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Pearl Harbor Aircraft: An Overview


When the Japanese attackers soared over Pearl Harbor, they first chose to strike the airfields and hangars where all the planes were housed. On the morning of December 7, 1941, most of the planes sat outside their hangars, situated wingtip-to-wingtip. When the attack began, pilots were unable to get the Pearl Harbor aircraft to safety, and very few were able to take off to return Japanese fire.

Ninety-two U.S. Navy planes and 77 U.S. Army planes were destroyed that day. In addition to those lost, another 31 Navy planes and 128 Army planes sustained considerable damage.

We’d like to highlight some of the Pearl Harbor aircraft present on December 7, 1941. Most of the ones listed encompass American planes, and several are Japanese.

Pearl Harbor Aircraft

Aichi D3A (Val) Carrier-Borne Bomber / Dive Bomber

The D3A series of aircraft (called “Val” by the Allies) were thought to be all but extinct when the war in the Pacific began. The rude awakening came in the form of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor — home to the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet — as D3As made up the principal attack method air in that assault. These aircraft appear to be from a bygone era of aviation, complete with a fixed undercarriage in spatted housings. However, the D3A was used effectively as carrier-based bombers and dive bombers in the Imperial Japanese Navy throughout the early portion of WWII.

Two Type 97 Light Machine Guns were fixed to fire forward and controlled by the pilot. Also, a single Type 92 Heavy Machine Gun was fitted in a flexible mount in the rear cockpit. As a dive bomber, the Aichi D3A could carry a single 550-lb. bomb under the fuselage or two 130-lb. bombs below each wing.

D3As were responsible for the destruction of more Allied shipping vessels than any other Axis aircraft during WWII. Many Vals therefore ended up in Kamikaze attacks, focusing in and around the areas of Leyte and Okinawa during the last year of the war.

Aichi E13A (Jake) Naval Reconnaissance Floatplane Aircraft

Based on number alone, the Aichi production E13A series of floatplanes (know as “Jake” by the Allies) was the most important such aircraft type for the Japanese Navy during WWII. These Pearl Harbor aircraft reconnoitered the American Navy based at Pearl Harbor before the Dec. 7 attack. A tremendous design with durability and endurance, the E13A would serve through the end of the war, notoriously in Kamikaze attacks on advancing American naval convoys.

The E13A encompassed a three-crew, low-monoplane aircraft with pontoons attached in place of traditional landing gear systems.

Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress Four-Engined Heavy Bomber Aircraft

The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress is often regarded as the more important heavy bomber for the American Allies in WWII. It accounted for more than 290,000 sorties against ground installations and dropped over 640,000 tons of bombs. By the end of the war, the B-17 Flying Fortress was a mainstay in both the Pacific and European Theaters of War. The system became the symbol of American bomber might in WWII and continues with its legendary status still today. The name “Flying Fortress” reportedly stemmed from a reporter present during the unveiling of the machine at the Boeing plant. The journalist described how the plane resembled a 15-ton “flying fortress.”

Boeing P-26 Peashooter Monoplane Fighter Aircraft

The classic American-originated Boeing P-26 “Peashooter” arrived between the wars. The monoplane fighter became the first all-metal aircraft design for the United States.

The design still carried traditional elements of a bygone era of flight. It featured an open-air cockpit and a fixed, spatted tail-dragging undercarriage. These went out of service by 1940, and about a dozen were stationed as Pearl Harbor aircraft on Dec. 7, 1941.

Brewster F2A (Buffalo) Monoplane Fighter

Brewster Aeronautical Corporation created several notable designs for its time in American military aviation history — existing mainly during WWII. They designed the SBN and SB2A “Buccaneer” scout bombers of 1941 as well as the failed XA-32 ground attacker of 1943. The latter proved Brewster’s final entry in the field.

The company also produced, under license, the classic American naval fighter F4U “Corsair” in its F3A-1 variant form. The company shut down in April 1946 after the war had ended.

