Thursday, August 25, 2011

Japan's Aviation Pioneer

Ninomiya Chuhachi

Well... Toronto (and the rest of Southern Ontario) was hit by a 2-1/2 hour massive lightning storm that knocked out the telephone, cable, and (gasp) Internet. As such, I am behind in my offering of a blog today. The sky was continually lit up... sometimes it was like daytime out there! My first thought was, appropriately enough, man, I hope there aren't any airplanes out there in the sky overhead right now.

As a pioneer aviation buff, I thought I'd share with you some information on Japan's true aviation pioneer - one Ninomiya Chuhachi (surname first), who was born June 20, 1866 in Yawatahama-ura,
Iyo-ken (Iyo Prefecture that is now Ehime Prefecture) and died on April
8, 1936 of stomach cancer.

The Crow (foreground) and Jewel Beetle original models.

He was known to have designed and built a flying machine with three
engines that failed to lift off—much earlier than the Wright Brothers.

And to be fair to the Wright Brothers, there were many aviation pioneers who built aircraft that failed to take off.

Regardless, Ninomiya did design some fabulous looking birds - the Karasu-gata mokei hikouki (
烏型模型飛行器 Crow-type model aircraft) in 1891 and the Tamamushi-gata hikouki (玉虫型飛行器 Jewel beetle-type model aircraft) in 1893. The key word there is "MODEL".

While a child, Ninomiya had a passion for building and flying kites, and
also like to informally study insects and birds measuring wings in an
effort to determine why those creatures could fly.

It was his skill at manufacturing kites that earned him money to purchase a few scientific books on chemistry and physics.

He then worked at a photography studio - a technology still in its
infancy, before joining an older brother at a medicinal pharmaceutical
company when he turned 14.

Despite his lack of formal education, Ninomiya was known to have
invented hard-fixed wings at a time when other would-be aviators
attempted to create flying machines that mimicked a bird flapping its

Ninomiya mimicked the birds, but did so in quite a different manner.

It was after being conscripted into the Japanese Army in 1887, in
November of 1889, his unit was on maneuvers in Shikoku (the smallest of
Japan's main four islands) when they took a lunch break.

When the unit finished eating, Ninomiya noticed a murder of crows flying
into to pick up the spilled grains of rice from their lunch (yes, even
then it was difficult to use chopsticks to pick up Japanese sticky

Ninomiyai, who had previously reasoned that the secret to flight might
be obtained from watching how birds fly when not flapping their wings,
threw grains of rice out to watch the crows as the glided down to the

He watched them take off by flapping their wings, but noted that quickly
stopped flapping and spread their wings in a horizontal glide to ride
the air currents.

His theory from this was that while flight could be obtained by flapping
wings, motionless wings could maintain the flight with far less energy

He believed that the same thing could hold true for human flight, but
that a motor would be required to lift off and then sustain the flight.

Closer examination of the crows by tossing them more rice, he saw that
the crows could adjust their horizontal flight path by adjusting their
tails, and that the front of the spread wings was actually angled
upwards. This is what aviation engineers call the angle of attack.

To test his theories, Ninomiya built two models. And they really were only models—nothing a person could fit in.

The Karasu (Crow) was the first ever model aircraft built in Japan. It
was a monoplane (one set of wings), with a dihedral wing (upward wing
angle) and a 45 centimeter wingspan.

Its motor, was a rubber band that powered a four-blade pusher propellor
(the propeller sits behind the engine) was built of bamboo, that is both
light, but strong.

(Prior to this ephinay with the crows, Ninomiya as a 16-year-old already
had some ideas regarding propellers... and I'm going to actually do a
write up about that tomorrow and explain how Japanese children had known
for years something that had eluded the famous Wright Brothers until
many, many years later.)

The Crow had a horizontal stabilizer on its tail and a vertical
stabilizer on its nose, and used three wheels as its landing gear.

The propellor and chassis was affixed to a triangular frame. according
to the history books, the airplane chassis did not actually appear in
Europe until the 1930s.

On April 29, 1891, Ninomiya tested the Crow, running it three meters
before it lifted up and flew an additional 10 meters. The next day on
 April 30, it flew 36 meters after he arranged a hard-launch (letting
the motor get up to full speed before launching it).

