Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting you caught up on milestones, important historical events and personalities in aviation from March 9 through March 11.


March 9-10, 1945 – The US Army Air Forces carry out Operation Meetinghouse, the first fire bombing raids on Japan. In the closing months of WWII, as the island hopping campaign brought the Allies closer and closer to the Japanese home island, American forces steadily increased the number and size of bombing raids against Japan’s manufacturing assets. Unlike the US and European countries, where manufacturing was generally centered in large factories, Japan’s war materiel was mostly produced in small factories and in homes as a cottage industry, rendering high altitude “precision” bombing largely ineffective. So General Curtis LeMay, a veteran of Eighth Air Force bombing attacks against Germany and now in charge of all strategic air operations against the Japanese home islands, turned to low-level firebombing. Precision bombing was normally carried out from high altitude and during the day. For the Tokyo raids, the bombers flew at altitudes of 5000-8000 feet, and at night. Accuracy was not required, and to increase the carrying capacity of the bombers, all defensive armament was removed since, by 1945, Japanese aerial defenses against attack were sparse, and night attacks made antiaircraft artillery less effective. The Boeing B-29 Superfortresses were armed with M-69 incendiary bombs. A single M-69 munition weighed only 6 pounds, but it was dropped inside canisters that held 38 each. Normally, each B-29 carried 37 canisters, totaling 1,400 individual munitions per plane. After dropping, the container would open automatically, dispersing the smaller munitions which ignited on contact with the ground and spread a jellied gasoline compound that was highly flammable. Tokyo was chosen as the target for the first raid, codenamed Operation Meetinghouse. On March 9, 1945, 346 B-29s left Guam and headed for the Japanese capital. Arriving over the city at 2:00 am on March 10 (Guam time), 279 bombers dropped almost 1,700 tons of incendiaries on a city built almost entirely of wood. The resulting firestorm destroyed 16 square miles of buildings, or 7% of the city’s urban area. The fires burned so fiercely that many of those killed suffocated as the fires consumed all the oxygen. Following the raid, Tokyo police estimated that 83,793 people were killed, 41,000 injured and another 1 million left homeless. Postwar estimates are as high as 100,000 killed. The USAAF lost 14 aircraft, less than the 5% loss rate that was considered acceptable. The firebombing raids continued in the belief that the attacks would lead the Japanese government to capitulate. They did not. According to one estimate, the firebombing campaign resulted in the destruction of 180 square miles in 67 cities, and killed more than 300,000 people, a number that exceeds the death toll in both atomic bombings combined. At the time, the US had few moral qualms about destroying such large areas of the cities along with their civilian populations. Military planners believed that these raids would shorten the war and save American lives by preventing a costly invasion of the Japanese home island. It wasn’t until the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945 that the war finally ended. But there were still two more firebombing raids after Nagasaki. (US Air Force photo)


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March 10, 1959 – The first flight of the Northrop T-38 Talon. Following the birth of the jet fighter in WWII, development progressed at a rapid pace. But as fighters became more sophisticated and complex, they also became much bigger and heavier. And much more expensive. Northrop had been working on a large fighter, called the Fang, and had it been built, it would have weighed almost two tons. But in 1953, Northrop engineers learned of a new engine under development by General Electric, one that was very small yet very powerful and was originally designed to power long-range missiles. The little General Electric J85 produced 2,500 pounds of thrust, and the Northrop team, lead by Edgar Schmued (the man who designed the North American P-51 Mustang), saw an opportunity to buck the trend in fighter design and build a small, simple fighter rather than a heavy complex one. Dubbed the N-156, the new fighter was initially developed for the US Navy, who planned to operate small fighters from the decks of escort carriers. But when they dropped that idea, Northrop continued with development of their new fighter, spending their own money to do so. By the mid-1950s, the Air Force had begun looking for a replacement for its aging fleet of Lockheed T-33 trainers. They wanted a two-seat, supersonic aircraft, and Northrop was right there with the N-156, which they had adapted from a fighter into a trainer. Following the first flight of what was now called the YT-38, the Air Force quickly adopted the new trainer and eventually purchased nearly 1,200 of them, and some estimates put the number of military pilots trained in the T-38 at more than 50,000. And, following the development of the T-38, Northrop still got the fighter it was looking for in the first place with the F-5 Freedom Fighter, building over 800 aircraft for US allies during the Cold War after winning the International Fighter Aircraft competition in 1970. The Talon continues to be the workhorse of the US Air Force Air Education and Training Command (AETC), preparing pilots for the McDonnell Douglas F-15C Eagle and F-15E Strike Eagle, the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon, Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, Rockwell B-1B Lancer, Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit, Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II, Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor and Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II. NASA also operates a fleet 32 Talons for astronaut flight training and as a chase plane. While proposals for a replacement have been fielded, the Air Force seems in no hurry to replace the T-38. Nothrop has produced a replacement wing that will keep the Talon in the air until at least 2020. It will be very difficult to replace such a winner, particularly one that is as capable or as inexpensive to operate. (US Air Force photo)


