Hyakuri Air Festival

Sunday 2nd December 2018

With the number of air forces still operating the iconic F-4 Phantom down to a handful, so begins the JASDF's F-4 retirement program, as they start to transition to the F-35 Lightning II. Now down to three hikotai (squadrons) still operating the type, this year's Hyakuri Air Festival was a celebration of 302 Hikotai's many years of active service with the F-4 Phantom. The centerpiece to this were the two beautiful F-4 Phantoms specially painted in commemorative colour schemes.

Nick Jennings reports from the Hyakuri Air Festival in Japan for UK Airshow Review. Photography by the author from the Families Day and the Airshow.

302 Hikotai was formed back in 1974, however it did not become fully operational on the F-4EJ Phantom until 1975. They were also the squadron which in 1976 were scrambled to intercept Viktor Belenko in his MiG-25, when he entered Japanese airspace to defect, unfortunately they were unable to intercept him and this led to changes with the air defence system. The squadron is also famous in having the largest tail emblem within the JASDF - a heavily stylised eagle resembling the squadron number. The squadron will begin transition to the F-35 Lightning II in fiscal year 2019, and it is widely expected that 302 Hikotai F-4 operations at Hyakuri will cease in March 2019. As part of the transition they will also relocate to Misawa, with 3 Hikotai operating the Mitsubishi F-2 taking their place at Hyakuri.

Hyakuri Air Base is located some 53 miles from Tokyo, but it is still Tokyo's closest fighter base. The airfield is unusual in that when the JASDF were looking to expand the base many farmers refused to sell their land, this has led to a situation - particularly with the 'Peace Towers' - where aviation enthusiasts are able to get very close to the operational side of the airfield. In 2010 civilian operations also began taking place from the airfield, Ibaraki Airport as it's known, now operates a handful of routes by low cost carriers. Interestingly when the Chinese carrier Spring Airlines arrives each day, all of the hangar doors on the base are closed to hide the aircraft within them, such are the strained relations and desire for secrecy between the two countries.

On the airshow day the gates open at 07.00 with the show being free to enter. It is possible to park near the base and have a short 15 minute walk to the entrance, however arrival before 06.00 is advised if you plan to do this, as many roads are closed around the base. There is also a bus service available which ferries attendees to the main entrance, this did look very heavily utilised though, with long queues to leave at the end of the day. Access to the main apron where the static was located began at 07.30, with many people sprinting to get a spot on the flightline! With the Blue Impulse display team not attending the show this year, numbers were thankfully lower than they would have been otherwise. Much like the Red Arrows in the UK, the team attract a wide following from the Japanese public, swelling show numbers dramatically. It's also worth noting that chairs, stools, and steps were not allowed on the apron at all, with these items being cable tied to prevent their use, there was however a grass area away from the apron where these could be used.

The static was fairly thin on the ground, with only a handful of visitors including a JGSDF UH-1 Huey, a JMSDF Kawasaki P-1, and a few JASDF types - T-7, F-2A, F-15J, Gulfstream. They were also scheduled to have a C-2 transport aircraft on static, but this had to unfortunately cancel on the Friday. Many of the static aircraft were placed in such a way as to have clutter free backgrounds, with some nice opportunities to include Mt. Tsukuba in shot. Interestingly, the Mitsubishi F-2A on static was from 3 Hikotai 'Samurai', this is the Misawa squadron that will replace 302 Hikotai at Hyakuri in 2019. Of course there were all of the Phantom types and colours on static display, including the RF-4E, F-4EJ, and the rarer RF-4EJ - these were F-4EJs converted to carry out the reconnaissance role with the use of underwing pods. The Air Rescue Wing also had a pair of UH-60Js and a U-125A viewable on static. Centre stage on the apron were the two F-4EJ 'specials', one black and one white but both wearing the same design - a large red eagle head on the side of the nose. As expected these aircraft were swarmed over by the airshow crowd, making photography somewhat tricky.

Facilities at the show were excellent, with a vast range of merchandise available, though with Japanese prices very similar to the UK, there weren't many bargains to be had.The food was also very good, with a wide range of choice, from noodles to burgers, all of which were high quality and far superior to your average RIAT fair. Entertainment was also on offer in the hangars with Japanese Eisa drummers putting on a show and dance, which was then followed by what can only be described as a little strange - a very Japanese rendition of the Wizard of Oz!

With only eight flying displays on the programme which were spread out over the course of the day, it was obvious that there were going to be large gaps between the display items. The flying displays kicked off at 08.30 with a pair of Kawasaki T-4s performing a number of flypasts, these were fairly sedate and weren't very dynamic, almost a blink and you'd miss them affair. Next up the first of the Phantom sequences, this consisted of four F-4EJs and a pair of RF-4Es, these took off and went off to form up into a six ship flypast, though after all of the effort to form up it was a little surprising that they only performed a single flypast, before breaking up and the RF-4Es giving us a little display. The RF-4Es would be back later for their full display slot.

With part of the JASDF's Air Rescue Wing also being based at Hyakuri, it was their turn to do their thing in front of the gathered crowds. The Wing operate both the licence built Mitsubishi UH-60J and the Raytheon U-125A, in the SAR (Search and Rescue) role. Unfortunately, the U-125 seemed to suffer technical difficulties on the show day, although it did take part in the demo on the Families Day. This left the SAR demo to be performed by the UH-60J, which demonstrated to the crowds soldiers abseiling to the ground, followed by the retrieval of a stretcher which was winched up in to the helicopter. Next it was the turn of the stars of the show - the two 302 specials - to take to the air and perform an airfield beat up, this consisted of multiple strafing passes on the airfield followed by tight banking turns, giving photographers a fantastic opportunity to take some lovely topside shots.

Following lunch it was the turn of the visiting 303 Hikotai F-15J to give their display, disappointingly this was carried out at a fairly high altitude, and so wasn't much of a spectacle for the crowd watching below. Unlike European display acts that tend to have a designated demo pilot, this isn't the case in Japan, displays here are carried out by normal JASDF pilots, and it does unfortunately show in their displays. Next up we had the 301 Hikotai F-4 Phantom QRA demo, with the aircraft taking off and keeping it low while gathering speed, before pulling up into a hard climb. The highlight of their display was a separation break right in front of the watching crowd. Closing the show were the two 501 Hikotai reconnaissance RF-4Es, these put on a nice little display with plenty of topsides banking around the hangars. Following the show most of the visiting aircraft then also departed.

In comparison to the size and scale of some European shows, the Hyakuri Air Festival was a fairly modest affair, probably on par size wise with the UK's Abingdon air show. However it was most definitely a case of quality over quantity, and although there were only eight flying displays, five of these included Phantoms, so it's hard to pick fault with that, as F-4 Phantom displays are almost unheard of these days. Unfortunately the weather didn't really play ball, with overcast conditions for most of the day, this was in stark contrast to the glorious sunshine for the Families Day the preceding day. Still, it was a fantastic day out, and it was a pleasure to experience such a well organised show.