His second model, the Jewel Beetle, was tested in October of 1893, was a
tail less bi-plane with a wingspan of two meters. the upper wing was
larger than the lower wing, though the lower wing was movable to provide
better control. The propeller was a four-blade pusher motor, and it too
ran via rubber band.

Despite success with the models, he was not able to get the interest of
the Japanese Army, who failed to see how it could be used in warfare,
which is too bad, because the Crow and Jewel Beetle were both excellent
aviation prototypes.

He then served as a medic for Japan during the First Sino-Japanese War
(China vs Japan) in 1894-1895. While serving, he tried to convince the
Army leaders of the value of an aeroplane that could carry a man, but
was rebuffed noting that if that was a priority, Europe and America
would all ready have one.

Don't blame the Japanese Army too much. Japan still maintains a long standing tradition of resisting change.

When the war was over, he went back to his job at a pharmaceutical company.

Unfortunately, he always seemed to have a lack of funds, a problem which
stymied his personal development of his aircraft.  But he slowly kept

In fact, legend has it that in 1907 or 1908 Ninomiya had an aeroplane
built based on the Jewel Beetle bi-plane design and was in the process
of trying to raise funds to purchase a motor (something that was rare
and difficult to obtain), when he received news that the Wright Brothers
of the US of A, took their aeroplane The Wright Flyer up in the air for
a 59-second flight traveling 260 meters before landing safely. Of
course, the Wright Brothers had actually first flown in December of
1903... but news did not travel very fast in those days despite the new
invention of manned air flight!

Completely crushed, that he had missed out on being the first aviator by
years, Ninomiya quickly fell into a funk and destroyed his aviation
drawings and stopped working on all aviation projects.

But, luckily, not all of the drawings were destroyed.

Apparently nearly 90 years later, a Japanese professor named Noguchi
Tsuneo (surname first) studied some of the surviving drawings and claims
that had Ninomiya been able to purchase a 12 horsepower engine or if he
had the support of the Japanese Army, he might have been the first to
obtain heavier than air flight before the Wright Brothers. (And again,
to be fair to the Wright Brothers, lots of other people tried and were
stymied by one thing or another, but the Wright Brothers were not...
they succeed were others failed - and they had the support of the US

Regardless, Noguchi built an airplane based on Ninomiya's designs and
notes that the only problem with it was the lack of horizontal and
vertical stabilizers. He figures it was something any engineer like
Ninomiya would have noticed on that first test flight and would have
corrected. But, said Noguchi, the plane would have flown.

While some aviation experts still believed there was no way Ninomiya's Jewel Beetle would ever fly as it was too heavy.

However, in April of 1991 at the Vancouver Air Show on the westcoast of
Canada, a replica of what I believe was the Jewel Beetle was
successfully flown a distance of 50 meters (136 feet). The only
modifications to the original design was the inclusion of stabilizers.

In 1921 while Ninomiya was still alive and working at his pharmaceutical
office, Japanese Lieutenant General Shirakawa Yoshinori (surname first)
was looking over some old records and saw Nonimiya's plans for the
aeroplane and realized its significance. As such, in 1922, the Japanese Army commended him, as did minister Kenzo Adachi (surname first) in 1925 and Prince Kuniyoshi Kuni (also surname first) in 1926. He also received a letter of apology and was deemed the 'father of Japanese aviation."

Later, nearer to his death, he became a Kannushi - a priest of Shinto to pray for those who were killed in aviation accidents. 

Propeller at the Hiko Shrine.

There is a shrine (the Hiko Jinja 飛行神社) dedicated to aviation near Ninomiya's former
workshop. It contains a small memorial museum that is about the size of a living room showing off some of Ninomiya's models and sketches, including the Crow (Karusa). 

It's located near the Yawata station (Yawata eki) on the Keihan Railway Line between
Kyoto and Osaka. Upon exiting the station, turn left walk over a tiny bridge, then right at the next corner and a few steps
later it will be on your right. Look for a jet engine in a glass case at the front entrance.
The memorial
museum in the shrine is open from 9AM to 4PM, closed on Wednesday and charges an admission
300 yen (about $3). Make sure you bring along a translator because the explanations are only in Japanese. 


And, should you wish to fly your own Crow – Ninomiya’s first aeroplane model, you can buy a simple kit from the website of

Somewhere traveling as the crow flies, 

Andrew Joseph

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