Tag Archives: IJN

Japan’s fighting Floatplanes! Part 1

4 Mar

When most people think of floatplanes they think of small, ungainly and totally non threatening aircraft such as the Vought OS2U Kingfisher or the Supermarine Walrus. It appears that someone forgot to tell the Japanese that floatplanes are only slow, harmless, aircraft plodding along the water. Hence they fielded some of the highest performance combat floatplanes seen during the Second World War. This article will deal with Japanese floatplane fighters and a follow up will deal with their advanced reconnaissance models.

The Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) formulated the idea that high performance float equipped fighters could operate from lagoons or improvised shore bases to support landings in the central Pacific and Solomon Islands where no airfields, or few of them, existed. This was also necessary as the Japanese lacked enough heavy earth moving equipment to build new airfields on her recently occupied islands with any speed. This proved to be a weakness of theirs throughout the Pacific War.

To fill this need the IJN requested that Kawanishi design an offensive floatplane fighter capable of providing close air support to landing forces. This would take some time since Kawanishi was starting from scratch, so the navy instructed Nakajima develop a floatplane version of the Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero. The proposal went to Nakajima and not to the Zero’s originator Mitsubishi, since Mitsubishi’s production lines were already full and Nakajima was already building the Zero under contract (Nakajima would eventually build more Zeros than Mitsubishi).

NakaJima A6M2-N “Rufe”

Nakajima’s design team started by using the powerplant, fuselage and wings of an A6M2 Mod.11. They then modified the tail and rudder, as well as adding one main centerline float along with two wing mounted stabilizing floats. Since the addition of the center line float meant that a drop tank could not be carried an extra fuel tank was placed inside of the float. While slower than the fighter version of the Zero (270Mph Vs. 331Mph) it was still fast enough to be formidable and retained much of the original  Zero’s maneuverability. It also retained the two machine guns and two heavy 20mm cannon of the regular Zero fighter. It could also carry a pair of  132 lbs. bombs.

The A6M2-N never partook in any amphibious landings as it entered service shortly after the capture of Rabaul and the Solomon Islands group. Instead they acted as point interceptors due to the lack of Japanese air fields in the Solomon’s. They proved very vulnerable to allied bombing raids, and had trouble mixing it up with the aircraft of the Cactus Air Force flying from Guadalcanal. They could be effective against unescorted bombers, torpedo planes, allied float planes and even PT Boats, but lacked the performance to go toe to toe with US single engined fighters. The “Rufe” as the allied code named it, also saw action in the Aleutian islands battling US and Canadian P-40s and other aircraft. Later the  “Rufe” acted as a lead in trainer for a far more capable warplane, the Kawanishi N1K1 Kyofu.

Kawanishi N1K1 Kyofu “Rex”

The aircraft originally envisioned to fulfill the IJN’s need for an offensive floatplane was the robust N1K1 Kyofu (Mighty Wind) designed by Kawanishi, a company with extensive experience building advanced amphibious aircraft and flying boats. The Kyofu was much larger than the float equipped Zero with a far more powerful 1,530-hp 14 cylinder Kasei engine driving a 3 blade propeller on an extended shaft. This gave the N1K1 a top speed of 304Mph. The N1K1 prototypes had a contra rotating propeller, Kawanishi’s thinking was that this would correct the effects of on-water torque during takeoff. But difficulty with the gearbox caused Kawanishi to use a conventional single shaft propeller arrangement which proved adequate.

The layout of the Kyofu was conventional, being a mid-wing monoplane with a conventional tail and a bubble canopy that provided excellent vision. It was armed with 2 cowl mounted 7.7mm machine guns and 2 wing mounted 20mm cannon and could carry 2 66 lbs bombs, half the bomb load than the smaller A6M2-N.

While the Kyofu was a very promising design,  it was no longer needed by the time it entered service. The IJN no longer needed an offensive floatplane fighter as it was purely on the defensive by late 1943. N1k1s saw service at Balikpapan in Indonesia and later operated out of Like Biwa on mainland Japan, alongside the A6M2-N. No successes or losses attributable to the type can be found in any English language sources (that I am aware of). It was given the allied codename “Rex”. The importance of the N1K1 was that Kawanishi saw that it had a real winner with the airframe of this aircraft and later redesigned it as the land based N1K1-J Shiden. The Shiden and improved Shiden-Kai were among the best Japanese fighters of the Pacific war.

Analysis

The idea of using floatplanes for close air support wasn’t necessarily a bad one. What really undid these aircraft was that they arrived too late on the scene to make a difference and were not as combat effective as their land based counterparts. Also to perform true close air support these aircraft would have needed more potent close support weapons, like heavy bombs,or rockets. Instead all they could carry was a pair of very light bombs.

