Japan II 2019
Our Japan “fighter” tour started mid-October and we visited almost all the fighter bases in Japan. This was the third time we organised a Japan tour that focused on the fighter bases.
After a relaxing start, five of the group gathered on Saturday 19 October 2019 at the Schiphol meeting point for their flights to Sapporo Chitose Airport, via Helsinki and Fukuoka. Each connection went very smoothly, as did the actual flights, and accompanied by a little light spotting at each interim destination, Chitose was soon reached, even if it was now the next day.
After meeting three more team members who had arrived via a different route from Germany, the car rental pick up went well and the group were soon on their way to deprive the local DIY store of some step ladders. These were immediately put to good use in capturing images of our first aircraft in Japan, a Kuwait State Airbus A340 no less.
In between times, and adding to the variety of the day, a rapid visit to a local model shop had meant extra weight in one of the team’s suitcases. The day ended with a smooth check-in at the hotel, a delicious meal and beer at a local eatery and a very welcome bed for the night.
With a good night’s sleep under their belts and feeling fully refreshed, the group, with blue skies overhead, left the hotel early on Monday 21 October. The opportunity was taken to photograph the Kuwaiti A340 again, this time in perfect morning sunlight, before moving to the first position of the day.
As expected, a wave of ten F-15s took off, all of which were recorded for posterity and then some of the group chose to move location for the return of the aircraft. In between, the hectic schedule was maintained by picking up an additional team member from the nearby civil airport. Yet another location was found to keep the sun at our backs for the afternoon flying sessions, again with the group splitting up to take advantage of the various camera angles available.
Two of the group chose to visit Okadama airfield during the lunchtime lull in flying, but the expected JGSDF helicopters could not be seen. However, a rare Hokkaido Air SAAB 340 was photographed in beautiful light. Sadly, the second batch of four F-15s turned off the runway early, just giving ‘normal’ shots to everyone, but the third wave of ten fighter’s surpassed expectations in the fading evening light, with crews waving and air brakes flapping, as they taxied past our waiting cameras.
Well satisfied with the day’s proceedings, the group moved on to the next hotel. A local restaurant provided bowls of delicious noodles for dinner.
Today, Tuesday 22 October, was the coronation of Naruhito, the new Japanese emperor, and therefore it was a public holiday. Whilst this meant less traffic on the roads, it also meant no military flying either, so, after a late breakfast, we visited two Huey relics in Sapporo before heading back to the airport at Chitose.
Luckily, a UAE government 777 and an Uzbekistan 767 saved the day in terms of aviation rarities to be photographed. Definitely a case of quality not quantity. As usual, the JAL staff handled nine step-ladder-carrying foreigners with their usual grace, and before long, we were on our way to Aomori to pick up the new rental cars, before driving to our Hachinohe hotel for the evening. As the hotel was near the station, some bullet train photos had to be taken of course!
Our first port of call today, 23 October 2019, was the JMSDF base of Hachinohe, in order to photograph the P-3 taking off for its patrol. Sure enough, within five minutes of our arrival, we had captured it in its full glory.
Next, it was a fast journey to Misawa, starting with the Chinook apron, and then positioning ourselves on the approach for the base F-2s, F-35s and USAF F-16s. To our surprise though, the first aircraft to pass in front of us were six USMC F/A-18Fs from VMFA(AW)-224, The Bengals, including the CAG bird and XOs plane. Cue happy smiling faces all round!
An E-2C and C-12F added to the morning pleasures of this great hobby then later on in the day, the big surprises continued with four EA-18G Growlers from VAQ-138 landing in perfect sunlight. The sun also played ball with two JASDF F-2s, one of which was a two-seater; and what a difference the lighting made to the blue colours on the airframe.
Then came yet another treat in the form of a US Navy P-8 Poseidon, bringing the total of types seen in the day to 12, with over 70 individual passes. All-in-all, a typical Misawa day!
Following much the same routine as yesterday, we started at Hachinohe on Thursday 24 October. We were rewarded with two P-3s taking off, one of which made several low passes over the airfield.
Upon arrival at Misawa, we were soon in action again, taking pictures of USMC Hornets and JASDF F-2s landing, one of which was a beautifully marked celebration of 3Hikotai thanking the city of Misawa for their support over the years. There then followed a long lull in the flying, so we visited the nearby aircraft museum before heading back to our favourite photo spot for the afternoon’s action of yet more Hornets, F-2s and F-16s along with a USMC C-130 and an unusual MD-11 Western Global freighter. Once the light had gone, we left for the airport and our flight to Haneda Airport.
Today can be summed up in one word, wet. Unfortunately, a day-long rainstorm of biblical proportions spoiled our fun at Hyakuri, however we still managed to visit the airport for the two preserved F-4s and a local camera shop to buy a couple of lenses. By 15.00, the group agreed that it was best to return to the hotel to dry out!
