Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting you caught up on milestones, personalities, and important historical events in aviation from March 30 through April 1.


April 1, 1939 – The first flight of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero. The Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 provided a deadly wakeup call to the United States, as Japanese plans for the expansion of their empire came home to the American people. But that rude awakening also extended to the US Army Air Forces, who would come face to face with the remarkable A6M Zero for the first time, an aircraft that was clearly the best fighter in the Pacific at the time. In early 1937, the Imperial Japanese Navy issued specification 12-shi to find a new fighter to replace the Mitsubishi A5M (allied reporting name Claude), which had the distinction of being the world’s first ship-based monoplane fighter. The requirements called for in 12-shi were rigorous, including a top speed of 370 mph, a high rate of climb, heavy armament (two 20mm cannons, two .303 caliber machine guns, two 130-pound bombs), and enough range to cover the vast distances of the Pacific Ocean. Lead Mitsubishi designer Jiro Horikoshi realized that the only way to design a fighter to these specifications was to make it as light as possible. So the new fighter, eventually called the Type 0 Carrier Fighter, would be constructed of a new, top-secret aluminum alloy, have no armor to protect the pilot or engine, and no self-sealing fuel tanks. This made for a fighter that possessed excellent aerobatic and dogfighting characteristics, but also one that caught fire easily and could not withstand the pounding of heavier American fighters. The Zero (also known to the Japanese as Rei shiki Kanjō sentōki, or Rei-sen for short) entered service in 1940 against obsolete Chinese biplane fighters, and quickly gained a reputation as an unbeatable dogfighter. It even provided a serious challenge to the Supermarine Spitfire which, while faster, was no match for the Zero in a turn. The Zero also far outclassed all American fighters of the early part of the war. However, American pilots soon developed new techniques for combating the Zero. Entering into a dogfight with one was practically suicidal, but high speed passes from above, or implementation of the Thatch Weave, helped the Allies to fight on a more even footing. Fortunately for the Allies, the mystery of the Zero was unlocked when an almost intact A6M was recovered from the Aleutian island of Akutan in 1942 after its pilot was killed in a crash landing. The fighter was shipped back to the US, repaired, and its flight characteristics were thoroughly analyzed. Now the Allies could exploit the Zero’s weaknesses, such as the propensity for its ailerons to freeze up at speeds above 200 knots, and a carburetor that caused the engine to quit in certain negative G maneuvers. Throughout its life, the Zero was consistently updated, most significantly with more powerful engines, a supercharger, shortened wings that improved roll rates, redesigned ailerons and trim tabs. A new exhaust system also provided a modicum of thrust. Ultimately, nearly 11,000 Zeroes of all variants are produced. However, Allied designs quickly improved, and by the late stages of the war, American fighters such as the Grumman F6F Hellcat and Vought F4U Corsair were every bit the match for the Zero. The war had also taken a heavy toll on experienced Japanese pilots who could never be replaced. By the end of the war, the Zero was relegated to Kamikaze attacks against Allied shipping in the Pacific, a seemingly ignominious end for such a remarkable aircraft. (Photo by Marc Grossman via Wikimedia Commons).


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April 1, 1935 – The first flight of the North American T-6 Texan. It’s pretty rare to hit a home run your first time at bat, but that’s exactly what North American did with the T-6 Texan. Back in 1935, North American debuted the model NA-16, the first trainer aircraft they had ever designed. Throughout the production run of nearly 2,000 NA-16s, North American experimented with a host of modifications, with some aircraft having fixed landing gear, and others an open cockpit. North American also experimented with various rudder shapes before settling on a recognizable triangular shape that prevented a loss of control during maneuvers with a high angle of attack. In 1937, North American submitted the aircraft in response to a US Army Air Corps request for a “Basic Combat” aircraft. The USAAC initially ordered 180 of the BC-1 variant, which had retractable landing gear and provisions for up to three .30 caliber machine guns. Early models were powered by a single Wright R-975 Whirlwind radial engine, which gave the BC-1 a maximum speed of 170 mph. North American also produced 400 aircraft for export to the RAF where it was known as the Harvard I, and a handful for the US Navy, where it was known as the SNJ-1. But it was the BC-2 variant that the Texan, now called AT-6 to signify its role as an advanced trainer, that received its iconic shape and name, with squared wingtips and triangular rudder. The addition of a more powerful Pratt & Whitney R-1340 Wasp radial increased the Texan’s top speed to just over 200 mph, and the USAAC ordered more than 1,500 of that model, designated AT-6A. This aircraft was used for flight training, and the armed AT-6B was used for gunnery practice. The Texan proved to be an extremely reliable and sturdy aircraft, and was responsible for training the vast majority of pilots who flew during WWII, and provide student pilots with a more powerful and maneuverable aircraft as they transitioned from basic trainers to frontline aircraft. The Texan had excellent flight characteristics, and could perform all the necessary aerobatic maneuvers that combat pilots needed to learn, including dogfighting, dive bombing and ground attack. In fact, armed Texans were used in combat in low-intensity conflicts following WWII. By the time production ended, 15,495 Texans had been built, and they were in service in 34 countries around the world. Today, the Texan remains popular on the air show circuit, forming the basis for historical squadrons and aerobatic teams. Others have been modified to mimic Japanese Zero fighters for historic reenactments and roles in movies. And the Reno Air Races in Reno, Nevada still maintains a unique racing class for Texan and Harvard aircraft. (US Air Force photo)


