117 years as the Crow flies
Airplanes have a long history in Japan, even predating the 1903 first manned flight by the Wright brothers. Over a decade earlier, Japanese aeronautical pioneer Chuhachi Ninomiya first launched an unmanned airplane - models of which are still available for sale today!
Ninomiya, born in 1866, was known as "Kite-flying Chuhachi" in Yawatahama where he grew up. By the late 1880s he was ready to move beyond kites to actual flying machines. Inspired by watching the flight of a crow, Ninomiya designed a small airplane powered by a rubber band that first flew in 1891. The 23.6 inch wide "Crow" was of a monoplane design with a tricycle landing gear and a 4-bladed pusher propeller, quite surprising for the times!
Ninomiya's actual models, c. 1893
A modern interpretation of Ninomiya's 1891 "Crow" has been faithfully reproduced in balsa wood and styrofoam with a 125mm (5-inch) reverse pitch plastic propeller. The plane's wingspan is 16 inches and it comes packaged in an attractive box with instructions in both English and Japanese.
You might wonder why Ninomiya didn't move on to bigger and better things - flying things that is - once the Crow proved to be a success. Well, it wasn't for lack of trying. Having entered the Japanese Army at the outbreak of war with China in 1894, Ninomiya saw the need for airborne reconnaissance and begged his commanding officers to let him build an airplane big enough to carry a man (and presumably, powered by something other than rubber bands). The reply was crushing: "You're crazy. If America and Europe don't have such a machine, how can we Japanese build one?"
News of the Wright's success in 1903 caused Ninomiya to give up his experiments and he eventually died in 1936.
His place in aviation history is assured, however, and his ideas were proven in 1991, a century after the Crow first flew, when a larger replica of one of his designs successfully took to the air at a Vancouver, Canada air show.
Want to fly your own Crow? Kits are available from Brooklyn 5 & 10 and ModernTots, and can be ordered online from each company's website.
Brooklyn also offers a twin-prop Ninomiya design called "Hishou" in addition to the Crow. (via Hargrave)
Japanese Innovations Writer