Akeno Air Festival

Saturday 4th November 2023

The Japan Ground Self Defence Force (JGSDF) opened the doors to its garrison at Camp Akeno, located in Ise City, in the Mie prefecture in central Japan to much fanfare.

Tom Jones reports on the Japanese Army helicopter schoolhouse’s event.

The JGSDF is split into a number of geographical commands, and Camp Akeno is the home to a number of JGSDF helicopter units under the umbrella of Chubu Homentai, the “central army”. More specifically, Akeno is home to the 5th Anti-tank Helicopter unit and the JGSDF’s helicopter aviation school, as well as the 10th Division transport squadron, and elements of the JGSDF’s Development and Test Brigade. All this makes Camp Akeno an interesting place full of numerous types of helicopters.

The Akeno Aviation Festival in 2023 celebrated the 68th anniversary of Camp Akeno’s opening, and the 71st anniversary of the Aviation School. Like many Japanese airshows, they are different to European and North American events in numerous ways. This time of year is autumn in Japan, so the early nights impact how long an airshow can run for. For the most part, the flying commenced at 10am, and concluded at 12pm, although visitors were allowed to see guest static aircraft depart up until 2:30pm.

With such a short flying display time, a lot had to be crammed into two hours. The main event started with a mass launch of UH-1s, UH-2s, AH-1s, OH-1s, and TH-480Bs. A total of 17 aircraft took to the air, whilst speeches were made by VIPs. After the bulk of the formation landed (and hover-taxied past the crowd), four TH-480Bs, a UH-2J, an AH-1S and an OH-1, together making the “Akeno Rainbow” flight, performed joint and solo displays. The solo displays only lasted a few minutes each, but it was rare to see the full agility of the likes of an AH-1 or UH-2J demonstrated at a public event.

Refreshingly for photographers, the airshow faces north, and has the sun behind the crowd all day. Additionally, helicopters flew a lot lower and a lot closer to the crowd line than fast jets might at an equivalent air event. This made photographic opportunities plentiful, all of numerous types, all in attractive liveries. The trade off to this is that the sea air can often produce foggy or hazy conditions, and the background is quite cluttered with the standard Japanese suburban/industrial aesthetic of buildings, and wires.

Following the Akeno Rainbow flight, some guests from other bases joined in; including a pair of T-7 trainer aircraft, a T-4 jet trainer from JASDF Hamamatsu. A Mitsubishi F-2 and F-15J from the Air Development and Test Wing at Gifu Air Base flew in for several flypasts each. It’s a shame that they were so high, so that even in perfect weather, there was very little in the way of photographic opportunities available for them. There were also a handful of other displays from based types, including a very short but sweet rescue demonstration from a JGSDF UH-60JA, and a pair of UH-1Js.

But, of course, the day was about the JGSDF and their helicopters. One of the stars of the show was a debut at Camp Akeno of the JGSDF’s new V-22B Osprey. Japan is, so far, the only foreign operator of the venerable tilt-rotor aircraft. Usually based at JGSDF Kisarazu east of Tokyo, the Osprey drew a huge amount of attention from the crowd present, and, pleasingly, was able to depart during the day after the main flying display had finished.

Some other guests included a Mie Prefectural Police Aviation Unit AW109, a Nagoya-based Japan Coast Guard AW139, a JASDF search and rescue UH-60J in its attractive blue livery, and a Japan Maritime Self Defence Force SH-60K. All but the latter departed the show during the event, allowing members of the public to see each of them active.

A final participant was likely one of the final airshow appearances by a CH-47J Chinook. The old-style CH-47s (without the extended nose nor enlarged fuel tanks) have mostly been retired in favour of the newer models that are in service with numerous units. The Chinook at Camp Akeno did not fly in the display (a CH-47JA was due to attend, but was called away to assist with forest fires), but offered taxi rides to members of the public who won a randomised lottery for a ride. As it is for most military-organised air events in Japan, the Akeno Air Festival was free, and a relatively small-scale affair in terms of numbers, but in terms of diversity of military aircraft operated, a western enthusiast could seldom do better to see as much of the JGSDF in as pleasing photographic conditions than at Camp Akeno.