US aviators to salute Japan tsunami town

MISAWA, August 15, 2011 (AFP) - A group of pilots from the United States will salute disaster-hit Japan by flying over the tsunami-hit coast in a replica of the first plane to cross the Pacific non-stop 80 years ago.

The original single-propeller aircraft, the "Miss Veedol", made the epic 8,000 kilometre (4,900 mile) flight from Japan to the United States in 1931, four years after Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic non-stop.

The legend lives on in the northeastern Japanese town of Misawa where the plane took off, and where a monument today commemorates the epic 41-hour voyage and schoolchildren learn about the aviation adventure in school.

Pilots Scott Carter and Jack Lodato are due to fly the replica plane Thursday over Misawa, which was hit by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that left more than 20,000 people dead or missing along the Pacific coastline.

"Our message is encouragement and admiration for the people of Japan," another pilot involved in the enterprise, David Stadler, told AFP.

"After the setbacks, hardship and suffering, they still look to the sky. It can lift our thoughts and spirits up from the everyday difficulties."

Misawa, in the northeast of Honshu island, escaped the full brunt of the tsunami, but two people died when the giant wave hit its fishing harbour.

City official Kenichi Nakamura said the tsunami also destroyed a wooden model of the Miss Veedol on its Sabishiro beach, where the original flight took off.

 The flying replica was built in Wenatchee, Washington state, where the original flight made a belly landing in 1931. It is on loan to the city and displayed at the Misawa Aviation and Science Museum.

The plane, with Stadler and one of the other pilots in the cockpit, will make a second flight over Misawa next month to bid farewell to the city before returning to the US.

The commemorative flights had been planned before the tsunami and organisers had considered calling them off but decided to go ahead in a bid to cheer up tsunami victims.

The original plane flown by aviators Clyde Pangborn and Hugh Herndon, a modified Bellanca Skyrocket Long-Distance Special, is no longer around -- years after its historic flight, it crashed while crossing the Atlantic.

The Miss Veedol has long been a symbol in Misawa, which now hosts US and Japanese airbases. Its image graces public signs and features in local souvenir shops. Children play in a plane-shaped "Miss Veedol Dome".

"Every single student in Misawa knows about Miss Veedol because we have a special class to study its achievement," said student Miki Mashimoto, 17.

Megumi Suzuki, a 36-year-old housewife visiting the aviation museum, said: "I'm looking forward to watching it fly over Misawa. The replica is beautiful and bigger than I expected."

Not everyone shares the enthusiasm. Some elderly people associate US aircraft with wartime bombing raids rather than trans-Pacific friendship.

"Misawa was also attacked with US air bombs during World War II," said Tomoko Sugimoto, a 76-year-old vegetable market worker.

"After the war, we were given chocolate and candies by US soldiers and the two countries are friends now, but I still have mixed feelings."

Masayoshi Kohiruimaki, whose grandmother hosted the two pilots at her house 80 years ago, said: "I hope Miss Veedol will become a bridge between the two countries to further promote our joint prosperity with the United States."