Early May 2018 4Aviation undertook yet another Japan tour. This time, we combined the large Tokyo area (including Komatsu and Nagoya that is) with a visit to the Friendship day at MCAS Iwakuni.
The operational life of the F-4 Phantom is coming to an end in 2020 with the Japanese Air Self Defence Force. Because of this we centred this short tour around the famous Hyakuri airbase to enjoy this beautiful aircraft while it is still in full operational swing. We scheduled this base twice this week to be sure to get the best results.
The United States Marines Corps scheduled a Friendship Day at MCAS Iwakuni so we offered this as an addition to the original tour. It was a great week
In the early hours of Thursday 3 May, a group of nine Japan/Phantom lovers gathered at Amsterdam-Schiphol airport for the long journey to MCAS Iwakuni. For most it was the first visit to Japan. The first hop, to London-Heathrow, went smoothly. Their we saw our aircraft for the next stint with its engine cowlings open, not a good sign. The aircraft had just come in and the groundcrew noticed it was using too much oil. Not something you want to be without hallway to Japan. Another aircraft was prepared and with a four hour delay we got on our way. Not British Airways greatest hours as communication was non-existent with the passengers about what was going on. Our favourite employee at the JAL London office, Antje, was. However, from another level as she did everything possible to get us on the connecting flight from Tokyo to Hiroshima. Great job!
The flight to Tokyo-Haneda went smoothly and we landed late morning, on Friday 4 May, in Tokyo. With Japanese precision and efficiency, we went through customs and picked up our bags. Changed to the domestic terminal and boarded our flight to Hiroshima in the early afternoon. Just after take-off we saw the impressive mount Fuji without a single cloud, a rare moment as it is usually covered in clouds. At Hiroshima we met the other five of our group. The had flown to Japan on there own and took the original morning flight to Hiroshima. Pick-up of the rental cars went smoothly, and we went on our way to MCAS Iwakuni. Here we arrived around 17.30 and saw a KC-767 and two US Navy SH-60R come in for the show. It was time for us to go to the hotel and get some rest after a very long day. Our preferred hotel of choice in Japan is the Toyoko-Inn. You can find it at many cities around Japan, mostly next to the railway station.
On Saturday 5 May, we had an early start, as we will the rest of the week. We arrived at the MCAS Iwakuni gate around 06:30 as these would open around 07:00. And as we are in Japan they opened at exactly 07:00. There was already a big crowd and all the foreigners were picked out of the line and were treated to extra security measures by the Marines and NCIS. This took some time but gave the advantage we could go to the front of the line of baggage check. After a brisk walk we passed the US Navy F/A-18 flightline, who had just moved in from NAF Atsugi, and then walked on the static with a nice variety of US and Japanese aircraft. There was lots of space near the taxitrack and flightline where we set up camp to enjoy the rest of the day. Until just after midday the demonstrations are against the sun, but after that the sun moves behind you for great light on the aircraft. The weather was great all day with lots of blue skies and a few clouds at the end of the day. The US showed of their Pacific F-16 demo, MV-22 demo, F-35B demo and Marines demo with. Again, F-35B, MV-22 and KC-130J and F/A-18D. Japan send in an F-2 from Tsuiki, but that was something we better forget about. Light was not good and the ‘show’ consisted only of a couple of flybys in the distance.
As usual in Japan, the shows are over quite early and at around 15.45 the airfield was swept clean. We managed to stay ahead of the nice Marines so we could take clear shots of the aircraft in the static. The day was a big success, so we headed back to the hotel.
Today, Sunday 6 May, we planned to fly back to Tokyo in the afternoon. We slept in a little bit and drove to the city of Hiroshima. Here we visited the impressive Peace park and learn more than we already knew about the terrible events after the first atomic bomb was dropped over the city on 6 August 1945. Simply unbelievable what has happened here. Hope we all learn from this, but most probably not….
But, as always, life goes on and we boarded our plane to Tokyo-Haneda, where we arrived in the late afternoon. Pick up our last guest for this tour, fifteen in total, as well as another batch of cars and head straight for the Homac DIY store to buy all their stepladders. They are essential as the fences at Japanese bases are rather high.
Now we head north for the Toyoko Inn nearest to our main goal Hyakuri airbase.
On Monday 7 May at 07:30 we meet the owner of the famous towers of Hyakuri. From his patch of land next to the ramp and taxiway you have an excellent view. For our convenience there are a couple of towers to get an even better angle at the aircraft. The weather forecast for today, and even the next couple of days, was not very good. Lots of rain was predicted but till now it is still dry with high overcast.
As we arrive the QRA aircraft are doing their early morning start-up and test and the ramp is already filled with a nice variety of RF-4s, F-4EJs and the rescue units UH-60Js and U-125As. Unfortunately, 302 Hikotai, a F-4EJ Phantom unit, has only one aircraft on the ramp. The RF-4s are starting up and head out for the runway. They will fly missions all day as do the T-4 aircraft of 301 Hikotai and the rescue unit. The Phantoms of both F-4EJ units do not fly all day although there is lots of activity around them. Nevertheless, we are very happy as where else do you see green, blue and tan Phantoms these days? Operations are finished by 16:00 and then its starts flooding, good timing!
