Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from March 30 through April 2.


One of only.a handful of airworthy original A6M Zeroes, this example was photographed in 2004 (Marc Grossman)

April 1, 1939 – The first flight of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero. The Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 served as 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 and US Navy, both of whom came face to face with the remarkable Mitsubishi A6M Zero for the first time. Still fielding earlier and soon-to-be obsolescent aircraft, America was faced with an fighter that was clearly the best fighter in the Pacific at the time.

A6M Zeroes preparing to take of from the deck of the carrier ShĹŤkaku to attack Pearl Harbor (National Archives)

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In early 1937, the Imperial Japanese Navy issued specification 12-shi to develop a new fighter to replace the Mitsubishi A5M, a fighter known to the Allies as Claude, which held the distinction of being the world’s first ship-based monoplane fighter. The requirements of 12-shi were rigorous, and included 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, in order to save weight, the Type 0 Carrier Fighter as it was called was constructed of a new, top-secret aluminum alloy, had 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 from heavier American fighters. Though it would be some time before the Allies fielded a fighter that could tangle with the A6M.

The A6M3 Zero of Hiroyoshi Nishizawa, one of Japan’s top aces of WWII (Author unknown)

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The Zero (also known to the Japanese as Rei shiki KanjĹŤ sentĹŤki, or Rei-sen for short) entered service in 1940 during the Second Sino-Japanese War where it flew against obsolete Chinese biplane fighters and quickly gained a reputation as an unbeatable dogfighter. As the Japanese expanded into areas of the British and Dutch empire, the Zero came up against some of the best Allied fighters of the time, and 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. Flying a Brewster F2A Buffalo or Grumman F4F Wildcat into a one-on-one dogfight with the Zero was practically suicidal, but high speed passes from above, and the development of tactics such as the Thatch Weave, helped the Allies fight on a more even footing.

The “Akutan Zero,” repaired and painted with American markings for testing. This captured Zero was later destroyed in a ramp accident. (NASA)

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Though the Zero had earned an aura of invincibility early in the war, its mysteries were finally 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. Testing showed where the Zero’s weaknesses lay, 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. These discoveries led to specific tactics that helped the Allies defeat the Zero in combat.

An A6M Zero crashes into the sea after an unsuccessful attempt to strike the USS Essex (CV-9) during the Battle of Okinawa in May 1945 (US Navy)

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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 Zeros of all variants are produced. However, the Zero’s dominance was short lived, as Allied designs quickly improved. By the second half of the war, American fighters such as the Grumman F6F Hellcat and Vought F4U Corsair were every bit the match for the Zero, and Japan suffered a shortage of experienced pilots that could not be replaced. By the end of the WWII, the Zero was relegated to Kamikaze attacks against Allied shipping in the Pacific, an ignominious end for such a remarkable aircraft. 

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A pair of USAAF North American AT-6C-NT Texan trainers fly in formation near Luke Field, Arizona in 1943. (US Air Force)

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April 1, 1935 – The first flight of the North American T-6 Texan. In baseball, it’s rare to hit a home run your first time at bat. But that’s exactly what happened to North American Aviation with the T-6 Texan, a trainer that would become ubiquitous in the skies over the United States and abroad, and become one of the most widely-produced trainers in history. In 1935, North American debuted the model NA-16, the first trainer aircraft they had ever designed. Two years later, they 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 experimented with a host of modifications including redesigned wings, different engines, fixed and retractable landing gear, open and enclosed cockpits. They also experimented with various rudder shapes before settling on a recognizable triangular shape that helped prevent a loss of control during maneuvers with a high angle of attack.

North American NA-16. This aircraft served as the basis for the later T-6 Texan (San Diego Air and Space Museum)

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But it was with the BC-2 variant of the Texan, now called AT-6 to signify its role as an advanced trainer, that the aircraft finally 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. 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. The Texan became the primary trainer for the USAAF, where it proved to be an extremely reliable and sturdy aircraft. It was responsible for training the vast majority of pilots who flew during WWII, providing student pilots with a more powerful and maneuverable aircraft as they transitioned from basic trainers to frontline fighter aircraft.

A restored US Navy SNJ (Tim Shaffer)

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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. The armed AT-6B variant was used for gunnery practice, and armed Texans saw actual combat in low-intensity conflicts following WWII. During the Korean War and Vietnam War, Texans were used for forward air control and went by the name T-6 Mosquito. By the time production ended, 15,495 Texans had been built, and they were in service in 34 countries around the world. The Texan remains a workhorse today, where it is popular on the air show circuit and forms the basis for numerous 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.


