Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from October 23 through October 25.
October 23-26, 1944 – The Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval battle in history, and the first successful organized kamikaze attack. By October of 1944, the Allies had regained considerable territory from the Japanese, were drawing closer to the recapture of the Philippines, and drawing up plans a possible invasion of the Japanese homeland. Japan could not match the industrial might of the US, and the numbers of Japanese ships, aircraft, and trained pilots dwindled rapidly while those of the US and her allies continued to increase. The Japanese faced a critical shortage of experienced combat pilots, while the Allies seemingly had an endless supply. The Pacific battlefield was becoming more and more tilted in favor of the Allies.
The Battle of Leyte Gulf arose from the planned operation to invade and retake the Philippine islands of Leyte, Luzon and Samar. The result was the largest naval battle of the entire war and possibly the greatest naval battle in history. The battle opened when the American submarines USS Darter (SS-227) and USS Dace (SS-247) attacked the Japanese fleet in the Palawan Passage, sinking the heavy cruisers Atago and Maya, and the what ultimately came to be known as the Battle of Leyte Gulf actually encompassed four smaller engagements: the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, the Battle of Surigao Strait, the Battle of Cape Engaño and the Battle off Samar. By the time action came to a close on October 26, the Japanese had suffered approximately 12,500 casualties, lost one fleet and three light carriers, 10 cruisers, 11 destroyers, and more than 300 aircraft, losses that spelled the end of the Japanese Navy as an effective fighting force. But out the desperation in which the Japanese found themselves, the kamikaze was born.
The word kamikaze is usually translated as divine wind in reference to typhoons in the years 1274 and 1281 that helped the Japanese repel Mongol invasions. The flying units that carried out the missions were called tokubetsu kōgeki tai (special attack unit), and while the term kamikaze is most commonly associated with suicide air attacks, it is not limited to aircraft. Throughout the course of the war, pilots of both sides had deliberately crashed their aircraft into ships, but usually when the aircraft was damaged beyond flyability or the pilot was mortally wounded. The kamikaze attacks during the Battle of Leyte Gulf were the first organized suicide missions of the tokubetsu kōgeki tai under the direction of 1st Air Fleet commandant Vice Admiral Takijirō Ōnishi. Speaking to officers in Manila just days before the battle, Ōnishi said, “I don’t think there would be any other certain way to carry out the operation [to hold the Philippines] than to put a 250 kg bomb on a Zero and let it crash into a US carrier in order to disable her for a week.”
On October 25, five Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighters, each armed with a single bomb, attacked escort carriers of the US fleet off the Philippine coast. Four of the kamikaze aircraft were unsuccessful, but the fifth hit the escort carrier USS St. Lo (CVE-63), igniting fires which detonated the ship’s magazine. The carrier eventually sank, killing 143 members of her 889 man crew. Based on this initial success, the kamikaze program was expanded. By war’s end, the Japanese had undertaken over 4,000 attacks, including missions to ram bombers attacking Japan. Ultimately, though, all the tokubetsu kōgeki tai achieved was the loss of irreplaceable pilots and aircraft. Only 14% of the kamikaze attackers got through, and only 8.5% of the ships that were hit were sunk. Those that weren’t sunk were quickly repaired. Ultimately, the damage inflicted by the tokubetsu kōgeki tai was no greater than that achieved in 1942 by traditional tactics. The Imperial Japanese Navy, short of fuel, ships, pilots, and aircraft, ceased to be an effective fighting force in the Pacific, and Allied victory over Japan had become inevitable.
October 23, 1939 – The first flight of the Mitsubishi G4M. When the Japanese laid their plans for the conquest of the western Pacific, which they grandiosely called the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, they were will aware of the vast stretches of ocean or large swaths of Southeast Asian jungle they would have to cross. Aircraft carriers, basically mobile airfields, would cover the Pacific, but land-based aircraft would have to have exceptional range in order to be effective.
