Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from May 2 through May 5.
May 4-8, 1942 – The Battle of the Coral Sea. Since the earliest days of sea warfare, naval battles have been relatively close-up affairs. In ancient times, Greek triremes rammed or grappled Persian ships and then boarded for hand-to-hand combat. By the first century, Greek fire was being sprayed by Byzantine warships, or hurled as flaming grenades, but ships still needed to be in close range for it to be effective. Cannons appeared by the 13th century, but hand-to-hand combat was still required to close a battle. By WWI, the guns were much bigger, and ships could duel from greater distances, though a target still had to be within sight to direct the most effective fire. But the arrival of the airplane had a profound affect on naval tactics. Far-ranging aircraft could attack enemy ships from beyond the horizon, or direct accurate fire from capital ships. By WWII, the aircraft carrier had supplanted the battleship as the focus of naval strategy. In the Battle of Taranto, Royal Navy Fairey Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers flew from HMS Illustrious to sink battleships of the Italian Navy, and the audacious Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor made it clear that a sea change had occurred in naval warfare. In those battles, the targets were mostly lying at anchor. But the Battle of the Coral Sea, fought in open waters, heralded the airplane’s ascendancy as the most powerful weapon in the world’s navies.
In the months following Pearl Harbor, the Japanese continued to make territorial gains in the Pacific. The Allies, unable to stop them, struggled even to slow down the Japanese advance. In order to strengthen defensive positions and to form a buffer zone to cut off Australia, the Japanese carried out Operation MO which called for the capture of Port Moresby in New Guinea and an invasion of the island of Tulagi in the southeastern Solomon Islands near Guadalcanal. The Japanese combined fleet included a carrier striking force based on the large fleet carriers Zuikaku and Shōkaku, and a covering group assembled around the light carrier Shōhō. The American and Australian opposition was centered on the carriers USS Yorktown (CV-5) and USS Lexington (CV-2). Arriving in the area on May 4, the Allies were too late to stop the invasion of Tulagi which had begun on the previous day. Still, Yorktown’s aircraft harassed Japanese forces on the island before the carrier turned south to join Lexington. For two days, the opposing fleets searched for each other unsuccessfully. At 11:00 am on May 7, dive bombers from Yorktown and Lexington located the Japanese covering group and the carrier Shōhō. Swooping in to the attack, American Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers and Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bombers struck Shōhō with thirteen 1,000 bombs and as many as five torpedoes, sinking Shōhō against the loss of five SBDs. LTC Robert Dixon, the commander of Lexington’s air wing, jubilantly radioed back to the fleet, “Scratch one flat top!” The next morning, both fleets located each other and launched attacks. The Japanese carrier Shōkaku was disabled, and the American carrier Lexington was severely damaged. Though still afloat, she was later abandoned and sunk by torpedoes from the destroyer USS Phelps (DD-360).
For the first time in history, a naval battle had been carried out between two opposing forces in which no two capital ships ever sighted one another, nor engaged each other directly. The airplane had become the dominant weapon in the world’s oceans. Though each side lost one aircraft carrier, the Japanese could claim a tactical victory based solely on the US Navy’s suffering greater losses of ships and men. With the sinking of Lexington, the US had lost one-quarter of their Pacific carrier fleet. Following the withdrawal of Yorktown from the Solomons, the Allies ceded the battlefield to the Japanese. However, from a strategic standpoint, the Battle of the Coral Sea was the first significant check on Japanese expansion in the South Pacific. The Allies prevented the capture of Port Moresby by sea, and kept open the vital supply lines to Australia. Of equal importance, the simple fact that the Allies were able to stand toe-to-toe against the seemingly unstoppable Japanese provided a major boost to morale. Just one month later, Japanese and American carriers faced off again in the pivotal Battle of Midway. In the second major battle fought entirely by aircraft, the US Navy sank all four Japanese heavy carriers while suffering the loss of Yorktown. This decisive victory shifted the balance of power over to the side of the Allies, and turned the tide of the Pacific War against the Japanese.
May 2, 1998 – The 100th and final Rockwell B-1B Lancer is delivered. The Rockwell B-1 was originally envisioned as a Mach 2, long-range nuclear bomber to replace the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress. The B-1A was canceled in 1977 by the Carter administration, but then resurrected during the Reagan administration as the B-1B, and its mission was changed to low-level bombing with conventional armament. Despite the recent emphasis on stealth technology, the B-1B has become a mainstay of the US Air Force, serving in all US conflicts since Operation Desert Fox in 1998. The “Bone” is scheduled to be retired by 2036. However it is likely that the B-52, the aircraft the Lancer was meant to replace, will still be in service.
