Taiwan & Japan
For the third year in a row we combined Asia’s finest in one tour. Taiwan & Japan.
On Saturday 30 November, after being welcomed by 4Aviation and a smooth check-in at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, the group gathered for their China Airlines Airbus A350 flight to Taipei. The service was excellent and the flight time of twelve hours soon went by, landing in Taiwan early on Sunday morning.
After collecting our VW rental van, we went straight to Hsinchu AB to see if there was any Sunday morning (1 December) flying activity and within an hour, we had seen ten Mirage 2000s landing in perfect sunlight. Deeming this to be a great success, we then went wreck and relic hunting, bagging a couple of Starfighters and an F-5 on the way to a brief stop at Songshan Airport, where we also saw our first air force Beech 1900, along with some airliners.
As we knew that we had a reasonably long drive to Hualien, we took in just one more Starfighter on the way to the hotel, to complete an impressive tally for day one.
After a great night’s sleep and a good breakfast on Monday 2 December, the group arrived at Hualien AB, in very windy conditions, just in time to capture a landing C-130. This was followed by a Beech 1900 and Mandarin Airlines ATR-72. Luckily, the wind did not put off the F-16 pilots and we were treated to fourteen different Fighting Falcons landing throughout the morning, interspersed with two more Hercules, a Fokker 50 and the Beech 1900 again. However, the highlight for everyone was an F-5F which did a couple of touch and go circuits. Unfortunately, the RF-5s didn’t play ball and stayed in their hangers all day. Frankly, the way the wind was blowing, we didn’t blame them! However, the Taiwanese navy were kind enough to give us a low level fly past with one of their S-70s, again in reasonable light.
Our journey to the next hotel included two detours to cover some preserved aircraft in Hualien, including four in an aviation technical school. Our satnav also took us on an ‘unusual’ ride down a twisting road to reach the hotel, but the F-5 landing right over our heads in the dark, will remain a longer lasting memory. Once at the hotel, check in went smoothly and we were soon admiring our large and very well equipped rooms. As usual, we went out for an evening meal and then it was off to bed in anticipation of another exciting day.
As usual, we were up and about early, but Tuesday 3 December was to be different, as all we had to do was walk to the roof of our hotel in order to photograph aircraft! By 08.20, we had seen over twenty F-5s from the squadrons based at Taitung AB, lifting off right in front of us, including single-seaters, two-seaters and pairs take-offs. To nearly top it all, breakfast then arrived on our roof-top terrace. In order to make the most of our opportunities, after a couple more hours of relaxing aviation photography, the group decided to move location, so we packed up and drove to the end of the runway, again timing it perfectly for the returning aggressor F-5s in their unusual colour schemes.
As lunchtime approached, we drove around three wreck and relic sites, seeing a two-seat F-104, F-5 and a Trislander. Also noted at the local airport, were two Twin Otters. Back at the military air base, the flying and photography continued until we felt that we had had our fill, at which time we left for a long, but straightforward, journey to our hotel in Tainan, finishing off another successful day with an excellent bowl of fresh noodles and a cold beer.
Today (Wednesday 4 December) began with a short drive to the end of the runway at Tainan AB to see if there were any flying preparations taking place. Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that nothing was going to immediately happen, so we moved to plan B, a visit to nearby Chiayi AB. This was far better, as within ten minutes of our arrival, we were photographing landing F-16s, including one with a brightly coloured anniversary tail marking. A UH-60 flying nearby kept the spotters happy as did a landing C-130, Beech 1900 and an ATR-72, heading for the civilian side of the airfield. Fourteen different F-16s and Plan B lasted until 13.30, then we decided to relocate yet again, to go back to our spot at Tainan AB. Unfortunately, the weather intervened and the rain forced us to come up with Plan C.
With a tour of the local wreck and relics, we managed to see four UH-1s, an S-2, another Trislander, an F-100, two F-86 Sabres, a PL-2 and a Sikorsky S76. Not a bad haul considering that this was only in three locations and some were unknown! We even managed a quick speech and a round of applause for the students at the industrial college. As it was raining more heavily now, we drove straight to our hotel in Kaohsiung for an early night. After the very fast check-in, we were very pleasantly surprised by our jacuzzi and steam-shower equipped rooms. Only the best for 4Aviation!
