Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Memories Of Japan

Looking down on Japan from a Piper Malibu is a privilege granted to very few

It was late December, and I had been stuck in Guam for five days, waiting for a stubborn typhoon to move out of the way between America's westernmost territory and Japan. Today's final leg of the 7,000 nm delivery flight was to Sendai, Japan, just under 1,400 nm by the most direct route.

Unfortunately, the weather made that route highly unlikely. As a result, I filed for a more southerly trip to circumnavigate the storm. I'd overfly Iwo Jima and hit the Japanese coast near Osaka rather than north of Tokyo. Predictably, the controller wanted me up high, but the airplane's pressurization system had failed out of Majuro, Marshall Islands, and lack of onboard oxygen limited me at 12,000 feet.

I departed Guam at 0600 local and cruised into the gathering dawn above a placid Pacific. There wasn't much to see for the first four hours, just rolling ocean stretching to the horizon. Somewhere below was the Marianas Trench, the deepest water on the planet, 35,000 feet to the bottom according to the Discovery Channel. Moot point, I shrugged. If I ditched in 10-foot water or the 35,000-foot Challenger Deep, the result would be the same. Still, I couldn't help wondering if deep ocean should look bluer than shallow.

Eventually, the trio of tiny islands that make up the Iwo Jima group materialized in the distance. I watched the airplane gain on the main barren rock island, about half the size of Manhattan, and saw it drift by on the left.

In February, 1945, the U.S. finally wrested Iwo Jima from the Japanese, and used it as an emergency landing site for eight months until the war ended. Later, it was returned to Japan in 1968. The place was nearly deserted as I passed overhead in 2007. Sleepy Mt. Suribachi, a small 550-foot-tall, long-dormant volcano on the southern tip of the island, looked to be little more than a small hill from two miles above. The island was no longer of strategic value, certainly nothing worth dying for, as so many Americans and Japanese had done.

The winds were reasonably willing on this day, a friendly 10-knot headwind, but upper level winds in this area can be phenomenal, especially during winter. Airline crews have experienced hurricane-like jet streams in excess of 200 knots above 30,000 feet. On this day, I cruised at a ground speed of 180 knots, watching the ocean unroll toward Japan.

The Japanese coast abeam Osaka was only another 600 nm from Iwo, three-and-a-half hours or one Gatorade and a ham sandwich away. The sky had been washed clean by the recent typhoon, and as I approached the coast, the controller gave me a vector that cut the corner and pointed me directly at the snowcap of massive Mt. Fuji, 50 miles from Tokyo.

I had only made a handful of trips to Japan, and this was the clearest view I had had of the sacred 12,000-foot mountain. The domed peak with its perennial winter glaze of snow rears up southwest of the capitol city, a sentinel guarding the city.

The scene was reminiscent of all the times I had witnessed a similar sight in Seattle, watching massive Mt. Rainier rising into the high sky, king of the West Coast's chain of sleeping volcanoes. More than coincidentally, the evenly spaced string of gently arched mountains along the American West Coast and the similar line of volcanoes in Japan are part of the same Pacific Ring of Fire, a sometimes-active zone of not-so-dormant volcanism.


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