Work on the G4M began in 1937 as the Japanese Navy sought a replacement for the G3M (Allied reporting name “Nell”), which first flew in 1935, and particular attention was paid to increasing both range and speed over the earlier bomber. The G4M prototype was completed in 1939 and the bomber, Allied reporting name “Betty,” entered service in June 1941, six months prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that dragged the United States into World War II. The Betty could fly a little more than 100 miles farther than the Nell, and had a greater maximum takeoff weight. However, the increases in range and payload were bought at a dear price to the Betty’s pilots. Mitsubishi had wanted to build a four engine bomber, but they reduced it to two engines under pressure from the Japanese Navy. To save more weight, Mitsubishi chose not to fit the new medium bomber with protective armor plating for the crew, or self-sealing fuel tanks. So while the Betty had excellent range, it was extremely susceptible to gunfire from heavily armed Allied fighters, and often burst into flames with the slightest hit. Allied pilots took to calling the Betty the “one shot lighter,” while the Japanese pilots referred to it as hamaki, which means cigar, a reference to its overall shape but perhaps also an allusion to how readily it burned.
The G4M formed the backbone of the Japanese bomber force and served throughout the Pacific theater. In the early years of the war, the Betty fought very effectively when it had sufficient fighter cover, but losses began to mount as the Allies gradually gained air supremacy. Final variants of the Betty did add armor protection and rudimentary sealing for the fuel tanks, but these upgrades came too late for the Betty to have a significant impact on the outcome of the war. By the final stages of WWII, with dwindling numbers of Japanese fighters to protect them, Bettys were mauled by US Navy and US Army Air Corps fighters and many of the bombers were shot down before they could launch their attacks.
In addition to its land bombing duties, the Betty was used to attack Allied shipping with both bombs and torpedoes. Late in the war, it served as the mother ship for the Yokosuka MXY7 Ohka, a rocket-powered, piloted bomb with 2,646 pounds of explosives in the nose used for kamikaze attacks. The Betty also took center stage in a pivotal event in the Pacific War, when Japanese General Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack and commander in chief of the Japanese combined fleet, was shot down and killed in 1943 while flying as a passenger in a G4M during an inspection tour of Japanese bases. More than 2,400 G4Ms were produced, but no flyable examples remain today, and only one complete aircraft exists.
October 24, 1953 – The first flight of the Convair F-102 Delta Dagger. Following WWII, the US Air Force became particularly enamored with the guided missile, thinking that all future aerial combat would take place between fighters that lobbed missiles at each other rather than duking it out in aerial dogfights. But to hit a moving target with a missile requires an effective fire control system (FCS), so the Air Force decided first to develop an integrated radar, computer, director and missile system, and then find a plane to put it in. In January 1950, the Air Force requested proposals for a new FCS, and the competition for its development was eventually won by Hughes Aircraft with their AIM-4 Falcon missile, the first operational guided air-to-air missile fielded by the US Air Force.
The Air Force then sought proposals in June of that year for what they dubbed the “1954 Ultimate Interceptor” to deal with the potential threat of waves of Russian strategic bombers flying towards the US. Convair, Republic and Lockheed all submitted proposals, and the Air Force selected Convair to proceed with development of their delta-winged interceptor which was heavily influenced by Convair’s XF-92 which the company had developed in the late 1940s based on data captured from late in WWII.
Beginning with that basic all-delta configuration of the XF-92, Convair lengthened and narrowed the experimental aircraft and mounted a Pratt & Whitney J57 afterburning turbojet. Once the first prototypes were finished, however, Convair discovered that the YF-102 was unable to break the sound barrier, and the problem wasn’t just the underpowered engine. It was actually the shape of the fuselage. Using the new area rule concept developed by NACA engineer Richard Whitcomb, Convair redesigned the fuselage so that it narrowed at the waist over the delta wing. This reduction in the aircraft’s cross section dramatically reduced drag, and other improvements to the wings allowed the redesigned interceptor to pass Mach 1 with ease.
The redesigned interceptor, now designate YF-102A, entered production after its maiden flight in December 1954. The F-102A entered service in April 1956, and a total of 889 were built before production ceased in September 1958. The Delta Dagger saw service in Vietnam primarily as a bomber escort, though some ground attack missions were carried out without much success, since the aircraft was not designed for that role, nor were the pilots properly trained. Fourteen F-102s were lost in combat, one in air-to-air combat. The F-102 was exported to Greece and Turkey, where they served into the late 1970s. By the mid-1960s, most F-102s were transferred to Air National Guard units and, after 20 years of service, the bulk of the fleet was retired in 1976. Most of the remaining Delta Daggers were converted to QF-102A target drones, and the final one was shot down in a training mission in 1986.