Consolidated PBY Catalina Long-Range Maritime Patrol Flying Boat

Maritime aircraft play an understated, yet hugely important, role during WWII. Their long-range capabilities were put to good use at the time. Flying boats came to pass as a peacetime development, the earliest forms appearing prior to WWI (1914-1918). This allowed their military use. Their constant evolution allowed for increasingly impressive designs — particularly those emerging from the U.K. and U.S. With the WWII, the role of the flying boat broadened greatly. It now encompassed overwater patrolling, reconnaissance, Search and Rescue (SAR), submarine hunting, and anti-shipping service carrying varied ordnance such as bombs, torpedoes and mines.

The PBY Catalina series became one of the more important of the American flying boats to see service in WWII. The plane was designed, developed, and produced under the Consolidated Aircraft Company brand label in the U.S. The Lend-Lease initiative also ensured the aircraft remained stocked in foreign inventories during the war, expanding its reach.

Curtiss A-12 (Shrike) Strike Aircraft

This Pearl Harbor aircraft was never utilized in combat and led a short production life. The A-12 was a product of the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company, first appearing in 1933. The type became the first quantitative monoplane aircraft in service with the United States Army Air Corps upon its inception. Only 46 production examples of the Shrike appeared, and several of these were present at the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Its 1930s-era design quickly made it obsolete. Furthermore, many in the product line ended up grounded or relegated to training units following the attack. Others ended up in the scrapyard after their effective use.

Curtiss P-36 Hawk (Hawk 75 / Mohawk) Fighter

The Curtiss P-36 Hawk aircraft saw major operational service in the years leading up to, and during, WWII. Its basic appearance was not unlike Curtiss’ more famous product — the P-40 Warhawk — and featured a heavily framed canopy and raise fuselage spine. Although not an extremely impressive aircraft by any means, the P-36 Hawk still helped national air forces compete against the likes of the Axis powers. Donovan Berlin was credited with its design, and a first flight occurred on May 6, 1935. The aircraft was formally introduced into service in 1938 and wasn’t fully retired until 1954. Despite the 215 or so P-36s produced for the United States Army Air Corps (USAAC), the Hawk made more of a splash in foreign hands (as the Hawk 75 and Mohawk) — which amounted to 900 aircraft.

Curtiss P-40 Warhawk Fighter-Bomber / Fighter Aircraft

The Curtiss P-40 “Warhawk” series of fighter aircraft was a further development of the Curtiss P-36 “Hawk” line. The Warhawk became a legendary aircraft of the famous American Volunteer Group (AVG) fighting in China against the Japanese. This earned them the nickname of “The Flying Tigers.”

Over the course of the war, the P-40 would be replaced by incoming improved types, little by little. But the plane nonetheless remained one of the more important Allied fighters early in WWII. Desperate Americans, British and Soviets alike used the aircraft.

These Pearl Harbor aircraft carry tales of heroism — American airmen George Welch and Kenneth Taylor piloted a pair of P-40s on December 7, 1941. (Read their heroic story here.) They were able to get airborne during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and successfully shot down several Japanese planes.

Douglas A-20 Havoc / Boston Light Bomber / Night-Fighter Aircraft

The Douglas A-20 Havoc proved a suitable and adaptable light bomber and night-fighter for Allied forces of WWII. It served the British, American and Soviet forces and saw extensive use, proving itself a war-winner capable of withstanding a great deal. It also succeeded with its speed and firepower. Production topped over 7,000 units and several major production variants. Built as a light bomber but operated as a heavy fighter, the Havoc proved a successful addition to the Douglas line and the overall Allied war effort.

Douglas B-18 Bolo Medium Bomber Aircraft

A B-18 was credited with the first sinking of a German U-boat submarine (in Caribbean waters) on August 22, 1942.

The twin-engine B-18 Bolo was the first Douglas medium bomber. It offered a combat version of the DC-2 commercial transport, absorbed punishment well and proved particularly useful during the early days of WWII.

