Monday, May 01, 2017

Japanese pilot trains in United States to fly Zero in skies over Japan

Kazuaki Yanagida operates an Imperial Japanese Navy Zero fighter plane used during World War II near Chino Airport in Chino, California, on April 30th.

LOS ANGELES--More than 70 years after the end of World War II, Kazuaki Yanagida hopes to fulfill a childhood dream and fly a vintage Zero fighter plane once again in the skies over its home country.

Yanagida, 66, a flight instructor who lives in a suburb of Los Angeles, is in the final stages of obtaining a pilot’s license to fly the legendary aircraft this summer.

The long-range Zero played a vital role in Japan’s 1941 surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. It has been flown in Japanese skies a few times after the war, but all the flights were undertaken with American pilots at the controls.

When Yanagida pilots the Zero in an air show and other events this summer in Japan under the Zero Homecoming Project, he will be the first Japanese to do so.

The project is the brainchild of Masahide Ishizuka, 56, a Japanese entrepreneur. Ishizuka, who owns the Zero, aspired to see the storied plane fly over Japanese airspace with a Japanese pilot at the controls.

This particular Zero was a Model 22 built in 1942 by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. After its wreckage was discovered in Papua New Guinea in the 1970s, it was repaired into flyable condition.

In a recent training session, the plane, painted a dark green, hovered slightly after its propellers roared into action before takeoff. Then the Zero took off and flew off into the distance in the remote sky.

“I am full of emotions," Yanagida gushed after landing. "The plane is light, so it was easy to operate.”

Only five flight-worthy Zeros remain in the world today, with all stored in the United States. To fly a Zero, a special license is needed, known as an MI-A6M, issued by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.

It is difficult to obtain the certification, however. An applicant is required to have at least 500 flight hours and a private pilot's license among other requirements. For Yanagida, it was not a problem, who boasts 40 years of flight experience.

But exceptional flying skills are required to handle the Zero because it comes with a tail wheel that hinders the view from the cockpit. That makes it difficult for the pilot during takeoffs and landings.

Yanagida spent his childhood in Kagoshima in the southern main island of Kyushu. With an airport nearby, he could watch airplanes flying overhead in his daily life.

His desire to fly a Zero grew stronger after his father made models of the fighter plane for him, and he read comics featuring exploits of the Zero.

When he was 26, Yanagida traveled to the United States to get his private pilot license. The inexpensive cost was a draw, as he could obtain pilot certification at one-fourth the price in Japan. Yanagida subsequently became a flight instructor, teaching more than 200 aspiring pilots.

He said he piloted an Antonov, a Russian plane, with world-famous anime director Hayao Miyazaki aboard for a TV show. The maestro directed “Porco Rosso” and “The Wind Rises,” the anime centered on wartime fighter planes.

The Zero was a testament to the competence of the Japanese aviation industry in bygone days, Yanagida said.

Now, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries is building the MRJ, Japan’s first domestically made commercial aircraft. His daughter is tasked with maintaining the MRJ.

Japan’s efforts to come up with its own aircraft had been hampered by the U.S. occupation policy that prohibited the production of airplanes until 1952, when the country regained its independence.

That had left the nation lagging significantly behind other countries.

By flying a Zero in Japanese skies, Yanagida aims to give a moral lift to the Japanese aviation industry.

“The Zero is now an antique, but it is also a legacy of the nation's excellent technology,” he said. “I want to put it back into the skies and pass it down to posterity.”

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