Plane Spotting at Komatsu Airshow in Japan

  • 15 Nov 2023
  • Text by Timothy Liu, an avid plane spotter in Singapore

Plane Spotting in Japan

Introduction to Plane Spotting in Japan

Japan is one of the best countries for plane spotting. Why? This is because: 
● Nearly every airport terminal building has good observation decks. There is even a free foot onsen at Haneda airport with great views of the airfield.
● There are also lesser restrictions compared to Singapore. You can freely listen to ATC and shoot through/over the fences. 
● Moreover, there are tons of interesting aircraft and liveries, many which are anime related.

    Plane spotting is a common hobby in Japan, so people and authorities are not strangers to this hobby. As a foreigner, it is still a good idea to carry identification (for foreigners this would be your passport or zairyu card) and to prepare some canned phrases to inform authorities if they ask what you are doing.

    • I am a tourist: 私は観光客です (watashi wa kankoukyaku desu)
    • I like planes: 飛行機が好きです (hikouki ga sukidesu)
    • I am taking photos of planes: 飛行機の写真を撮っています (hikouki no shashin o totte imasu)
    Other than regular plane spotting, air shows (航空祭) are also popular events in Japan. So far, I have been to two air shows in Japan: Kisarazu and Komatsu. Both were great. If you are able to, I highly recommended attending these air shows. Kisarazu Air Show is great for helicopter fans. This year’s massive fly-by consisted of about 20 helicopters, including 11 Chinooks! There were also police, fire department and coast guard helicopters on display. However, since the Komatsu Air Show was the highlight of my entire trip, I will be sharing my experience at Komatsu Air Show in this article. 

    What is Komatsu?

    JASDF Komatsu Air Base (小松基地) in Ishikawa is one of the top destinations in Japan for fans of fighter jets. Home to three F-15 squadrons, it frequently hosts other aircraft for joint training exercises. Komatsu itself is a flat, sparsely populated city. Unlike Tokyo, you will be hard-pressed in finding convenience stores and family restaurants. It is relatively inaccessible, being sandwiched between the ocean and mountain ranges. Despite that, many travel here all year round to see JASDF’s colourful Aggressor F-15s. In the civilian airport terminal, there is a popular observation deck and a shop called “High-Rate Climb” that sells all sorts of related merchandise. A reference to the steep climb that many people enjoy seeing the F-15s sometimes perform on take-off. 

    Held once a year, the Komatsu Air Show is extremely popular, with more than 50,000 people attending this year.

    Trip Experience and Pre-Show

    In order to catch the full-dress rehearsal, I arrived one day early by air, reaching Komatsu Airport at about 8:30 am. As my plane landed right before the rehearsal started, I saw F-15s already practising their flying formations when I was walking through the sky bridge. Therefore, if you want to catch the start of the rehearsal, I recommend being here earlier than I was! After collecting my luggage, I immediately rushed to the observation deck, which was already packed with people, and I struggled to find a good spot.

    The afternoon was action packed despite not having any rehearsals. Many aircraft arrived to be displayed on the ground during the airshow. I was delighted I managed to get my first shots of the F-2 fighter jet (in two different liveries no less) as well as the US-2 seaplane.

    Komatsu Air Show (小松航空祭)

    Getting to the air base early enough to secure front row seats is not for the faint of heart. Together with a local spotter, we took the first express train out of Kanazawa at 5:10am. Even at that timing, the train was packed to the brim. Be aware that you will need to buy an express ticket beforehand! The moment we arrived at Komatsu Station; people rushed towards the ticket gates to exit the station. You can get to the Komatsu Airbase either by taxi or the paid shuttle bus service from Komatsu Station. We took a taxi and reached the Komatsu Airbase gate at about 5:40am, where we saw a snaking queue that stretched far along the road. I was told that as early as 12am, people were already queueing outside the gate. 

    When the gates finally opened at around 7am, people proceeded through the security checkpoints. After clearing the checkpoint, everyone started to run to secure their viewing spots. Luckily, I managed to secure a front row position for the show. The photos below were snapped with my iPhone, showing the point of view from my location, near the end of runway 06.

    Before the opening fly-by, a single T-4 from the aggressor squadron took off and did a few loops around the airfield. I was told it was doing an assessment of the atmospheric conditions before the airshow commenced. The show commenced with a deafening roar as 10 F-15s parked in front of the audience started their engines simultaneously. From my position in the front row, the sound was so deafening that my ears hurt immediately and my Apple Watch alerted me about the potential loss of hearing. I quickly put on my earphones for some hearing protection and got ready. 

    The F-15s taxied for take-off in rapid succession in front of the audience, so close that you could almost reach out and touch them. The F-15s then took off with their trademark high-rate climb. The opening flyby consisted of various formations of F-15s and concluded with a 6-ship break.

    Next up was the Komatsu Air Rescue Squadron. They performed a demonstration where the U-125A locates a pair of downed pilots and cues the UH-60J in to perform an extraction. I did not expect such an action-packed demonstration by the Air Rescue Squadron. I later learned that they also have anime and TV shows based on them, and it is no wonder why.

    After the exciting demonstration by the Komatsu Air Rescue Squadron, the Aggressor squadron demonstration was up next. Two planes (greeny and bluey) did a tandem take off and performed some stunts in the air. 

    Next up were performances by the two other F15 squadrons. Two jets from 303 Squadron, with one of the jets featuring the Bushido Guardian livery to commemorate the joint training with Australia earlier this year. Later in the afternoon, two jets from 306 Squadron featured the livery to commemorate the joint training with Italy.

    After lunch break, famous Japanese acrobatics pilot Yoshihide Muroya (室屋義秀) wowed the audience with his daring moves. I was particularly stunned when I saw his plane climb vertically and seemingly stall, and freefall, adjusting into a dive after a few spins.

    The Komatsu Air Show was certainly a memorable and enjoyable experience. Given the opportunity, I would certainly be back again next time.

    Photo Credits: Timothy Liu

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