In April 2019 a 4Aviation group of 16 photographers visited Japan for our two-week signature tour around the country again.
For the 2019 April Japan tour a group of 16 people were brought together to participate. On Saturday 6 April 2019, 13 of them were ready at Amsterdam-Schiphol for a direct flight to Tokyo-Narita with KLM. After arrival at Narita (Sunday 7 April already) the normal duties were taken care off; meeting the other participants that had made their way to Tokyo on their own, getting some cash and arrange the rental cars. By pre-arrangement the rental car company had prepared all our stepladders (in storage there) already and we loaded them into the cars along with the luggage. We were ready!
We still had a lot of driving to do today, since we wanted to start at Misawa on Monday morning. That driving took the major part of the afternoon, stopping halfway in Funaoka to visit a famous cherry blossom ‘spot’ (just a week too early to witness full blossom). We ended up at our hotel in Hachinohe by the end of the afternoon. After a good meal we were to get some sleep.
Monday morning (8 April) saw the group rise and shine early. A quick breakfast and then to the navy base in Hachinohe to witness and capture an Orion taking off before heading to Misawa. Weather cooperative but it took some time before the activity started. Unfortunately the WW F-16s didn’t fly today, but we saw F-2s (Misawa ones and visiting from Tsuiki), F-35s (the day before the first one crashed), E-2s, CH-47s, P-8s, etc., etc. We had to move twice because of runway changes, but that didn’t really cause a problem. After we concluded that we had seen enough we drove south again, ending up in Ichinoseki.
On 9 April, Tuesday morning, we had another early start (no option to sleep in during a Japan tour). We still had an hour or so of driving to before we got to Matsushima. Weather was good again, but that was not the forecast for the next day. The weather forecast for Wednesday was dramatic and since we were aiming for Hyakuri on Wednesday we decided to cut short our visit to Matsushima and head for Hyakuri on Tuesday afternoon already. At Matsushima we waited for the first wave of F-2Bs to return and then left.
The drive towards Hyakuri was smooth and we ended up at Hyakuri in time to capture several departures and recoveries of RF-4s of 301 and F-4s of 501Hikotai in still brilliant weather. We stayed until dusk before heading to the hotel. By now we had visited three bases without seeing a single T-4 in the air. It turned out the type was grounded due to a recent mishap.
Looking out of the window on Wednesday morning (10 April) confirmed that we made a wise decision to visit Hyakuri on Tuesday afternoon already. The weather forecast was correct. Very cloudy, dark and constant rain… Furthermore we found out about an F-35 crash the night before. Despite all this we ended up at the Hyakuri towers anyway. The landlord opened up the small building and lit the oil heater for us. Besides some towing and taxying between the platform and the QRA sheds nothing happened. We couldn’t conclude whether this was as a result of the bad weather or the F-35 crash the night before. After a couple of hours we had enough and drove to Shimofusa, hoping for different weather and some Orion activity. One Orion landed when we were there and after visiting a couple of wrecks & relics we ended up in the hotel rather early today.
Since the weather for Thursday 11 April was said to be good again we had changed our plan for Thursday a little. Instead of going to Iruma in the morning we decided to give it another go at Hyakuri in the morning first. The weather was good, but the activity was limited to towing and taxying between the platform and the QRA sheds again (possibly as a result of the F-35 crash still). This did result in some very fine shots by the way! Concluding that things would probably not change soon we drove to Iruma in the afternoon. Our visit there was very rewarding! Lots of activity, despite the T-4s not operating, with C-1s, C-2, EC-1, U-4, U-125s and YS-11.
Friday morning (12 April) started with a short visit to Shizuhama. Several T-7s were outside, but we didn’t really wait long for activity, since we have a lot of things on our mind for today. Next stop was Hamamatsu. Just for the museum, since the T-4s were grounded (which we were able to confirm by seeing the empty platform and closed hangars). Since it was still rather early in the day we opted for Gifu, hoping to catch the recovery of the second wave of the day. We managed to do so. This resulted in an F-15, an F-2B, an F-4EJ and the silver C-1. An extra, since we planned to only visit Gifu in the second week. The last base for today was Komaki. We spent a couple of hours there and the base gave us what we came for; C-130s, KC-767s and HH-60. After Komaki we drove to east for a couple of hours to end up in Himeji for the next night in a hotel.
Saturday 13 April started in bright sunshine and an outside visit to the immense Himeji Castle. Combined with the Cherry Blossom this was an awesome sight! We then took to the road again, covering the 300 kilometres to MCAS Iwakuni. Although a Saturday, we saw the arrival of several Hornets and two KC-135s and two Hornets took off. Unfortunately they were operating from the wrong end, limiting photo options. After Iwakuni we drove to our hotel close to Hiroshima.
