Kakamigahara Aerospace Science Museum

Monday 14th October 2019

Japan is a well-travelled destination for the aviation enthusiast with a famously colourful, varied and accessible inventory to capture from outside the fence. Of interest to many of those travellers is another part of the aviation world we love, the museum, of which Japan has a good few. I was recently in Japan and while time dictated I could only visit the one museum, Kakamigahara Aerospace Science Museum at Gifu, it was worth the surprisingly laborious journey there, being as it is the museum of Japanese test flying.

Sam Wise visited the museum outside the JASDF's Gifu Air Field and reports for UK Airshow Review.

Gifu Air Field is right out in the suburbs of the Nagoya metropolis in central Japan, where I had spent the weekend with my dad for the Japanese Grand Prix (and hiding from typhoons - the natural variety). With the Monday to spare afterwards and our train to Tokyo not until the later evening, I had suggested we indulge my nerdy side at Kakamigahara museum, though I didn't really know too much about it other than it being the museum of test flying for Japan. Anyone who knows me knows I love a plane museum and will usually make sure I get to one wherever I am in the world and I wasn't about to change that on this trip. After a good hour's train journey from Nagoya station and another 15 minutes by taxi, we pulled up to the museum and it immediately started raining.

Thankfully, there are only a handful of airframes outside, including a Shin Meiwa US-1A and Air Nippon YS-11, so it wasn't too much of a shame to dive into the museum and out of the drizzle. It quickly became apparent that we'd accidentally visited on a national holiday as there were children everywhere, meaning my hopes for a silent wander round the museum was looking shaky at best. At 800 yen - about £5.50 - entry was surprisingly cheap for Japan, and despite it not being the biggest museum in the world you get quite a good bang for your buck.

You travel in broadly chronological order through the history of aviation in Japan, quickly coming to one of the jewels of the collection at Kakamigahara, the only complete Kawasaki Ki-61 Hien on display in the world, resplendent in bare metal. I'll be honest, my knowledge of Japanese aircraft of WWII is very, very limited but I know how few airframes survived the war so to see an example in such extraordinary condition, and one of the few types I broadly knew of, was quite exciting. The Ki-61 was the only mass-produced Japanese aircraft of the war that used in inline engine and this particular airframe was restored a few years ago by Kawasaki itself before being displayed at this museum.

The Second World War section is, to no one's great surprise, a fairly small affair so you can move quite swiftly through to the main room which contains the majority of exhibits, and wow! The presentation is exceptional here - space is used fantastically, aircraft are placed in such a way as to allow for great viewing angles and they still manage to fit in a couple of four-engined heavies. The first thing you'll see is the ugly duckling Shin Meiwa UF-XS, an extremely heavily modified Grumman Albatross, and that bizarre, very “test flying” looking machine sort of sets the tone for the nature of stuff you'll find in this hall.

It's tempting to head straight for the jets - the T-2s and the Starfighters tend to draw the eyes in - and you'd fancy glossing over the civilian looking propjobs at the start, but if you read the information boards, all with English translations, you'll find a very interesting story of the Japanese aviation industry post-war. Something I hadn't realised was that the country was more or less completely banned from developing any kind of aviation for a good seven years or so after the war. That doesn't sound like much to us, but when you think about the sensationally rapid pace of advancement in aviation in that era as well the devastation that Allied bombing wrought on Japan and those seven years put the country really far behind the rest of the world. In 1952, while the jet era was beginning to dawn just over the water above Korea, Japan was having to build and learn an aviation industry almost from scratch. These innocuous spammy-looking types, including a Saab Safir, were instrumental in allowing Japan to create the kind of indigenous types that you find a few metres further in.

It's great fun finding new types you've not seen before, and this museum has plenty of Japanese types that, while not completely exclusive to this museum, are in configurations and markings you won't see anywhere else and otherwise will be completely fresh to people who've not visited a Japanese museum before. Several types among many bear mentioning - the Kawasaki KAT-1, an unsuccessful competitor to the T-34 in the mid-fifties, the country's first post-war jet aircraft the T-1B trainer, and the extraordinary experimental XT-2CCV, a Control Configuration Vehicle variant of the Jaguaresque T-2 with two canards and a ventral fin at the front of the jet that was used to develop Fly-By-Wire technologies. The rotary-wing cousins get some attention too, including a wooden mockup of the OH-1 used for working out air- and ground-crew ergonomics during development.

Rather dominating over all of these is the properly bizarre-looking Kawasaki C-1 QSTOL Asuka. It still stands out from its spot at the back of the hangar, its four engines sticking out the front of the wings really not looking right on an aeroplane. My first thought when I saw it was “There's no way that doesn't transform into some kind of robot”. This was the only one built (as a research vehicle it was never destined for production) and the type used the Coandă effect to achieve short takeoff capabilities. Much like the BAE 146, it was designed with quiet operations in mind as well. It's one of those aircraft that you see pictures of from time to time and never really give it all that much thought until you get to see it in person and then it's just puts a huge grin on your face.

The first floor of this hall focuses on the Japanese space industry but I have to rather embarrassedly admit that I didn't pay this part too much attention. I've never been that interested in space beyond the general coolness of rockets and that, so it was somewhat wasted on me unfortunately. I've no doubt that if you're into your space and your rockets you'll find this part as interesting as the aviation section though. That said, it did afford a new vantage point for my photographs so it wasn't a total waste!

I enjoyed this museum. It's not huge, there's only a small handful of airframes inside but the presentation is absolutely top-tier and I learnt a huge amount about the history and the experimental side of Japanese aviation that I wouldn't have known otherwise. Thankfully a lot of the signage is in English, which is rarer than you'd think in Japan, and despite the throngs of schoolkids running around it was easy to get some nice photos of the exhibits. It's a fantastic collection of aircraft with a real history and story running through the exhibition that shouldn't leave any enthusiast disappointed and will leave any visitor educated.