Of Float Planes and Zeppelins

As a pilot and son of an aeronautical engineer, I make it a point to seek out airplanes where ever I go. Japan has been no exception and I've stood next to a WWII Zero fighter in Nagoya and a huge 4 engine WWII flyingboat, the Kawanishi H8K, at Tokyo harbor. Even here in Kashima I have managed to find a replica Ohka (Cherry Blossom) manned rocket bomb on display in a bunker as a memorial to the 467 pilots and launch crews (who where trained in Kashima) that lost their lives in a desperate but futile attempt to save Japan from defeat in 1945. Another interesting find was a 1960's era Mitsubishi T-2 supersonic fighter trainer, which I found (I am not making this up) mounted on pedistals in a kindergarten play yard. "Move over jungle gyms, we are serious about our play time here." You can see photos of these aircraft HERE.

I tend to tire of war planes though, as they represent such a sad perversion of the beauty and potential utility of flying machines. So it was with great delight that I discovered that a nearby lake, Kasumiguara, which is only 10 km (6.2 miles) as the crow flies from my house, was party to three very significant events in the early history of aviation. You can click on the next 3 photos for links to the full stories.

In 1924, the US Army - there was no "US Air Force" until after WWII - made a daring flight with four aircraft around the world. It was the first time that any aircaft had circumnavigated the globe. The planes were Douglas "World Cruisers", a single engine biplane which could be fitted with either wheels or floats and had a crew of two. The cruising speed was 103 mph. They took off from Seattle on April 6th and within days crashed one of the ships in fog on one ofe the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. Happily the crew survived and hiked to safety.

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One of their stops was Kasumigaura, on May 22, 1924. They landed on the lake using their floats. Ultimately, two of the planes completed the flight around the world having covered over 27,500 miles and taking 371 hours of flying time. The total time for the trip was 175 days due to time on the ground for rest, repairs, and waiting out bad weather.

The next big aviation event for Kasumigaura turned out to be REALLY BIG! In 1929, the airship Graf Zeppelin made the first (and only) circumnavigation of the globe by a lighter than air ship. This trip covered 30,831 miles and only took 21 days. One of the stops, before heading to San Fransisco, was the naval airbase on the shores of Kasumigaura where there was a 787 foot long hangar wher the Zeppelin would be housed. [The hangar was originally in Berlin, but given to Japan after WWI, dismantled and errected in Japan.] I can only imagine what the local farmers thought as they looked up at the 776 foot long, 100 foot wide machine as it rumbled along only six hundred feet overhead. Onboard, as an observer for Japan, was LCdr. Fuiyoshi who would later take part in planning the attack on Pearl Harbor. As many as 250,000 people turned out to see the Graf.

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Two years later, in August of 1931, Kasumigaura would be visited by the most famous aviator of the 20th Century, after the Wright brothers, Charles Lindbergh with his wife Anne Morrow who had become a licensed pilot that year. Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote great books about their adventures as they charted new airways in the 1930's which would later be followed by the airlines. I highly recommend that you track them down, as her prose reads like poetry and is fitting of the inspiring and fascinating trips they took. In her book, "North to the Orient" (1935), she describes their great circle flight from Maine, across Canada and Alaska, to Japan and China. They flew a beautifully sleek and powerful single engine float plane, the Lockheed Serius that even with bulky floats could cruise at 150 mph. In the book, she does not mention Kasumigaura by name, but a little research reveals that it was the location of their landing when they visited Tokyo. Anne was daughter to the US Ambassador to Mexico, and Charles was, of course, world famous for his New York to Paris flight. Wherever they flew, they were heartily welcomed.

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Earlier this year, a new Zeppelin arrived in Japan and recreated the visit of the Graf with a visit to Kasumigaura. The new ship is only 1/3 the length of the Graf, but at 246 feet it is still quite a sight. It is not a rigid airship, but a semi-rigid one. That is, it does not have the aluminum frame of the big airships of the 1930's, nor is it a blimp like the Goodyear ships. It is a cross between the two, with a blimp like bag of helium attached to a rigid keel. It was built by the Zeppelin company and sold to the Nippon Airship Corporation for use in advertising.

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Aviation has come a long way since the 20's and 30's, and the base at Kasumiguara now is home to JGSDF helicopters (yawn). But it is pretty cool to me that Kasumiguara played a part in some of the great early achievements in the hisotry of flight and has not been entirely forgotton.


wisteria said...

I read Anne Morrow's "North To The Orient" several years ago. It is great to know how their flight like from the point of her view.

Martin J Frid said...

Wow, I had no idea Charles Lindbergh, who was Swedish, went to Japan.

Thank you for this blog, I will have to do a lot of reading in my spare time.

I was expecially moved by your comment that "I tend to tire of war planes though, as they represent such a sad perversion of the beauty and potential utility of flying machines."


Pandabonium said...

Thank you for your visit and kind remarks, Martin. This isn't a very focused blog, but I hope you come back from time to time and find some posts to be of interest.


Anonymous said...

Mark Sherwood said:

I read "North to the Orient" last summer, and am now reading "Listen! The Wind". They're both wonderful books, but the most memorable book for me was Charles' "The Spirit of St. Louis". I've read that twice, which I rarely do with any book.

Pandabonium said...

Hi Mark. Those are three of my favorite books. You might also enjoy "Wind, Sand, and Stars" by Antoine de St. Exupery.