Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from March 31 through April 3.
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, who came face to face with the remarkable Mitsubishi 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 develop a new fighter to replace the Mitsubishi A5M (Allied reporting name Claude), which held the distinction of being the world’s first ship-based monoplane fighter. The requirements in 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.
The Zero (also known to the Japanese as Rei shiki Kanjō sentōki, or Rei-sen for short) entered service in 1940 fighting against obsolete Chinese biplane fighters during the Second Sino-Japanese War and it 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 the Thatch Weave, helped the Allies fight on a more even footing.
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.
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.
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. In 1935, North American debuted the model NA-16, the first trainer aircraft they had ever designed and, 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.
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.
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 it 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. (US Air Force photo)
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.
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, and a ruptured fuel line led to the fire. The crash killed all 167 passengers and crew, making it the deadliest air disaster on Mexican soil and the worst disaster involving a Boeing 727.
March 31, 1945 – Luftwaffe pilot Hans Fay defects, delivering a Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter to the Allies. Fey was a test pilot and instructor who was tasked with flying 1 of 22 new Me 262s from Schwabish-Hall to Neuberg an der Donau for safe keeping. Instead, Fay 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, with the American test pilot parachuting to safety. Tests of the Me 262 provided invaluable data on the development of future Allied jet fighters.
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.
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 8 passengers and crew including famed University of Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne. The death of such a popular sporting figure almost led to 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 led 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.
April 1, 2001 – 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. (Lockheed photo)
April 3, 1982 – The first flight of the Airbus A310, a medium- to long-range wide-body airliner and the second airliner built by Airbus Industrie to enter production. The A310 was developed as a smaller derivative of the Airbus A300 (initially designated the A300B10) at a time when airlines were showing interest in smaller airliners for shorter routes with fewer passengers. Still, the A310 has a greater range than its larger predecessor, and has become popular on many transatlantic routes. The A310 has also been developed into a convertible freight version and an aerial tanker for the military. Produced between 1983-1998, a total of 255 have been built.
April 3, 1933 – The US Navy airship USS Akron (ZRS-4) crashes into the Atlantic Ocean. Commissioned in October of 1931, the Akron was the world’s first purpose-built flying aircraft carrier and one of the largest airships ever built. After encountering severe weather off the coast of New Jersey, the Akron crashed into the sea, killing 73 of her 76 crew members, including Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, a leading proponent for the military applications of airships. The disaster caused the largest loss of life in any airship crash, and signaled the beginning of the end of the use of airships by the Navy. (US Navy photo)
April 3, 1933 – The first flight over Mt. Everest. Twenty years before the first successful ascent of Mt. Everest, Flight Lieutenant D.F. McIntyre and Douglas Douglas-Hamilton (Lord Clydesdale), along with two observers, piloted a Westland PV-6 and a Westland Wallace over the summit of the tallest mountain in the world. The aircraft had been modified with a supercharged Bristol Pegasus engine, an enclosed rear cockpit, cockpit heating, and oxygen for the crew. The mission was called the Houston-Mount Everest Flight Expedition in honor of its patron, Lady Houston, and the aircraft cleared the top of the 29,029-foot summit with just 100 feet to spare. The observers provided the first aerial survey of Everest and the surrounding area, and the flight emphasized the need for the development of pressurized aircraft.
April 3, 1926 – The birth of Virgil Ivan “Gus” Grissom. Born in Mitchell, Indiana, Grissom was a test pilot, mechanical engineer, US Air Force combat pilot in Korea and one of the original seven Project Mercury astronauts. As part of the Mercury program, Grissom was the second American to fly in space after John Glenn, and the first US astronaut to go to space twice when he flew aboard Gemini 3. Grissom was chosen as the Command Pilot for Apollo 1, but he and astronauts Ed White and Roger Chaffee were killed on January 27, 1967 when a fire broke out in the Command Module during a ground test. All three astronauts were posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.
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