We drive south to our destination for the next day.
This Tuesday 8 May starts with a little hick-up as we have left the lights on with one of our cars, The rental car company quickly send someone out to solve the problem. The other two cars do not wait for this and go to nearby NAF Atsugi to see what is happening here these days. The base has become a little less interesting as the Carrier Air Wing has moved to MCAS Iwakuni. But still a lot of interesting Japan Maritime Self Defence Force units can still be found here. Activity was a bit slow in the morning and we saw a Japanese C-130, P-1 and two SH-60 take-off and one P-3 land. Surprise visitor was a USMC F/A-18D and Navy C-40, both departed.
Late morning it was time to move on to Iruma. We arrived during their lunchbreak and everything was quiet. But not for long as all their types took of and flew missions all afternoon. We saw several C-1, CH-47, T-4, U-4, U-125 and YS-11s in the air that afternoon. Just as yesterday it stayed dry all day and hell broke loose when we departed. Another great day.
We now had to drive a little over 400km to go to the western and of the main island.
On Wednesday 9 May it was time for the other main fighter type of the Japanese, the F-15. At Komatsu two regular squadrons and the famous aggressor squadron with F-15 are based. We had a look from the observation deck and noticed some weapon loading exercise was taking place. Several Eagles had their full complement of missiles und the wings and fuselage, an impressive sight. Because of this flying of the regular units started a bit later, the aggressors were up in the air early. At the terminal you are actually photographing against the sun, but as there was a high cloud base it made no difference. In the mean time both fighter squadrons send up many aircraft. We saw some blue skies and went to the approach end with the sun in our back. In the afternoon, when the sun swing around the runway, we found another spot near some sport fields while others in the group returned to the terminal. Today again full action with great opportunities.
At the end of the day more and more clouds come in from the sea and when we left it started to rain again. But these were the last drops of rain for the week. From now on blue skies and lots of sunshine.
It is already Thursday 10 May when we arrive at Gifu airbase in the early morning. There is a nice spot with a view of the airfield where we check out if anything is happening today. Close by we see a couple of C-2s and P-1s from the Kawasaki factory as well as the tail of a KC-767. In the distance we notice two F-2 and an F-15 of the testunit. A Hamamatsu based T-4 comes in for landing while a local UH-60J is dropping some parachutists. The we see the prototype T-4 taxi out as well as a blue F-2 with a grey F-4EJ and soon after that a prototype F-2B in a red/white/blue schema. We see them all take off and the it is time to move to a different spot to take some landing shots. This is only a short walking distance away. All aircraft return within the hour and make numerous touch and goes. We are also presented with a couple of visiting aircraft and are very happy with the result.
Originally, we had scheduled Hamamatsu airbase for the afternoon, this is a T-4 training base. But as we had seen T-4s every day so far, including some from Hamamatsu, we decided to go to Nagoya-Komaki to see something different. This is only a short distance away.
Upon arrival we were treated with an SH-60 visiting the Mitsubishi factory, a landing KC-767 and two C-130s taking off. Not a quiet place here!
There is a brand-new museum with a great viewing deck on its roof and here we stayed the rest of our day. We witnessed lots of activity with C-130s, KC-767s, U-125s, UH-60s coming and going. The museum is next to the ramp with all kinds of emergency services helicopters, like fire department, police, medevac, etc. It was great to see these helicopters depart below you or fly by at eye-level. The lady volunteer was very exited as the told us at 15:00 a Phantom would do a fly-by, together with two T-4s. We were not quite sure how to interpret this, as communication with the Japanese is often difficult due to lack of knowledge of the English language. But at three o’clock we saw a F-4EJ taxi from the Mitsubishi factory, nicely below us, to take-off. In the mean time one of two visiting T-4s had also taxied out to the runway. In hindsight we think two T-4s had come in to bring a crew for the F-4 which was ferried back to Hyakuri after maintenance. The take-off was spectacular as it carried no tanks and was very light. A couple more aircraft came in and it was time to start the long drive to Hyakuri again. We left at around 16:00 and arrived just before 22:00 at our hotel.
Friday 11 May was the last day of the trip. We met our contact again to let us in his patch of land of the towers. QRA Phantoms were doing their thing and the ramp was almost empty, except for some RF-4s. They started flying again, from the other end as early in the week. So very good for the variety. Within a couple of minutes, the ramp was full as the two cars were towing F-4s out like crazy. It was Phantastic as there was continuous flying, by all based units, till 16:00 on this lovely Phriday. This base gives you so many different possibilities to take pictures, it is simply unbelievable. It is very hard to believe that it will be all over by 2020 when all Phantoms will be retired and a single squadron of F-2s will replace them at Hyakuri.
All in the group had big smiles on their faces and were very happy. It was time to head back to Tokyo for our last night. We handed in our cars and went to the hotel and a last meal in town.
On Saturday 12 May we said our goodbyes to part of the group and took the shuttle bus to Haneda airport. Check-in went very smoothly, and BA was on time today. After an uneventful flight we arrived at Heathrow where the group got even smaller. The same nine, as on the first fay of the trip, took the flight to Amsterdam to conclude the trip to this magical country.