Not many people know this, but when Japan finally started building its armed forces back up again after being devastated in the Second World War, it pledged to never again use them for offensive purposes. So the army was a renamed the ‘Ground Self-Defence Force’ and tanks were labelled ‘special vehicles.’ Even in today’s tense world, Japan has its own Army, Navy and Air Force, but they are only permitted to start shooting if someone attacks them first. However, this didn’t stop the Japanese Air Force setting up Blue Impulse, an acrobatics team just like other Air Force teams like the RAF’s Red Arrows. Nor, inspired by that, did it stop the Air Force ground staff forming their own display team…but as none of them have a pilot’s license, they do it all on Honda scooters – the Blue Junior display team.

Immaculate formation flying from the Honda Dio squadron, complete with spinning propellers. [Japanese Air Staff Office]
As with any display team, the Blue Junior perform slaloms, twists and twirls, without leaving the ground and at a terminal speed of 25mph. Just in case, the ‘aircraft’ are fitted with stabilizers. One might assume these are bolted on to avoid crash landings or because the riders hadn’t learned to balance. The real reason: the extra fuselage/bodywork means team members can’t put their feet down, and need the stabilizers to stop the flying scooters from toppling over when stopped.

The tiling Honda Gyro 3-wheeler needs no stabilizer wheels…but has them just in case the dogfight gets hairy. [Japanese Air Staff Office]
But we’re being unkind, because team members had to go through two months of training before they were permitted to perform with Blue Junior, and they had to practice two or three times a week to keep up to scratch. Set up in 1993 by ten maintenance crews, Blue Junior has performed at many air shows and festivals, including the Japanese Air Force 60th anniversary celebrations, though obviously not with the original crew. “Everywhere they go, aircraft buffs and kids gather round the scooters – they are very popular,” said Japanese Air Staff Office spokeswoman Mariku Yasui. “As there are few humour-oriented activities here,” said one team member, “we feel a sense of achievement and delight, seeing how spectators enjoy the show.”

[Japanese Air Staff Office]
As for the “jet” scooters, the open tops are based on the Honda Dio, a two-stroke fifty with ten-inch wheels that was never sold in Europe. The swish three-wheel enclosed scooters are based on the Honda Gyro Canopy. If you’ve never come across a Gyro, this was a three-wheeler scooter (one front wheel, two rears) with a hinge in the middle so that it could tilt around corners like a motorcycle. It sounds weird…and indeed it is. The original idea was patented by a Mr George Wallis of Surbiton, south London in 1966, and BSA later used it as the basis for its Ariel Three, launched in 1970. The 50cc Ariel, of which BSA expected to sell thousands, was a flop and later blamed as being responsible for the company’s collapse. That wasn’t the end of Mr Wallis’ tilting three-wheeler. The concept was licensed to Honda, which launched the tilting Stream in 1981, and followed up with a whole family of floppy three-wheelers. The Gyro, which hit the streets in 1990, came with a roof and large cargo box, so it was very popular in Japan for sushi deliveries.

Maximum lean angle reached – safety wheels aground! [Japanese Air Staff Office]
To transform the Gyro and Dio into planes, the team built a cunning construction of GRP and plywood over an aluminum frame, which in turn was bolted onto the scooter. The results look… plane-like…especially the propellers on the flying Dio’s, which were powered by automobile windshield wiper motors. Blue Junior – the perfect way to defuse international tensions.

[Japanese Air Staff Office]
The Blue Impulse team has been flying since 1960, which makes them older than the RAF’s Red Arrows, which started in ’64, but it’s the French who started the trend in 1931, with the Patrouille de France display team (America’s Blue Angels were founded 15 years later, in 1946 – pd’o).  Blue Impulse first used F86F Sabre jet fighters and are now onto Kawasaki T-4 intermediate trainers (yes, the same Kawasaki). They performed at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and have inspired Red Impulse, a mercenary air team featuring in an anime cartoon series, not to mention Aerowings, a flight simulator for Sega’s games console.

Believe or not, Britain has its own version of Blue Junior, but it couldn’t be more different. The Purple Helmets live on the Isle of Man, are experienced enduro riders and perform their stunts dressed in brown raincoats, dark shades and with deadpan expressions.
Blue Junior is immaculate, uniformed and highly disciplined: the Purple Helmets are none of these things, but do manage some amazing stunts on a collection of old Honda C90s and tatty trail bikes. It’s hard to explain, but one involves a naked man playing the piano while riding in a sidecar…have a look!


Peter Henshaw is a writer in England.  His book, ‘Royal Enfield Bullet: The Complete Story’ will be published by Crowood Press shortly.