Designed during World War Two to provide air cover for Imperial Japanese forces deployed for amphibious beach landings in advanced locations that lacked prepared airstrips or aircraft carriers, the Kawanishi N1K Kyōfū (“Strong Wind” or “Mighty Wind” depending on the translation, Allied reporting code name “Rex”) floatplane fighter must have seemed a great idea to the Imperial Japanese Navy when work began on it in September 1940 (the first prototype took flight on May 6th, 1942). The rugged fighter was able to take off from the water around islands, was fitted with a powerful engine and we’ll armed to take on Allied fighters but by the time it became operational in July 1943, the tide of war had turned.
By 1943 Japan was on the defensive and in gradual retreat. The Kawanishi N1K Kyōfū had entered service too late in the war and as such there was no longer any real need for such a fighter.
This was not the end of the “Rex” though – from early 1944 they were used by the Imperial Japanese Navy in the air defence role at Balikpan in Borneo but this lasted less than two months and later over Honshu in Japan, operating from Lake Biwa near Kyoto in 1945. The Borneo unit claimed a total of 29 Allied aircraft destroyed and 7 damaged for the loss of just 5 of their own but not surprisingly, the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum states that these claims are likely to have been very much exaggerated by the Japanese! Details of air combat over the home islands seems to be pretty much unknown.
The basic design was also used to develop the impressive land based Kawanishi N1K-J Shiden (“Violet Lightning“, Allied reporting code name “George“) that was one of the best fighter aircraft produced in Japan. Both aircraft featured unique automated flaps that provided great low speed maneuverability in air combat but one can only imagine how difficult it was for Japanese “Rex” pilots to successfully engage maneuverable Allied fighters such as the Grumman F6F Hellcat or the like with the massive central and fixed wing floats! There was no jettisoning those!
The first prototype of the “Rex” featured a 14 cylinder 1460 hp Mitsubishi MK4D Kasei 14 radial engine with a pair of two bladed contra-rotating propellers but this configuration apparently proved problematic with propeller gearbox failure and from August 1942 the second prototype and early production aircraft featured a 14 cylinder 1460 hp MK4C Kasei 13 radial engine with a more standard three bladed propeller.
Later production models were fitted with a 14 cylinder 1530 hp MK4E Kasei 15 engine and three bladed propeller that produced a top speed of 490 km/h (304 mph). This was impressive given the weight and drag of the fixed floats but having said that, it was still slower than a Grumman F4F Wildcat, yet alone a later Grumman F6F Hellcat!
Kawanishi N1K Kyōfū armament consisted of 2 x 7.7mm Type 97 machine guns mounted above the engine cowling and 2 x 20mm Type 99 wing mounted cannons. A small weapons payload of 2 x 30 kg bombs could also be carried underwing.
Production was slow, and as the tide of war turned, only 8 prototypes and 89 production Kawanishi N1K Kyōfū floatplane fighters were built between May 1942 and March 1944, when the Imperial Navy halted production. Of these, just 3 survive today – originally 4 were captured in Japan in 1945 and returned to the United States for evaluation by the United States Navy but the fourth appears to have been scrapped in the late 1940’s, and evaluation records are lost to the sands of time.
The only example currently on public display and restored, is the stunning looking “Rex” at the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas (formerly the Nimitz Museum, as it is the home town of US Navy Admiral Chester Nimitz 1885-1966). This aircraft, Manufacture Number 562, has been on loan to the museum since 1976, first from the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum in Washington DC and now the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida. There doesn’t seem to be any operational history readily available on this aircraft.
The “Rex” arrived in pieces at the museum and following reassembly went on display as it was back in the 1970’s, partially restored but missing cockpit components. Apparently the US Navy had painted it with fictitious markings following its capture and return to the United States in 1945.
“Rex” 562 went into storage in the 1990’s before more cosmetic restoration was commenced in 2009. Within six months it was cleaned up (there was apparently very little surface corrosion), stripped of paint and repainted with more accurate markings – any fuselage sections where it was still possible too see original stencil markings were covered and retained. Although in somewhat cramped conditions, it sure looks good today (apparently when the museum was being expanded, they left the wall open in this section to insert components of the refreshed “Rex” and then reassembled the aircraft inside)!
The other surviving Kawanishi N1K Kyōfū, Manufacture Numbers 514 and 565 are both in storage. “Rex” 514 is not believed to have been deployed with an operational unit of the Imperial Japanese Navy and today is within the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum collection, where it has remained in component parts and unrestored at the Paul Garber storage facility since the 1970’s (from the late 1940’s to 1972 it was located at NAS Norfolk in Virginia).
“Rex” 565 was possibly deployed with the 951st Kōkūtai (Air Group) of the Imperial Japanese Navy (Circa 1944-45). From 1946 to 1982, this rare aircraft was on outdoor display at NAS Willow Grove in Pennsylvania painted grey with nose number 44. In 1982 it was repainted in the more familiar dark green scheme with X-121 painted on the tail. Since then it has been transferred to the National Naval Aviation Museum collection in Pensacola, Florida and remains in storage awaiting restoration.
There is another rare Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft within the National Museum of the Pacific War but it isn’t too easy to get a good look at it. Towards the last section of the museum, you will find the wreck of a 1943 Aichi D3A2 Type 99 bomber (Allied reporting code name “Val“, Manufacture Number 3105), the primary dive bomber used throughout the war by the Imperial Japanese Navy. It is somewhat obscured behind a mesh screen that is used to project multimedia images and videos to declare the end of World War Two. As the presentation ends, the “Val” appears from the darkness. Unfortunately you get probably less than one minute to see it before the presentation starts up again though!
This D3A2 was damaged by an Allied bomb blast at Gasmata Airfield on New Britain in New Guinea. It sat there until recovered for the museum in 1973 and was transported to the United States aboard the Royal Australian Navy aircraft carrier, HMAS Melbourne (R21). It sat on display outdoors for a number of years before the museum was expanded. Although I did not see it on display, the museum also has the tail section of another D3A2, Manufacture Number 3357, produced in 1943 which was also recovered from Gasmata Airfield in 1973 (it was assigned to the 582nd Kōkūtai, with tail number 82-248).
Despite 1,495 being produced between 1940 and 1945, just two D3A2 airframes survive. The other is under long term restoration back to flight at the Planes of Fame Museum in Chino, California.
The Chino aircraft, Manufacture Number 3178, also built in 1943 was assigned to the Shōkaku Class aircraft carrier Zuikaku Air Group. Cut into smaller pieces and recovered from Ballalae in the Solomon Islands in late 1968, this aircraft was taken to Canada, where it was amazingly restored to flight just one year later but after just a few flights fitted with a Wright R-2600 radial engine, it was presented to the then Canadian National Aviation Museum Ottawa, Ontario (now the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum) as a form of exchange for the assistance provided by the Royal Canadian Air Force in recovering this and other Japanese aircraft in early 1969.
The “Val” was on display at the museum in Canada from 1970 to 1991 when it was exchanged for a helicopter from the Planes of Fame Museum. I inadvertently saw this Aichi D3A2 in 2013 without realising exactly what it was, as it was disassembled and behind numerous restoration projects in a hangar at Chino in the lead up the Planes of Fame Airshow that year (it was even more obscured from view when I returned in 2015)!