'Operation Friendship' set for takeoff

by Paul Thompson

The gates of the U.S. Air Force’s Yokota base at Fussa in western Tokyo will be opened to the public next weekend, when the annual “Friendship Days” event is expected to attract around 200,000 visitors to soak up the razzmatazz festival atmosphere, watch fireworks and flybys and get up close to and even into some of the world’s most deadly military hardware.

The base, which takes its name from another area to the northwest (apparently because the first U.S. servicemen habitually mispronounced “Fussa”), is one of only two USAF air bases on mainland Japan — the other being the shared facility at Misawa in Aomori Prefecture. After starting life as the Imperial Japanese Army’s Tama airfield, which went into service on Aug. 15, 1940, the base was extensively used during World War II. Then, after Japan’s surrender (on Aug. 15, 1945) and an extensive repair and construction program, the first U.S. military aircraft landed on the new runway in 1946 — strangely, also on Aug. 15.

In 1973, all U.S. military installations in the Tokyo area were integrated at the Yokota hub, which is currently home to around 3,700 personnel. Under the command of the 5th Air Force, headquartered at Yokota, the host unit for the last decade has been the 374th Airlift Wing, which has sole responsibility for the air transportation of personnel, supplies and mail over a 7.7 million-sq.-km area from Thailand to Micronesia.

Each of the 374th’s three squadrons, which are all equipped for medevac (medical evacuation), also has a separate role. The 36th Airlift Squadron has at its disposal 13 C-130 Hercules aircraft of the type that has formed the backbone of the USAF’s tactical transport inventory since the 1960s. To fulfill its primary field-hospital role, the 30th Airlift Squadron is equipped with C-9 Nightingales, named for the British nursing heroine of the 1850s’ Crimean War. Each of these can carry up to 40 litter patients, and the squadron maintains a 24-hour emergency force for rapid deployment.

Meanwhile, providing a search-and-rescue capability and VIP transport is the 459th Airlift Squadron, flying the stalwart UH-1 Huey helicopter and the C-21 military version of the Learjet 35A executive jet.

When the base staged its first “Open House” on May 17, 1958, around 35,000 people took the opportunity to glimpse behind the scenes of somewhere that was otherwise, particularly during the Cold War, strictly off-limits. Nowadays, the vastly greater numbers turning up for the annual summer “Friendship Days” are welcomed by the USAF for the major PR boost they represent.

This is no doubt particularly valued at a time when Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara regularly and vociferously calls for the return of the base to Japanese control, and residents’ groups are protesting against what base officials claim to be an average of 30 aircraft movements a day, with no routine flights between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

However, as has been the case for the past 10 years, there will be no aerobatics on either day — most likely in view of the complexity of arranging them and ensuring safety in the heavily built-up area. Nonetheless, visitors will be able to see base aircraft being put through their paces in mission demonstration flights, and around 30 other aircraft from the U.S. Army, Navy and Marine Corps air arms, as well as some from the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force, will be visible close up in the static display.

Among these, organizers expect there will be fighters like the swing- wing F-14 Tomcat, the F-16 Fighting Falcon (top speed of Mach 2.5), and the distinctive, twin tail-finned F-15 Eagle and F-18 Hornet — both capable of taking off and climbing to over 18,000 meters within 1 minute to intercept an unwary aircraft and attack with missiles and cannon.

As well, visitors will be able to gaze in awe, and likely flinch, at the ugly, armor-plated OA-10 Thunderbolt II, which packs a 4,000 lb, seven-barreled rotary Gatling gun that can fire its 30mm shells at the rate of 3,900 a minute (think about that). Then, at the less lethal end of the spectrum, there’ll be the E-3 Sentry with its huge “mushroom” radar on top, massive C-5 Galaxy and C-17 transports, helicopters and likely a JASDF F-4 Phantom or two as well.

Meanwhile, away from these technological marvels designed to deal out death and destruction, non-aviation activities will center around more than 200 booths selling everything from patches to popcorn, various sideshows and precision-personifying military bands culminating, on Sunday only, with a fireworks display.