Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from March 9 through March 12.
March 9-10, 1945 – The US Army Air Forces carries out Operation Meetinghouse, the first fire bombing raids on Japan. In the closing months of WWII, the island hopping campaign had brought the United States and its allies within striking range of the Japanese home island. Flying from hastily built or captured airfields, American bombers steadily increased the number and magnitude of strategic bombing raids against Japanese manufacturing assets in an effort to destroy the production of war materiel and to demoralize the civilian population. However, unlike European countries, where manufacturing was generally centered in large factories and industrial areas, Japan’s war production was mostly carried out in small factories scattered around the country, and in homes as a cottage industry, where individual Japanese citizens manufactured munitions on a small scale. This dispersal of manufacturing assets rendered high altitude “precision” daylight bombing raids largely ineffective.
In 1944, US Army Air Forces General Curtis LeMay, a veteran of Eighth Air Force strategic bombing attacks against Germany, was transferred to the China Burma India theater and eventually took charge of all strategic bombing missions against Japan. A staunch advocate of strategic bombing, LeMay saw that American efforts were unsuccessful because Japanese cities were often covered in clouds, making accurate targeting more difficult if not impossible. Many of the bombs dropped from high altitude were blown off course by the jet stream, and deadly air defenses ruled out large scale low-level daylight raids. To increase the effectiveness of the bombing, LeMay advocated a switch to nighttime incendiary raids. Flown from as low as 5,000-8,000 feet, these fire missions did not require great accuracy, since fires started in the cities would do more damage than traditional high explosive bombs.
For the firebombing missions, Boeing B-29 Superfortresses were armed with M-69 incendiary bombs. A single M-69 munition weighed only six pounds, but they were dropped inside canisters that held 38 munitions each. Since air defenses were sparse by 1945, and antiaircraft artillery was less effective, all defensive armament was removed from the bombers to reduce weight and to increase the bomb load. Normally, each B-29 carried 37 canisters, totaling 1,400 individual incendiary munitions per aircraft. After they were dropped, the containers opened automatically and dispersed the smaller munitions, which ignited on contact with the ground and spread a jellied gasoline compound that was highly flammable. The Japanese capital city of 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 fires destroyed 16 square miles of buildings, or 7% of the city’s urban area. The fires burned so fiercely that many people died from suffocation as the raging firestorm 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 place the toll as high as 100,000 killed. The USAAF lost 14 aircraft, below 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 caused the destruction of 180 square miles in 67 cities, and killed more than 300,000 people, a number that far exceeds the combined death toll of both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings. At the time, the US had few moral qualms about destroying such large civilian population centers. Military planners earnestly believed that these raids would shorten the war and save American lives by preventing a costly invasion of the Japanese home island. Though it was hoped that the atomic bombings of early August 1945 would finally compel the Japanese to surrender, no word was forthcoming from the Japanese government. Despite the horrors of the atomic bombs, two more firebombing raids were carried out before Japanese Emperor Hirohito finally announced Japan’s surrender on August 15, 1945, ending the Second World War.
March 10, 1959 – The first flight of the Northrop T-38 Talon. Following the birth of the jet fighter during WWII, development progressed at a rapid pace. But with that development came a trend towards increased complexity, greater size, heavier weight, and, perhaps most importantly, higher cost. In 1952, Northrop began work on a lightweight delta-winged fighter called the Fang, but the planned General Electric J79 engine alone would have weighed almost 4,000 pounds, and the program never progressed beyond preliminary drawings and a mock up. But in 1953, Northrop engineers learned of a new engine under development by General Electric that was intended for use in long-range missiles. The very small yet powerful General Electric J85 weighed a mere 600 pounds, yet it produced about 3,000 pounds of thrust, giving it the highest thrust-to-weight ratio of any engine in its class.
The Northrop design team, led by Edgar Schmued (the man who designed the North American P-51 Mustang), saw an opportunity to buck the trend in fighter design by building a small, simple, yet extremely powerful fighter, with not one but two engines. Dubbed the N-156 by Northrop, the new fighter was initially developed for the US Navy, who planned to operate smaller fighters from the decks of escort carriers. But when the Navy decided to phase out the escort carrier, they also dropped the idea of a small fighter. Undaunted, Northrop continued with development of their new fighter, now called the N-156F, spending their own money to do so. (The N156F eventually resurfaced as the F-5 Freedom Fighter, and won the International Fighter Aircraft competition in 1970.)
