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Kawanishi N1K George


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The Kawanishi N1K ''Kyōfū'' (強風 "strong wind", Allied reporting name "Rex") was an Imperial Japanese Navy floatplane fighter. The Kawanishi N1K-J ''Shiden'' (紫電 "Violet Lightning") was an Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service land-based version of the N1K. Assigned the Allied codename "George", the N1K-J was considered by both its pilots and opponents to be one of the finest land-based fighters flown by the Japanese during World War II.

The N1K possessed a heavy armament and, unusually for a Japanese fighter, could absorb considerable battle damage. The N1K-J evenly matched the F6F Hellcat and was a better match than the A6M Zero for such aircraft as the F4U Corsair and P-51 Mustang. Despite such capability, it was produced too late and in insufficient numbers to affect the outcome of the war.

Design and development

Kawanishi's N1K was originally built as a floatplane fighter to support forward offensive operations where no airstrips were available, but by 1943 when the aircraft entered service, Japan was firmly on the defensive, and there was no more need for a fighter to fulfill this role.

The requirement to carry a bulky, heavy float essentially crippled the N1K against contemporary American fighters. Kawanishi engineers, however, had proposed in late 1941 that the N1K would be the basis of a formidable land-based fighter too, and a land-based version was produced as a private venture by the company. This version flew on 27 December 1942, powered by a Nakajima NK9A ''Homare'' 11 radial engine, replacing the less powerful Mitsubishi MK4C ''Kasei'' 13 of the N1K. The aircraft retained the mid-mounted wing of the floatplane, and combined with the large propeller necessitated a long, stalky main landing gear. A unique feature was the aircraft's automatic combat flap s that adjusted automatically based on acceleration, freeing up the pilot from having to do this and reducing the chance of stalling in combat. The N1K did have a vice: If handled roughly, it could begin auto-rotation and sometimes spin out of control.

The Nakajima ''Homare'' was powerful, but had been rushed into production before it was sufficiently developed, and proved troublesome. Another problem was that, due to poor heat treatment of the wheels, their failure upon landing would often result in the landing gear being simply ripped off. It was reported that more "Georges" were lost to this than to Allied forces. Apart from engine problems and the landing gear the flight test program showed that the aircraft was promising. Prototypes were evaluated by the Navy, and since the aircraft was faster than the Zero and had a much longer range than the Mitsubishi J2M ''Raiden'', it was ordered into production as the N1K1-J, the -J indicating a land-based fighter modification of the original floatplane fighter.

Only four days after the ''Shiden''s first test flight, a complete redesign was begun, the N1K2-J. The new design addressed the N1K1-J's major defects, primarily the mid-mounted wing and long landing gear. The wings were moved to a low position, which permitted the use of shorter, conventional undercarriage, the fuselage was lengthened, the tail redesigned, and the whole aircraft was made much simpler to produce, with over a third of the parts of the ''Shiden''. Construction materials involved the use of non-critical materials. The redesign was approximately 250 kg (550 lb) lighter, faster and more reliable than the previous N1K1 version. Since there was no alternative, the ''Homare'' engine was retained, even though its reliability problems had not been fully corrected. A prototype flew on 1 January 1944 and after completing Navy trials in April, the N1K2-J was rushed into production. The variant was named the "Shiden-Kai" (紫電改), ''Kai '' standing for ''Modified''.

Operational history

The N1K1 entered service in early 1944 and proved highly effective against American fighters. The Kawanishi were among the few Japanese fighters that could stand up to the best enemy types, including Hellcats and Corsairs. In the hands of aces, the Shiden could even outfly its American opponents. In February 1945, Lieutenant Kinsuke Muto, flying a N1K2-J, faced a dozen U.S. Navy Hellcats in the sky over Japan. He shot down four Hellcats and drove the others away. However, this account is actually a byproduct of Japan's wartime propaganda. In reality, Muto's flight of 10 engaged VF-82, shooting down four Hellcats without loss.

