I’ve gotten fond of Japanese planes lately, after discovering how many different types of fighters they used alongside the A6M Zero. Army and Navy had their own air forces with their own sets of aircraft. After the initial technological lead by the Navy, courtesy of Mitsubishi, the Army air forces caught up and surpassed them, with powerful aircraft designed by Nakajima and Kawasaki. It actually happened quite early on: Nakajima’s Ki-44 Shoki/Tojo and Kawasaki’s Ki-61 Hien/Tony, Japan’s first efforts at creating power fighters, were ready by late 1942.
The Hien was designed around the Ha-40, a Japanese engine derived from the German DB-601 liquid-cooled inline engine powering the famous Messerschmitt Bf-109. Kawasaki’s fighter had a very different profile from the usual radial engined aircraft fielded by Japan. Additionally, the Hien was solidly built, with protection for the pilot and fuel tank, unlike most Japanese aircraft in its time, and its sleek lines, resembling the Macchi C.202 Folgore, led to it being initially mistaken for Italian (hence the Allied codename “Tony”).
The other power fighter, the Ki-44 Shoki/Tojo was commissioned by the Army as a bomber interceptor. They toned down the requirement for maneuverability in favour of power, climb, and speed. Nakajima stuck with air-cooled radials for this plane. The main problem was that the only engine Nakajima had which was capable of generating the necessary power for the specified performance, was the Ha-41, which had a large diameter. It was more suitable for powering bombers.
Nakajima made the wings and rudder relatively stubby, and seems to have followed the principle of squeezing the smallest possible fuselage behind the most powerful engine. In this case, it was also the biggest engine they had. The result looks somewhat ungainly:
Unlike the Ki-61 Hien, the Ki-44 saw little action in the Pacific Theatre. The Doolittle Raid, in which American B-25 Mitchell bombers made a one-way bombing mission from an aircraft carrier into Japan and ditched their planes in China, spooked the Japanese high command. Most Ki-44 were pulled back to protect the Home Islands. The Shoki did see action over the oil fields in Sumatra against British raiders, where they seemed to have been fearsome aircraft.
Since the Shoki saw little action until near the end, the plane has been mostly overlooked by flight simulation games until recently. But when the plane was finally included in sims such as Il-2 Sturmovik and Warbirds, many flight simmers expressed delight at its performance. “Bad, baaaad little plane”, enthused one virtual flyer. It was almost as good as the Ki-84 Hayate/Frank, which was *the* Japanese superfighter. It was, however, more temperamental in flight, stalling without warning more easily. A Zero or Oscar flyer accustomed to easy handling would be in for a shock when transitioning to this fierce little “demon-queller.”
I’m actually rather fond of this unlikely-looking plane. It would have made a fine companion for the Ki-61, just like the Fw-190 was a good complement to the Bf-109. It lacked the range of most Japanese craft, since interceptors were intended to defend bases and cities from bombers and not stray very far. On the other hand it was not unknown for interceptors to pitch in as fighters against other fighters as well. Many interceptor designs seemed very successful in this role, for example, P-38 Lightning, J2M Raiden, Fw-190D “Dora”, Ta-152, and Bf-109K “Kurfurst”. You can’t really go wrong with high power, acceleration, speed, climb and dive, especially when competing with later Allied fighters.