By the mid-1950s, the Air Force began looking for a two-seat, supersonic trainer to replace its aging fleet of Lockheed T-33s. In an example of perfect timing, Northrop modified the N-156 to create the N-156T trainer. Thus, where most two-seat trainers are developed from existing operational fighters, the T-38 actually predates the F-5. Following the first flight of what was now called the YT-38 Talon, the Air Force quickly adopted the new trainer in 196. The Talon went on to become the primary jet trainer for the US Air Force, and some estimates put the number of military pilots trained in the T-38 at more than 50,000. During an 11-year production run from 1961-1972, a total of 1,146 Talons were built.
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. The T-38 was flown by the US Air Force Thunderbirds from 1974-1982 as a more fuel efficient and less expensive alternative to the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II during the OPEC oil embargo, and NASA operates a small fleet Talons for astronaut flight training and for use as a chase plane. The Talon has been in service for over 50 years, and the competition to built its replacement was won by the Boeing T-X in September 2018, with initial operational capability slated for 2024. Therefore, the Talon will be flying for a while longer. Only time will tell if the T-X will be able to match the capability and affordability and longevity of the venerable T-38.
March 12, 1959 – The first flight of the Sikorsky SH-3 Sea King. With its ability to sneak up virtually undetected on enemy ships, the submarine has been the scourge of naval warfare since WWI. In the days prior to radar and sophisticated tracking aircraft, it was not uncommon that the first sign of submarine attack came when lookouts spotted the telltale wake of a torpedo racing through the water. The airplane proved to be a vital tool in detecting and fighting against submarines, but their role was initially limited to observation, and they had no means to detect submarines with anything but the naked eye. By WWII, and in the years immediately after, radar and magnetic anomaly detectors were added to the anti-submarine arsenal, but the earliest sets were too large to fit in a single aircraft. It wasn’t until 1954 that the US Navy had a single, dedicated anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft in the Grumman S-2 Tracker.
However, rapid advances in turboshaft technology meant that helicopters, operating from carriers or offshore platforms could now perform the ASW mission. In 1957, the US Navy awarded a contract to Sikorsky to develop a helicopter that would combine hunter and killer capabilities into a single aircraft and help protect the American fleets and homeland from as many as 200 nuclear-armed Soviet submarines. The all-weather SH-3 had a five-bladed main rotor that was turned by a pair of General Electric T58 turboshaft engines that greatly improved range and power over earlier piston engines. The turboshafts carried the Sea King to a maximum speed of 166 mph, and also afforded the added safety of being able to fly on a single engine. Since the Sea King would be operating in the open ocean, it also featured 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.
The Sea King was introduced in 1961, the same year that the first Soviet nuclear-powers submarine (K-19) was commissioned, and carried out its ASW mission using sonobuoys and a magnetic anomaly detector to find submerged submarines. A data link enable the Sea King to rapidly share information with surface ships in the fleet. Once a submarine was located, the Sea King could attack it with anti-submarine torpedoes or even the B-57 nuclear bomb fitted with a hydrostatic fuse which allowed it to function as a nuclear depth charge. Though the Sea King was primarily designed to find and destroy subs, it soon became a jack of all trades for the Navy, delivering cargo and transporting personnel between ships or on land. During the Vietnam War, armored Sea Kings armed with machine guns were used to rescue downed pilots, and the Sea King served as the primary recovery aircraft for the astronauts and their space capsules during the manned space programs.
By 1990, the Navy replaced the Sea King in the ASW role with the Sikorsky SH-60F Seahawk, and the remaining Sea Kings were configured for logistical support and search and rescue. The SH-3 was ceremonially retired by the Navy in 2006, with official retirement taking place in 2009. Though the SH-3 no longer serves the fleet, the Marine Corps HMX-1 Squadron continues to operate Sea King as the VH-3, known as Marine One when the President of the United States is on board. Though it has served for nearly 60 years, the VH-3 will soldier on until its replacement, the Sikorsky VH-92, enters service. 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 Westland in the United Kingdom. The H-3 was also built in a civilian version called the S-61 which remains in production.
