Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from May 3 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, such as when Greek triremes would rammed or grappled Persian ships and then boarded for hand-to-hand combat. By the first century, Greek fire was being hurled by Byzantine warships, but you still had to get within sight of your opponent to use it. Cannons appeared by the 13th century, but hand-to-hand combat was still required to close a battle. As the guns got bigger, the ships could duel from greater distances, though you still had to see your enemy to direct the most effective fire. But the arrival of the airplane in WWI had a profound affect on naval tactics. Far ranging aircraft could attack enemy ships from beyond the horizon or direct fire from capital ships, and by WWII the aircraft carrier had supplanted the battleship as the focus of naval strategy. Following the Battle of Taranto, where Royal Navy Fairey Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers flying from the HMS Illustrious sank battleships of the Italian Navy lying at anchor, and the Japanese aerial attack on Pearl Harbor, it was clear that a sea change had occurred in naval warfare, and the Battle of the Coral Sea 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 while the Allies struggled to contain them. In order to strengthen defensive positions and form a buffer zone against 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 including the light carrier Shōhō. The American and Australian opposition was centered around 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 taken place on May 3. Still, Yorktown’s aircraft harassed Japanese forces on the island, then the carrier turned south to join Lexington. For two days, the opposing fleets searched for each other unsuccessfully, but 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 the 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, victoriously radioed back to the fleet, “Scratch one flat top!” The next morning, both sides 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).
While both sides lost an aircraft carrier, the Japanese could claim a tactical victory based solely on the Americans suffering greater losses of ships and men. With the sinking of the Lexington, the US had lost one-quarter of their carrier fleet, and 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 serious 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 them with a major boost to morale. 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 each other nor engaged each other directly. The airplane had become the dominant weapon in the world’s oceans. Just one month later, Japanese and American carriers faced off again in the pivotal Battle of Midway, in which American warplanes sank all four Japanese heavy carriers, shifting the balance of power and turning the tide of the Pacific War decisively in the Allies’ favor. (“Death of the Shōhō” illustrated for US Navy by Robert Benney; US Navy photo)
May 3, 2007 – The death of American astronaut Walter Marty “Wally” Schirra. Schirra was born on March 12, 1923 in Hackensack, New Jersey, and graduated from the US Naval Academy, becoming a Naval Aviator in 1948. Schirra served in Korea, and later as a test pilot, before becoming a member of America’s first group of astronauts, the Mercury Seven, flying the Mercury-Atlas 8 mission in 1962 which orbited the Earth six times. In 1965, Schirra flew the Gemini 6A and maneuvered his spacecraft to within one foot of Gemini 7, completing the first rendezvous in space. In 1968, Schirra commanded Apollo 7, the first launch of the Apllo program carrying a crew into space. 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. (NASA photo)
May 3, 1952 – The first American aircraft lands at the North Pole. US Air Force pilots Lt. Col. William P. Fletcher 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. (US Air Force photo)
May 3, 1945 – British attack 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 which ended 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. Despite warnings from the International Red Cross about the true nature of the ships’ cargo, British naval commanders believed that the ships carried members of the Nazi Schutzstaffel (SS) fleeing to Norway, and 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 prisoners died in the attack, marking one of the heaviest losses of life in naval history. (Royal Air Force photo)
May 3, 1695 – The birth of Henri Pitot, a French hydraulic engineer and inventor of the pitot tube, a pressure measurement instrument that is used by an aircraft to determine its airspeed. Pitot discovered the concept of the pressure sensing device in 1732 while measuring the flow of the River Seine in Paris. The eponymous device used on airplanes was modified to its current form by French scientist Henry Darcy. Pitot was named a member of the French Academy of Sciences in 1724, and died in 1771. (Pitot portrait via aramon.fr; pitot tube photo by the author)
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 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 and 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. England eventually prevailed in the 9-week war and regained control of the disputed islands. (Photo by Martin Clever/PA Archive)
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 entire line of business jets that has been extremely successful for Dassault and which 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. (Photo via aero.passion.perso.sfr.fr)
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 eventually 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. (Photo author unknown)
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 emigrating to the United States (indicated by the “A” in its designation). 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 burgeoning 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, but was damaged beyond repair during filming. (Photo author unknown)
May 5, 2005 – The first flight of the Dassault Falcon 7X, a long-range trijet developed from the Falcon 900 and one of only two trijets currently in production. The 7X is powered by three Pratt & Whitney Canada PW307 turbofans and has a maximum speed of Mach 0.9 and a range of just under 6,000 nautical miles. The 7X was further developed into the 8X, which has a longer range derived from improved engines and aerodynamics and greater fuel capacity. More than 260 7X aircraft have been built, while the larger 8X has only seen the construction of 4 aircraft. Just about half of the fleet is operated in Europe, and it serves the governments and militaries of six nations. (Photo © by the author)
May 5, 1961 – Alan Shepard becomes the first American and second person to fly in space. The launch of Shepard’s Freedom 7 capsule was the first manned mission of Project Mercury, launching atop a Mercury-Redstone Launch Vehicle and reaching an altitude of 263.1 nautical miles in a flight that lasted 15-and-a-half minutes. Shepard named his ship Freedom 7 in honor of all seven Mercury astronauts, conveying a sense of teamwork rather than an individual accomplishment. 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, when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth in his Vostok 1 space capsule on April 12, 1961. (NASA photo)
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 helped usher 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 flew with the US Naval Reserve until 1954. (US Navy photo)
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