Japan’s Aviation Pioneer

Ninomiya Chuhachi

Meet Japan’s true aviation pioneer – one Ninomiya Chuhachi (surname first – pronounced knee-no-me-yeah chew-ha-chee), 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.

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

The Crow (foreground) and Jewel Beetle original models.

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 wings.

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 rice).

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 ground.

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 needed.

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 propeller (the propeller sits behind the engine) was built of bamboo, that is both light, but strong.

(Prior to this epiphany 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 propeller and chassis were 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).

Drawing of the Jewel Beetle Ninomiya model aircraft.

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 at.

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 Army).

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.

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).

Hiko Shrine near Osaka and Kyoto. Photo from the Japan Visitor website: http://www.japanvisitor.com.

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.

Pioneers of Aviation Ed. Note: The above story was pieced together by myself with material from the very well-written Japan Visitor website. Go check them out at at www.japanvisitor.com. It was published mostly as you see it above on my Japan – It’s A Wonderful Rife blog back on August 25, 2011.

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About mreman47

Andrew was born in London, UK, raised in Toronto, Canada, and cavorted in Ohtawara, Japan for three years. He is married, has a son and a cat. He has over 35,000 comic books and a plethora of pioneer aviation-related tobacco and sports cards and likes to build LEGO dioramas. Along with writing for a monthly industrial magazine, he also writes comic books and hates writing in the 3rd person. He also hates having to write this crap that no one will ever read. Along with the daily Japan - It's A Wonderful Rife blog, when he feels the hate, will also write another blog entitled: You Know What I Hate? He also works on his Pioneers Of Aviation - a cool blog on early fliers. He also wants to do more writing - for money, though. Help him out so he can stop talking in the 3rd person.
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