Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from May 4 through May 7.
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. As the guns got bigger, the 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 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. By WWII, the aircraft carrier had supplanted the battleship as the focus of naval strategy. In the Battle of Taranto, where Royal Navy Fairey Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers flying from HMS Illustrious sank battleships of the Italian Navy, and the audacious Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, it was 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. Unable to stop them, the Allies struggled even to slow down the Japanese advances. In order to strengthen defensive positions and to 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 assembled around 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 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 until, 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 the Lexington, the US had lost one-quarter of their Pacific 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 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 6, 1941 – The first flight of the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. From its inception in WWI up until the middle of WWII, the single-engine fighter was, by design, a relatively small aircraft. Most aircraft designers and fighter pilots believed that a smaller, more maneuverable fighter would be more effective in a dogfight, and fighters such as the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, Supermarine Spitfire, and North American P-51 Mustang are perhaps the finest examples of this way of thinking during the Second World War. So, when the enormous P-47 Thunderbolt arrived in England in late 1942, weighing in at 10,000 pounds (about 2,500 pounds more than a P-51, and fully twice the weight of a Spitfire), pilots were skeptical. But that skepticism was soon proven wrong, and the rugged, hard-hitting Thunderbolt secured a place in the pantheon of the greatest fighters of the war. However, the P-47 didn’t start out as a huge aircraft.
The Thunderbolt traces its roots back to 1939, when Republic Aviation proposed the development of a lightweight fighter, similar in size and capability to the Curtiss XP-46, which had been rejected by the US Army Air Corps. The Army wasn’t interested in Republic’s proposal either, so designer Alexander Kartveli went back to the drawing board. As he worked to redesign the aircraft, it gradually got bigger and bigger as more guns were added to it. Republic’s proposal now called for two .50 caliber machine guns in the nose and eight .50 caliber guns in the wings, with power coming from an Allison V-12 engine turning a 10-foot diameter propeller. But, as development progressed, reports from the front lines in Europe indicated that even this aircraft would not be adequate for the Army’s needs. Kartveli now proposed a massive fighter that would be powered by a supercharged 18-cylinder Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp radial engine, the same engine that was used in the Vought F4U Corsair and the same one that would also power the forthcoming Grumman F6F Hellcat. In a nod to the importance of the supercharger for high-altitude performance, the layout of the engine and supercharger were actually developed first, and the airplane was essentially built around it. The pilot sat on top of the main air intake duct, and the carburetor ducts were routed around the cockpit. The enormous supercharger was placed in the tail of the aircraft. This arrangement actually proved to be quite successful, as it tended to protect the vital supercharger from battle damage.
To pull the giant fighter through the air, the 10-foot diameter propeller of the P-47's predecessor gave way to a huge 12-foot diameter Curtiss Electric constant speed propeller (the Corsair’s was even larger, at 13 feet 4 inches). But having such a large prop meant that the landing gear needed to be long enough to keep the prop from striking the ground. Kartveli’s team solved that problem by creating a telescoping strut that extended by nine inches after it was lowered. Early models of the P-47 used a razorback canopy configuration, but pilots complained about poor visibility. To correct that shortcoming, the British fitted a P-47 with a plexiglass bubble canopy taken from a Hawker Typhoon, and soon all Thunderbolts were built with such a canopy. This became the definitive model through the rest of the war.
Nearly two years of testing followed the Thunderbolt’s first fight, and the P-47 flew its first combat missions in April of 1943. Pilots who were at first dubious of the mammoth fighter soon discovered that the Thunderbolt, or Jug as it came to be known, could out dive anything in the sky, and its rugged construction became legendary for bringing pilots home after suffering massive battle damage. Although initially supplanted by the P-51 in the bomber escort mission, the P-47 eventually regained that role as continued development increased its range, and many Thunderbolts escorted bombers to the target and then dropped down near the ground on the return flight to destroy targets of opportunity along their path using machine guns, bombs or rockets. The top American fighter ace over Europe in WWII, Francis “Gabby” Gabreski, scored 34.5 victories while flying a P-47. By 1945, the Army still had nearly 6,000 P-47s on order, but those orders were canceled following VE Day. Nevertheless, more than 15,600 had already been built, just beating out the Mustang as the most-produced American fighter in history. Passed over for service in Korea, the Jug was retired in 1955, though some remained in service for another 11 years with the Peruvian Air Force.
