Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from March 20 through March 22.
March 20, 1932 – The first flight of the Boeing P-26 Peashooter. Dating back to the earliest days of aviation, the monoplane was nothing new by the early days of the Golden Age of aviation. Nevertheless, biplanes made up the vast majority of aircraft built during and after WWI. Most of there were made of a fabric-covered frame constructed from wood or metal tubing.But as aircraft design progressed in the 1920s and 1930s, advances in construction and aerodynamics led to the widespread adoption of the monoplane. A single wing eliminated the need for all the struts and braces found in WWI-era biplanes, which helped to reduce drag and increase speeds, though the fabric-covered airframes were still used. In Germany, aircraft designers made significant advances with metal monoplanes as early as 1915, when Hugo Junkers first flew the all-metal Junkers J 1, but its weight (more than one ton) limited its performance when powered by the engines of its day. But by the 1930s, it was clear that the metal monoplane was the future of military aviation, and while the Boeing P-26 wasn’t the first metal monoplane to be considered by the US Army Air Corps, it was the first to enter production and service.
Development of the P-26 began in 1931 with an internally funded Boeing project known as the Model 248. For that aircraft, the Army supplied the engines and instruments while Boeing built the airframe. The 248, though a monoplane, looked much like a biplane with its top wing removed, and still employed many of the design elements found in earlier aircraft. It had fixed, panted landing gear, and its external wire bracing, the last to appear on a US fighter, kept the wings from buckling under high G loads. The wings were also relatively short, which gave the Peashooter an unacceptably high landing speed. This caused a number of crashes, and the Peashooter’s short nose meant that it had a tendency to pitch forward on landing, injuring or killing the pilot. These problems were addressed by the addition of flaps to lower the landing speed, while a new raised headrest protected the pilot should the plane nose over. Two different engines were used in the P-26A and P-26B before the Army settled on a carbureted Pratt & Whitney R-1340 radial fitted with a Townend ring to help reduce drag and improve cooling.
The USAAC ordered 111 P-26As, followed by orders for the improved B and C models, and took delivery of the first Peashooters in 1934. With a top speed of 234 mph, the Peashooter was the fastest fighter in the American inventory when it was introduced, but rapid advances in aircraft design during the 1930s quickly rendered the P-26 obsolete. Fighters such as the Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Hawker Hurricane were just three years away, much more modern aircraft with enclosed cockpits, retractable landing gear and cantilevered wings. By 1938, the P-26 gave way to the Seversky P-35 and Curtiss P-36. Nevertheless, the P-26 proved easy to fly, and it remained in service until the outbreak of WWII. Though the Peashooter never saw combat with American forces, fighters exported to China saw action against the Japanese in 1937, where they were responsible for downing a handful of bombers, and members of the Philippine Army Air Corps had limited success against Japanese fighters in 1941. A total of 141 Peashooters of all variants were produced, and it was the last Boeing fighter to enter production until the company acquired McDonnell Douglas in 1997.
March 20, 2008 – The death of Ann Baumgartner, the first American woman to fly a jet fighter. Born in Augusta, Georgia in 1918, Baumgartner served as a pilot with the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) during WWII and was tasked with ferrying new aircraft from factories in the US to points of embarkation around the country. In February 1944, Baumgartner transferred to Wright Field in Ohio on a temporary assignment to test aeromedical equipment, and eventually became assistant operations officer for the WASPs at Wright Field. On October 14, 1944, Baumgartner flew the Bell YP-59 Airacomet, America’s first jet fighter, as part of her testing duties. Following the disbanding of the WASPs in 1944, Baumgartner continued to work as a flight instructor for United Airlines and wrote as a scientific journalist.
March 20, 1991 – Cuban Air Force pilot Maj. Orestes Lorenzo Perez defects to the US in a Russian-built fighter. While on a training mission, Perez turned his Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-23BN toward Florida and landed uncontested at Naval Air Station Key West. To the embarrassment of the US Air Force, defense radars failed to pick up the airplane and no fighters were scrambled. The MiG was eventually returned to Cuba, and Perez was given asylum in the US. The following year, Perez flew back to Cuba in a Cessna 310 and landed on a busy highway to pick up his wife and two sons who had been told that he would be returning for them. Orestes then flew back to the US, where his family was also granted asylum.
