set it on fire and caused it to crash. The explosion caused Warneford’s fighter to roll and lose power. He was forced to land 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.
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.
June 8, 1995 – US Air Force Capt. Scott O’Grady is rescued in Bosnia after six days in hostile territory. During the Bosnian War (1992-1995) following the breakup of Yugoslavia, United Nations aircraft carried out Operation Deny Flight to police a no-fly zone over Bosnia and Herzegovina in an effort to stem the killing of civilians and stop the ethnic cleansing that eventually claimed as many as 7,000 people. While on patrol, Capt. O’Grady, flying an F-16C Fighting Falcon, was struck by a Bosnian Serb army 2K12 Kub surface-to-air missile and was forced to eject over Bosnian Serb territory. Using lessons learned during survival training such as eating leaves and capturing rainwater, O’Grady eluded capture for six days before contacting USAF pilots on his rescue radio. A force of 51 US Marines launched from USS Kearsarge, protected by USMC Harriers and AH-1W SuperCobra gunships, located and rescued O’Grady without firing a shot. O’Grady received a Bronze Star and Purple Heart and retired from the Air Force in 2001.
January 8, 1967 – Israeli jets and torpedo boats attack the American reconnaissance ship USS Liberty. USS Liberty (AGTR-5) was a Belmont-class technical research ship (electronic intelligence gathering 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 later claimed to have mistaken 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.
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 practice for the US Navy and Air Force.
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 piloted 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.
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 the outbreak of the war, Glorious took part in the hunt for the German cruiser Admiral Graf Spee in the Indian Ocean, and was then sent to support British operations in Norway. While ferrying aircraft to Norwegian land bases, Glorious and her escort destroyers, HMS Ardent and HMS Acasta, 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 more than 1,200 men, along with 160 from Acasta and 152 from Ardent. Only 42 survived.
June 9, 1944 – The first flight of the Avro Lincoln, a large, four-engine heavy strategic bomber and the last piston-powered bomber to serve the Royal Air Force. The Lincoln was developed from the Avro Lancaster and entered service in 1945. Though it was built to carry out bombing missions against the Japanese homeland, it came too late to see service in WWII. However, it did serve in the Malayan Emergency beginning in 1948, and the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya which began in 1952. The Lincoln also saw extensive service with the Royal Australian Air Force and the Argentine Air Force, and was eventually retired from RAF service in 1963 in favor of the English Electric Canberra and the subsequent V-force bombers. The Lincoln also served as the basis for the Avro Shackleton maritime patrol aircraft and the Avro Tudor airliner. A total of 624 were produced, and the Lincoln was finally retired by Argentina in 1967.
June 9, 1928 – Charles Kingsford Smith and his crew complete the first flight across the Pacific Ocean. Kingsford Smith and his 4-man crew, flying in a Fokker F.VII Trimotor named Southern Cross, departed Oakland, California on May 31, 1928 bound for Australia, with planned refueling stops in Hawaii and Fiji. The third leg of their flight took them to Brisbane after a total flying distance of 7,187 miles. Kingsford Smith followed that feat with a nighttime crossing of the Tasman Sea from Australia to New Zealand, as well as a westward flight across the Atlantic Ocean from Ireland to Newfoundland in 1930. In 1935, Kingsford Smith disappeared during a flight from India to Singapore while attempting to break a speed record for the voyage. The Southern Cross was restored in 1985 and is now displayed in a special hangar near the Brisbane Airport in Australia.
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.