Some Japanese Navy pilots did prove their mettle in air to air combat with the “Rufe”.  Lt.(jg) Keizo Yamazaki claimed a P-39 in his “Rufe” which was also adorned with markings for 2 more kills scored by other pilots. Also CPO Eitoku Matsunaga flew a “Rufe” adorned with lightning bolts and is alleged to be the highest scoring floatplane pilot of the war with 8 kills. This has been difficult to prove since CPO Mastunaga has not verified these claims and apparently will not discuss the war

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Specification for the A6M2-N

General characteristics

  • Length: 10.10 m (33ft 1⅝ in)
  • Wingspan: 12.00 m (39 ft 4⅜ in)
  • Height: 4.30 m (14ft 1⅜ in)
  • Wing area: 22.44 m² (251.4 sq ft)
  • Empty Weight: 1,912 kg (4,235 lb)
  • Loaded weight: 2,460 kg (5,423 lb)
  • Max takeoff weight: 2,880 kg (6,349 lb)
  • Powerplant: 1× Nakajima NK1C Sakae 12 air cooled 14 cylinder radial engine, 950 hp (709 kW) at 4,200 m (13,800 ft)

Performance

  • Maximun speed: 436 km/h (235 knots, 270.5 mph) at 5,000 m (16,400 ft)
  • Cruise speed: 296 km/h (160 knots, 184 mph)
  • Range: 1,782 km (963 nmi, 1,107 mi)
  • Service ceiling: 10,000 m (32,800 ft)
  • Climb to 5,000 m (16,400 ft): 6 min 43 s

Armament

  • Guns:
    • 2 × 7.7 mm Type 97  – machine guns in forward fuselage
    • 2 ×20 mm Type 99 cannon  – fixed in outer wings
  • Bombs: 2 × 60 kg (132 lb) bombs

Production: 327

Specification for the Kawanishi N1K1 Kyofu

General Charateristics

  • Length: 10.50m (34 ft. 9 1/4 in.)
  • Wingspan: 12.00m (39 ft. 4 1/2 in.)
  • Height: 4.75m (15 ft. 7in.)
  • Wing area: 23.50m squared (252.96 sq ft.)
  • Empty weight: 2750 kg (6,063 lb.)
  • Loaded weight: 3,500 kg (7,716 lb.)
  • Max takeoff weight: 3710 kg (8,179 lb.)
  • Powerplant: One 1,530-hp (1141-kW) Mitsubishi MK4E Kasei 15 14-cylinder radial piston engine

Performance

  • Maximum Speed: 264 kt at 5,700 m (304 mph at 18,700 ft.)
  • Cruise speed: 200 kt at 2,000 m (230 mph at 6,500 ft.)
  • Range: normal 570 naut miles (656 st miles) maximum 900 naut miles (1,036 st miles)
  • Service Ceiling: 10,560 m (34,645 ft.)
  • Climb to 5,000 m (16,405 ft.): 5 min. 52 sec.

Armament

  • Guns:
  • 2x fuselage mounted 7.7 Type 97 machine guns
  • 2x wing-mounted 20mm Type 99 Model 1 cannon
  • Bombs: 2x 30kg (66 lb.) bombs

Production: 97

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Samurai!

22 Feb

Saburo Sakai was a fighter pilot for eight years, shot down 64 aircraft, was wounded twice, lost an eye, was never shot down and never lost a wingman. Published in 1957, “Samurai!” by Martin Caidin and Fred Saito was one of the first books that detailed a first-person account of the war from the Japanese side of the conflict.

Caidin was a prolific aviation writer for most of his life. He has an easy-flowing style that gives you a fair amount of detail without bogging you down with too much technical wording or phrases.

Consequently, his books are excellent for people unfamiliar with combat aviation or are looking to start reading about it. The book is based on Saito’s interviews with Saburo Sakai and read as if they were written in the first person for the most part.

The book chronicles the life of Sakai, a poor farm boy of samurai ancestry. We follow his childhood and struggles with school. He decides to join the Imperial Japanese Navy (I.J.N.) at the age of 17. He vividly describes the brutal conditions of Japanese navy training and life as an enlisted man on a battleship. We get an insight on a culture and mentality that would never be allowed to exist in this country, even in the mid ’30s. As sadistic as Sakai’s introduction to the navy may have been, we quickly see how that toughness serves him well.

Sakai’s chronicle of his pilot training in the navy is truly eye-opening. With a nearly 90 percent washout rate, the Imperial Japanese Navy had some of the highest quality pilots in the world. The Japanese favored training in dog fighting and due to that, they built nimble, lightly constructed fighters with light armament.