They were, however, mechanically unreliable. The engine was difficult to maintain and, like the complicated undercarriage, plagued by frequent failures. N1K1-J aircraft were used very effectively over Formosa, the Philippines and later, Okinawa. Before production was switched to the improved N1K2-J, 1,007 aircraft were produced, including prototypes.

Problems resulted in very few N1K2-J aircraft being produced, but the ''Shiden-Kai'' proved to be one of the best "dogfighters" fielded by either side. Along with high speed, the fighters were very agile with a roll rate of 82°/sec at. Their weaponry comprising four 20 mm cannon s in the wings was highly effective. As a bomber interceptor, the N1K2-J was less successful, hampered by a poor rate of climb and reduced engine performance at high altitude.

343 Kokutai

Due to production difficulties and damage caused by B-29 Superfortress raids on Japanese factories, only 415 fighters were produced. Consequently, N1K2-J fighters were mainly issued to elite units like the IJN 343rd Air Group (''343 Kokutai'' Naval Fighter Group), commanded by Minoru Genda that was constituted on 25 December 1944. The new 343rd ''Kokutai'' consisted of the best pilots, including Kaneyoshi Muto, reputed to have single handedly shot down four Hellcats. The unit was issued the best equipment available and was also equipped with the new Nakajima C6N ''Saiun'', codenamed "Myrt" long-range reconnaissance aircraft. On 18 March 1945, one of the "Myrts"' managed to spot U.S. carriers en route to Japan.

The following morning, 343 ''Kokutai''s ''Shiden''s intercepted 300 American aircraft. Many of the 343 ''Kokutai'' ''Shiden'' force were N1K2s. When the ''Shidens'' encountered VBF-17 Hellcats, three aircraft were lost on both sides in the initial attack; one Hellcat and two ''Shiden'' were shot down by enemy ground fire, two fighters collided in mid-air, and one Hellcat crashed while trying to land. Then the other ''Shiden'' dove on the Hellcats, downing another one. In the end, the 407 ''Hikotai'' lost six fighters versus downing eight VBF-17 Hellcats.

More serious was the encounter with VBF-10 Corsairs, when two of the Corsairs were separated from the main formations, and then attacked by 343rd ''Shidens''. Four N1K2s were shot down and the Corsairs managed to return to their carrier,. The N1K2s soon got their revenge, when VFM-123 Corsairs were surprised by ''Shidens'', initially mistaken for Hellcats, with a 30-minute aerial combat ensuing. Three Corsairs were shot down and another five were damaged while three other heavily damaged F4Us which had landed on carriers were subsequently thrown into the sea. Of the 10 Japanese aircraft the Americans claimed, not one was effectively downed. Two ''Shidens'' however, were shot down at landing by Hellcats of VF-9. Many other ''Shidens'' were destroyed by American fighters over another airport, where they tried to land because they were low on fuel. At the end of the day, 343° declared 52 victories, U.S. fighters 63. The actual losses were 15 ''Shidens'' and 13 pilots, a "Myrt" with its three man crew, and nine other Japanese fighters. The U.S. also had heavy losses, with 14 fighters and seven pilots, and 11 other attack aircraft.

Five days later, an unofficial award was sent to 343 ''Kokutai'' for the valour shown on 19 March. On 12 April 1945 another fierce battle involved 343°, during Kikusui N.2. The Japanese scored several victories but suffered 12 losses out of 34 machines. On 4 May, another 24 ''Shidens'' were sent in Kikusui N.5.

In every case, the ''Shiden'', especially the ''Kai'' version, proved to be a capable dogfighter with the firepower, agility and rugged structure. The premier unit flying the ''Shiden'', 343 ''Kokutai'' remained operational until the overwhelming unit losses led to the eventual retirement of the unit. The 343° was disbanded on 14 August 1945, when the Emperor ordered surrender.

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