Indigenous Japanese engines were mostly radials, round engines. But shortly before the war started, the Japanese Army decided it needed a fighter more like the European types. The Spitfire and Bf109 were making news, so the Imperial Army knew it needed something comparable.
After the jump, a look at Japan’s sleek “Tony”.
After buying, and test flying some German types, including the Bf109, the Imperial Army directed Kawasaki to build a fighter of the European sort. They started by licencing the DB601 engine from Daimler-Benz. It would be known as the Ha-40 when made by Kawasaki. Then they designed and built a new fighter like the sort used in the west. It would be heavier than other Japanese fighters, with pilot armor, self sealing tanks and heavier armament. But the advanced liquid cooled engine would allow for better aerodynamics to make up for the weight. So the plane would be fast, but not as maneuverable as earlier types.
The result was an excellent design. It was immediately popular with pilots, but encountered some higher level resistance from those who objected to how western it was. There were some good reasons for the resistance; it was much more sophisticated machine than past Army fighters. The engine required tight production tolerances that pushed the limits of Japanese abilities. It also required specialized maintenance and equipment that were often beyond what forward units could provide. Units based in Japan, or at major bases, didn’t have such problems. But when deployed forward to New Guinea or Indonesia dependability suffered.
When the type was first encountered in combat it caused a sensation. Many allied pilots thought it was a Bf109. More thorough photographic analysis suggested it was something different. Maybe something Italian? So “Tony” was assigned as the code name. When a few examples were acquired for testing (captured in New Guinea) secrets were revealed, including the type’s Japanese origins. But intelligence was alarmed to discover how hot this plane was, much faster than a P-40 or P-39. 5th Air Force demanded more P-38s, which weren’t available at the time due to high attrition in North Africa. This led to the first P-47 units in the Pacific.
But the Tony’s poor serviceability kept it from ever upsetting the balance of power. Several pilots found success, and made ace on the type. But it didn’t have a real impact until late 1944 with the start of the B-29 campaign against the Japanese home islands. It would be one of the more successful interceptors then, when conditions were perfect for its use.
This example is built from the Hasegawa kit with Aeromaster decals. The subject is a Ki-61 tei. That means its a “D” model. The main changes with sub-types being armament. This plane was armed with two 12.7 mm machine guns in the cowling, and one in each wing. The 12.7 mm was pretty comparable to a .50, so four of them is good fire power for a Japanese Army type. This aircraft was assigned to a unit based on Sumatra and Formosa in 1945. I had fun simulating the severely weathered look common on so many Japanese aircraft. Apparently paint quality was among the things most severely affected by late war industrial problems in Japan; so combined with a harsh tropical environment many Japanese aircraft look very scruffy.
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I’ve always found it interesting that the radial engine planes, or fighters at least, seemed to dominate the pacific theater and the liquid cooled piston engine fighters the European theater. Obviously the Navy/Marine’s far larger footprint in the Pacific is a consideration, but now that you highlight the maintenance issue it makes sense. Infrastructure for supplies and maintenance was a lot better developed in the European theater than much of the Pacific.
I know at certain times the Navy actually pushed in-line engine development pretty seriously, the Allison V-1710 was first developed for Navy airships, but generally they seemed to favor the dependability and simplicity of radial engines. But the US Army wasn’t shy about using liquid engined fighters in the Pacific, in fact, the Thunderbolt was the only radial engined fighter to wide service with the Air Force in the Pacific. The British also were happy to in-lines, even on their carrier aircraft.
But I think with the Japanese the main issue was just that as a recently industrialized power they were cautious about adding a new complexity of questionable value. There really were proponents of both engine types arguing their case for different applications of their favorite engine type right up until the jet made it all irrelevent.
I find it interesting though just how well the Japanese did with a wholly new type. The HA-40 was some 70 pounds lighter, with the same output as the German DB601. So really, it could be called an improved design. It’s really just the maintenance/supply situation that sullies it’s reputation. And that worked fine at major bases. Kawasaki later licensed the DB605 as the HA-140 and was planning to upgrade the Tony with it when their engine plant was destroyed by B-29s.
The only criticisms of the whole project I would have are 1) trying to use a new fighter at forward bases that couldn’t support it and 2) the distraction of effort. No matter how well conceived, I think Japan would have done better focusing on what they already knew and putting more effort into the next generation of radials. They did produce some excellent late war types like the Ki-84 Frank and N1K George. Industrially and economically the Tony seems like sort of a wasted effort.
Just a quick note from having recently read a more thorough account of the type. The HA-140 engine was apparently an indiginous Japanese upgrade of the HA-40/DB601 engine. A later, planned HA-240 would have incorporated more technology from the DB605; but this engine never entered production.
The Japanese were marvels of imitation.The tony was so much like the BF109’s that western observers were first fooled.
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