Tearing ourselves away from the luxury, on Thursday 5 December, we made our way to Gangshan AB and its hoard’s of training aircraft. Initially, we parked outside what we thought was a temple, but in fact it turned out to be a school. Perhaps the Micky Mouse statues gave it away? We then found a nearby excellent high balcony viewing point which enabled us to see the unfolding drama at the last chance point. Over the next two hours, we were treated to seventeen T-34s and eighteen AT-3s taking off, doing circuits and then landing. Such a large amount of aircraft also allowed us to change positions to obtain alternative interesting action pictures. Once we were fully satisfied, we moved off to Pingtung North AB to try our luck at Orion and Hawkeye hunting. Taxing engine sounds soon got us excited, but it was not to be, as the aircraft took off away from us. However, on approach at the same time was a P-3 Orion of the Taiwanese navy. Once this had been captured, we only had a Hawkeye to go, but it was not to be.
Our next destination today was the air force museum collection back in Gangshan. The outside storage area was photographed just as the predicted rain started, so the excellent exhibits at the indoor museum were very welcome. After a couple of hours inside, we then drove north to our hotel in Taichung for the next two nights.
Friday 6 December, the weather forecast was to be very wet, and unfortunately, it turned out to be true. The group agreed that it would be best to have a wreck and relic tour day, so we set off on a long and winding journey around the suburbs of Taichung, visiting over ten sites. We saw Starfighters, F-5s, C-119s, F-100s, a PL-1, and an A-CH-1 (hidden in a temple garden). It also seems that every preserved aircraft is surrounded by tanks too, so they soon became easier to spot. By 15.00 we had covered everything we wanted to and as it was still raining, we made for the local model shop and then the hotel.
On Saturday (7 December), after a leisurely breakfast, free of Chinese tourists eating everything at the buffet table unlike the previous morning, the group were poised and ready near the end of the runway at Taichung Airport, also known as CCK. First we had a variety of Airbuses and ATRs from the local airlines, which of course kept us happy, but it wasn’t until we heard two Ching Kuos take off that we really smiled. However, after nearly two hours, they had not returned. Bearing in mind the very windy conditions that we were experiencing and the normal mission length of just one hour, we decided that they had gone elsewhere, so we walked back to our van. Guess what? Just as we reached the van, one landed! We quickly grabbed our cameras and photographed the second aircraft, which left us smiling again, as this was our first Ching Kuo of the trip.
With that done, we left for the Air Force One cafe at Songshan Airport in Taipei. After a tour leader induced detour, for which the satnav was to blame of course, we arrived and did a little spotting. In no time at all, we had to leave for our onward flight to Naha on the island of Okinawa, for the next part of our exciting holiday.
Following a great tip-off, the group decided to arrive at the Naha air show, on Sunday 8 December, at 10.00 rather than queue for hours beforehand. Our taxis dropped us off at the gate just as the crowds were dispersing into the show, so we photographed the gate guards first, before strolling, in a leisurely way, onto the platform. The morning light was in just the right place for taking some superb photos of the E-2s and an Orion before we moved on to the show itself. As with most Japanese air shows, there was a selection of home-based aircraft, including many F-15s, T-4s, E-2s and P-3s. Visitors included an F-2 from 8 squadron at Tsuiki, a C-2 from Miho and a KC-767 from Komaki, as well as a specially marked RF-4 from Hyakuri. Sadly, the F-4 that accompanied it was just plain grey, but very welcome nonetheless. The local rescue flight was also present with blue UH-60s, U-125s and a Chinook on static display.
The flying was, as ever, limited but included a spirited scramble and flypasts of fighters and patrol aircraft. With this action and a non-stop stream of colourful airliners landing and taxing in front of us all day, our memory cards were filled up rapidly. Once the show closed, to the continuous strains of Auld Lang Syne, the usual ‘security rope walk’ began, as we were herded out through the gate. Of course, we were in last place to leave as the evening light was even better than that of the morning, and so yet again, many marvellous pictures were taken, this time free of crowds. A walk to the local monorail station and a short journey to the airport soon meant that we were able to quickly pick up our rental car for the coming three days.