Douglas produced 370 of the B-18 Bolos, and their availability during the late 1930s allowed the Air Corps to train bomber crews. The B-18 Bolos comprised most of the bombers deployed outside the country as the U.S. entered WWII.

Douglas SBD Dauntless Carrier-Borne Dive Bomber Aircraft

The Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber served as a key player in the U.S. Navy war effort throughout the Pacific during WWII. Despite being a product of the 1930s, it continued to sally forth even while more advanced American warplanes appeared as the war progressed. The SBD Dauntless could also carry its weight against lightly-armored Japanese fighters. Despite its inherent limitations in design, this plane also takes credit for sinking thousands of tons of Japanese shipping.

Grumman F4F Wildcat Carrier-Borne Fighter Aircraft

The Grumman F4F Wildcat proved the unsung hero of the Allied Pacific Theater campaign in the early years of WWII. Often overshadowed by the Grumman F6F Hellcats and Vought F4U Corsair hotrods, the more petite Wildcat with her biplane origins relied as much on the tenacity of her pilots as on its fantastic capabilities.

For 1936 standards, the Wildcat was a high-performance machine. The F4F served both the Americans and the British during the critical war years.

Grumman Goose (G-21) Multirole Flying Boat Aircraft

The Grumman Goose was also an unsung hero in WWII. It helped in transport, training and sea rescue operations.

Nearly every aircraft venture usually started with a military requirement or private venture undertaken by a manufacturer seeking sales. But the Grumman Goose instead arose from a privately-funded requirement from wealthy Long Islanders for an amphibious civil-minded air transport to New York City and back. The group thus commissioned Grumman to design and develop the aircraft to fit such specifications. They created a high-wing, twin-engine design with a full hull fuselage, roomy exterior and amphibious capabilities to allow for landing on runways or water. The G-21 eventually found military use as an armed patrol craft before, during and after WWII.

These Pearl Harbor aircraft were stationed at Wheeler Air Base, Ewa Marine Corps Air Station and Ford Island Naval Air Station on December 7, 1941.

Mitsubishi A6M Rei-sen (Zero) Carrier-Borne Naval Fighter / Fighter-Bomber

The Mitsubishi A6M “Rei-sen” was the primary naval fighter of the Japanese Empire heading into WWII. The aircraft was recognized by its pilots as the “Zero-sen” based on the Imperial Year calendar (1940 at the time). The Allies eventually adopted the “Zero” name as the type’s nickname while the official Allied codename for it became “Zeke.”

The A6M garnered much attention in the early stages of the war in the Pacific, where it became the first naval aircraft to beat any of its land-based counterparts through a combination of speed, maneuverability and range. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries of Japan produced about 10,939 examples from 1940 on. The series survived the entirety of the war up to the Japanese surrender in September 1945.

Nakajima B5N (Kate) Carrier-Borne Torpedo Bomber

The Nakajima B5N series of torpedo bombers originated from Japan. They were considered the best of their type anywhere in the world by the time of the American entry into the conflict occurred in late 1941. In operational service at the outbreak of WWII, this proved one of the more crucial and effective aircraft deployed by the Japanese Navy in its various attacks. This included the attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The B5N was produced across 1,149 examples and saw service through most of the global conflict.

The Pearl Harbor aircraft was quick to earn the respect of the world with its striking ability and accuracy. It made up a portion of the Japanese attack force used at Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. At least 144 B5N2 aircraft took part in the assault. The aircraft would find future successes at Coral Sea, Midway, and over the Santa Cruz Islands – destroying many Allied vessels across the Pacific Theater. It’s also credited with sinking the important American aircraft carriers USS Hornet, USS Lexington and USS Yorktown.

North American T-6 Texan Two-Seat Advanced Trainer Aircraft

Pearl Harbor aircraftThe T-6 Texan is a world-famous, single-engine aircraft primarily known for its use as a trainer. A product of the North American Aviation Company, the T-6 Texan appeared during WWII, survived the Korean conflict, served for a time during the Vietnam War and is still in some operational service to this day. Interested in taking a ride in the seat of a T-6 Texan? Book a flight with Pearl Harbor Warbirds and soar through history over the sites at Pearl Harbor.