May 2, 1952 – The world’s first regularly scheduled jet passenger flights begin. The age of passenger flight took off in the 1930s, the so-called Golden Age of aviation, but the 1950s marked the transition from piston-powered to jet-powered airliners. The de Havilland Comet, with its four de Havilland Ghost turbojets, took its maiden flight on July 27, 1949, and the first production airliner, registered G-ALYP, carried fare-paying passengers for the first time on a flight from London to Johannesburg. In their first year of service, Comets carried 30,000 passengers, but soon major aircraft manufacturers such as Boeing, Convair, and Douglas in the US, and later Airbus in Europe, joined the jet airliner business. Today nearly 37 million flights a year take place the world over, transporting more than three billion passengers.
May 3, 2007 – The death of American astronaut Walter Marty “Wally” Schirra. Born on March 12, 1923 in Hackensack, New Jersey, Schirra graduated from the US Naval Academy and became a Naval Aviator in 1948. He served in Korea, and later as a test pilot, before becoming a member of the Mercury Seven, America’s first group of astronauts. As a Mercury astronaut, Schirra flew the Mercury-Atlas 8 mission in 1962 which orbited the Earth six times. In 1965, Schirra joined astronaut Thomas Stafford in the flight of Gemini 6A and maneuvered his spacecraft to within one foot of Gemini 7, completing the first rendezvous in space between two manned spacecraft. In 1968, Schirra commanded Apollo 7, the first manned launch of the Apllo program. The Apollo flight made Schirra the first man to go to space three times, and the only astronaut to have flown in all three American manned space programs. Schirra retired from both the Navy and NASA following Apollo 7 and went on to become an expert commentator for CBS News for future launches of the Apollo program.
May 3, 1952 – The first aircraft lands at the North Pole. US Air Force pilots Lt. Col. William P. Benedict and Lt. Col. Joseph Fletcher beat the US Navy to the North Pole while flying a Douglas C-47 Skytrain equipped with landing skis. The landing was the team’s second attempt during what was dubbed Operation Oil Drum, and Fletcher became the first person to undisputedly stand at the exact geographic North Pole. On the flight along with Flecther and Benedict was scientist Dr. Albert Crary, who would travel to the South Pole in 1961 and become the first person to stand at both poles.
May 3, 1945 – British aircraft sink German ships carrying concentration camp prisoners. Three days after the death of Adolf Hitler and just one day before Germany’s unconditional surrender ending WWII in Europe, the SS Cap Arcona and SS Thielbek left Baltic Sea ports loaded with nearly 8,000 prisoners who had been transferred from German prison camps. Neither of the ships was marked as a hospital ship, though a third ship, SS Deutschland, had one white funnel with a red cross on it from its days as a hospital ship. British naval commanders believed that the ships carried members of the Nazi Schutzstaffel (SS) fleeing to Norway and, despite warnings from the International Red Cross about the true nature of the ships’ cargo, attacked all three ships. Thielbek sank in roughly 20 minutes, while Cap Arcona burned before sinking, and British warplanes machine-gunned the survivors floating in the water. In all, 7,800 former prisoners died in the attack, marking one of the heaviest losses of life in naval history.
May 4, 1982 – Argentine fighters sink the Royal Navy guided missile destroyer HMS Sheffield. During the Falklands War, as England fought to regain control of the Falkand Islands off the Argentine coast, Sheffield (D80) was attacked by two Dassault Super Étendard fighters armed with French-made Exocet anti-ship missiles. One of the missiles struck Sheffield amidships just above the waterline, killing 20 crew members, injuring 20 others, and starting fires that burned unchecked for days after the ship was abandoned. Sheffield eventually sank on May 10, one of six British ships lost in the conflict. Despite the losses of ships and men, England prevailed in the nine-week war and regained control of the disputed islands.
May 4, 1963 – The first flight of the Dassault Falcon 20. In 1961, Marcel Dassault approved the production of an 8- or 10-seat executive jet. The new plane was called the Dassault-Breguet Mystère 20, and the prototype, registered F-WLKB, made its first flight at Bordeaux-Merignac. The Falcon 20 was the first of what is now an extremely successful line of business jets built by Dassault that now includes aircraft capable of intercontinental flight. In 1973, Federal Express chose a Falcon 20 as the aircraft to start its package delivery service and, in 2012, a Falcon 20 became the first civilian jet to fly using biofuel.