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March 30, 2006 – Marcos Pontes becomes the first Brazilian astronaut in space. Pontes was both the first Brazilian and the first Portugese-speaking astronaut when he traveled to the International Space Station (ISS) on board the Russian Soyuz TMA-8. Trained by NASA and originally slated to go to space on board the Space Shuttle, Pontes transferred to the Russian space program due to delays with the Shuttle program. Pontes spent seven days aboard the ISS conducting experiments before returning to Earth with the departing crew of Expedition 12 on board Soyuz TMA-7. His flight coincided with celebrations around the 100th anniversary of the first flight by Brazilian aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont in 1906. (Photo via Alchetron)


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March 30, 1982 – Space Shuttle Columbia lands at White Sands, New Mexico. Following the third mission of the Space Shuttle Program (STS-3), the Shuttle Columbia landed on Northrop Strip at White Sands (now called White Sands Space Harbor) after an 8-day mission to test Shuttle endurance and perform scientific experiments. Columbia was originally slated to land at Edwards Air Force Base in California, but heavy rains had flooded the landing site, necessitating the switch to White Sands. The landing site at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida was also available, but Shuttle pilots opted for White Sands since they had trained there and were more familiar with the location. It was the only time in the Shuttle Program that a Shuttle landed at a site other than Edwards or Kennedy Space Center. (NASA photo)


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March 30, 1934 – The first flight of the Sikorsky S-42. While Igor Sikorsky is perhaps best known for designing helicopters, he got his start in aviation by building large fixed-wing aircraft, particularly flying boats. The S-42 was developed to meet a requirement by Pan Am for a long-range flying boat, and included many innovative features such as wing flaps and variable-pitch propellers. The S-42 was powered by four Pratt & Whitney R-1690 Hornet radial engines and, during testing, the S-42 set numerous payload records. The S-42 carried up to 37 passengers or 14 sleeper berths, and a total of 10 were produced. (US Navy photo)


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March 31, 1995 – The first flight of the Grob Strato 2C, an experimental high-altitude research aircraft built by Germany. The Strato 2C was powered by two turbocharged piston engines and had a service ceiling of almost 79,000 feet. With a wingspan of just over 185 feet, it was designed to remain aloft for up to 48 hours. In 1995, the Strato 2C set a world record for altitude by a piston-powered aircraft of 60,897 feet, but cost overruns eventually led to the cancellation of the project in 1996. (Photo via 1000aircraftphotos.com)


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March 31, 1939 – The first flight of the Miles Master, a two-seat trainer adopted by the Royal Air Force and Fleet Air Arm as an advanced trainer. The Master was developed from the earlier Miles M.9 Kestrel, and was adopted when the de Havilland Don turned out to be unacceptable. The Master was fast enough to give students an idea of what to expect in more powerful fighters like the Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire, and also powerful enough to work as a glider tug. Some were even pressed into service as a fighter during the Battle of Britain. A total of 3,250 Masters were produced. (UK government photo)


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April 1, 2001 – The Hainan Island incident. While operating approximately 70 miles from the Chinese island of Hainan, a US Navy Lockheed EP-3E ARIES II reconnaissance aircraft was intercepted by two Shenyang J-8 fighters. One of the fighters collided with the American plane, resulting in the death of the Chinese pilot. After regaining control of the heavily damaged aircraft, pilot Lt. Shane Osborne ordered the destruction of sensitive data and surveillance equipment before making an emergency landing on Hainan Island. The American crew (21 men and 3 women) was held and interrogated for 10 days before being released, and the EP-3E was dismantled and flown off the island on a chartered Russian Antonov An-124. For his actions in saving the ARIES and its crew, Lt. Osborne was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for “heroism and extraordinary achievement” in flight. (Lockheed photo)


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