Sakai gets his baptism of fire during the Sino-Japanese war in China and after a rough start becomes an accomplished pilot and a hero in his small hometown. Toward the end of his tour in China, we get introduced to the “other” star of our book – the Mitsubishi A6M Zero Carrier fighter.

Deriving its name from the last digits of the Japanese calendar (00), the Zero had an enclosed cockpit, retractable landing gear, an auxiliary jettisonable fuel tank, two machine guns and two heavy 20 mm cannon in the wings. Its Allied counterparts in 1939 were either biplanes or rudimentary open cockpit monoplanes. The Zero was the first naval fighter that easily outclassed its ground-based counterparts and was master of the Pacific skies till late 1942.

Sakai begins the war in the Pacific by attacking American airfields in the Philippines, flying some of the longest missions in history to date. Sakai and his squadron quickly mop up most of the opposition and are  fighting next in the Dutch East Indies (modern-day Indonesia).

At this point, we find a flaw in the book. Caidin took liberties with some of Sakai’s exploits, one case being an aerial dogfight that takes place in the East Indies that Sakai disputes happened. We see two or three other such discrepancies with the book.

We follow Sakai for the next year, racking up an impressive amount of kills and we also get insight into several other well-known pilots. Sakai is severely wounded in late 1942 and is sent back to Japan. On his return to combat in 1944, he finds a very different war.

Most of his squadron mates have been killed and the allies now field aircraft superior to the Zero and also appear in far greater numbers. Sakai fights at Iwo Jima and ends the war in fighting in the air defense Japan itself.

In between his combat stories, we do get insight into his private life. He ends up getting married during the war and both his wife and his mother become pillars of strength for Sakai at various low points in the war.

Overall, “Samurai!” is an outstanding work. While it does have some embellishments, these are documented elsewhere and don’t detract from the overall narrative. It’s filled with non-stop action and a wonderful insight into the Japanese mindset. This is a must have for any aviation fanatic. So strap yourself into the cockpit and let Saburo Sakai be your wingman.

Why Air Forces Fail: The Anatomy of Defeat

22 Feb

It takes great drive and a strong effort to build an effective air force. Unfortunately, it often doesn’t take much to ruin one. “Why Air Forces Fail” is a collection of 11 essays on specific air forces, which details how and why these air forces met with defeat, either temporary or permanent. Large air forces such as the British Royal Air Force (RAF) and German Luftwaffe are covered, as well as the smaller services of Poland, Egypt and Argentina.

The editors have arranged the book into three sections: “Dead Ducks,” which are air forces that were doomed to fail from the start; “Hares,” which are air forces that started strong but lacked staying power to win in the long run; and “Phoenixes,” air forces that started out terribly but rose from the ashes and were ultimately victorious.

The overall quality of writing is very good. Keep in mind that it’s a work with contributions from multiple authors, so everyone brings their own writing style to the table. Nothing strikes the reader as hard to understand or follow smoothly.

Each essay is written by a different author, in some cases are well-known authors in their specific field of study. Most of the 11 essays are excellent, but a few are just good and one or two will make you wonder why they’re even included.

For example, the essay on the Arab air forces is  skimpy on reliable information, and many of the conclusions are questionable. The Saudi Arabian air force is given a positive nudge, even while its performance during the 1991 Gulf War is highly suspect.

The essay on the Russian air forces isn’t so much bad (it’s not) as it is too broad. It covers World War I briefly and covers the Soviet Air Force’s rise, fall and resurgence to aerial supremacy in World War II. A more focused summary could have been more effective (i.e., pick only the one or the other). That, or an individual work on the subject.

Essays on some of the lesser-known air forces are fantastic. The Italian Regia Aeronautica during World War II is covered, and the information is very insightful. We can see how the politics and mismanaged industry kept the Italians years behind where they needed to be technologically.

The essay of the Argentine air force is phenomenal. It’s the only essay in the book that details how air power alone almost won this conflict if not for politics and better-trained British forces. It also covers the skill and endless difficulties the Argentine Air Force had to deal while detailing how it came close to victory.

All and all, this is an extremely interesting read. Some have complained that the essays are too isolated, or that they don’t tie in the lessons from one essay with another, or that it doesn’t cover the whole subject of why air power hasn’t won a war on its own. But this book isn’t a work of air-power theory: It’s, as the title states, Why air forces fail, not why air power in general can fail.

It has its bones of contention, and the reader may not agree with all the findings depending on his or her preference, but that is one of this book’s strengths. Again, it has one or two weak essays, but the quality of the others more than makes up for this.

This is a solid work for anyone wanting to learn why air forces, including those held in high esteem, can fail or have suffered a harsh learning curve. It’s excellent in that it covers multiple histories not usually found together, which is convenient compared to finding multiple larger works.