Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Memories Of Japan


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


The eastern edge of Honshu seemed almost pure city, as I turned north along the beach to stay away from heavily congested airspace over Narita Airport at Tokyo. I knew from previous trips that Japan is an almost indescribably beautiful country, but population density is very high, even greater than that of India. There's not much open terrain to see. The country is surrounded by ocean with mountains everywhere, and at 12,000 feet, you're within sight of ocean or mountains (or both) virtually all the time. Most of the land is dedicated to small villages or big cities.

I've been fortunate to fly the world on someone else's nickel, and while there are some places I've been happy to witness from 10,000 feet rather than ground level, Japan is one I'd love to see up close.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the population density, Japan's infrastructure makes it relatively easy to get around, and that's evident looking down from above. Japan consists of more than 6,000 islands, of which the four major islands are Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku. And, there's another 400 or so smaller isles, but many of these are connected by a profusion of bridges.

On the islands of Honshu and Kyushu, there's also the maglev Shinkansen—bullet trains that transit the islands at speeds as high as 200 mph. (Once several years ago, I was flying a new Cessna Grand Caravan above Honshu and was amazed to see a train pass me below.)
The controller wanted me up high, but the airplane's pressurization system had failed out of majuro...and lack of onboard oxygen limited me at 12,000 feet.
American general aviation pilots flying their own airplanes in Japan won't find it that much different from operating here at home, although the process is somewhat more formal. All flights require a flight plan, and there are strict limits as to where you can go. It's a lot like operating in or around Class B airspace in the states. IFR is the preferred mode of operation, but even if you're filed VFR, expect to be monitored by controllers.

Problem is, of course, just getting to Japan in your aircraft may be a stretch for anything without the range of a Rutan Voyager. While it's possible to earn an English-only Japanese pilot's license, you can't simply apply for a 30-day temporary ticket as you can in many other ICAO countries. That means the only convenient way to arrange for a sightseeing flight is to charter through a local Japanese FBO with a professional pilot in a JA-registered airplane.
Alternately, AOPA-Japan can help out. The latter may be the less expensive alternative.

Airline airports are, by definition, reserved for the heavy iron, but there are a number of general aviation fields in Japan that accommodate light planes. My ferry flight ended at Sendai, hard by the coast near the Fukushima nuclear power station that was heavily damaged by the 2011 tsunami. This 2007 ferry flight was my most recent trip to Japan, so I'm not sure what's left of Sendai airport. The primary approach comes in over the beach, and the runways and terminal took the brunt of the huge waves.

Your universal source of information should be AOPA Japan. The American headquarters of AOPA in Frederick, Md., can provide all the contact information you'll need for a flight as a passenger in a Japanese member's airplane over one of the most beautiful countries on the planet.

Just watch out for the typhoons.



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