Unfortunately, our planned excursion for Saturday 26 October had to be changed as the Shimofusa air show had been cancelled due to the recent typhoon. Being flexible, we decided to visit Shimofusa anyway to see if there were any aircraft visible on the apron. A few P-3 serials were noted but as expected, no flying action was seen. However, we did see our first large spider on the fence!
After that it was tourist time, with a visit to the world’s largest Buddha statue at Ushiku. With many photos taken, we then drove around Tokyo to see if there was anything interesting happening at Yokota air base, with some of the group bagging an Osprey landing. Apart from that, it was as quiet as the grave.
Our nearby hotel was easily reached, where we then met local friends for a yakatori meal and some time checking out old 1970s aircraft photo albums. Great fun was of course had by all, talking about the good old days and aircraft in general.
Today, Sunday 27 October, started with another visit to Yokota to finish off any visible serials. We managed to find a couple of spots where 14 C-130s and four Ospreys could be easily seen, and as there was no flying action, we then drove to the Tokorazawa Aviation Museum.
The museum itself was as good as ever, but parking was an issue as there was some kind of food festival happening in the park nearby. This all added to a good atmosphere and once we had looked around, it was yet more serial hunting at Iruma air base.
Our next stop was the amazing Keystone model shop. It may be small, but it is amazingly well stocked, thus inducing some money spending. Our lazy day ended at our new hotel, in preparation for better action tomorrow at Hyakuri.
On Monday 28 October, after three days of very little aviation photography, the group were up early and on the way to the famous Peace Towers at Hyakuri AB. Four recce Phantoms were towed out of their hangers by 08.00 but the first flight of the day went to a U-125 of the Hyakuri rescue flight. Soon afterwards though, two specially marked RF-4s were airborne after taxing right past our waiting cameras, both in perfect sunlight.
There soon followed a procession of F-4EJs from 301Hikotai, various visitors including a T-4 and C-1, as well as the base UH-60s. Once the sun had moved to face us, we changed location to the opposite side of the airfield, to join the many locals enjoying their hobby, just like us.
Yet again, the flying action continued unabated, with a visiting C-2 and KC-767 plus multiple Phantom sorties. By 16.00, we had returned to the Peace Towers to round off a magnificent day with some night photography of the evening flying training.
Fully satisfied, the group returned to the hotel for a celebratory meal and drink, made all the merrier by it being one of our party’s birthday.
Sadly, normal weather resumed at Hyakuri today, as it was pouring with rain. Although our group made its way to the air base, we quickly decided instead, to go straight to Haneda airport for some spotting.
This was a wise decision as the motorway traffic was horrendous, but at least our check-in with ANA went exceptionally smoothly for our flight to Fukuoka.
The pleasant experience continued when we realised that we were flying on a 2020 Olympics specially marking B777-200. It was such a shame that it was too dark outside to photograph.
With good weather promised for the next few days, it was time for Team Japan to get serious on Wednesday (30 October). We left the hotel at 06.00 to ensure that we got to the famous Tsuiki sea wall in time for the morning launches.
We arrived to the sound of aircraft jet engines but it was only a test run, followed by silence for an hour. Just as doubts about it being a down-day were beginning to surface, they started up again and four 6Hikotai F-2s taxied past us bathed in perfect sunlight. Shortly thereafter, another six followed, this time from 8Hikotai. With landings taking place too, there was plenty of action to go around.
A quick visit to the local aviation patch shop maintained our attention before the afternoon waves started all over again, still in excellent light. With so many aircraft in the air, we were able to change locations in order to try alternative types of photos. Even a visiting T-7 attracted our attention.
By the end of the day, we had seen over a dozen different F-2s flying, so being well satisfied, we headed back to our hotel for the evening.
Rather amazingly, it is impossible to order a taxi in Fukuoka for 05.00 in the morning, so the group was up early to hail some on the street. Guess what? Every other car was a taxi. The ‘fun’ continued when we found out that the airport doors did not open until 05.30 either and that the check-in opened at 06.00. Only in Japan!!
However, our flight to Komatsu arrived exactly on time on Thursday 31 October and the car rental collection went very quickly, so much so, that we were at the end of the runway 30 minutes later, to see our first JASDF aircraft the day, a Blue Whale, otherwise known as a Kawasaki C-2.
A second one followed quickly afterwards and then the fast-jet action really started with two F-15 aggressors, both captured in wonderful light. A Hamamatsu-based T-4 landed just before eight F-15s left for a sortie over the nearby ranges. At lunchtime, we made a quick visit to the local aviation museum, both to see the aircraft and to check for patches and T-shirts in the shop.