March 12, 1930 – The death of William George “Billy” Barker. During WWI, fighter pilots became almost mythical figures whose death-defying feats over the battlefield made them heroes who epitomized both the danger and thrill of aerial combat. While the exploits of many British, American, French and German airmen in WWI are well known, William “Billy” Barker became the most decorated serviceman in the history of Canada, as well as in the history of the British Empire and Commonwealth of Nations, though it’s very likely that only war historians and Canadians know his name.
Barker was born on November 3, 1894 in Dauphin, Manitoba, and though he wasn’t a particularly skilled pilot (he made his first solo flight after only 55 minutes of dual instruction), and suffered several incidents during his piloting career, he made up for his average flying skills with aggressiveness, audacity, and highly accurate marksmanship. Barker learned to shoot at a young age, and became an excellent shot while riding on horseback. He further honed his shooting skills as an infantry machine gunner, then joined the Air Service in 1916, flying first as an armed observer. After qualifying as a pilot, he flew 404 operational hours between September 1917 and September 1918 and shot down 46 aircraft and balloons. His personal Sopwith Camel became the most successful individual fighter plane in the history of the Royal Flying Corps.
For his service as a pilot, Barker was decorated numerous times, and his list of medals includes the Distinguished Service Order and Bar, the Military Cross and two Bars, two Italian Silver Medals of Military Valor, and the French Croix de Guerre. But it was his valor “in the face of the enemy” on Sunday, October 27, 1918, that earned him the Victoria Cross, the highest decoration attainable in the United Kingdom (roughly equivalent to the American Congressional Medal of Honor). Returning to base and flying his Sopwith Snipe fighter, Barker crossed enemy lines near the Forêt de Mormal at 21,000 feet. After downing one enemy plane, he was attacked by a formation of Fokker D.VIIs. By his own admission, he was being careless and failed to see his attackers. As the battle spiraled toward the ground, Barker found himself fighting 15 or more enemy planes. He was wounded three times in the legs, and his left elbow was shattered, but he still managed to control his fighter and dispatch three more enemy planes. Wounded and bleeding seriously, Barker crash landed behind Allied lines and was taken to a field dressing station by members of an RAF Kite Balloon Section (the fuselage of his Snipe was recovered and now resides at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa).
Barker remained in hospital for three months, during which time the First World War came to an end. After the war, Barker entered into an airplane business venture with fellow fighter ace and Victoria Cross recipient Billy Bishop. In 1922, he returned to service as a wing commander with the fledgling Royal Canadian Air Force and served until 1926. Following his retirement from the RCAF, Barker became the first president of the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey club. Throughout his relatively brief postwar career, Barker struggled with both his war wounds and alcoholism. He died in 1930 after losing control of his Fairchild KR-21 biplane during a demonstration flight at Rockcliffe Air Station in Ottawa, and his state funeral was attended by 50,000 mourners. Barker was just 35 years old.
March 9, 2011 – Space Shuttle Discovery returns to Earth, marking the final mission of the first Space Shuttle to be retired by NASA. Discovery launched into space from the Kennedy Space Center for the last time on February 24, 2011, with a crew of six veteran astronauts to deliver the Permanent Multipurpose Module Leonardo, plus the humanoid robot Robonaut, to the International Space Station (ISS). The flight was the last of 39 missions spanning 27 years of service, more spaceflights than any other spacecraft to date. Discovery was the third orbiter to enter service after Columbia and Challenger, and made its maiden flight on August 20, 1984. All told, Discovery amassed more than a year in space. The retired orbiter is now on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington, DC.
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. The Super Mirage was begun as a private venture by Dassault and developed to compete with the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle for lucrative export contracts. When Saudi Arabia chose to purchase the F-15, the Super Mirage project was canceled, but Dassault used much of the data gleaned 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.
March 9, 1949 – The first flight of the Avro Shackleton. The Shackleton was a long-range four-engine maritime patrol aircraft that traces its lineage back to the Avro Lincoln bomber, which itself was a development of the Avro Lancaster bomber of WWII. Following its introduction in 1951, the Shackleton served the Royal Air Force and South African Air Force and saw 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 it be needed to respond to an emergency. A total of 185 Shackletons were built between 1951-1958, and it was retired from service in 1991.
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 to 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. The type saw service with the French during the Gulf War and in Afghanistan, and it remains in service today, though it is currently being phased out in favor of the Dassault Rafale.