May 6, 1937 – The crash of the Zeppelin Hindenburg. Before nonstop transatlantic airliners entered service around 1940, flying passengers across the Atlantic Ocean was the the bailiwick of the rigid airship. During the 1920s and 1930s, these “ocean liners of the sky” grew ever larger, culminating in the Hindenburg and Graf Zeppelin II, the largest aircraft that ever took to the skies. The Hindenburg, German dirigible LZ-129 (Luftschiff Zeppelin #129, registration D-LZ129) was a rigid airship and the lead ship of the Hindenburg class. Designed and built by the Zeppelin Company (Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH), Hindenburg was constructed of a duralumin frame fitted with 16 cotton gas bags and was named after the late Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, the President of Germany from 1925-1934. The outer skin of the dirigible was made of cotton fabric covered with a reflective coating meant to protect the gas bags from ultraviolet and infrared radiation. Power for the Hindenburg came from four 16-cylinder Daimler-Benz DB 602 diesel engines which produced 1,200 hp each and gave the airship a top speed of 85 mph.
Hindenburg was originally built to be filled with helium, but helium was rare and came at an exorbitant cost. Construction of the Hindenburg went ahead regardless, even though the designers knew they would have trouble obtaining helium from the United States, where it was a byproduct of natural gas mining. When the US refused to lift the export ban on helium, Hindenburg’s designers made the fateful decision to switch to highly flammable hydrogen instead, even though the dangers of hydrogen were well known. Hindenburg took its maiden flight on March 4, 1936, and completed its first crossing of the Atlantic on May 6, 1936. It was the first of seventeen transatlantic flights and it set a record for the time, completing the trip in 64 hours, 40 minutes. Eastward transatlantic flights, with help from prevailing winds, averaged around 55 hours.
On May 3, 1937, Hindenburg departed Frankfurt for a transatlantic crossing to Lakehurst, New Jersey. Slowed by strong headwinds, the airship arrived over New Jersey on May 7, but the landing was delayed by a line of thunderstorms. Hindenburg was finally cleared to land at about 7:00 pm. At 7:21 pm, shortly after dropping mooring lines to the ground crew, Hindenburg suddenly burst into flames and crashed next to the mooring mast. Within thirty seconds, the Zeppelin was reduced to a smoldering wreck of twisted, charred metal. Thirty-five passengers and crew died in the crash and flames, and one man on the ground was killed.
The cause of the explosion and crash has been the topic of much debate and remains a mystery to this day. Some suspect sabotage, while others believe that atmospheric conditions could have played a role in the explosion and fire. One of the more plausible theories is that hydrogen gas leaking from one of the cells was ignited by static electricity. During Hindenburg’s landing, witnesses reported seeing large amounts of water ballast being dumped, which could indicate a significant leak of hydrogen that was causing the airship to descend more rapidly than normal. After the crash, the duralumin hulk was returned to Germany where it was recycled for use in the construction of Luftwaffe aircraft. The crash of Hindenburg effectively signaled the end of transatlantic Zeppelin transport, despite a long list of passengers who were still willing to cross the ocean in an airship. With WWII under way in Europe, Graf Zeppelin II was scrapped in 1940 while still under construction, and its duralumin also went to support the German war effort.
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. Despite the losses of ships and men, England prevailed in the 9-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 is situated high on a hill but 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 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 (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 serves the governments and militaries of six nations.
May 5, 1961 – Alan Shepard becomes the first American and second person 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.
May 6, 2006 – The US Air Force retires the Hanoi Taxi, the last Lockheed C-141 Starlifter. The Starlifter was a strategic airlifter that entered service with the Air Force in 1965 and was used extensively during the Vietnam War. Starlifter serial number 66-0177, known as the Hanoi Taxi, made history as the aircraft that brought home the first American prisoners of war released by Vietnam as part of Operation Homecoming in 1973. After the war, the Hanoi Taxi continued its regular airlift duties, and aided in the evacuation of victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. With the scheduled retirement of the final eight Starlifters, veterans and former POWs were given the opportunity to fly in the Hanoi Taxi once more. On its arrival at Wright-Patterson AFB, the aircraft was enshrined into the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.
