The Only War We've Got

Japanese army aircraft

[The following aircraft profiles appeared in the original edition of Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and His American Volunteers, as published by the Smithsonian Institution Press, copyright 1991. They include only the JAAF warplanes encountered by the AVG in Burma and China. -- Daniel Ford]

Nakajima Ki-27 Nate

This gnat-like aircraft with fixed landing gear was the JAAF's first monoplane fighter. To meet army specifications, Nakajima produced a fragile craft with no starter motor, tail-wheel, pilot armor, or self-sealing fuel tanks. The Ki-27 went into service in the year 2597 (1937) and was therefore known as Type 97 Army Fighter; western pilots would call it the "Nate." It made its combat debut on April 10, 1938, when Captain Tateo Kato claimed three CAF biplane fighters. The Nates then went to Manchuria, the cold climate in which they had been designed to fight. But Claire Chennault had seen enough to warn U.S. authorities that Japan had a new fighter that "climbs like a sky rocket and maneuvers like a squirrel." The specifications are for the Ki-27B in service at the outbreak of the Pacific War.

Engine: 650 hp Nakajima air-cooled radial
Crew: one
Wingspan: 37 feet 1 inch
Combat weight: 4,000 lb
Maximum range: 500 miles on internal fuel
Top speed: 290 mph at 13,000 feet
Armament: two 7.7 mm machine guns in nose; four 55-lb bombs

Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa

When the Japanese army decided to acquire a retractable-gear fighter, it again turned to the Nakajima company. Like its pre decessor, the Ki-43 sacrificed durability for lightness, and had no pilot armor, self-sealing fuel tanks, or internal starter. For all that, it was clumsy and stiff in its combat trials, causing its development to be shelved. In the spring of 1941, butterfly combat flaps were added to the Ki-43, increasing the wing area and transforming a sluggish fighter into one that could actually turn inside a Zero. The modified version went into service in July, by which time the JAAF was giving pet names to its warplanes, to oblige journalists who found it difficult to write about aircraft identified only by number and function. Thus the Ki-43, officially Type One Army Fighter, became
Hayabusa, or Peregrine Falcon. The specifications are for the early-model Ki-43-I.

Engine: 1,050 hp Nakajima air-cooled supercharged radial
Crew: one
Wingspan: 37 feet 6 inches
Maximum range: 750 miles (greater with drop-tanks)
Top speed: 305 mph at 15,000 feet
Ceiling: 39,000 feet
Combat weight: 5,000 lb
Armament: one 12.7 mm and one 7.7 mm machine gun in the nose; two 33-lb bombs

See also Joe Baugher's profile of the Hayabusa, with additional information from Japanese-language sources.

Rising Sun Over Burma

Kawasaki Ki-48 Lily

Encountering the Tupelov SB in China in the fall of 1937, Japanese commanders were dismayed to find that the Soviet bomber was almost as fast as their fighters. They called for the development of a similar aircraft for the JAAF. Unique among Japanese bombers, the Ki-48 had a slender tail section behind the bomb-bay, making room for a rear-facing gunner (otherwise the navigator) on a platform that swung down from the fuselage step, giving him a better range of motion than the porthole belly gunner on other bombers. The plane went into service in the year 2599 (1939) and was therefore designated Type 99 Light Bomber; Allied pilots gave it the pet name of "Lily." By 1941 its comparative lack of speed, defensive weaponry, and armor made it an easy target. Specifications are for the Ki-48-I used in the winter of 1941-1942.

Engines: Two 950 hp Nakajima air-cooled radials
Crew: four
Wingspan: 57 feet 4 inches
Combat weight: 13,000 lb
Maximum range: 1,500 miles
Top speed: 300 mph at 11,500 feet
Armament: Three 7.7 mm flexible machine guns; 880 lb total bomb load

Mitsubishi Ki-21 "Sally"

The standard heavy bomber of the Japanese Army Air Force, the Ki- 21 was adopted in 1937 and saw service over Hankou, Chongqing, and the Burma Road. The wings were mounted at midpoint on the fuselage and had a distinct dihedral, giving the aircraft the appearance of a soaring though overweight hawk. The rudder was huge. The Ki-21-I (Sally-1) was defended by a machine gun in the nose, a large-caliber gun at the rear of the greenhouse, a remotely controlled tail gun, and a drum-fed gun that was shifted from port to starboard to belly, depending on the plane's position in the formation. By the outbreak of the Pacific War, most bomber groups had converted to the Ki-21-II (Sally 2) with larger engines and additional armament. The specifications are those of the Sally 2 generally encountered by the AVG over Burma.

Engine: two 1,500-hp Mitsubishi air-cooled radials
Crew: seven
Wingspan: 74 feet
Maximum range: 1,500 miles
Top speed: 300 mph at 15,500 feet
Armament: one 12.7 mm and four 7.7 mm flexible machine guns; 2,200 lb total bomb load

Kawasaki Ki-45 Toryu

Aware that the western powers were developing long-range, twin- engined escort fighters, the JAAF in 1937 staged a competition to build a similar plane. The successful designer was Kawasaki, whose prototype was lovely to see, with a needlelike nose, two neatly faired radial engines, and a two-man cockpit with a rear-facing gunner. It boasted three machine guns and a cannon adapted from an anti-tank weapon. Performance was sluggish, however, and the project was shelved until the Hayabusa powerplant became available. Production began early in 1942, so the plane went into service as the Type Two Army Two-Seater Fighter. It was dubbed
Toryu, meaning Dragon Killer. The fighter squadron at Hanoi received its first Ki-45s in February, but the June 12 shootout at Guilin seems to have been the Toryu's baptism of fire. Disappointed by its performance against the Kittyhawk, the JAAF began to reserve it for attacking ground targets and Allied shipping.

Engines: Two 950 hp Nakajima air-cooled radials
Crew: two
Wingspan: 49 feet 3 inches
Combat weight: 11,600 pounds
Maximum range: 1,400 miles
Top speed: 340 mph at 23,000 feet
Armament: one 20 mm cannon and two 12.7 mm machine guns in the nose, one 7.92 mm flexible gun; 1,100 lb total bomb load

See also notes from Toryu

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