Back at the end of the runway, there followed a cornucopia of F-15s from the two home based squadrons and most importantly for us, the aggressor unit too. In all, we saw seven different colour schemes during the day, excluding the standard grey markings, so you can imagine how happy we were as we left at dusk for our nearby hotel and a well-earned meal.
The weather in Komatsu was due to turn for the worse around 10.00 on Friday (1 November), but with amazing 4Aviation flexibility, we had a plan!
We were up early and at our favourite spot, ready for the first wave of aggressor Eagles to arrive. Once the three flying ones had been captured, we set off for Gifu, an air base that wasn’t on our original itinerary, in the hope of some afternoon action. The thought being that if all else failed, we could go to the excellent nearby Kakamigahara museum. Unfortunately, all else did fail, with only a T-7 making an appearance at the base, but the newly renovated museum proved to be even better than before.
Plan B then fell into place. A late visit to Komaki resulted in a C-130 landing in front of us and two KC-767s doing touch and goes in beautiful evening sunlight. This, along with many numbers from the aircraft on the ramp, meant that the day ended very much on a high, only to be taken yet further with a pre-meal visit to a bookshop in Nagoya where some superb Japanese F-4 books were purchased by the group members.
With a more relaxing day planned (Saturday 2 November), we set off for Komaki once again, in order to finish off any serials on the various ramps and to visit the new Aichi Museum of Flight. Whilst the museum was small, the exhibits were well presented, especially the YS-11 and EH-101 Merlin.
Outside the base, we were also rewarded with a landing rescue flight U-125 and two distant JGSDF UH-1s.
Next came a drive to Hamamatsu, to turn our focus onto the excellent air force museum. After a couple of hours exploring the displayed aircraft both inside and outside, we left for our hotel near to Yokota air base. Of course, Mt Fuji provided an excellent stopping point along the way.
The evening was spent listening to the rugby world cup final, before we headed to our beds, in order to be up early once again, to visit the Iruma air show.
Up before dawn, we set off for the one and only Iruma air show on Sunday 3 November. Taking our place in the queue, the time soon went by before we were being marched onto the apron in a very orderly fashion. The early rise paid off, as we were among the first of over 200,000 attendees to enter the ramp area.
The static line-up was similar to previous years, the more colourful highlights being a Matsushima F-2B, a Miho C-2 and of course, a specially marked RF-4E from Hyakuri. All of the base aircraft were well displayed with a JGSDF AH-1 and JMSDF SH-60K being notable non air force visitors. The police had an EC-145 on display too but sadly there was no USAF participation.
As is usual in Japan, the flying display was fairly limited, but where else would you see four C-1s in close formation followed by a low level para-drop? Unfortunately, the low cloud prevented the Blue Impulse display team from completing their full routine, but at least our group managed some additional photos of the departing aircraft, before heading back to the waiting vehicles.
Yet again, on Monday (4 November) the group were up bright and early for our flight to Okinawa, in order to hopefully see USAF C-130s, KC-135s and of course, ZZ tail-coded F-15s, at Kadena air base. The check-in process began with the ANA staff bowing to us, a lesson in respect that other airlines could use sometimes!
Despite dull and overcast weather, the home-based aircraft were all easily captured as expected, from a variety of locations around the base. The larger aircraft were doing circuits and bumps training whilst the fighters returned from their own missions, including all three squadron commander’s specially marked aircraft.
Later in the afternoon, some more unusual aircraft were also noted, including an E-8, CP-140, a ‘Bank of Utah’ DHC-8 (yeah, right!), an EP-3, RC-135W and a very rare RC-135U. Our fifteenth, and final, type of the day was a Cessna 172, which is now just about passing the end of the runway!
We began our final photography day, Tuesday 5 November, at the end of the Naha Airport runway, firstly seeing many of the colourful airliners as they landed, including some specially marked aircraft.
These were interspersed with three JASDF F-15s, a Chinook and a coastguard Falcon 2000, but then it all went very quiet on the military base.
Whilst the airliners kept us amused, it wasn’t what we had come for, so it was with great relief when four F-15s eventually took off. Just as doubts about their return were setting in, they appeared before our lenses to brighten the day.
Later on, in amongst the airliners, we had a few more F-15s landing along with a P-3, E-2 and a Falcon 2000 in beautiful evening light. As we were putting our cameras away, yet more F-15s took off and then landed less than an hour later. Of course, we stayed to photograph them too.
Once they had been recorded, we reluctantly felt that enough was enough, so we headed off to our final Japanese evening meal and flight back to Tokyo.
After a late night, we took a relaxing shuttle bus ride to Haneda Airport on Wednesday (6 November) for our flight back to London, then onwards to other European destinations.
With happy smiles we bade each other farewell, of course vowing to return to Japan, as is always the case when people visit this incredible country for the first time.