A Brief History
On August 19, 1940, the B-25 Mitchell was flown for the first time. Although its service life did not extend as long as many other airplanes, this medium bomber was adapted for a huge variety of uses and configurations, making it one of the most versatile aircraft ever. Here 6 (well, okay, actually 7) such multi-purpose aircraft are listed in the order the author finds most interesting or exciting.
6. De Haviland DH.98 Mosquito.
Entering service in 1941 as a high-speed unarmed bomber, the Mosquito was built mostly of wood, giving it a light airframe and allowing its twin Roll-Royce engines to power it to speeds of over 400 mph at a time when fighter planes could only manage 360 mph. The fastest versions could even exceed 430 mph, a speed not matched until the German jet- and rocket-propelled fighters appeared. Later fighter versions were armed with 4 x 20mm cannons and 4 x .303 caliber machine guns in the nose, giving these fighters and fighter-bombers tremendous, concentrated firepower. The Germans were so in awe of the Mosquito that they tried to copy it but failed due to lack of a glue suitable for holding wood together. Eventually employed by 21 countries, 7,781 of these speedsters were built and used for: reconnaissance; medium conventional bombing; tactical ground attacks; day fighting; night fighting; torpedo bombing; training; and even as target tugs.
5. McDonnell-Douglas F-4 Phantom II.
Introduced in 1960 as a high-speed, high-altitude interceptor designed to protect the U.S. fleet by catching and shooting down Soviet bombers at long range, this carrier-borne jet was so good the U.S. Air Force eagerly adopted it as its front line fighter as well. Also flown by the Marine Corps and 11 other countries, the F-4 was even used by NASA in a variety of roles. A total of 5,195 planes were built. At one time, the F-4 held many speed and climbing records and could be readily adapted to carry ordnance such as bombs, precision-guided bombs and rockets totaling up to an incredible 18,000 pound’s worth. The F-4 was also the first fighter to have “look down, shoot down” capability. Used for: reconnaissance (visual, infrared and radar); interception; dog fighting; conventional bombing; tactical interdiction; “Wild Weasel” suppression of enemy air defense; and as unmanned drones, the F-4 is the only aircraft to have served in both the USAF “Thunderbirds” and the USN “Blue Angels” demonstration teams. A heavyweight of a fighter, the F-4 weighed 30,000 pounds when empty and could carry as much as 20,000 pounds of fuel!
4. Boeing 747 and Boeing 707.
Both of these ultra-reliable planes were the largest jet airlines in their day, and both were state of the art when introduced (707 in 1958, 747 in 1970). Used for both civilian and military purposes, both planes have also served as Air Force One, transporting the President of the United States. 1,500 of the giant 747s have been built, and more are in the works, while about 2,000 of the 707s were made, almost half for military use. The 707 was used for the E-3 Sentry (AWACS), the E-6 Mercury and the E-8 Joint Stars, as well as the C-135 Stratolifter cargo hauler and KC-135 Stratotanker. A specialty model named the NC-135 was used for a variety of purposes, ranging from airborne astronomy to airborne labs for the evaluation of nuclear fallout. A version called the RC-135 Rivet Joint was made for reconnaissance. An NC-135 was also used as an experimental laser weapon-carrying plane that was to have the intended purpose of shooting down missiles. The 747 military and government variants include: the C-19 (cargo); VC-25 (VIP transport); E4-B (Electronic warfare); YAL-1 (laser weapon); C-33 (cancelled tanker); KC-33A (tanker version flown by Iran); CMCA (cancelled cruise missile carrier); Space Shuttle Carrier; and the incredible concept of the AAC aircraft-carrier mother ship that was carry 10 small fighter planes. The 747 has also been adapted for firefighting and astronomy.
3. Lockheed C-130 Hercules.
This versatile cargo plane has had the longest production run (1956 – present) of any military aircraft. Over 2,300 planes have been built, and the Lockheed C-130 Hercules has been flown by an unbelievable 72 countries. The 4 turbo-prop cargo plane is also used for transporting airborne parachute troops to battle and, as the AC-130 Spectre, it is the most heavily armed gunship in aviation history. It is also used for: fighting fires; electronic warfare; weather reconnaissance (hurricane hunting); search and rescue; various scientific purposes; medical evacuation; drone carrying and control, aerial refueling of fixed wing planes and helicopters; and even as a bomber capable of dropping the gigantic MOAB (Massive Ordnance Air Blast, or more commonly, the “Mother of All Bombs”), a 22,600-pound bomb too big for regular bombers.
2. Bell UH-1 “Huey” Iroquois.
An astounding 16,000+ of these helicopters were produced from 1956 to 1986. They officially began service in 1960. Mostly associated with the Viet Nam War, these versatile birds were used by all branches of the US military as well as by other branches of government. At least 48 countries have used the UH-1, and 35 of them still do. With a crew of 1 to 4 and the ability to carry up to 14 troops or 6 stretchers, the initial use of the Huey was as a combat taxi for troops and medical evacuation. Of course, the UH-1 was also used for just about all the general-purpose roles a helicopter can be used for, such as search and rescue, cargo hauling and aerial reconnaissance. Both the Army and Navy/Marine Corps developed gunship versions (UH-1C), armed with a variety of machine guns and rockets, the first helicopter gunships designed specifically for that role. Variants for battlefield surveillance with radar for electronic warfare were also produced. Of course, such a useful aircraft could also readily be used for civilian purposes. The Bell AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter was derived from the UH-1, and with over 1,100 built, it is still going strong.
1. North American B-25 Mitchell.
First flown in 1940 and already available for service when the U.S. entered World War II, 11,000 of these medium bombers were built and flown by the USAAF, USN, USMC, RAF, RCAF, RAAF, USSR, by China, the Netherlands (in exile), Brazil and the Free French. The only U.S. military airplane named after an actual person, the Mitchell was easy to fly, incredibly rugged and could even stay aloft with 1 of its 2 engines out. Specially configured to fly off the deck of an aircraft carrier, 16 B-25s led by Jimmy Doolittle stunned the Japanese in 1942 with a retaliatory raid for Pearl Harbor. No land-based medium bomber would have been capable of that. Also configured with a solid nose instead of clear plexiglass, the B-25 could be loaded up with 8 x .50 caliber machine guns in the nose, 2 x .50 cals on the “cheeks” and 2 x .50 cals on the top turret, all of which could be fired forward, giving the B-25 gunship an incredible 12 forward-firing .50 cals, the most of any aircraft ever used for combat purposes. (The plane also had maximum total of 18 machine guns!) The nose could also be fitted with a 75mm gun, the largest forward-firing gun ever mounted on an airplane. The Mitchell could also be adapted for “skip” bombing as well as for conventional bombing. It was used for battlefield interdiction and as a gunship. Navy and Marine Corps “search and patrol” versions were equipped with search radar and had heavy rockets for attacking ships. Other versions were used for: weather reconnaissance “hurricane hunters;” VIP transport; general transport; anti-submarine patrol; and training.
Question for students (and subscribers): What types of planes would you include on the list? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
For another interesting event that happened on August 19, please see the History and Headlines article: “The Samlesbury Witches.”
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Jackson, Robert. The Encyclopedia of Aircraft: Over 3,000 Military and Civil Aircraft from the Wright Flyer to the Stealth Bomber. Thunder Bay Press, 2004.