For a nation that has given us a myriad of technological marvels, Japan has never really held a place in the world of aviation, especially commercial aviation. With the upcoming Mitsubishi Regional Jet (MRJ) currently undergoing testing for a proposed 2020 launch, one wonders when the last time was that the Land of the Rising Sun gave us a commercial airliner.
Well, here it is, the NAMC YS-11, a twin-turboprop short-range airliner which was the most successful and, for a while, the only commercial airliner built by the Japanese.
To understand the origins of the YS-11, you need to take a look at Japan’s role in commercial aviation in general. Japan has never truly held a strong seat in the construction of airliners, their busiest period at building such craft being in the years prior to World War II. Japan’s earliest contributions to commercial aviation were a motley crew of aircraft built by companies including Hitachi, Manshū and Nakajima. However, only a fraction of these were actually home-grown products, a
majority of their designs being license-built from more successful western equivalents. The Showa L2D was a license-built version of the Douglas DC-3, while the Ki-6 was a license-built version of the Fokker Super Universal.
Japan’s lack of interest in commercial aviation was due largely to its interest in military fighting power. During the 1930’s the Japanese Empire set out to conquer eastern Asia, including Korea, China and Manchuria, and thus required a suitable fleet of technologically advanced fighters and bombers to undertake this mission. As such, as many resources were placed into the requirements of the Japanese military as possible while commercial aviation was more an afterthought.
Following World War II, Japan was a devastated nation with most of its factories and plants having been decimated by the almost constant air raids of the Allies. As such, Japan in its post-war years was largely reliant on ageing Douglas DC-3’s which had been left behind by the American’s following their occupation of the Japanese mainland. While the DC-3’s were reliable and well performing aircraft, by the mid-1950’s they were highly outdated, with their piston-powered engines being archaic and slow when compared to the likes of the newly built Turboprops of the western world, including the Vickers Viscount and the Douglas DC-6.
Japan desperately needed something of a similar calibre to operate the nation’s extensive domestic network, and thus a joint venture between Mitsubishi, Kawasaki, Fuji, Shin Meiwa, the Showa Aircraft Industry Company and the Japan Aircraft Industry Company was struck up in 1957, this being formalised into the overarching company name Nihon Aeroplane Manufacturing Company (NAMC) in 1959.
The principles of NAMC’s debut turboprop were considered early on to emulate those of the Vickers Viscount and the Fokker F27 Friendship, a monoplane design consisting of two turboprop engines. To design the aircraft, they couldn’t have gone to a better person as the man brought on to help them with this task was none other than Jiro Horikoshi, the genius behind the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter, one of the most advanced fighter planes of World War II and a strong opponent against the Allied equivalents.
Stylistically, the YS-11 appears to resemble contemporary Douglas turboprops such as the DC-6, with a low-slung monoplane wing platform and twin engines. Japan wanted to keep as much of the design in-house as possible, with electronic equipment, avionics, mechanical and fuselage components being supplied by Japanese companies. However, not everything could be supplied nationally, chief among which were the engines, of which a suitable turboprop design could not be found. As such, NAMC turned to Rolls Royce so as to provide them with the latest versions of their Dart turboprop engines, the kind used on the Viscount. The result was a similar operational performance to the Viscount, but with 50% more capacity
than the similarly configured Fokker F27.
The YS-11 could be operated by two crew members and carry up to 64 passengers. With its Rolls Royce Dart engines, the aircraft was capable flying at 282mph over a distance of 1,367 miles, with a service ceiling of 22,900ft (due to it not being pressurised). However, this performance was sadly not enough to put it in the same ballpark as its rivals, especially the Vickers Viscount, which could fly at 352mph over a distance of 1,380 miles with a service ceiling of 25,000ft.
Regardless, the NAMC YS-11 made its first flight from Nagoya Airport on August 30th, 1962, with a series of extensive test flights following. Nearly 2 years to the day after its maiden flight, the YS-11 received its Japanese Type Certificate on August 25th, 1964, followed a year later by approval by the American Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The first production model of the YS-11 made its first flight in October 1964, making its commercial debut with Toa Airways in April 1965.
Initially, the NAMC YS-11 was purchased solely by Japanese carriers, its sluggish performance making it somewhat unattractive to potential foreign buyers. This was duly noted by NAMC, who unveiled the YS-11A, a specialist version which allowed for a higher gross weight to make the aircraft more attractive. This fortunately worked as the aircraft made its first big break in America with Piedmont Airlines, which ordered 10 YS-11A-200’s, with an option for a further 10 aircraft. However, while the YS-11 found success in the USA and across Asia, it’s aged design, slow performance, lack of brand recognition and the advent of regional jets such as the Fokker F28 Fellowship meant that NAMC was making a severe loss on every unit they sold.
