Friday, August 17, 2012

Los Angeles to Tokyo, the Hard Way

Zensaku Azuma in his Travel Air 4000, presumably in Japan. The hand-written
text translates roughly "Mr. Zensaku Higasihi 'Tokyo OT' likes this small
airplane very much," with "Tokyo OT" referring to text painted on the
airplane itself. The last line, on the far left, seems to indicate the name of the
airport, but it isn't clear.
Back in December, in my blog post commemorating the Voyager's round-the-world flight, I noted that Dick Rutan's clearance request on takeoff asked for "Edwards to Edwards, the hard way." He wasn't the only one to think in traveling from one place to another "the hard way."

Japanese-American aviator Zensaku Azuma (1893-1967) had that idea as well. In the words of the Indiana Evening Gazette for Wednesday, June 25, 1930, "Evidently the Oriental mind reasons that 'the longest way around is the shortest way home,' so Zensaku Azuma, a Pasadena, Calif, chop suey restauranteur (a Japanese, nevertheless) plans to fly from California to Tokio via New York, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Siberia, China and Korea. The trip across the Atlantic would be made by steamship, the rest by air."

Azuma was born in Minami-Omi, Hakui County, Ishikawa (what is now known as either Nakanuma or Takamatsu - depending on the Japanese source - in Kahoku), and as a young newspaper reporter in Japan, had reported on some of the earliest aircraft, and found himself attracted to aviation. Wanting to learn to fly, he traveled to the US in 1916, at the age of 23, and earned his pilots license by 1922. He also earned a reputation for being somewhat flamboyant. In 1923, after the Great Kanto earthquake in Japan, Azuma painted "Help Japan" in large letters on a biplane and barnstormed in an effort to raise relief funds.

To earn a living, Azuma opened a Chinese restaurant (a "chop suey house" in the parlance of the age) in Pasadena. When Lindbergh made his historic flight in 1927, it inspired Azuma, who considered a similar "stunt" as a means of visiting his homeland. The feat earned him the nickname "the Japanese Lindbergh" in contemporary media.

Meanwhile, Travel Air 4000 NC4835, serial 419, first shows up in the records, as an entry dated April 30, 1928 in the register from the old Davis-Monthan Airfield, when it was flown by Santa Barbara orthodontist Dr. J. Bert Saxby, on a trip from El Paso, TX to Santa Barbara. Before Dr. Saxby acquired the plane, it apparently had been owned by cowboy actor, rodeo star and stunt pilot Ken Maynard. (As an aside, after owning the Travel Air, Maynard bought a Steaman, and at the 1933 National Air Races, he flew it in a grudge race against actor Hoot Gibson. Rounding one of the pylons, Maynard crashed, and while he survived, his airplane was destroyed).

Azuma purchased the Travel Air in April 1930, and had it modified from a typical two-seat configuration to a single seater, with the rest of the space being used for additional fuel tankage for the flight to Japan. As such, it was re-registered in the restricted category as NR4835. Then, from June through August 1930, he fulfulled his dream and flew the Travel Air across three continents enroute to Japan. He first across the U.S. from Los Angeles to New York, before having the plane disassembled and loaded onto a steamship for the voyage to England. There, he had the aircraft reassembled in Hanworth by National Flying Services, Ltd. He repositioned from Hanworth to Croydon and then left for the trip east on July 22.

After spending the night of August 30th in Seole, Azuma finally landed at about 5:22 pm (local) on Saturday, August 31, 1930, at Tokyo's Tachikawa Aviation Grounds, where he and the City of Tokyo were greeted by a large crowd. All tolled, Azuma logged 70 flying days and over 11,200 miles during his journey. He was celebrated as both a local and a national aviation hero, and was even presented with a "trophy" by the Japanese Emperor.

Buoyed by success, Azuma began planning and attempting to raise funds for a one-stop California to Japan trans-Pacific flight, but it does not appear that he never actually attempted the flight. Years later, in 1955, Azuma once again entered the spotlight of history as the first person to discover the mineral uranium in Japan, and became a vocal proponent of the "health benefits" of uranium - going so far as to plant a "uranium garden" from which he harvested and ate vegetables.

With the growing militaristic nature of Japanese society in the 1930s, the City of Tokyo wound up in the hands of the Japanese Army, but since it was clear that the Travel Air 4000 was by no means a combat-worthy aircraft, they disposed of it. It was subsequently re-registered as J-BAOJ; old registration records show the ownership as being Nippon Demppo Tsunshin, while other records identify the owner as Nippon Denjo Communications Company, which today is known as Dentsu.

This organization apparently acquired the aircraft in November 1931 as a result of the Manchurian incident, in which a Japanese-instigated act of sabotage was used as a pretext for the wholesale invasion of the Chinese region of Manchuria. The Travel Air was used in China to transport news reports and photographs of the fighting. When the Japanese established the puppet state of Manchukuo in March 1932 in the territory which they occupied, they mounted a showy Declaration of Independence ceremony. News photos of the ceremony were being flown out in the Travel Air when the aircraft was severely damaged at Ulsan air base near Pusan. There is no record of it being repaired.

There is one really good photo of the Tokyo on the internet, at the Japanese Aeronautic Association website (the page is in Japanese, but if you open it with Google Chrome, you'll get a machine translation of it).

In Zensaku's hometown, there is a monument to him, and the town annually hosts a paper airplane contest in his honor. With that in mind, as a small footnote to the story, the City of Tokyo shows up on a paper model airplane hobbyist website as a downloadable plan...and apparently it was painted red.

(Huge nod to Ann A., Jayne and her mom for the translation of the handwriting on the photo!)

1 comment:

  1. Hello Alan
    Thanks god for the internet and you for your Blog. I have a photo of the “The city of Tokyo” when she landed in Cologne on the airport Butzweilerhof. I am shure, it happend on the trip from Paris to Berlin. Because of you, now I have the story. I will set a link on my website to your Blog.
    Here´s the website with the photo.

    Thank you very much and all the best

    Werner Müller