During WWII, the AT-6 was used extensively by military branches around the world as a primary fighter trainer for thousands of pilots. In its seat, they learned the nuances of fighter tactics and general flight. Armament proved optional, as flight training served as the primary focus. But it could consist of two forward-fixed 7.62mm machine guns. The Texan survived to take part in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts.

The T-6 still maintains an aerial profile in today’s skies as a fixture of collectors, warbird enthusiasts and air shows. That’s thanks to her resilient construction, favorable flight characteristics and fabled history. Many Allied pilots in WWII can swiftly attribute their education in flight to the development of this fine machine.

Seversky P-35 Fighter Aircraft

The Seversky P-35 became the USAAC’s first all-metal fighter and engaged in combat action against Japan at the start of WWII. Upon its 1937 adoption, the portly Seversky P-35 pursuit aircraft became the United States Army Air Corp’s (USAAC) first modern single-seat fighter. It showcased an enclosed cockpit, all-metal construction, and a retractable undercarriage. The aircraft’s arrival was a highly publicized event in the U.S., labeling it as the fighter that’d earn us the ultimate military aerial superiority. In reality, however, it ended up limited by its performance as well as its machine gun armament. Unfortunately, these key limitations brutally became apparent in the early stages of WWII.

Sikorsky JRS-1

The Sikorsky JRS-1 was stationed at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Ten JRS-1 amphibians were at the base when the Japanese attacked, and all survived. They immediately went into service and flew many missions patrolling for Japanese submarines and searching for the enemy fleet. The only armament these airplanes carried were depth charges to attack submarines.

Navy ensign Wesley Hoyt Ruth was having breakfast on Ford Island in the middle of Pearl Harbor when Japanese planes roared in and began dropping bombs. He leapt into the pilot seat of a Sikorsky JRS-1, a large amphibian plane with both landing gear and floaters. Five of the 10 Sikorskys in Hawaii launched and went looking for the Japanese fleet. Ruth and the four other pilots, along with one Marine, later received the Navy Cross. (Ruth died at the age of 101, on May 23, 2015.) They weren’t armed defensively at the time. They could carry depth charges to attack a submarine, but those proved of no use against an airplane. But there were crew members hanging out of the plane’s back door with firearms, though they could do little against the Japanese aircraft.

“It’s the airplane equivalent of the USS Arizona… When people see her, we remember the day and what happened to the country and the people who lost their lives that day.”

Vought OS2U Kingfisher Shipborne Reconnaissance / Scout Floatplane

The OS2U Kingfisher served as catapult-launched floatplanes capable of adapting to landing on airstrips as well with some modification to the landing system.

The Kingfisher series was powered by a single engine mounted at the fuselage front. The crew of two sat in separate cockpit areas with the pilot in front, just behind the engine and the rear gunner/observer in a mid-mounted cockpit position. The aircraft proved highly identifiable by the large centerline float pontoon running nearly the length of the fuselage and extended beyond the propeller. Two additional, smaller stabilizing floats remained mounted under each wing. The system could also be adapted to land on shore bases thanks to the interchangeable landing gear/float system.

Vought SB2U Vindicator Dive Bomber Aircraft

The Vought SB2U Vindicator was obsolete by the time of America’s involvement in World War 2 and relegated to training elements by 1943. It became the first monoplane dive bomber adopted by the U.S. Navy when first taken on in 1937. This signaled a “changing of the guard” over fading-out biplane types. Despite the Vindicator’s more advanced design, the aircraft became obsolete by the time of the American involvement in WWII. In all, about 260 went into production. These saw service with the USN, the United States Marine Corps (USMC), the French Navy and the British Royal Navy (Fleet Air Arm).

What other Pearl Harbor aircraft have you seen? Let us know — and be sure to book your Pearl Harbor Warbirds flight today!