Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa in Communist Chinese Service

PRC flag People’s Republic of China (1945-1952)
Fighter – 8+ Operated

An illustration depicting a Hayabusa in Communist service flying. (Encyclopedia of Chinese Aircraft: Volume 2)

Widely known as one of Japan’s most iconic aircraft of the Pacific War, the Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa’s service life was not limited to the Second World War. Shortly after the Japanese capitulation, Nationalist and Communist Chinese forces were able to capture stockpiles of weapons, tanks and planes leftover by the Japanese. Among these were various models of the Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa. These were pressed into service with the Communist Chinese as an advanced combat trainer and a fighter. One of the rather obscure chapters of the Hayabusa’s service life was that it was the first plane used by the Communist Chinese in air-to-air combat.

History

Developed in the late 1930s, the Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa (Army Type 1 Fighter) enjoyed a relatively successful service record in the Second Sino-Japanese War once introduced in 1941. The Japanese 59th and 64th Sentai (Squadrons) were the first two squadrons to receive the new Ki-43-I fighter. With barely any resistance by the Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF), the Ki-43-I helped reinforce Japanese aerial superiority over China, French Indochina, Malaya, and parts of India until the arrival of lend-lease Allied warplanes for China. Throughout the service of the Hayabusa, three major variants were issued to units: the Ki-43-I, Ki-43-II, and Ki-43-III. The Japanese also provided some of these variants to the Manchukuo Imperial Air Force in the Northeast region of China. With the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War, stockpiles of Japanese equipment was up for grabs between the Soviets, Nationalist Chinese, and the Communist Chinese. The Nationalist Chinese forces reoccupied Shanghai near the end of 1945 and captured warplanes formerly belonging to the Japanese. Among these were various models of the Hayabusa which were used to equip the 18th and 19th Squadrons of the ROCAF’s 6th Fighter Group. These Hayabusas were stationed at Shandong in preparation for the Chinese Civil War. Due to a lack of spare parts and adequate mechanics however, the two squadrons were disbanded in the following May.

The Communist Chinese forces were by no means idle during the immediate few postwar months. Countless guns were captured, with a considerable amount of tanks and planes as well. In October of 1945, the Communist Chinese forces captured their first five Hayabusas during the liberation of Shenyang during the Liaoshen Campaign from the Nationalists. These five captured Nationalist Hayabusas were Ki-43-II models that formerly belonged to the Japanese 4th Training Regiment. The exact make of the planes is unknown. (It is unknown if they are kō, otsu, hei, etc. variants). These five planes would be sent to the recently established Northeast Old Aviation School (东北老航校) after some refurbishing and repairs. In December of the same year, two of these planes were repaired and was planned to be ferried to the Northeast Old Aviation School. Two Japanese ferry pilots now loyal to the Communist Chinese took off from Fengjibao (奉集堡) to fly to Tonghua (通化), one of their destinations. The two Hayabusas and their pilots never made it to Tonghua however, and It is widely speculated that these Japanese pilots were unfamiliar with the geography and ended up getting lost. This is indeed a possibility but there are many other theories. It’s conceivable that the planes suffered from mechanical failure and crashed. Another possibility may be that the pilots were intercepted by ROCAF planes, but there is no proof of this.

Artwork Depicting the Ki-43 in the Northeast Aviation School’s service. (Illustration by Chen Yingming / 陈应明)

The rest of the Hayabusas were eventually delivered to the Northeast Old Aviation School, where they were used as advanced trainers for fighter pilots. In April of 1948, men belonging to the Northeast Old Aviation school were able to capture an unspecified amount of Hayabusa fighters in the Chaoyang (朝阳镇) Town airport located in Jilin some time in April of 1946. This was followed by another unspecified batch of Hayabusas captured in Sunjia (孙家) Airport located near Harbin in the Heilongjiang province sometime in June of the same year. Four Hayabusas were recorded to have been repaired by the school from 1947 to 1948. Under the guidance of former Japanese and Manchukuo pilots, many of the Communist Chinese air cadets were soon able to graduate from flying in the two-seater Tachikawa Ki-55 trainer to flying solo in the Hayabusa.

In March of 1948, a number of experienced pilots and instructors were pulled from the school to form a “Combat Flying Wing” (战斗飞行大队). The 1st Squadron would use bombers and transport aircraft while 2nd Squadron would use fighters. Among these would be six Ki-43-II models. The intent of this formation was to combat Nationalist planes, but this wing never saw any combat action.

