April 12 – Black Day in History of US Aviation

April 12 – Black Day in History of US Aviation

There are two reasons why April 12 is considered to be a black day in the history of US aviation. It is the day when Vostok aircraft led by astronaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human to journey into outer space, completed an orbit flight around the Earth in 1961. The other event was not that much in spotlight. Exactly ten years before Gagarin made his flight, Russian aces under the command of Ivan Kozhedub, a Hero of the Soviet Union on three occasions who commanded the 324th Fighter Air Division, dissipated the myth of invulnerability of B-29 Superfortress, a four-engine propeller-driven heavy bomber. 

The B-29 dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and was part of the plans to carry out the mission of delivering strikes against dozens of Soviet cities (according to nuclear operational plans «Totality», «Pincher», «Dropshot», «Broiler/Frolic», «Charioteer», «Halfmoon/Fleetwood», «Trojan», «Off-tackle» and others that were regularly prepared to succeed each other starting from 1945 with missions changing as the US nuclear potential increased). 

In one day the plans were frustrated to give birth to the expression «Mig Alley» or «Black Thursday». The engagement took place on April 12, 1951 during the war in Korea. On that day three squadrons of B-29 Superfortresses (36 planes) protected by about a hundred F-80 Shooting Star and F-84 Thunderjet fighters were attacked by Soviet Migs. Americans were sure of their invulnerability and final victory. 

Soviet fliers found the way to counter the flying superweapon that annihilated Hiroshima. MiG pilots could jump the American formations in co-ordinated attacks from different directions, using both height and high speed in their favor. A higher ceiling and superior climbing rate gave Migs an advantage over all versions of the Sabre and allowed to strike from above. The tactics was used only once, but it was enough. The effect exceeded all the expectations. 12 out of 21 superfortresses were hit. All the remaining nine planes considered to be invulnerable before had returned damaged and with losses. Someone was killed or wounded in every crew. Four US fighters were hit too. If Americans didn’t turn back, or were followed by Soviet fighters beyond the line they were not allowed to cross, the losses would have been greater. 

Soviet Migs suffered no losses. The stunned Americans did not fly sorties for three following days. Then they climbed three B-29s with strong escorts on a probing mission. All the planes were hit. Afterwards superfortresses flew missions only at night. With 170 superfortresses lost, the B-29 was not used anymore. 

That’s how the fight was described by flying ace, Major General (one star) Sergey Kramarenko (photo), a veteran of the Great Patriotic War (he went to the front in August 1942, he and his wingmen hit 13 German planes and a high attitude balloon used for surveillance and guidance. During the Korean War he flew 149 sorties since April 1951 till February 1952 to hit 13 enemy planes). He recalls, «I was looking down. We were flying over bombers. Our Migs opened fire against «flying superfortresses». One of them lost a wing, the plane was falling into parts. Three or four aircraft caught fire. Crews were leaving the planes. Tens of parachutes were hung in the air. The impression was that an air-borne landing operation was on the way. The combat was just getting momentum...some crews were catapulting, others turned back. Four more «flying fortresses» fell down, they failed to make it to the home base, some crashed trying to land. Around 100 American flyers were taken prisoner. After the fight was over, shell-holes were found in all planes. One aircraft had a hundred holes. But there was no serious damage, not a single bullet hit the cock-pit. 

Americans called April 12 «Black Thursday» and did not fly for three months afterwards. They tried to fly a sortie but lost 12 B-29 planes in the first combat and 16 in the second. Totally the United States lost 170 B-29 bombers during the war in Korea. Americans lost the bulk of their strategic aviation in the South-Eastern theatre of operations. They did not fly in the daytime switching to operations at night. But they suffered losses at night too. Americans were shocked for a long time. The planes that seemed to be so powerful and invulnerable happened to be helpless against Soviet fighters. Soviet servicemen started to call «flying fortresses» «flying barns» because they quickly caught fire and were burning so brightly.» 

For the prowess Sergey Kramarenko showed in this combat and successful accomplishment of the missions assigned by command, the Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR made him the Hero of the Soviet Union and awarded him with the order of Lenin and the Golden Star Medal on October 10, 1951. 

Tags: US  USSR