October 23, 2003 – The Concorde makes its final passenger flight. Air France had made its final passenger flights on May 30, 2003, and British Airways finally ended Concorde service with a flight from from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York to London’s Heathrow Airport, while two other Concordes made round trips over the Bay of Biscay and to Edinburgh, Scotland. All three aircraft then circled London before landing. The flights closed the book on the Concorde, which entered service with British Airways in 1976 as the world’s second operational supersonic passenger airliner, coming just one month after the Soviet Tupolev Tu-144. Following a crash in 2000, Concorde flights were suspended for a year, but the airliner remained unprofitable after its return to service in 2001, leading BA and Air France to begin phasing out the SST.
October 23, 1967 – The first flight of the Canadair CL-215, also known as the Scooper, the first in a series of amphibious firefighting aircraft developed by Canadair and later Bombardier Aerospace. Powered by two Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp radial engines, the CL-215 can scoop 1,440 US gallons of water in 12 seconds from lakes or rivers and drop it over wildfires. Special design considerations such as its high, straight wing allow for operations at low speeds or in the gusty conditions often found over forest fires. A total of 125 were produced, and the CL-215 was subsequently developed into the CL-215T and CL-415 which are powered by two turboprop engines.
October 23, 1952 – The first flight of the Hughes XH-17, a super heavy lift helicopter and the first project developed by the helicopter division of Hughes Aircraft. Built from parts scavenged from several different aircraft, the XH-17 was capable of lifting over 10,000 pounds with a maximum takeoff weight of 43,500 pounds. The XH-17 was powered by two turbojet engines that ducted bleed air through the hollow rotor blades to tip-mounted jets, and massive helicopter still holds the record for the world’s largest rotor system. Only one was built before the program was cancelled and the aircraft scrapped.
October 23, 1951 – The last daylight bombing mission of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress. By the end of WWII, the development of large four-engine bombers reached its zenith with the B-29, but its advanced design saw the Superfortress serve into the Korean War. At first, B-29s flew daylight bombing missions as they had in WWII. But the arrival of jet fighters made the slower bombers vulnerable to being shot down. The final daylight mission was an attack on an airfield in North Korea, but three of the 10 bombers were shot down, four were forced to make emergency landings in South Korea, and three were badly damaged but still able to return to Okinawa. The B-29s were switched to nighttime bombing missions before being withdrawn in 1953.
October 24, 2004 – A plane crash claims the life of members of the Hendrick Motorsports team and family. While en route from North Carolina to a race at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia, the Beechcraft King Air 200 (N501RH) carrying members of the Hendrick Motorsport team and other family members crashed in heavy fog after an aborted landing. Among the 10 victims was the president of Hendrick Motorsports John Hendrick, driver Ricky Hendrick, four other members of the Hendrick family and Randy Dorton, chief engine builder. The pilots were also killed. Though NASCAR officials learned of the crash before the Martinsville race, they did not inform the drivers until after the race had finished. The race was won by Jimmie Johnson, who drove for the Hendrick team. For the remainder of the 2004 season, all Hendrick cars ran with a memorial to the victims, “Always In Our Hearts,” painted on the hood.
October 24, 2000 – The first flight of the Lockheed Martin X-35, the experimental prototype developed as part of the competition to produce the Joint Strike Fighter, a single basic airframe that would serve the US Air Force, US Navy and US Marine Corps. The competition for the lucrative contract pitted the X-35 against the Boeing X-32, and the X-35 was declared the winner on October 26, 2001. It entered production in 2006 as the F-35 Lighting II, a single-seat, all-weather, multi-role, fifth-generation fighter with stealth capability. The F-35 is being produced in three variants: the F-35A for the US Air Force, the STOVL F-35B for the US Marine Corps, and the carrier-based F-35C for the US Navy.
October 24, 1991 – The death of Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry is best known as a television producer, screenwriter, and the creator of the Star Trektelevision series, but his early life was dominated by a career in aviation. Roddenberry was born on August 19, 1921 in El Paso, Texas, and earned his pilot license through the Civilian Pilot Training Program sponsored by the US Army Air Corps. He enlisted just 11 days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and eventually completed 89 combat missions piloting a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. His military service earned him both the Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross. Following the war, Roddenberry continued flying as an international airline pilot with Pan Am before retiring from aviation in 1948 to pursue a career in writing for television. Roddenberry died on October 24, 1991 at the age of 70, and some of his ashes were launched into space onboard a Pegasus XL rocket. .
