The Mitsubishi A6M "Zero” was Japan’s primary long-range fighter aircraft during WWII. Manufactured by Mitsubishi Aircraft Company, a part of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, and operated by the Imperial Japanese Navy from 1940 to 1945, the A6M was designated as the Mitsubishi Navy Type 0 carrier fighter - the Mitsubishi A6M Rei-sen. The A6M was usually referred to by its pilots as the "Reisen" (zero fighter), "0" being the last digit of the imperial year 2600 (1940) when it entered service with the Imperial Navy. The official Allied reporting name was "Zeke", although the use of the name "Zero" was later adopted by the Allies as well.
The Zero was considered the most capable carrier-based fighter in the world when it was introduced early in World War II, combining excellent manoeuvrability and very long range. The Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service (IJNAS) also frequently used it as a land-based fighter.
In early combat operations, the Zero gained a legendary reputation as a dogfighter, achieving an outstanding kill ratio of 12 to 1, but by mid -1942 a combination of new tactics and the introduction of better equipment enabled Allied pilots to engage the Zero on generally equal terms. By 1943, the Zero became less effective against newer Allied fighters because of inherent design weaknesses and the failure to develop more powerful aircraft engines. The Allied fighters gained greater firepower, armour, and speed, and approached the Zero's manoeuvrability, and the Mitsubishi A6M was outdated by 1944. The Zero continued to serve in a front line role until the end of the war, however, due to design delays and production difficulties of newer Japanese aircraft types. The Zero was also adapted for use in kamikaze operations during the final year of the war in the Pacific. Japan produced more Zeros than any other model of combat aircraft during the course of the war.
With its low-wing cantilever monoplane layout, retractable, wide-set conventional landing gear and enclosed cockpit, the Zero was one of the most modern carrier based aircraft in the world at the time of its introduction. It had a fairly high-lift, low-speed wing with very low wing loading. This, combined with its light weight, resulted in a very low stalling speed of well below 69 mph. This was the main reason for its phenomenal manoeuvrability, allowing it to out-turn any Allied fighter of the time. Early models were fitted with servo tabs on the ailerons after pilots complained that control forces became too heavy at speeds above 190 mph. They were discontinued on later models after it was found that the lightened control forces were causing pilots to over-stress the wings during vigorous manoeuvres.
It has been claimed that the Zero's design showed a clear influence from British and American fighter aircraft and components exported to Japan in the 1930s, and in particular on the American side, the Vought V-143 fighter. Chance Vought had sold the prototype for this aircraft and its plans to Japan in 1937. Eugene Wilson, president of Vought, claimed that when shown a captured Zero in 1943, he found that "There on the floor was the Vought V 142 or just the spitting image of it, Japanese-made", while the "power-plant installation was distinctly Chance Vought, the wheel stowage into the wing roots came from Northrop, and the Japanese designers had even copied the Navy inspection stamp from Pratt & Whitney type parts. While the sale of the V-143 was fully legal, Wilson later acknowledged the conflicts of interest that can arise whenever military technology is exported.
The first Zeros (pre-series of 15 A6M2) went into operation with the 12th Rengo Kōkūtai in July 1940. On 13 September 1940, the Zeros scored their first air-to-air victories when 13 A6M2s led by Lieutenant Saburo Shindo attacked 27 Soviet-built Polikarpov I-15s and I-16s of the Chinese Nationalist Air Force, shooting down all the fighters without loss to themselves. By the time they were redeployed a year later, the Zeros had shot down 99 Chinese aircraft.
At the time of the attack on Pearl Harbour, 521 Zeros were active in the Pacific, 328 in first-line units. The carrier-borne Model 21 was the type encountered by the Americans. Its tremendous range of over 2,600 kilometres allowed it to range farther from its carrier than expected, appearing over distant battlefronts and giving Allied commanders the impression that there were several times as many Zeros as actually existed.
The Zero quickly gained a fearsome reputation. Thanks to a combination of unsurpassed manoeuvrability — even when compared to other contemporary Axis fighters — and excellent firepower, it easily disposed the rag-tag collection of Allied aircraft sent against it in the Pacific in 1941. It proved a difficult opponent even for the Supermarine Spitfire. "The RAF pilots were trained in methods that were excellent against German and Italian equipment but suicide against the acrobatic Japs", as Lt.Gen. Claire Lee Chennault had to notice. Although not as fast as the British fighter, the Mitsubishi fighter could out-turn the Spitfire with ease, sustain a climb at a very steep angle, and stay in the air for three times as long.
After the delivery of the 65th aircraft, a further change was worked into the production lines, which introduced folding wingtips to allow them to fit on aircraft carriers. The resulting Model 21 would become one of the most produced versions early in the war. A feature was the improved range with 520 lt (wing tank and 320 lt drop tank. When the lines switched to updated models, 740 Model 21s had been completed by Mitsubishi, and another 800 by Nakajima. Two other versions of the Model 21 were built in small numbers, the Nakajima-built A6M2-N "Rufe"floatplanebased on the Model 11 with a slightly modified tail), and the A6M2-K two-seat trainer of which a total of 508 were built by Hitachi and the Sasebo Naval Air Arsenal.
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