US March 10, 1966 – US Air Force Maj. Bernard “Bernie” Fisher earns the Congressional Medal of Honor. Fisher was leading a two-ship element of Douglas A-1 Skyradiers, 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 South Vietnamese militia (CIDG) and US Special Forces that was under enemy attack at the time. With the closest rescue helicopter at least 3o minutes away, Fisher landed his Skyraider under heavy enemy fire and picked 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 decoration in the Vietnam War.
March 10, 1956 – Lt. Cdr. Peter Twiss, flying a Fairey Delta 2, becomes the first pilot to exceed 1,000 miles per hour. The Fairey Delta 2 was an experimental aircraft built to explore flight in the transonic and supersonic regimes. The delta-wing aircraft with a droop nose, an arrangement that would later be used on the supersonic Concorde airliner, took its maiden flight on October 6, 1945, and the two test aircraft made numerous supersonic test flights, including supersonic flights without afterburner, or reheat. Lt. Cdr. Twiss shattered the speed record held at the time by a North American F-100 Super Sabre when he at 1,132 mph, or Mach 1.73. The Delta 2 held the record for more than a year before it was broken by a McDonnell Douglas F-101 Voodoo. The two Delta 2 aircraft continued their testing duties, and and were retired in 1966 (WG777) and 1973 (WG774).
March 10, 1936 – The first flight of the Fairey Battle. The Battle was originally conceived as a replacement for older biplane bombers but, even 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 severely hampered by its size and weight. While the Battle was a significant improvement over the biplanes it replaced, it was completely obsolete by the outbreak of WWII. In addition to its lack of speed and average handling, the Battle also lacked an armored cockpit and self-sealing fuel tanks, making it vulnerable to antiaircraft fire and Luftwaffe 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.
March 10, 1925 – The first flight of the Supermarine Southampton, one of the most successful flying boats of the period between the World Wars. The Southampton was developed from the earlier Supermarine Swan and was designed by R.J. Mitchell, who would later become famous for his design of the Supermarine Spitfire. Based on the success of the Swan, the Southampton was ordered into production straight from the drawing board, and a total of 83 were produced from 1924-1934. Following its delivery to the RAF in 1925, the Southampton took on its principal role of maritime reconnaissance. The Mark I was fitted with a pair of Napier Lion engines which gave it a top speed of 95 mph and a range of 544 miles, or a little more than six hours in the air, though later variants received a variety of powerplants.
March 11, 1993 – The first flight of the Airbus A321. When Airbus first conceived the A320 airliner, they envisioned an entire line of aircraft, each one larger or smaller and tailored to the needs of individual airlines. The A321 was the first derivative of the A320 and features a fuselage stretched almost 22 feet by the addition of one section just forward of the wing and a second section 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 A321neo (new engine option), entered service in 2017.
March 12, 2004 – The first flight of the Embraer ERJ-190, a member of the Embraer E-Jet family of medium-range airliners produced by the Brazilian aerospace conglomerate Embraer. The E190 was the first stretched variant of the original E170, and features a larger wing and stabilizer plus new General Electric CF34 turbofan engines. With accommodation for 96-114 passengers depending on configuration, the E190, and slightly larger E195, are positioned to compete with the Bombardier CRJ-1000 and CS100, the Boeing 717 and 737, and the Airbus A318.
March 12, 1998 – The first free flight of the NASA X-38, a crew return vehicle (CRV) that was designed to evacuate up to seven astronauts from the International Space Station (ISS) in the case of serious illness, fire, collision with space debris, or the grounding of the Space Shuttle. Built by Scaled Composites, the X-38 was based on lifting body technology developed in the 1960s and was of a similar shape to the Martin Marietta X-24A. The X-38 was to be semi-permanently docked to the ISS until needed, then re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and land using a parafoil. Two atmospheric prototypes were built and used for drop tests, along with one orbital prototype that was 90% complete, before severe budget cuts caused the cancellation of the program in 2002.
March 12, 1955 – The first flight of the Aérospatiale Alouette II, a light observation, liaison, reconnaissance and air-sea rescue helicopter originally manufactured by Sud Aviation and the first helicopter to make use of a gas turbine engine rather than a heavier piston engine. In addition to its civilian duties, the Alouette II was converted to a gunship carrying anti-tank missiles or torpedoes. The Alouette II demonstrated its high altitude capabilities in 1956 when it performed the first mountain rescue of a stricken climber from more than 13,000 feet of elevation. The Alouette II was widely exported and, by the end of production in 1975, over 1,300 aircraft had been built.
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.