Tuesday 26 March 2024

Kamikaze's Return

Giuseppe 'Joe' Picarella MRAeS has very kindly provided this fascinating and beautifully presented news story to the Aviation of Japan blog.

Screen shot from Asahi.com news website

Kamikaze’s return

by Giuseppe 'Joe' Picarella

On 15 March this year, Ayami Koh of the Asahi Shimbun (Asahi Press) website made the surprise announcement that the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Historic Archives had placed an aviation artefact of national importance back on display for the Japanese people. The item in question is a skin panel (as shown in the heading image above, screen shot from Asahi.com news website) that it has identified as belonging to the Mitsubishi Karigane aircraft Kamikaze, which in 1937 undertook the gruelling (15,357km) flight from Tokyo to London (6th to 10th of April), to celebrate the coronation of King George VI.

Kamikaze at Croydon Airport 9 April 1937 (Author collection)

The exploits of Kamikaze and its daring crew (Masaaki Iinuma and Kenji Tsukagoshi) during the spring of 1937 are well known for capturing the imagination of the Japanese people during a period of economic turmoil and political insecurity. The whole concept of the coronation flight was initiated by the Aviation Department of Asahi Shimbun in the hope that such an event would raise the national pride of the country and they would of course report on the unfolding events. Kamikaze certainly achieved this aim and in doing so also gaining Japan’s first Fédération Aéronautique Internationale record for the flight from Tokyo to London with a duration of 94 hours. 17 minutes and 56 seconds, achieving an average speed of 162.854 kilometres per hour.

Kamikaze was in fact the second prototype (c/n 1502) of the Ki-15, (Type 97 Command Reconnaissance Plane - Kyu-Nana Shiki Shireibu Teisatsu-ki  - 九七式司令部偵察機 or Kyu-Nana Shi-tei - 九七司偵) the world’s first high-speed strategic reconnaissance aircraft, an Army aircraft specifically designed to undertake its highly specialised (and at that time unique) photographic missions deep inside enemy territory, being immune from interception by virtue of its high performance.

Kamikaze in its first military scheme (James F Lansdale via Author)

After returning to Japan on May 21st, Kamikaze, in its striking silver and blue paint scheme, became a national icon and drew crowds wherever it appeared. But following the start of the second Sino-Japanese war in July 1937, Kamikaze was recalled into service for the Army in order to perform reconnaissance duties and assist in the training of reconnaissance crews as production of new Ki-15 airframes was slowly increased. In this role the aircraft received a hastily applied camouflage paint scheme, painted over and around the Kamikaze and Asahi markings, giving the impression that a silver coloured banner had been applied behind them.

Kamikaze first accident (Henry Sakaida via Author)

On 6 November disaster struck when the aircraft was badly damaged at Tachiarai Army Airfield following an engine failure during take-off, forcing Iinuma and Tsukagoshi to attempt a landing on muddy turf, which resulted in the aircraft flipping over onto its back.  Both men were dazed but escaped with only minor injuries. However Kamikaze did not fare so well and the damage was deemed almost beyond economic repair, as the engine, forward fuselage, cockpit, rear fuselage, empennage and outer wings were all badly damaged. However, Asahi Shimbun realized that the value of this specific aircraft was important to their image and decided to have the aircraft restored back to airworthy condition regardless of the cost.

Kamikaze in second military scheme (Author collection)

On 3 March 1938, Kamikaze was rolled out for a second time complete with new camouflage markings, but its renewed stint in the military would be brief and the aircraft was soon repainted in civilian markings for a second time, before resuming its role as the Asahi Shimbun flagship for another 18 months. While almost identical to its first civilian paint scheme there were subtle changes, most notably a larger name and Asahi Shimbun logo.

Kamikaze in second civilian paint scheme (JAA via Author)

On 6 October 1939, while performing a courier mission from Taipei Airport to Hakata Airport, the crew of the day became lost in bad weather and crashed into the sea 100 meters off the coast of southern Formosa (Taiwan). The pilot narrowly escaped death, but the navigator’s body was never found. Once again the aircraft was returned to Mitsubishi for restoration, but this time, the damage and saltwater corrosion rendered the airframe unsafe and it was decided to proceed with a static restoration only.  That resulted in a miss-match of various Ki-15 production parts being fitted to the aircraft. Once completed the aircraft was placed on display at the Yasukuni Shrine for a few months, before being moved to the TouGou Shrine at Harajuku, Tokyo.  Finally, on 20 October 1940, the aircraft was placed on display in the Kamikaze Memorial Hall, which had been built on Mt. Ikoma, between Osaka and Nara Prefectures. 

Kamikaze's second accident (Henry Sakaida via Author)

Kamikaze Memorial Hall. Note high canopy enclosure, prop and smaller spinner (Ron Cole via Author)

The aircraft survived the Pacific War with only minor damage sustained during Allied bombing, but under the terms of the occupation, all activities concerning aviation were prohibited and during the autumn of 1945, Kamikaze was removed from display and burned by US soldiers in the road. However it appears that the destruction of the aircraft was not as thorough as intended, as according to Mitsubishi the panel was cut from the burnt wreckage by a member of the US military and subsequently taken back to the US as a war trophy. Luckily, the family of this serviceman were able to identify this unusual item and, recognising its potential importance to Japan, donated it to Mitsubishi in 2021. 