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March 12, 1959 – The first flight of the Sikorsky SH-3 Sea King. During the Cold War, the US was faced with the threat posed by more than 200 Soviet submarines that could attack the United States with nuclear missiles or threaten the American fleet. Following WWII, the Navy used hunter-killer teams of fixed wing aircraft, but in 1957 they awarded a contract to Sikorsky to develop an all-in-one helicopter that would combine hunter-killer functions into a single aircraft. The all-weather SH-3 would feature a watertight hull with inflatable sponsons that allowed it to land on the surface of the water, making it the world’s first amphibious helicopter. And in another first, the Sea King was powered by a pair of General Electric T58 turboshaft engines turning a 5-bladed main rotor. The turboshaft engines pushed the Sea King to a maximum speed of 166 mph, and also afforded the added safety of being able to operate on a single engine. When it was introduced in 1961, the Sea King served the US Navy primarily in the anti-submarine warfare (ASW) role, tracking enemy submarines with advanced radar and attacking with torpedoes or depth charges. However, it soon became apparent that the Sea King was a jack of all trades. In addition to its ASW duties, it served as a cargo and personnel helicopter and, during the Vietnam War, armored Sea Kings armed with machine guns were used to rescue downed pilots. During the manned space program, the Sea King was the primary recovery aircraft for the astronauts and the space capsules. And the US Marine HMX-1 Squadron employs the Sea King as the primary helicopter to transport the President of the United States, though the Marine Corps is in the process of developing a replacement for its aging fleet of Sea Kings. By 1990, the Navy had replaced the Sea King in the ASW role by the SH-60F Seahawk, with the remaining Sea Kings configured for logistical support and search and rescue. The Sea King was ceremonially retired by the Navy in 2006, though at the time the Navy did not plan to phase them out entirely until 2009. The Marine Corps and their fleet of SH-3s will continue to support the White House until a replacement for Marine One is found under the VXX program. Throughout its service life, the Sea King has been constantly upgraded, and it exists in a host of variants, including those built under license by Agusta in Italy, Mitsubishi in Japan, and by Westland in the United Kingdom. The H-3 was also built in a civilian version called the S-61 which remains in production. (US Navy photo)


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March 9, 2011 – The landing of Space Shuttle Discovery marks the final mission for the first Space Shuttle to be retired by NASA. The final mission of Discovery launched from Kennedy Space Center on February 24, 2011 with a crew of 6 veteran astronauts and carried the Permanent Multipurpose Module Leonardo, plus the humanoid robot Robonaut to the International Space Station (ISS). Discovery was the third orbiter to enter service after Columbia and Challenger, making its first launch on August 20, 1984. It was the first of 39 missions spanning 27 years of service, more spaceflights than any other spacecraft so far. All told, Discovery spent more than a year in space. (NASA photo)