Eventually, production came to an end on May 11th, 1973, with only 182 units built. The final orders for the aircraft were solely for the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force.
Like most turboprops of the 1950’s and 60’s, the YS-11 did lead a charmed life with the airlines it served and was a major asset to some notable carriers, including All Nippon Airways, Japan Air Lines, Austral Líneas Aéreas, VASP, the United States
Postal Service, Olympic Airways and Hawaiian Airlines. The YS-11, while slow and very dated (even at the time of its launch in 1962), was a sturdy and reliable aircraft, as well as being incredibly efficient. As such, it was able to ply its trade for decades after the end of its production run, with large numbers of the aircraft still in operation, mostly in Japan, well into the late 1990’s and early 2000’s.
However, time was quick to catch up with the YS-11, as with the ever changing legislation within the aviation industry, the aircraft was quickly found to fall short of requirements, specifically the compulsory fitting of a Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS). Following the enactment of this directive by the Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, the YS-11 was gradually phased out of commercial operation, with the final examples being withdrawn by the end of 2006. The final commercial operation of these aircraft was undertaken on September 30th, 2006, with a YS-11 operating Japan Air Commuter Flight 3806 from Wadomari to
However, even before the retirement of the YS-11, many of these aircraft had been lost to accidents throughout its 42 year career. In total, the aircraft was involved in 27 accidents resulting in the deaths of 256 people.
The first accident involving a YS-11 occurred on November 13th, 1966, when All Nippon Airways Flight 533 crashed into the sea near Matsuyama, killing all 50 aboard.
On August 12th, 1970, China Airlines Flight 206 crashed into Yuan Mountain on approach to Taipei, killing all 14 aboard.
The worst accident involving the YS-11, however, took place on July 3rd, 1971, when Toa Domestic Airlines Flight 63 flew into Yokotsu Mountain while approaching Hakodate Airport in Japan, killing all 68 aboard.
The last notable crash of the YS-11 occurred on November 23rd, 1976, when Olympic Airways Flight 830 from Ellinkion to Larissa crashed into a mountain near the village of Servia while attempting to land during bad weather, killing all 50 aboard.
The YS-11 has also been involved in some more bizarre incidents, some of which are still ongoing to this day.
On November 6th, 1974, a Reeve Aleutian Airways YS-11 was written off in a hangar fire at Anchorage, Alaska.
On Bonfire Night (November 3rd) 2001, YS-11 being prepared for delivery to an airline in Burundi was struck by a stray firework while on the ground at London Southend Airport, resulting in the aircraft being consumed by fire.
But perhaps the most notorious incident involving the YS-11 took place on December 11th, 1969, when a Korean Air example was hijacked shortly after departure
from Gangneung while on a domestic flight to Seoul. The aircraft was flown into North Korean airspace, whereupon it landed at Sǒndǒk Airfield near Wonsan. The aircraft was damaged beyond repair during the landing, but all 51 people aboard survived. However, this was only the tip of this international dilemma as, 48 years after the hijacking, the 4 crew and 7 of the passengers still remain as hostages in North Korea, having not been returned with the remaining 39 passengers 2 months after the incident. It is not known as to where these people have been held or their condition, though testimonies from those released by the North Koreans describe attempted indoctrination and torture following their capture. It is known that at least two of the stewardesses became spokespersons for the North Korean propaganda broadcasts specifically targeted at South Korean audiences. The incident also gave rise to several conspiracy theories, including the co-pilot being part of the hijacking so as to abduct South Korean citizens, of which instances of this were common.
Today, only a handful of these aircraft remain in very limited service, with 15 operating with the Japanese military, while another 2 are known to be in Mexico. The remainder have sadly met the cutters torch, having spent their years working a useful but sadly obscure life.
On the whole, what makes this aircraft remarkable is that it was Japan’s first real attempt at a mass-produced commercial airliner, an attempt which largely succeeded when you consider how many units were built and its market penetration, especially given the time period. One cannot take away from the NAMC YS-11 its accomplishments, and while in terms of technology it was never going to set the world ablaze, it played its role as a regional turboprop suitably, and that is, in itself, a real achievement. 🙂