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Mitsubishi A6M Zero

The Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Type 0 carrier fighter was a singe seat piston fighter that was dominant in the Pacific theatre, especially in the early years of WW2. Japanese pilots called it ‘Reisen’ meaning ‘Zero fighter’, and the allied reporting name was initially ‘Zeke’, although the plane was later broadly referred to as the ‘Zero’.

Launched from Japanese aircraft carriers, it featured in the deadly Pearl Harbour attack in Hawaii in 1941, but was gradually overcome by superior allied fighters from 1943 onwards.

Background

The Zero was very light and very agile, despite having relatively low engine power. Such a light structure was invariably vulnerable to light calibre weapons, and this was perhaps the Zero’s main weakness.

In early conflicts the Zero fought in China against poorly equipped Chinese airmen and inexperienced volunteers. It performed very well against these enemies and its reputation began to grow, perhaps beyond it’s actual capabilities.

During the Pearl Harbor attack eight Zeros were shot down and others were brought down across the Pacific by what might have seemed inferior types. But the Zeros reputation was finally dented when aircraft like the Wildcat, Hellcat and Corsair appeared in numbers from 1943.

Japanese naval aircraft prepare to take off from an aircraft carrier (reportedly Shokaku) to attack Pearl Harbor during the morning of 7 December 1941. Plane in the foreground is a Zero Fighter. This is probably the launch of the second attack wave. The original photograph was captured on Attu in 1943. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Japanese naval aircraft prepare to take off from an aircraft carrier (reportedly Shokaku) to attack Pearl Harbor during the morning of 7 December 1941. Plane in the foreground is a Zero Fighter. This is probably the launch of the second attack wave. The original photograph was captured on Attu in 1943. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The American planes were tougher and had heavier armament, and their pilots were well trained and relatively experienced. During the battles of the Philippine Sea and Leyte Gulf in 1944 the Zero was overcome and outclassed.

Design & development

The initial specification for the aircraft that would become the Zero was issued in 1937. It was seen as a very ambitious undertaking due to the high performance that was required by the Imperial Japanese Navy. First flight of the prototype A6M1 was in April 1939.

To achieve the required performance the aircraft was very light and consequentially the pilot’s armour was minimal. Although slow to roll, and slow to accelerate in a dive, once it was banked the aircraft had excellent turning performance. It’s long range and outstanding turning ability resulted from the very light weight of the aircraft.

The weight of the Zero continued to grow throughout the war. Unfortunately engine development had not kept pace, leading to later models being actually slower than earlier ones. Although replacements for the Zero were under development, they took years to appear and were disappointing when they finally took to the air.

Entry to service

The first production model of the Zero was the A6M2. They originally saw combat in Chungking, China in August 1940. In one fight, 13 Zeros shot down 27 enemy fighters in three minutes, without losing a single Zero.

The Japanese Navy were ecstatic and ordered the type into full production immediately.

Operational history

In 1940 and 1941 the Japanese had thousands of well-trained pilots and were highly successful in China. By the end of 1940 one single Zero Squadron in China had claimed 59 victories against enemy aircraft without a single loss.

Perhaps the most famous use of the Zero was in the Pearl Harbor attacks, Six Japanese aircraft carriers launched two waves of aircraft against the US base in Hawaii.

There were 105 Zeros launched in these waves and they escorted Nakajima torpedo bombers and Aichi dive bombers into battle. Only eight Zeros were lost in the attacks.

In the photo above, a Japanese Navy Mitsubishi A6M2 "Zero" fighter (tail code A1-108) takes off from the aircraft carrier Akagi, on its way to attack Pearl Harbor during the morning of 7 December 1941. - Wikimedia Commons
In the photo above, a Japanese Navy Mitsubishi A6M2 “Zero” fighter (tail code A1-108) takes off from the aircraft carrier Akagi, on its way to attack Pearl Harbor during the morning of 7 December 1941. – Wikimedia Commons

One Japanese ace, Flight Officer Saburo Sakai, was particularly proficient on the Zero, racking up a tally of 64 confirmed kills.

Once the US had evaluated a captured A6M2 they realised that it was particularly vulnerable due to its lightweight structure, lack of pilot armour and lack of self-sealing tanks. One or two hits from a better-armed US fighter would be all that it took to prevail.

The Dutch Harbor crash site, with Zero intact.
The Dutch Harbor crash site, with Zero intact.
Captured Zero in US markings - Wikimedia Commons
This is a Japanese Mitsubishi A6M2 Reisen (Allied code “Zeke” or “Zero”). It crashed, largely intact during a raid by the Japanese on Dutch Harbor, Alaska. It was recovered, restored and test flown at the U.S. National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) Langley Research Center, Virginia (USA). The testing dispelled the myths surrounding the Zero’s invincibility. This shot was taken on 8 March 1943. – Wikimedia Commons

The Zero was in service right up until the end of the war, largely due to the failure of the Japanese to come up with improved new types with superior performance. In total nearly 11,000 of them were built, making the Zero the most produced Japanese plane of the war.

But by the end of the war most of pilots from 1940 were dead and new recruits were rushed into combat with insufficient preparation. The Zeros were ultimately used in one last roll of the dice – the dramatic kamikaze (Divine Wind) attacks in the dying days of World War Two.

Variants

A6M1

The A6M1 was the initial prototype, and was fitted with a 780 hp Zuisei 13 radial engine with a two blade propeller. It first flew in April 1939.

A6M2 (Model 11 – 1st 2 prototypes, Model 21 – 3rd prototype and production versions)

The A6M2 was the third prototype and also the first production version. This model had a 950 hp Sakae 12 engine and was a major threat to allied aircraft early in the Pacific war theatre.