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March 9, 1979 – The first flight of the Dassault Super Mirage 4000, a significantly larger and heavier development of the single-engine Mirage 2000. Unlike the 2000, the 4000 had two SNECMA M53-2 turbofan engines, as well as canards fitted above the air intakes. Begun as a private venture by Dassault, the 4000 was developed to compete with the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle for lucrative export contracts. When Saudi Arabia chose to purchase the F-15, the project was canceled. However, Dassault used much of the data from the 4000 program in the development of the Dassault Rafale. Only one Mirage 4000 was built, and it now resides at the Musée de l’Air et de l’Espace in Paris. (Photo by Steve Fitzgerald via Wikimedia Commons)


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March 9, 1949 – The first flight of the Avro Shackleton. The Shackleton was a long-range maritime patrol aircraft that traces its lineage back to the Avro Lincoln bomber, which itself was a development of the Avro Lancaster bomber from WWII. Following its introduction in 1951, the Shackleton served the Royal Air Force and South African Air Force, seeing action with the RAF during the Suez Crisis in 1956. In addition to its maritime surveillance role, the Shackleton also served as a search and rescue platform, with one aircraft crew remaining on alert at all times should the need arise. A total of 185 Shackletons were built between 1951-1958, and it was retired from service in 1991. (UK Government photo)


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March 10, 1978 – The first flight of the Dassault Mirage 2000. Based on the delta wing Mirage III, the Mirage 2000 was developed in the 1970s as a lightweight fighter that could compete with the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon for the export market. Since the Mirage 2000 was based on an existing successful aircraft, the prototype was ready for its first flight in just 27 months.. The Mirage 2000 entered service in November of 1982, and just over 600 examples were produced, with many sold to Dassault’s export customers. It saw service with the French during the Gulf War and in Afghanistan and remains in service today, though it will eventually be replaced by the Dassault Rafale. (US Air Force photo)


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March 10, 1966 – US Air Force Maj. Bernard Fisher lands his Skyraider under fire to rescue a downed pilot, earning the Congressional Medal of Honor. Fisher had led a two-ship team of Douglas A-1 Skyradiers as part of six aircraft supporting US troops in the A Shau Valley in Vietnam. One of the Skyraiders, piloted by Maj. D.W. “Jump” Myers was hit and forced to land on an airstrip belonging to CIDG Special Forces. With the closest rescue helicopter at least 3o minutes away, Fisher decided to land his Skyraider under fire and pick up the downed pilot. Dodging craters and debris on the runway, Fisher took off, his Skyraider riddled with holes from small arms fire. For his actions, Maj. Fisher was awarded the Medal of Honor, becoming the first member of the US Air Force to receive the award in the Vietnam War. (US Air Force photo)


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March 10, 1936 – The first flight of the Fairey Battle. The Battle was originally conceived as a replacement for older biplane bombers, and though it was powered by the same Rolls-Royce Merlin V-12 engine used in some of the most successful aircraft of WWII, it was hampered by its size and weight. While it was a significant improvement over the planes it replaced, it was completely obsolete by the outbreak of WWII. In addition to its lack of speed and average handling, it also lacked an armored cockpit and self-sealing fuel tanks, making it vulnerable to antiaircraft fire and enemy fighters. Nevertheless, Battles saw extensive, if somewhat futile, service in the early days of the war, but were withdrawn from frontline service by the end of 1941. (UK Government photo)


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March 11, 1993 – The first flight of the Airbus A321. When Airbus first conceived the A320 airliner, they actually envisioned an entire line of aircraft, each one slightly different and tailored to the needs of different airlines. The A321 was the first derivative of the A320, and features a fuselage stretched almost 22 feet by the addition of one plug just forward of the wing and a second plug at the rear, allowing for 35 more passengers in a typical 2-class configuration. The A321 also has a greater maximum takeoff weight (MTOW), though its range is slightly less than the A320. This deficiency was addressed in the A321-200, which has additional fuel capacity and more powerful engines. A further development, the A321neoLR is planned for 2019. (Photo by Abutcher15 via Wikimedia Commons)


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