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Lightning Strikes Twice
The Kyūshū J7W1 Shinden (Magnificent Lightning Bolt) was a Pusher aircraft design devised by the Japanese Navy at the end of WWII, in the hopes that a short range, high speed, high altitude interceptor might be able to fend off the increasing US bombing raids over Japanese cities.
With its 30mm cannons and a proposed Jet turbine upgrade (being reviewed here, rather obliquely), it might have made a formidable fighter, but – much as in the West – the Shinden was too little, too late. As a consequence, and with so many ‘might have been’ ideas, the Shinden has come to represent something of an aviation dream.
Only two prototypes were ever finished before the war, and greatly impressed the US Forces when they came across them.
For those who do not know, the Japanese Navy used a type/designer designation system for its aircraft. In this case J7W1 breaks down as follows. J represents land based light aircraft (fighters and interceptors primarily), whilst 7 indicates it had been preceded by 6 more such craft. W represents the designer, Watanabe Tekkojo, the company which managed the design process, under the hand of Lt. Commander Masayoshi Tsuruno.
Tsuruno was aware that aircraft which could mount their main weapons centrally had a better chance of hitting their targets as, unlike the guns on conventional fighters, they did not need synchronising to propellor timing (as with nose guns on the Bf109) or set to cross as a set range to maximise firepower (as with wing-mounted guns).
He had seen the effectiveness of this on US aircraft like the P-38 but also understood that the inherent flaws of the so-called ‘heavy fighter‘ concept made them unsuitable as high maneuverability fighters.
Though the Canard has been around since the first days of flight (indeed one the Wright Brothers first craft was a Canard design) most aircraft today still use a rear horizontal stabilizer by their rudder to keep the aircraft pitching nose-down in normal flight, which is common, as the weight of the craft tends to be over the wings. The tail end winglets act as a downforce creator (as well as mounting elevators) which keeps the nose stable.
The Canard does the opposite. In such aircraft the center of mass is balanced and the fore mounted winglets add additional lift and prevent any nose diving.
It all gets a little complicated, so have a wander over to this page if you have an interest in canard aerodynamics, as it is replete with all the ups and downs (#Dad_Puns_inc) of canard designs.
Going hand in hand with the canard design is the pusher propulsion system.
Pusher airplanes like the canard are as old as flight, as early experimenters in flight thought it natural to have the pilot as far forward as possible, for maximum visibility, as with the first spotting aircraft used in WWI.
Now we tend to think of all pushers as rear-engine craft (like modern fighters in which the jet turbine is mounted in the body of the craft), but, as can be seen from the image above, this is not always the case.
Pushers tend to be efficient and maneuverable, but, like many craft at the extreme end of the ‘flight curve,’ required careful handling by well trained pilots, especially at stall speeds (landings and take offs especially). The propeller in pusher configuration, unlike in the tractor configuration wherein the propeller faced forward direction, provided the propulsive force on the airframe from the rear of the aircraft.
The main advantage of pusher craft is that the propulsion unit is behind the centre point of the craft, and (in a way which escapes my understanding) reduces the drag profile of the craft and (though this could be seen as a disadvantage) making is, as stated above more agile, at the cost of some stability when compared to tractor configurations.
There were, and are other disadvantages as well.
The primary issue with pushers comes down to cost. Structurally more complex, and requiring more reliable control systems, pusher aircraft of the 1930s and ’40s simply could not compete with their tractor compatriots. In peacetime, the benefits of agility mattered little to airlines and other fliers who simply needed to get from A to B safely. In war, the costs involved in mass producing such craft kept them off the drawing board until things were getting desperate.
Things were truly desperate when Lt. Commander Masayoshi sat down at his desk with the fragments of an idea in his mind.
The battle of Midway had just been lost, and many in Japan saw, even if they did not accept, that the next stage of the conflict would reflect what was happening in Europe – the increasingly brutal civilian bombing of cities in Germany and England. Aware that Japan’s own fighter forces, though sweeping the skies at the beginning of the war with the likes of the Mitsubishi Zero, were increasingly behind the times, Tsuruno was one of a handful of designers who – independently or not – began looking at developing anti bomber technologies.
However, some designs were truly inspirational – if not entirely unique, historically speaking.
When Tsuruno sat down to design the Shinden he was concerned not with what could be done most efficiently, but what needed to be done to carry out the mission briefing most effectively.
Where other designers attempted to refine that which was accepted, Tsuruno started with the basic three principles – speed, agility and firepower and looked for the best way to bring all three ideals together.
His first ideas investigated by the First Naval Air Technical Arsenal, on glider prototypes, one of which was fitted with a small engine to further test stability and handling.
Tsuruno knew that stability at low speed would be an issue, but considered the sacrifice acceptable in order to be able to put an interceptor into the air that no Pacific Theater Allied fighter could catch, let alone match.
Sadly, owing to material delays, the first two prototypes only began in June 1944, with all the necessary material concerns (especially control issues) finished by January 1945.
Further, owing to powerplant issues, it was not until August 3rd 1945 that the first prototype first flew, with Tsuruno at the controls. The plane performed perfectly, and Tsuruno was vindicated. Even more sadly, and ironically, only two more flights ever took place – one on the day Hiroshima was bombed, and the second on the day Nagasaki was bathed in atomic fire.
‘What if?’ is a game for philosophers, but it is still possible to consider the beauty of this plane and, with a detached mind, consider what might have been had Tsuruno’s dreams come to fruition a little earlier…
Volks also sells figures to go with this kit. See the link at the head of the unboxing for details.
This version of the kit is decked out in air race colors, and is themed after the manga series ‘Oh My Goddess‘.
We will also be using the aftermarket Jet turbine kit which Volks make, based on Tsuruno’s designs which were not completed before the end of WWII.
A large and well-conceived model. I was almost tempted to build this as an armed version (as all the basic components are present), but decided that the racing concept was simply too attractive.
I’ve never had a bad experience with SWS kits before. They can be trouble to work with sometimes, as Volks’ production facilities are not as precise as those at companies like Bandai, but with a little care, they bring great rewards.
In part two, we will discuss air-racing and really get our hands dirty on a very clean aircraft…
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