Photo/IllutrationThe first mass-produced YS-11 model is shown at a hangar of Tokyo's Haneda Airport on July 21. (Shinichi Iizuka)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

One of the most important Japanese aircraft in the postwar period has rarely seen the light of day for nearly two decades.

The first mass-produced YS-11 model remains out of the public eye under a black tarpaulin in a hangar at Haneda Airport in Tokyo.

The YS-11 was the first passenger plane series developed in Japan after World War II, and it symbolized the country’s emergence from the ashes of war on its way to become a manufacturing powerhouse.

Plans to put the plane on display have fallen through, while maintenance costs continue to pile up. Some politicians have suggested ending the storage project.

A nonprofit group may prove the savior for the YS-11 plane by seeking to exhibit the plane in Kanagawa Prefecture. But at least one person is concerned that putting the plane on display could damage its pristine condition.

That person is Kazuyoshi Suzuki, who is in charge of maintaining the aircraft.

FIRST MASS-PRODUCED MODEL

On July 21, Suzuki showed reporters and others the annual checkup of the plane’s engines at Haneda Airport.

The plane’s white body was slightly dusty, but no rust could be found.

“The plane has suffered from minor oil leakage, but its equipment are all green (all fine),” Suzuki said. “Its body is strong.”

Many analog gauges lining the cockpit worked properly, meaning the plane “can be made airborne again easily,” said Suzuki, who is also director of the Center of the History of Japanese Industrial Technology of the National Museum of Nature and Science.

Measuring 26.3 meters long and 32 meters wide, the YS-11 twin-engine propeller plane was developed by Nihon Aircraft Manufacturing Corp. It was part of joint public-private efforts for a Japan-made aircraft after the postwar ban on the nation’s plane manufacturing was lifted in the 1950s.

Viewed as a symbol of Japan’s recovery from the war, the YS-11 was used by All Nippon Airways Co. to transport the torch for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The model also operated as passenger planes or aircraft of Maritime Safety Agency (now the Japan Coast Guard).

Manufacturing of the money-losing model ended in 1973 after 182 planes were produced.

Eight of them, used by the Air Self-Defense Force for flight checks and other purposes, are still in operation.

The first prototype YS-11 plane is on display at the Museum of Aeronautical Sciences in Chiba Prefecture.

The one at Haneda Airport is the first mass-produced model that incorporates improvements based on two prototypes. It made its maiden flight in 1964.

After it was used by the transport ministry for examinations of airport light and guidance systems, the plane was retired from service in 1998.

The national science museum started keeping the plane at Haneda Airport in 1999. The Japan Society of Mechanical Engineers has designated it a Mechanical Engineering Heritage because of its “especially high value as a landmark among the YS-11 aircraft.”

Shortly after it was retired, aviation industry officials and others sought to put the historic plane on display in a planned aviation museum at Haneda Airport to explain Japan’s postwar technological development, according to Suzuki.

But the museum project was dropped because Haneda Airport was increasing its number of international flights, leaving no room for the planned facility. In addition, the industry’s passion to set up the museum had weakened.

To keep the plane airworthy, the national science museum has kept it inside the hangar and conducted maintenance programs, such as regularly turning over its engines, four times a year for 18 years.

In 2010, the Democratic Party of Japan-led government said it is problematic to spend 9 million yen ($81,500) annually to maintain the plane in the hangar.

Under pressure to find a permanent display for the plane, the national science museum began showing the YS-11 to the general public at aviation events and on other occasions.

Its last public appearance was in 2015.

AEROSPACE MUSEUM PLAN

The Steering Committee for Haneda Aerospace Museum (HASM), a nonprofit group, felt a sense of crisis about the current situation surrounding the plane.

“The aircraft may be criticized for wasting money and scrapped if nothing is done, but it should be used to pass down Japan’s technologies to posterity,” said Ko Kondo, 80, a photographer who is a member of the group.

To avoid the worst-case scenario, Yuichiro Miyazaki, 51, a Sagamihara city assemblyman in Kanagawa Prefecture proposed at an assembly meeting in March last year the establishment of an aerospace museum on the former site of a U.S. military facility.

“The city is home to a facility of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, so the area is closely connected with the aerospace industry,” said Miyazaki, a member of HASM and a former pilot at Japan Airlines Co. “The YS-11 would become a new attraction if it is exhibited here.”

Suzuki said “the aircraft is valuable” and that “no one is thinking of scrapping it.”

But the national museum director also pointed out that “displaying it will cause damage to its body.”

“I want to find the best way to show the plane,” Suzuki said.