Short Takeoff


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March 30, 2006 – Marcos Pontes becomes the first Brazilian astronaut to travel to space. Pontes was both the first Brazilian and the first Portugese-speaking astronaut when he flew 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. He spent seven days aboard the ISS conducting experiments before returning to Earth with the departing crew of Expedition 12 on board Soyuz TMA-7. Pontes’ flight coincided with celebrations around the 100th anniversary of the first flight by Brazilian aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont in 1906. 


(NASA)

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March 30, 1982 – Space Shuttle Columbia lands at White Sands, New Mexico. Following STS-3, the third mission of the Space Shuttle Program, Columbia landed on Northrop Strip at White Sands (now called White Sands Space Harbor) after an eight-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 and forced the switch to White Sands. The landing site at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida was also available, but the 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 KSC. 


(US Navy)

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March 30, 1934 – The first flight of the Sikorsky S-42. While Igor Sikorsky is perhaps best known for his pioneering work with 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 set numerous payload records during testing. In service, the S-42 accommodated up to 37 passengers or 14 sleeper berths, and a total of 10 were produced.


(1000aircraftphotos.com)

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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 and, 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. 


Note: Not accident aircraft (JetPix)

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March 31, 1986 – The crash of Mexicana Flight 940. Mexicana 940 was a scheduled flight from from Mexico City to Los Angeles via Puerto Vallarta when an onboard explosion and fire caused the plane to crash in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range while the crew attempted a return to Mexico City. Speculation at first focused on terrorism, but the investigation found that ground crews had inflated a tire with compressed air rather than nitrogen, which caused the tire to explode at altitude. The explosion ruptured a fuel line led to a fire which brought down the airliner. The crash killed all 167 passengers and crew, and is the deadliest air disaster on Mexican soil and the worst crash involving a Boeing 727.


(US Air Force)

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March 31, 1945 – Luftwaffe pilot Hans Fey deserts the Luftwaffe and delivers a Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter to the Allies. Fey was a test pilot and instructor who was tasked with flying one of 22 new Me 262s from Schwabish-Hall to Neuberg an der Donau for safe keeping late in the war. Instead, Fey turned his fighter towards Frankfurt, where he landed and delivered the fighter to the Americans. The aircraft was then transported to the United States, where flight tests were carried out at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio. However, during a test flight on August 20, 1946, an engine failure lead to the loss of the aircraft, though the American test pilot parachuted to safety. Tests of the Me 262 provided invaluable data on the development of future Allied jet fighters.


(UK Government)

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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. 


(San Diego Air and Space Museum; inset—US Library of Congress)

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March 31, 1931 – The crash of TWA Flight 599, scheduled Fokker F.10 trimotor (NC999E) service from Kansas City, Missouri to Los Angeles, California. During the flight, the wooden laminate wing reportedly failed and the plane crashed near Bazaar, Kansas, killing all eight passengers and crew including famed University of Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne. The death of such a popular sporting figure almost brought about the demise of TWA, but it also spurred significant changes in air travel in the US. All Fokker trimotors were grounded for inspection, and the outcry for information about the investigation caused the Department of Commerce to halt its practice of keeping crash investigations secret. The crash also led to a call for all crashes to be publicized, which in turn led to higher safety standards in the airline industry.


(Lockheed)

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April 1, 2001 – Chinese fighters force down a US Navy reconnaissance aircraft in what became known as the Hainan Island incident. While operating approximately 70 miles from the Chinese island province 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 of 21 men and 3 women was held and interrogated for 10 days before being released, and the Aries was dismantled and flown off the island on a chartered Russian Antonov An-124. For his actions in saving the aircraft and its crew, Lt. Osborne was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for “heroism and extraordinary achievement” in flight.


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April 1, 1918 – The Royal Air Force is founded. Just eleven years after the Wright Brothers first flight, the airplane became a weapon of war in World War I and England was at the forefront of military aviation. As the war raged in 1917, British general and future Prime Minister of South Africa Jan Smuts prepared a report which advocated an Air Force independent from both the army and navy. Following the war, the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) were combined to create the Royal Air Force, the oldest independent air service in the world. The RAF was also the largest air force at the end of WWI, and went on to play a pivotal role WWII and all future conflicts in which England has taken part. Today, the RAF approximately 34,000 active duty personnel and more than 800 operational aircraft.


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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