Skin panel location © 2024 G Picarella

The 60cm x 40cm skin panel is from the port (left) side of the fuselage in the region of fuselage frame station FS.4 and FS.6. The exterior face carries the Asahi Shimbun flag motif, which has survived surprisingly well, given that the aircraft was set alight, but there is evidence of burning around the edges. The photo also reveals that final restoration of Kamikaze was not finished to the same standard as the original 19 March 1937 roll-out, which had (for aerodynamic purposes) received so many coats of lacquer that it was difficult to discern rivets heads and even some panel lines. A question that will concern Japanese aviation circles is that of the internal paint application; is it Aotake blue or possibly a light grey interior application that was often applied to Army aircraft of the period? Interestingly, the right-hand side of the photo reveals the edge of fuselage frame FS.7, which seems to show a dark blue finish. But, given that Kamikaze was rebuilt on two occasions, with the second time being a total rebuild, it is likely that the original 1937 interior finish was completely removed and a later Aotake application was applied. Discussions are already underway with the archive to investigate this issue, so watch this space.

Kamikaze markings and colour schemes © 2024 G Picarella

The whole story of the Mitsubishi Ki-15 family of aircraft, including the 1937 coronation flight of Kamikaze, is coved by the author in two volumes: “Mitsubishi Babs – the world’s first high-speed strategic reconnaissance aircraft” – published by MMP Books – Vol. I published in 2023, Vol. II published in 2024.

© 2024 G. Picarella 

With very special thanks to Joe for sharing this news story and images with Aviation of Japan. Volume II of Joe's ground breaking treatise on the Ki-15 to be reviewed here shortly.

Image credit: Per captions


Sergio L. de H. Teixeira said...

Wow, makes me really happy to know something of this really important plane survived to this day!

Danilo said...

Great news! Considering the history of this ill-fated airframe, we can be happy the air enthusiasts' community is given the possibility to admire this find. Just one question- was it so necessary to destroy this aircraft? I understand it was just at the end of a harsh conflict but...

Dan G. said...

@Danilo, I couldn't agree more, seems to me that extreme destruction of all Japanese aircraft was very spiteful. If it were done to help "bolster the post-war economy" recycling of the metal would've been the appropriate answer. Not the complete trashing of it.

Baronvonrob said...

That was very entertaining. Indeed, I’ve always thought that the K-15 Babs is a great-looking aircraft, and of course, the livery of the original world record-setting bird is just spectacular. Thank you so much for the very informative backstory, which was truly revelatory

Yet another fantastic posting... Thanks, Nick and Giuseppe

WD said...

Thanks for posting this Nick, I've always had an interest in this a/c, and I enjoy learning more about it.
I'm always amazed at folks that look back on the events of 80 years ago, give or take, and wonder why this or that thing wasn't saved. The most horrible was ever seen by mankind on the face of the planet marked by the most horrible atrocities had just ended. Many, I'd say most, wanted nothing more to do with it.

DB Andrus said...

Fascinating story and artifact. Thank you for this, Nick.

DB Andrus

Dan Salamone said...

I received my copy of Volume 2 recently, and find it to be an exceptional reference. Can't wait to see your review, Nick.


Mark Smith said...

This was a wonderful surprise, Joe. The emergence of this artifact seems so unlikely, but that airplane has always cast a spell. Thanks for sharing it with the Aviation of Japan community.

Your two volumes on Babs have brought great pleasure; sincere congratulations on their accomplishment. Volume 2 arrived at my home yesterday - it's a treasure, and the extended technical section proves, finally, a triumph over the secrecy in which the military versions were shrouded, which soon enough gave way to obscurity in defeat, and without a surviving example.

I've collected all I could on this aircraft over several decades. The most informative material for details were some great photos in two large newsprint magazines covering the Coronation Flight, which I believe were printed as separate Sunday features in Asahi Shimbum shortly after the flight; nevertheless ‘one could not see inside’. Their 85-year-old pages must be handled carefully now, they are brittle enough to crumble otherwise. But that Babs file was always pitifully thin, especially regarding the naval versions and their operations, like something seen only from a distance.

No longer! The prolix technical drawings in Volume II for each subtype clarify these details and deserve praise for showing the ways each military variant differed in setup, particularly in the crew cabin. For modelers this will be directly relevant in 1/72 to the LS quartet, and in 1/48 to the four kits from Fine Molds; it all left me wondering if you spent more time writing or drawing.

The section that covers the first few months of operations in the Pacific and the Australian raids in February and March of '42 offered details I've not read anywhere else, especially regarding the extent to which the IJN had developed the C5M2 for remarkable range and loiter, and the sophisticated *command* function which Babs exercised during many of the bombing missions they led to target - orbiting over all, assessing targets, and directing fire.

Taken together, the books allow a new understanding and appreciation of these remarkable machines. Well done!

MDriskill said...

What a fascinating addendum to the new "Babs" books, thanks to all that put it together.

I must echo what Mark Smith said. Having read Mr. Picarella's previous work - especially the AeroDetail on the Ki-100 - my expectations were high. But they were left in the dust by the actual quality of research, writing and especially the graphic presentation. I'm very much looking forward to the upcoming review here.

Anonymous said...

I think I'm going to have to buy these! Always loved this one, especially in the first livery. Brings back bittersweet memories of my late friend Kieth Davis (Red Pegasus Decals), a mixed friend of mine, half Japanese and half African America. His mother was a young girl In Tokyo who told us stories of picking up 50 cal casings after bombings that were still hot! Hios father served in Japan with my father during the Korean War (though not together). I had the 1/50 scale kit, along with a Vector engine. I had a hard time pulling it back from his hands, so I gave it to him:) We used to discuss the possible route and where the fuel was, and if it was non-stop or not (little was published on it in the 90's). Is this information covered in the book?

Great port on my favorite forum! Scott

Joe Picarella said...

Thank you for the kind words gentlemen.
FYI, the whole 1937 Kamikaze flight is covered in Chapter 4 of Vol.l.