Exotic Wings No1: Japan

Exotic Wings No1: Japan

John F. Stiles travels out to The Land of The Rising Sun to take in all that Japan has to offer.

Having attended a COAP workshop at Newark Air Museum and been on a very enjoyable visit to Sion Air Base in Switzerland with Rich Cooper and Steve Comber, I decided it was time to take on a ‘Big One’. I had confidence it would be well organised, and the planning and local knowledge from previous visits by the team would make it successful. I have long been a fan of McDonnell Douglas Phantoms and it was now or never to catch a few whilst they were still in every day use with JASDF in Japan. Surely on a 10-day trip I would get one satisfactory image in sun?

The small group met up at Heathrow Terminal 3 at 7am on Sunday 10th April for a Finnair flight to Kagoshima via Helsinki and Tokyo. Rich Cooper was unavailable so Steve Comber was our leader, and as ever had everything under control. After hours of flying over Siberia we finally arrived in southern Japan at 4pm on the Monday. We just had time to pick up the hire vehicle and find a local Japanese ‘B&Q’ to buy some stepladders, before finding the hotel, dinner and bed.

We were up early on Tuesday and off to Nyutabaru Air Base ready for what might be an 8.30 launch. Alas nothing. Cloudy weather and not even any aircraft out of the hangers. Not time to panic yet though. We drove around the perimeter checking out photographic locations for future use and getting food supplies for later. By mid morning there was, thank goodness, a bit of movement airside and Steve's optimism and enthusiasm kept us cheerful.

After lunch, the sight of four Phantoms all taxiing out to play, even in cloudy weather, was worth the trip alone. The afternoon brought forth several F-15s and RF-4E Phantom launch and recoveries, so our morning recce had come in very useful. These fighter jets were interspersed with quite a few Kawasaki T4 Trainer flights. All bases in Japan seemed to have a large supply of these. We retired to our hotel in the evening to chat over our experiences and make plans for day two.

Day two was a lot brighter with a few breaks of sun and quite a lot of sorties being flown. As is the norm, we did get approached by security from on base and in true fashion, after showing our passports they departed in good humour. By 4pm the weather had closed in and it began to rain so we decided to set off early for the five-hour drive to Yukuhashi near to Tsuiki air base, our next scheduled location.

Thursday dawned bright and sunny and we made our way to a spotters’ location that a couple of our members had previously visited. After a few wrong turns through a housing complex, we found the location at the mouth of a river estuary. Picking our way through the ‘Beware: Snakes’ signs and a small wood, we found an idyllic spot, with sunbathing turtles and sea birds to keep us occupied during quiet periods, which turned out not to be many. There were several local photographers here and it would certainly not be an easy place to find without our COAP knowledge. We had another visit from base security on the airside of the fence, and then a car load of suited security men turned up on our side. We all had to fill in forms, show passports etc, and with a bit of sweet talking from Steve in his best Japanese accent they went away happy that we were not spies! There was a lot of action all day with the home fleet of Mitsubishi F2 fighters and T4 Trainers. With a crosswind they kept changing runway direction, which gave us a few varied photographic angles, especially with the F2’s very colourful yellow brake chutes. Before the end of the day, and with the sun going around, we went to the other end of the airfield which had far easier-to-find photographic locations.

We then took a collective decision to change our proposed itinerary for the next day and go back to the Phantom base at Nyutabaru in search of a sunny shot. This would be instead of going to a training base at Ozuki, so a bit of swift logistical planning from Steve saw us head off once more.

Well, it was on the 12th floor of this Miyazaki Sky Hotel tower that COAP came up with the real excitement that is in all their advertising… At 1am there was an earthquake at Kumamoto, some 200km away. There were nine room shakes, with the last of 7.3 magnitude at its centre. The earth certainly moved, and so did the bed. I think the others in the party were more concerned than I was, grabbing their passports and cameras for a quick getaway. I decided that running down 12 flights of stairs and into the street I would probably either have a heart attack, or get killed by falling masonry, so stayed put and trusted in Japanese architecture and design. All was well. A good talking point over breakfast though, before another bash at F-4s on the Friday. We had a reasonably good day of photography here before the gloom set in late on and we made an early departure and another drive to Kanoya.

Saturday's scheduled museum visit was interrupted with a bit of weekend action on the base. Some earthquake relief effort and troop movements were going on with Hercules and Sikorsky UH-60J helicopter departures. We spent the rest of the day at the JASDF Museum there, and then set off to Kagoshima airport for an internal flight to Tokyo, and part two of the visit. Amazingly they let us onto this fairly empty flight with our ladders, so we did not have to ditch them at this point as expected.

The second half of the trip started on Sunday 17th with a visit to the museum at Hamamatsu. A relaxing day, with an added bonus there of demonstration engine runs of an F-15 and F2 dragged over from the base. We then spent the Monday morning by the base watching mostly T4s, an E767 AWACS and C1 transports before setting off on another drive for Iruma. This is a busy transport base and because of the ongoing earthquake relief, it seemed exceptionally so. We spent a sunny morning on the Tuesday along a fence location known by our COAP guides, viewing many varied aircraft types coming and going. As the sun went round unfavourably, we set off on another drive to Hyakuri, reported to be Phantom heaven, for our final two days in Japan. It was, and the weather was kind. There are many locations here all around the base and we made best use of all, guided by Steve. F-4s, F-15s, T4s, plus a few transports. There was even a fairly accessible engine testing facility, which we were able to observe over the fence, testing a Phantom. After another quick brush with security, we gave the JASDF testing team, on completion of the test, a round of applause, resulting in a lot of bowing. Another memorable moment. On the Thursday evening we drove back to Tokyo and returned the car (with the steps) ready for our journey home on the Friday.

My thanks to Steve Comber and the COAP Team for organising such a memorable trip and guiding us to all the top vantage points, which have obviously taken a lot of visits to find. Also, for the miles of driving that Steve did during this fortnight, and for his enthusiasm which is very infectious. 

One final memory from a wonderful adventure. Whilst travelling up in a lift after breakfast one morning with a Japanese couple and their young child, they asked where I was from. When I said England they replied ‘Ah James Bond!’ That was me, especially when we were whizzing around a foreign country in search of new targets and surviving natural disaster!