Mass Zero launch on Pearl Harbor
Pearl Harbor Attack, 7 December 1941. Japanese naval aircraft prepare to take off from an aircraft carrier (reportedly Shokaku) to attack Pearl Harbor during the morning of 7 December 1941. Plane in the foreground is a “Zero” Fighter, in front of “Val” dive bombers. This is probably the launch of the second attack wave. – Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

This model later saw combat over the Solomon Islands with the 5th Carrier Division. The US scored a coup when one conducted a forced landing in the Aleutian Islands in 1942. The aircraft was returned to San Diego for evaluation.

It crash landed at Dutch Harbor, Alaska (USA), flipping over on its back during the landing, killing the pilot. The A6M itself was only slightly damaged, and it was salvaged and shipped back to the USA where is was repaired and reflown.

Zero Model 21 at the Japanese National Museum of Nature and Science- Wikimedia Commons
Zero Model 21 at the Japanese National Museum of Nature and Science- Wikimedia Commons
A6M2-N

A floatplane version of the A6M2.

Nakajima A6M2-N Zero floatplane, Rufe. Believed to be in the public domain.
Nakajima A6M2-N Zero floatplane, Rufe. Believed to be in the public domain.
A6M2-K

A trainer version of the A6M2.

A6M3 Model 22/32

The A6M3 was first introduced in July 1940 and had a Sakae 21 engine with a two-speed supercharger producing 1,100 hp. By 1942 production of this version was at full speed. Although it had a more powerful engine, it also had reduced fuel capacity, thus reducing it’s range.

560 of this model were built between December 1942 and June 1943. Compared to previous models it had longer wings and folding wing-tips.

The range of all Zeros gradually reduced during the war as they acquired more powerful versions of the Sakae 21 engine, causing fuel consumption and weight to increase. A surviving A6M3 is based at the Commemorative Air Force at their Southern California Wing at Camarillo (see below).

A6M3 Model 22 . This aircraft was recovered from Papua New Guinea and moved to the United States where restoration was completed. It has a Pratt & Whitney R1830 engine in place of the original Sakae unit. In February 2018 there were only five flyable Zeros left in the world.
A6M3 Model 22 . This aircraft was recovered from Papua New Guinea and moved to the United States where restoration was completed. It has a Pratt & Whitney R1830 engine in place of the original Sakae unit. In February 2018 there were only five flyable Zeros left in the world.
A6M4 Model 41/42

A supercharged improvement to the A6M3. Only one prototype was produced.

A6M5 Model 52

The A6M5 was an improved version that was built in greater numbers than any other model. With a thicker wing skin compared to the A6M3, it was able to dive at higher speeds. It was introduced around April 1943.

It had self-sealing fuel tanks and better protection for the pilots. Armour was a weakness of the Zero in all previous models. Nevertheless, the A6M5 was considered heavy and underpowered, and was no match for it’s American counterparts.

One surviving A6M5, with the original Sakae engine, is based at the Planes of Fame museum in Chino, California.

A6M5 Zero - Wikimedia Commons
A6M5 Zero – Wikimedia Commons
A6M5c Model 52

The A6M5c was similar to the A6M5 but had improved armament – two 0.6 inch machine guns located outboard of the existing wing cannon. 93 of this model were built.

A6M6c Model 53c

Similar to the A6M5c but with self-sealing tanks and a Nakajima Sakae 31a engine that used water-methanol to boost power.

Mitsubishi A6M6C Zero - Wikimedia Commons
Mitsubishi A6M6C Zero – Wikimedia Commons

An A6M6c Type 0 Model 53c, is based at Camarillo Airport Museum, Camarillo, California, USA. This is one of only three flying Zeros in the world. It was found in New Guinea in 1991 at the abandoned Babo airfield.

A6M7 Model 62

Similar to the A6M6 but intended for the Kamikaze role. The aircraft below flew with the 210th Naval Air Force Squadron at the Meiji base near Anjo City, Aichi Prefecture.

A6M6 Type 62 Zero in Yamato Museum - Wikimedia Commons
A6M6 Type 62 Zero in Yamato Museum – Wikimedia Commons

It was found on the bottom of Lake Biwa where it had crashed due to engine failure in August 1945. It was removed from the lake in 1978, almost intact.The pilot survived and, amazingly, assisted with its restoration.

A6M8 Model 64

The final version of the Zero had an 18 cylinder Kinsei engine producing 1,340 to 1,560 hp. It had a modified cowling, carburettor and spinner. It could carry two drop tanks. Two prototypes were completed in April 1945 but the model could not be put into production before the war ended.

Videos

Specifications

Make Mitsubishi
Model A6M2 Zero
Aircraft Type Single engine piston monoplane
Role Fighter
Crew complement Single pilot (trainers had two seats)
First flight 1 April 1939
Last flight 1945
Number produced 10,939
Unit cost Unknown
Maximum weight 6,164 lb (2,796 kg)
Powerplant(s) One Nakajima Sakae 12 radial producing 940 hp
Wingspan 39′ 4″
Length 29′ 8″
Height 10′ 0″
Armament Two 7.7mm machine guns and two 20mm cannon
Payload 2 x 132 lb bombs or 1 551 lb bomb for Kamikaze attacks
Range 3,104 km
Combat radius  –
Service ceiling 32,810′
Cruise speed 346 mph at 15,000′
Maximum speed 410 mph in a dive
Claim to fame Was the top fighter in the Pacific theatre until 1943

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You can learn more about the Pearl Harbor attack here, or see more articles like this on our Aircraft page.

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