March 20, 1942 – The first flight of the Mitsubishi J2M Raiden (Thunderbolt). The Raiden, Allied reporting name Jack, was designed by Jiro Horikoshi, who had also designed the A6M Zero, and was intended to serve as a local defense interceptor to protect the Japanese home island from American bombers. The J2M first saw action in 1944 during the Battle of the Philippine Sea, but its lack of a turbocharger meant that it had difficultly engaging the high-flying Boeing B-29 Superfortress. Nevertheless, its armament of four cannons was potent, and the Raiden was occasionally effective in diving attacks. A total of 671 Raidens were built, and it was retired at the end of the war.
March 20, 1937 – Amelia Earhart’s first attempt at circumnavigating the globe ends with a ground accident in Hawaii. Earhart was America’s best-known aviatrix of aviation’s Golden Age, and had already made a name for herself as the first woman to fly solo from Hawaii to California and the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, both taking place in 1935. The following year, Earhart had a Lockheed Electra 10E specially built for a flight around the world and, on March 17, 1937, Earhart began her first attempt at circumnavigation with a from Oakland, California accompanied by navigators Fred Noonan and Harry Manning, as well as technical advisor Paul Mantz. While taking off for the second leg of the flight, the Electra suffered a landing gear failure and ground looped, heavily damaging the aircraft, though nobody on board was hurt. The accident ended the attempt at circumnavigation, but Earhart and Noonan would try again four months later, this time flying west to east, only to disappear over the Pacific Ocean on July 2, 1937.
March 20, 1935 – The first flight of the Grumman F3F, the last biplane fighter delivered to the US Navy. Designed to replace the Grumman F2F, the F3F entered service in 1936, but was removed from frontline service at the beginning of the war in 1941. It was replaced by the Brewster F2A Buffalo, though a number of F3Fs continued to fly in a training role. The F3F also served the US Army Air Force as a trainer with the designation UC-103. Though the F3F performed the bulk of its service before the war and was obsolete by 1941, it formed the developmental basis for the Grumman F4F Wildcat, the mainstay Naval fighter in the early years of WWII.
March 20, 1922 – The US Navy commissions the USS Langley (CV 1). Converted from the collier USS Jupiter, Langley was America’s first aircraft carrier and also the US Navy’s first turbo-electric ship. Langley was converted at the Navy Yard in Norfolk, Virginia and named after American aviation pioneer Samuel Pierpont Langley. The first plane to fly from her deck was a Vought VE-7 flown by Lt. Virgil Griffin on October 17, 1922. After serving off the California coast for 12 years, Langley was converted to a seaplane tender (AV 3) and served in the early months of WWII, but had to be scuttled following an attack by Japanese bombers on February 27, 1942.
March 21, 1971 – The first flight of the Westland Lynx, a multi-purpose helicopter designed and built by Westland Helicopters in England as a replacement for the Westland Scout and Westland Wasp. Originally built as a utility helicopter for both civilian and military use, the Lynx was further developed into armed gunship and antisubmarine warfare (ASW) variants. The Lynx served with the British Army from 1971-2018, and was retired from Royal Navy service in 2017. It remains in service with Germany, France, and Denmark, as well as other export countries. Still in production, more than 450 have been built to date, and they have seen action in the Iraq War and more recently in Afghanistan.
March 21, 1945 – The first operational mission of the Yokosuka MXY-7 Ohka piloted bomb. The Ohka, which means “cherry blossom,” was a piloted, rocket-powered flying bomb that was used to attack Allied shipping in the closing stages of WWII. The flying bomb was usually carried aloft by a Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” bomber, then released to glide towards its target. Once directed at a ship, the pilot lit the rocket motors and dove on the target. The Ohka had a 2,646-pound ammonia warhead and made its first appearance during the Battle of Okinawa flown by the Japanese Special Attack Units, better known as Kamikaze. The destroyer USS Mannert L. Abele (DD 733) was the first American warship to be struck by an Ohka on April 12th, 1945 with the loss of 84 sailors. Ultimately, the Okha had no effect on the outcome of the war. Most were shot down while still attached to their motherships, and no American capital ships were ever sunk. The final Ohka mission took place on June 22, 1945.
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