May 6, 1942 – The first flight of the Kawanishi N1K Kyōfū, a floatplane fighter developed for the Imperial Japanese Navy during WWII. When the floatplane version turned out to be ineffective, the N1K was further developed into the N1K-J (Shiden), a land-based fighter known to the Allies as George, and proved to be one of the most effective Japanese fighters of the war. The Shiden was heavily armed and highly maneuverable, and was equipped with a mercury switch that automatically extended the flaps, helping to decrease the turning radius during a dogfight. In battle, the Shiden proved a match for the best Allied fighters, but came too late in the war, and in insufficient numbers, to make a significant contribution to the Japanese war effort.
May 6, 1935 – The first flight of the Curtiss P-36 Hawk. A contemporary of the Hawker Hurricane and Messerschmitt Bf 109, the P-36, also known as the Hawk Model 75, was an early example of the new generation of all-metal cantilever monoplane fighters. Introduced in 1938, the Hawk saw little service in WWII with the US Army Air Corps, but found great success as an export fighter, and was flown by the French during the Battle of France. It is perhaps best known as the predecessor to its much more famous descendant, the P-40 Warhawk. Only 215 Hawks were built for the US Army Air Corps, but 900 were exported to international customers. The last Hawks were retired by the Argentine Air Force in 1954.
May 6, 1930 – The first flight of the Boeing Monomail, so named because of it monoplane design and its intended purpose as a mail plane. The Monomail was an important development not only for its design but also for its all-metal construction, and featured a streamlined fuselage with fully-retractable landing gear. Eventually stretched to carry six passengers, the Monomail suffered from an underpowered engine and the lack of a variable-pitch propeller, and was soon surpassed by more modern designs. However, many of the technological advances made with the Monomail found their way into later Boeing designs, notably the YB-9 bomber and the P-26 Peashooter.
May 7, 1992 – The first flight of the Space Shuttle Endeavour, the sixth and final Space Shuttle constructed and the fifth flown into space by NASA (Enterprise, the first shuttle, was used for static testing and glide tests). Construction of Endeavour began in 1987 as a replacement to the Space Shuttle Challenger which was lost along with its crew in 1986. The Shuttle was named for British explorer Capt. James Cook’s HMS Endeavour (hence the British spelling), and it accomplished a number of firsts, including carrying the first African American woman astronaut to space, Mae Jemison, and completing the first mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. Following its first flight in 1992 on STS-49, Endeavour served until 2011, and flew a total of 25 missions before its retirement following STS-134, when it was moved to the California Science Center in Los Angeles where it is on display.
May 7, 1946 – The first flight of the Handley Page Hastings, a British troop transport and general cargo plane that served the Royal Air Force as a replacement for the Avro York. The Hastings was powered by four Bristol Hercules radial engines and was capable of carrying either 50 troops, 35 paratroops, 32 stretchers or 20,000 pounds of cargo. The Hastings first saw service as part of the Berlin Airlift in 1948, where it was used primarily to deliver coal to the blockaded city. The Hastings also served during the Suez Crisis in 1956, and was finally retired in 1977 and replaced in RAF service by the Lockheed C-130 Hercules. A total of 151 Hastings were produced from 1947-1952.
May 7, 1944 – The first flight of the Beechcraft XA-38 Grizzly, a twin-engine ground attack aircraft developed by Beechcraft for the planned invasion of Japan. The US Army Air Forces was looking for a replacement for the Douglas A-20 Havoc that would be capable of destroying bunkers or other hardened targets. The Grizzly was armed with a 75mm cannon in the nose, along with two forward-firing .50 caliber machine guns. Though the Grizzly showed promise, the Boeing B-29 Superfortress took priority in the allocation of Wright R-3350 Duplex Cyclone engines, and the Grizzly never entered production. Only two were built, with one scrapped and the whereabouts of the other unknown.
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