ZF 3

Kyushu event will be iconic aircraft’s first flight in Japan since the end of World War II.

During its half-decade production run, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries built nearly 11,000 units of the Zero, the most iconic Japanese fighter plane of World War II. However, as a lightly armored piece of military hardware that was on the losing side of the largest armed conflict in history, there aren’t that many of the planes left anymore. Filter out the non-operational survivors, and out of all the Zeroes that left the factory, less than ten are still capable of flight.

Given that scarcity, it’s a rare sight to see the storied fighter in the sky, so military aviation enthusiasts are excited about an upcoming Zero flight scheduled for later this month. What will make the event even more significant is that it will happen in Japan, marking the first time the Zero has flown in its home country since World War II.

The plane in question, a flight-worthy Type 22 Zero, had until recently been located in the suburbs of Rabaul, New Guinea. Masahide Ishizuka, a 54-year-old Japanese national residing in New Zealand, has been the central figure in the fighter’s return to Japan. In 2007, Ishizuka, who manufactures and sells flight jackets, was asked to serve as an intermediary for a museum in Hokkaido that wished to purchase the Zero from its American owner, who had been in possession of the plane since the 1970 and restored it to operational condition.

However, shortly after the parties agreed to the terms of sale, the world economy was devastated by the financial crisis of 2008. The museum expressed a desire to back out of the sale, but this would have made the organization liable for sizeable damages, as stipulated by the contract that had been made. So instead Ishizuka sold off many of his own assets and picked up the 350 million yen (US$2.92 million) tab himself.

Now the one and only Japanese owner of a flyable Zero, Ishizuka launched the Zero Homecoming Project, with the goal of transporting the plane to Japan and putting it in the air. In September of 2014, the Zero was back in Japan, with donations solicited through the project’s website contributing some 23.4 million yen to the cause. It was subsequently moved to the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Kanoya Naval Airbase, in Kagoshima Prefecture on the southern island of Kyushu, for research purposes.

▼ Kanoya Naval Airbase

ZF 2

However, obtaining a flight permit turned out to be more difficult than simply submitting documentation of the Zero’s restoration process and having the plane inspected by the authorities. The Japanese government has been in the process of debating divisive revisions to its defense policies, and some felt that a public display of one of the most evocative symbols of World War II wasn’t appropriate in such a heightened atmosphere.

However, with the political climate once again settling down, on December 18 the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism granted permission for the Zero to take to the skies, on the condition that the flight happen within roughly one month.

With the fighter finally clear for take-off, an announcement was made that the Zero, with an American pilot at the controls, will fly above Kanoya Naval Airbase on January 27. Civilian access to the facility is restricted, but organizers promise that the plane will also be visible from the surrounding area. Given the renewed interest in the Zero brought on by a pair of fictionalized accounts of their designers and plots, a large spectator turnout is expected.

Source: Sankei West via Jin
Top image: Zero Homecoming Project
Insert image: Kanoya Naval Airbase