October 24, 1947 – The first flight of the Grumman HU-16 Albatross, a twin-engine amphibious flying boat designed as an improvement over the earlier Grumman G-73 Mallard. The Albatross entered service in 1949 primarily in the search and rescue (SAR) and combat search and rescue (CSAR) roles with the US Air Force, where it was initially known as the SA-16. The type saw extensive service during the Korean War rescuing downed pilots. The Albatross was also operated by the US Navy and US Coast Guard, where it functioned as a coastal patrol and SAR aircraft. The Albatross was widely exported, and many surplus aircraft have since found their way to private operators. A total of 466 were produced from 1949-1961.
October 25, 1994 – The death of LT Kara Hultgreen, the first woman US Naval Aviator to be qualified as a carrier-based fighter pilot. While attempting a landing on USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72), Hultgreen overshot the centerline and attempted to correct her approach with left rudder application, a maneuver that caused a compressor stall in the left engine. She applied full afterburner to execute a missed approach, but the asymmetrical power caused her Grumman F-14 Tomcat to roll inverted. The radar intercept officer initiated ejection and was shot clear of the aircraft, but Hultgreen, who ejected second in the sequence, was launched straight into the water, killing her instantly. The aircraft was recovered, as was Hultgreen’s body, still strapped to the ejection seat. The incident was controversial, as Hultgreen’s death came at a time when both the Navy and US Air Force were working to integrate female fighter pilots into service, and some accused the Navy of promoting female pilots regardless of their of their piloting skills.
October 25, 1991 – The first flight of the Airbus A340, a long-range, wide-body airliner that can seat up to 440 passengers depending on variant and seating arrangement. Aimed at the long haul market that had been dominated by American aircraft manufacturers, the A340 was the largest airliner to grow from the original A300 design, and featured four engines and a twin aisle. Depending on the variant, the A340 is capable of flying routes up to 9,000 nautical miles. It entered service with Air France and Lufthansa in 1993, but production ended in 2011 after just 377 had been built. Despite its size and range, the A340 was at a disadvantage to newer twin-jet airliners with comparable size and range that could operate at lower costs, and the type is being phased out by the world’s major airlines.
October 25, 1979 – The 5,057th and final F-4 Phantom II rolls off the McDonnell Douglas production line. One of the iconic aircraft of the Cold War Era, the Phantom II entered service in 1960 with the US Navy and eventually became one of the few fighters to serve concurrently in the Navy, US Marine Corps, and US Air Force. Production of the two-seat, all-weather, multirole fighter began in 1958 and, by the time production ended in 1981, a total of 5,195 were built to serve the US military and 11 export nations (a number that includes 138 Phantoms built by Mitsubishi in Japan), making it the third most-produced jet fighter in the US after the North American F-86 Sabre/FJ-2/3 Fury and the Republic F-84 Thunderjet. The F-4G Wild Weasel electronic warfare variant served as late as 1991 in the Gulf War and, following the Phantom’s retirement from US service in 1996, remaining F-4s were converted to QF-4 target drones. The final QF-4 was shot down in a training mission in 2016.
October 25, 1955 – The first flight of the Saab 35 Draken, a fighter developed to replace the Saab J29 Tunnan and the first supersonic fighter to be deployed in Western Europe. The Draken (Kite, or Dragon) was introduced in 1969 and was notable for its use of a double-delta (or compound delta) wing configuration that aided in performance at both low and high speeds. Following Swedish defense doctrine, the Draken was designed for operation from public roadways and with the ability to be serviced by minimally trained crews in a short time. The Draken proved to be a successful Cold War fighter, and was exported to Austria, Denmark, Finland, with 652 aircraft produced from 1955 to 1974.
October 25, 1939 – The first flight of the Handley Page Halifax, a heavy four-engine bomber that was designed to fulfill the same RAF requirement for a heavy strategic bomber as the Short Stirling and Avro Lancaster. With a crew of seven, the Halifax was powered by four Bristol Hercules radial engines which gave it a maximum speed of 282 mph and a range of 1,860 miles. Though incapable of carrying the large blockbuster bombs in the RAF inventory, the Halifax still played a major role in Bomber Command’s strategic bombing program. By war’s end, Halifax crews had flown nearly 83,000 sorties and dropped more than 224,000 pounds of bombs. Of the 6,176 Halifaxes built, 1,833 were lost in combat. Though quickly retired from RAF service after the war, the Halifax remained in service with Egypt, France, and Pakistan, and a cargo and transport version was developed as the Handley Page Halton. The type was finally retired by 1961.
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