On Sunday (14 April) we started the day with a visit to the impressive Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. We never skip this visit when near Hiroshima. The park is built on an open field that was created by the explosion of the first nuclear attack in 1945. After the park we paid a short visit to MCAS Iwakuni again before continuing towards Kyushu Island in the afternoon. Our hotel was located in Nakatsu.
Ready for action again on Monday morning (15 April) we were very happy to see the clear blue skies when driving to Tsuiki. Panic struck for a short time when we noticed a lot of trucks and excavators on base… luckily this was only to create an extra runway, and the base was still active. Very active actually. Both Hikotais (6 and 8) sent several F-2s in the air several times. The runway direction they were using meant that the F-2s came taxying towards the quay wall after landing, still carrying the dragchutes. All in all a very enjoyable day, with some visitors as well. We left the island of Kyushu again at the end of the day, spending the night in Shimonoseki.
Main target for Tuesday 16 April was spending time near MCAS Iwakuni. That meant the we did not stay long at the two training bases in the morning (Ozuki, with the Navy T-5s and Hofu, with Air Force T-7s). On arrival at MCAS Iwakuni we had to conclude that they were using runway 02, which is not the preferred one. With the former Atsugi Carrier Air Wing at home (it is an Iwakuni Carrier Air Wing now), the base was extremely busy. During the time we were there were hardly 5 minutes without activity. Hornets flew a lot (mainly USNavy, the USMC only sent up two), F-35s were very active, as were the Japanese (with Orions, US-2 and U-36). Add some E-2s, C-2s, choppers and some visitors to that and you have a very enjoyable day. If only they had changed the runway direction a little earlier. As soon as we left we saw some F-35s landing from the north… they did it on purpose ;-) We still had to drive quite some time before we got to our hotel, strategically positioned for the next day.
Wednesday (17 April) started early again. No surprises there. We drove the last kilometres to get to the army base Akeno. During the couple of hours we spent there we were able to capture various types of helicopters that the JGDSF use; CH-47, UH-60, H-6, AH-1, UH-1, TH-480. While on our way to Gifu after leaving Akeno we were informed by others that activity at Gifu was very slow that day. A quick consultation with the group on a highway service area resulted in a change of plan. We would continue to Komatsu on this Wednesday and visit Gifu the next day instead. It took some time to get to Komatsu, but the change of plan paid off. We arrived just in time to see all three units operate in the afternoon (including the colourful Hiko Kyodotai ones). Being there in the afternoon also meant we could go the spot where they line up and touch down with backlight. To get to our hotel we had to drive back a little, since we weren’t supposed to be at Komatsu already.
On Thursday morning 18 April we went back to Komatsu for the morning wave. Unfortunately activity was quite slow. Only 306Hikotai launched four Eagles. Possibly because they had night flying scheduled for today. Since we still had to visit Gifu we didn’t linger around too long and headed for the Japanese test base. We decided to go for a spot along the runway instead of the approach. We were there in time to see the recovery of the second wave and the launch and recovery of the third wave. Various aircraft types flew, but the best were the three different F-4EJs of course that participated! We knew that it would be a long day, since we needed to cover quite a long distance still, but the conditions were too good to leave early.
Friday (19 April) was our final ‘full operational’ day of the tour already. During the tour we had decided to try a visit to Hyakuri once again. So, we had arranged for the tower area to be open again in the morning. The weather was fine, but eventually we still didn’t get the RF-4s of 501Hikotai taxi by while we were on the towers. Only 301Hikotai flew this day. We did get various cool shots from them launching, taxying, landing, etc. Around 2PM, when we were on the other side of runway already, things seemed to be closing down for today. We decided to leave and head for Atsugi. On arrival there we saw a couple of P-1s and P-3s return form their sorties. Also, on Friday evening, around 6PM two LC-90s of 61Kokutai took off to start doing training rounds…
For Saturday 20 April we had planned to go to Atsugi and Yokota. And so we did. We started at Atsugi, only 5 kilometres from the hotel. A couple of P-1s flew, a C-130 of the Japanese Navy and two Hornets (back from Iwakuni for the weekend probably, together with two others) flew a local mission. Locals told us that two Hornets were supposed to take off later that day again and land at Yokota. That was the case indeed, because we saw them come in at Yokota later that day, after we had repositioned there from Atsugi. These were also the last military aircraft we would capture during the tour. After leaving Yokota we drove towards Narita for the final night in a hotel.
After repacking all things, and handing in the cars on Sunday morning (21 April), we only needed to hop on the shuttle bus that would take us to the airport. The return flight was uneventful again and after arrival at Schiphol we said goodbye to each other. And although we felt as if we were entitled to just a tiny bit more it was a very good tour again!