Considerations were made to use the Hayabusa in the Establishment of the People’s Republic of China parade on October 1st of 1949 but this did not happen. Despite what one may think, the Japanese planes were not withheld from the parade due to political and racial issues, but rather fear of them experiencing mechanical problems during the parade.

Communist Chinese service members standing in front of a captured Hayabusa. (Encyclopedia of Chinese Aircraft: Volume 2)

As such, these worn out Hayabusas were grounded. By November of 1949, there were only five examples of the Hayabusa that were still in use. These final five fighters were used by the 7th Aviation School as trainers and as teaching aids. By 1952, all of the Hayabusas were finally retired from service. There are no surviving examples of the Communist Chinese Hayabusa, but there is one known photo of the Communist Hayabusa in service.

First Air-to Air Combat of the Communist Chinese Air Force

In the afternoon of October 15th, 1947, four Nationalist Chinese P-51D Mustangs belonging to the Shenyang Beiling airfield took off under the leadership of Xu Jizhen (徐吉骧), the co-captain of the squadron. They were tasked with the mission of patrolling the airspace of Harbin (哈尔滨), Jiamusi (佳木斯) and the Sino-Soviet border. Upon crossing the mountains near Mishan (密山), the Mustangs squadron noticed a Tachikawa Ki-55 trainer with Communist Chinese markings belonging to the Northeast Old Aviation School preparing to land at the nearby Tangyuan (汤原) airport. This Ki-55 was piloted by Lu Liping (吕黎平) and an unnamed Japanese instructor. Xu Jizhen immediately dove for the trainer and began firing. The area immediately behind the instructor’s compartment was hit, which resulted in a fire. Watching the attack from the ground, Fang Hua (方华), a veteran Communist soldier, scrambled for a nearby parked Nakajima Ki-43-II Hayabusa and took off. Unfortunately for him, the Hayabusa was not loaded with ammunition so he was unable to engage the Mustangs. However, he was able to lead the Mustangs away from the airfield and evaded their shots until they ran out of ammo. This unfortunate skirmish was the first air-to-air combat experience the Communist Chinese had.

Debunking the Numbers Operated

According to many Western sources, the Communist Chinese Forces only operated five Hayabusas. This is however incorrect. The author believes that these sources mention only five models captured was due to translation errors or simply by overlooking facts. The most likely cause of the misconception is likely due to two facts:

  1. By the end of the Liaoshen Campaign, the Communist Chinese forces had captured five models.
  2. By the time the PLAAF was officially established, there were five models still in service.

What these Western sources may have overlooked however, was the fact that two of the first five models captured crashed during a ferry flight in December of 1945. This leaves only three models operational.

However, a commonly overlooked fact is that the Northeast Old Aviation School was able to capture an unspecified amount of Hayabusas in the Chaoyang (朝阳镇) Town airport located in Jilin sometime in April of 1946. Another unspecified batch of Hayabusas was also captured in Sunjia (孙家) Airport located near Harbin in the Heilongjiang province in June. Due to the unspecified nature of the amount of Hayabusas captured in these two places, it only adds to the difficulty of determining how much Hayabusas were truly captured and operated. But on an inventory check done in April of 1948, a total of six Hayabusas were accounted for serving with the 2nd Squadron. According to this record, that should mean three or more Hayabusas were captured in those two airfields. That should make a total of eight or more Hayabusas when accounting for the two crashed ones. In conclusion, the author believes that a potential total of eight or more Hayabusas were captured and operated by the Communist Chinese forces to some extent until the retirement of all models in 1952.

Gallery

Communist Chinese Ki-43-II in the colors of the Northeast Old Aviation School by Brendan Matsuyama

Sources

Gang, W., Ming, C. Y., & Wei, Z. (2012). 中国飞机全书 (Vol. 1). Beijing: 航空工业出版社., Gang, W., Ming, C. Y., & Wei, Z. (2009). 中国飞机全书 (Vol. 2). Beijing: 航空工业出版社., Allen, K. (n.d.). PEOPLE’S LIBERATION ARMY AIR FORCE ORGANIZATION., 网易军事. (2016, May 24). 老航校70周年:“鬼子飞行员”在中国当教官., Zhang, X. (2003). Red Wings over the Yalu: China, the Soviet Union, and the Air War in Korea. College Station: Texas A & M University Press., Side Profile Views by Brendan Matsuyama

About Leo Guo

Leo Guo is a 17 year old student living in West Vancouver, Canada. He is an avid plane enthusiast and likes to research and write about them in his spare time. Currently, he is a Flight Corporal in the Royal Canadian Air Cadets with the aspiration of one day serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force.

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