May 4, 1955 – The death of Louis Charles Bréguet. Born on January 2, 1880, Bréguet was a pioneer in aviation who is notable for the design and production of numerous French aircraft. Bréguet built his first aircraft, the Bréguet Type I, in 1909, and was a pioneer in the development of metal aircraft, with the Bréguet 14 reconnaissance biplane being built in large numbers and serving in WWI. Following the war, Bréguet founded the Compagnie des Messageries Aériennes, one of the world’s first airlines, which after many years evolved into Air France. Other notable Bréguet aircraft were the Deux-Ponts double-deck airliner and the Alizé anti-submarine aircraft. In 1971, Bréguet merged with Dassault to form Aviations Marcel Dassault-Bréguet Aviation.
May 4, 1949 – An airliner carrying the entire Torino football team crashes on final approach to Turin. While returning from a match in Lisbon, Portugal, the Fiat G.212CP of Avio Linee Italiane was making its approach to Turin-Aeritalia Airport in extremely low visibility when it struck the back wall of the Basilica of Superga which, although situated high on a hill, is not on the direct landing path. All 31 passengers and crew were killed. It is unknown why the crew deviated from their approach, but one theory is that high winds had blown them off course, or that a stuck altimeter led them to believe that they would clear the basilica. Grande Torino, as the team was known, were posthumously named the winners of the 1948-49 season of the Serie A, and the team was reconstituted the following year by players loaned from other squads. Pieces of the wreckage are on display at museum near Turin.
May 4, 1924 – The first flight of the Sikorsky S-29-A, an all-metal biplane airliner and the first aircraft designed and built by Igor Sikorsky after he emigrated to the United States. The airliner had interior accommodations for 16 passengers, while the pilot and mechanic were seated in open cockpits behind the wing. The airliner failed to attract the interest of the fledgling American commercial airline industry, and only one was ever built. Sikorsky sold the airplane, and it was used for commercial endeavors such as advertising for a clothing manufacturer and as a flying cigar store. It played the role of a German Gotha bomber in Howard Hughes’ movie Hell’s Angels (1930), but was damaged beyond repair during filming.
May 5, 2005 – The first flight of the Dassault Falcon 7X, a long-range trijet developed from the Falcon 900 and one of only three trijets currently in production (Falcon 8X, Falcon 900). The 7X is powered by three Pratt & Whitney Canada PW307 turbofans and has a maximum speed of Mach 0.9 with a range of just under 6,000 nautical miles. The 7X was further developed into the 8X, which has a longer range achieved by improved engines and aerodynamics and greater fuel capacity. More than 260 7X aircraft have been built, and just about half of the fleet is operated in Europe. It also serves the governments and militaries of six nations.
May 5, 1961 – Alan Shepard becomes the first American to fly in space. In the first launch of Project Mercury program, Shepard and his Freedom 7 capsule, named in honor of the seven Mercury astronauts to convey a sense of teamwork rather than an individual accomplishment, launched atop a Mercury-Redstone Launch Vehicle and reached an altitude of 263.1 nautical miles in a flight that lasted just over 15 minutes. Though the mission was a success, the United States was still stinging from the fact that the Russians had beaten them into space by only 23 days, after cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth in his Vostok 1 space capsule on April 12, 1961. America would not put an astronaut into Earth orbit until John Glenn flew on February 20, 1962.
May 5, 1948 – The McDonnel FH Phantom enters service with the US Navy. Designed in the waning days of WWII and too late to see action in that conflict, the FH Phantom was the first production aircraft built by the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, the first jet-powered aircraft to land on an American carrier, and the first jet flown by the US Marine Corps. The Phantom was only built in small numbers, but it proved the viability of jet operations from carriers and ushered US Naval aviation into the Jet Age. Following the development of the more advanced McDonnell F2H Banshee, production on the FH Phantom was halted, cutting the program off at just 62 aircraft. The Phantom was retired from frontline service in 1949, though it was flown by the US Naval Reserve until 1954.
If you enjoy these Aviation History posts, please let me know in the comments. You can find more posts about aviation history, aviators, and aviation oddities at Wingspan.