With the excitement of the air show over, Monday 9 December was back to spotting and photography at the end of runways. We headed for our favourite spot at Kadena AB and were soon in action taking images of multiple ZZ-coded F-15s and a visiting C-130 from Yokota AB on mainland Japan. This, along with a USAF MC-130, a USMC C-130 and a couple of UC-12s, kept us entertained all morning. By lunchtime, at the local diner of course, the sun had become more awkward for photography, so we changed location to the spotters cafe overlooking the airfield. We were immediately in action again, with a landing RC-135W and yet more Eagle take-offs. These were followed by the local KC-135 tankers leaving and a few spectacular low passes straight down the main runway by the MC-130 Hercules. A couple of the group decided that they wanted to visit a nearby model shop and during the return journey, a very large patch shop was discovered. This prompted a return journey for more of the group. All part of the 4Aviation service! As the light finally faded away, a ZZ-coded AWACS took off; causing mass panic to those in the group that had already packed away their camera gear. However, we were successful yet again, and with that done, we made our way back to the hotel for a relaxing evening meal.
With the sun now shining brilliantly, it was time to make for Naha air base on Tuesday (10 December). Some of the group were dropped off at the airport terminal for a few hours, in order to make use of the photo positions there, whilst the others continued on to a wonderful spot next to the azure sea. The early morning airliner traffic included a few special colour schemes, but the main interest for us was, of course, the military aircraft. The first landing was a U-125 from the Naha air rescue flight, followed by two tight-turning F-15s. After a one hour lull in the military flying, the sky was suddenly full of returning Eagles and this set the pace for the day. Another U-125 and a T-4 kept us entertained; in amongst airliners bringing tourists to and from the island, but by now the sun was overhead, so we decided to change position in order to be ready for the afternoon action. Naha is famed for its afternoon light and it was an absolute pleasure to make use of every available photo spot in order to reap the benefits of a perfect sunny day. We had yet more F-15s, P-3s, and a rare CH-101 in the distance, two equally rare Beech T400s and of course many colourful airliners. However, the highlight was an E-2 Hawkeye that also made a spirited curved approach.
We stayed in place until the sun went below the horizon, taking the opportunity for some sunset photos, with planes included of course, and then started our short journey back to our hotel, well satisfied with our day. A late arriving E-2 forced a rapid U-turn and some practice at moon photography, which was then perfected as yet more F-15s landed. After that, we finally made it to our hotel, tired, but very much thrilled from such a great day.
Wednesday 11 December brought about another change of weather in Okinawa! With bad rain forecast, we made for Kadena once again as we knew we would be able to take shelter in the spotters cafe. Along the way, we stopped at the sea wall to take some pictures, in the gloom, of a new P-3, UC-12 and some returning F-15s. Suddenly, a ripple of excitement went through the group, as we noticed an RC-135S Cobra Ball taking off in the far distance. Knowing that it would return, we decided to spend all day at Kadena to try to capture it, rather than move to Naha as planned. Overall, the middle part of the day was a bit boring as the constant drizzle made photography of the grey Eagles very difficult, however by 14.30, the weather had improved enough for us to venture out to our seaside spot. Our optimism was rewarded almost immediately with an RC-135W, a Wright-Patterson AB C-17 and an EP-3 Orion landing right in front of us. Next came some, by now, very common F-15s, but these were split by two F/A-18D Hornets from VMFA(AW)-242 and a USMC UH-1Y partnered by an AH-1Z Viper and a CH-53. Cue big smiles all round. However, there was still more quality to come, in the shape of yet another C-17, this time from the Alaska ANG based in Anchorage. After a brief pause, we had a fly past by a JASDF CH-47, just to remind us that we were still in Japan and not America.
As good things come to those who wait, so it did for us too, with the sudden early arrival of the Cobra Ball in lovely late afternoon light. Once this had been photographed, we made a swift exit in the direction of Naha AB, in order to see yet more JASDF aircraft in absolutely perfect sunset light. Of course, we also perfected our ‘moon shot’ techniques too. Once darkness had descended and we had eaten in the excellent nearby restaurants, we took our hire van back and checked in for our flight to Taipei for part two of our Taiwanese adventure.
