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ShinMaywa’s US-1A, cleansed of the corrosive sea after every mission, continues an ancestral line of flying boats. (Tim Wright)

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Japan has one godzilla of a seaplane

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ON A COLD DAY IN JANUARY 1992, U.S. AIR FORCE CAPTAIN JOHN DOLAN ejected from his damaged F-16 at 25,000 feet and landed in the Pacific Ocean about 700 miles from the Japanese mainland. For the next four hours Dolan lay in a tiny rubber life raft that was tossed and continually swamped by high seas; he eventually suffered severe hypothermia. Finally, when he was barely conscious, Dolan saw a large, four-engine aircraft—a ShinMaywa US-1A bearing the Rising Sun of the Japanese military—slowly circling his raft.

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Aboard the US-1A, a radar at the copilot’s station indicated that the waves below were just over nine feet high. US-1A Pilot Commander Hideki Kida put the 50-ton aircraft down in the churning ocean and taxied to within 50 yards of Dolan’s raft. Two rescue swimmers got to Dolan and hauled him aboard the US-1A, and in another four hours Dolan was at the military hospital at Yokota Air Base, Japan.

With this rescue, one of 628 flown by a US-1A since it entered service in 1976, the aircraft completed for the first and only time the mission it was created to fulfill: rescuing military fliers. In its years of service, the US-1 type, with its 12-member crew, has made its real impact by saving civilians. To sailors at sea and people living on remote Japanese islands, it has been an aerial lifeline, an odd role for an aircraft that started out hunting submarines.

The US-1A began life as the ShinMaywa PS-1, an anti-submarine aircraft that first flew on October 5, 1967. A Japanese-designed and built flying boat, the PS-1 tracked submarines with a dipping sonar—an acoustic device lowered into the ocean—and was armed with torpedoes, depth charges, and five-inch rockets. The massive underwater microphone was so large that crew members could barely squeeze past when it rested inside the aircraft.

On a typical anti-sub mission, the PS-1 crew would range over hundreds of square miles of ocean, landing 12 to 16 times. At each landing, the crew, like fishermen lowering a hook, would submerge the sonar, trying to catch the fleeting sounds of an enemy submarine.

ShinMaywa built 21 PS-1s, which served the Japanese Marine Self Defense Force until 1980, when Japan chose a different aircraft for anti-submarine missions. Lockheed’s P-3C Orion was faster than the PS-1, had a longer range, and deployed a series of floating sonar-emitting buoys that could weave a tighter web around a submarine. It was also easier to maintain and more comfortable for its aircrew. It wasn’t long before the PS-1 was looking for a new mission and found one in the most unlikely place: the P-3C Orion.

With its 2,700-mile range, the P-3C ventured into stretches of the Pacific far from the home islands, and it seemed prudent to the Japanese defense force to have a rescue craft available in case an aircraft was lost in an area outside customary shipping routes. So the PS-1 shed its sonar, rockets, and torpedoes and was reborn as the US-1 rescue aircraft. Its primary mission: to rescue P-3C aircrews. In the process of rebirth, the new US-1 evolved from a true flying boat into an amphibian. ShinMaywa engineers replaced the flying boat’s beaching gear, with which it could roll onto a prepared shore under its own power, with sturdy landing gear, which could support a 50-ton aircraft landing on a runway at about 75 mph.

In the years after World War II, most countries abandoned the concept of large flying boats as patrol craft, but ShinMaywa’s history kept it focused on the type. The company traces its beginnings to 1918, when it was known as Kawanishi. It developed a line of floatplanes and flying boats that helped tie the Japanese empire together in the years leading up to World War II. By the end of the war, Kawanishi had built 2,862 aircraft. The most famous were a single-engine fighter known by the Allies as the “George” and two fourengine flying boats, the H6K “Mavis” and H8K-2 “Emily.” The Emily had a 124-foot wingspan (nine feet longer than that of the British Short Sunderland and 21 feet longer than a Boeing B-17’s), and, with a range of 4,500 miles, it has won accolades from aviation historians as the most advanced flying boat of the war.

The U.S. Navy was impressed enough with the Emily to have transported one after the war for testing at its Patuxent River facility in Maryland. Surface tests were conducted in the Chesapeake Bay, but engine failures brought the testing to a premature close, and the aircraft was exiled to the Norfolk Naval Air Station in Virginia, where it was wrapped in plastic and relegated to the station’s lost and forlorn. By then, it was the last known Emily in the world. In 1980 the Navy, at the request of the Japanese government, returned the orphaned Emily to Japan. It recently underwent a major restoration and is on display at the Museum of Maritime Science on Tokyo’s waterfront.

During the war the Kawanishi factory in Kobe, a coastal city about 20 miles southwest of Kyoto, built 167 Emily flying boats before the U.S. Army Air Forces added the factory to the strike list of B-29s raiding Japan. At one time, the factory was the largest enclosed structure in Asia. By war’s end, it was a twisted ruin. Today, as ShinMaywa workers climb over a US-1A brought in for overhaul, sunlight streams through bullet holes left in the factory walls.

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