Back in Taiwan, on Thursday 12 December, we had to get used to driving with lots of crazy scooters again! Once we arrived at Hsinchu, the Mirage 2000 base, we established ourselves at the end of the runway and waited for the first sorties of the day. All was quiet for the first 45 minutes and as ever doubts set in as to whether it was a down-day. Suddenly, as is the way in Taiwan, taxiing aircraft appeared from all points of the compass, including a couple of alert birds with live missiles. By the end of the mass take-offs, there were fourteen Mirages in the air. Definitely not a quiet day!
After an hour or so, they began to return in pairs, right before our lenses and in perfect sunlight too. With so many aircraft in the air, some of the group again took the opportunity to move around and take unusual photos of these beautiful looking aircraft. We ended our time at Hsinchu AB with a four-ship fly over and break, before moving south towards our hotel for the night in Tainan. Along the way, we took in some preserved aircraft in Taichung, including a beautiful Tiger-striped F-5 and an unexpected bonus of ten airframes at the University of Yunlin, including our first T-33s of the trip. Having check in, we then went out and had a delicious meal of noodles and pork, before retiring for the evening.
As we had only taken photos of one indigenous Ching Kuo on this trip, the famous 4Aviation flexibility had allowed us to rearrange our itinerary to make sure that we had a full day at Tainan AB, the home of three squadrons. However, it was Friday 13 December!
The day started well with news of the £ soaring, Boris winning the UK election, the sun shining and as we left the hotel, a Ching Kuo passing quickly overhead. At least we knew they were flying! We rapidly made our way to the best photo spot at the end of the runway and witnessed another nine aircraft lifting off in the distance, so all we had to do was be patient. Our first visitor was a real surprise though, as it was the tiger-striped single-seat F-5 from Taitung doing a touch and go. Unfortunately, it approached over the wrong runway for our position, so we quickly came to the decision to move location and we were lucky yet again, as over the next hour, twenty-one F-CK-1s landed before us, including a very rare occurrence of two carrying four live Sidewinder missiles each. We saw aircraft from four of the five operational squadrons, as there were also visitors from nearby CCK, in amongst the Tainan-based aircraft. With a Fokker F50 doing touch and goes, the Dutch clients were smiling, or perhaps that was because Brexit was now more likely to be agreed?
During the quiet lunchtime period, we managed to reconnoitre a new spot for take-offs and as soon as we heard engines start, we were poised and ready. Two pairs of Ching Kuos proved that our position worked, even if they were a little far away today. Definitely a fantastic spot for the next tour though. After capturing these aircraft, we headed back to the end of the runway in order to take yet more landing photos. Three passing F-5s and multiple Ching Kuos kept us very busy all afternoon, trying alternative angles and locations, especially as the warm evening light got better and better. We finally ended our wonderful day with a Russian registered Dash 8 from Aurora Airlines.
Our last day, Saturday 14 December, started with an interesting KFC breakfast at the hotel. Yes, it really was from KFC. We soon made our way to our photo point at the end of the Taichung AB runway, to await some Ching Kuos from the test squadrons. As we were setting up, two took off into the distance and an ATR from EVA Air landed, so all was well.
Even though it was Saturday morning, the very friendly local spotters told us that we would see lots of landing aircraft today. They were right of course, as we counted ten Ching Kuos, nine of which were new to us, from home-based units, a Beech 1900 and various airliners from a variety of airlines. As the sun moved position, so did the group, saying goodbye to our new friends and moving on to an alternative photo spot. Unfortunately, there wasn’t too much air traffic, but time soon passed. At 14.00, we had an appointment with the National Airborne Service Corps (NASC) at Taichung airport. We were warmly welcomed and shown several short videos of the helicopter operations by the friendly commander and his staff, before being led into the hanger, to view the five helicopters present. One of the UH-60M Blackhawks was put through the washer to remove any salt residue and we were able to take many photographs of this operation, all in perfect sunlight. After a brief Q and A session, we left for the international airport and our flight home (on Sunday 15 December). Unfortunately, this was not without incident, as the petrol station operator put the wrong fuel in the car, and we had to be towed away! Luckily, we had lots of time on our side and we were picked up very quickly indeed.
During the whole tour, we saw more than 500 different aircraft, most of which we photographed, and we came home with many fantastic memories of Taiwan and Okinawa. Here’s to the next time.