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gained greater firepower, armour, and speed, and approached the Zero's manoeuvrability, and the Mitsubishi A6M was outdated by 1944.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.
Sometimes considered as the most effective variant, of the Zero, the Model 52 was developed to again shorten the wings to increase speed and dispense with the folding wing mechanism. In addition, ailerons, aileron trim tab and flaps were revised. Produced first by Mitsubishi, most Model 52s were made by Nakajima. The prototype was made in June 1943 by modifying an A6M3 and was first flown in August 1943.
The A6M5C variant had the same exhaust system and cowl flaps as the preceding model although a new exhaust system provided an increment of thrust by aiming the stacks aft and distributing them around the forward fuselage. The new exhaust system required "notched" cowl flaps and heat shields just aft of the stacks. One 13.2 mm (.51 in) Type 3 machine gun was added in each wing outboard of the cannon, and the 7.7 mm gun on the left side of the cowl was deleted. Four racks for rockets or small bombs were installed outboard of the 13 mm gun in each wing. Engine change: Some sources state that the HEI had a Sakae 31 engine In addition, a 55 mm thick piece of armoured glass was installed at the headrest and a plate of armour were also installed behind the seat. The mounting of the central 300L drop tank changed to a four-post design. Wing skin was thickened further. The first of this variant was completed in September 1944. Because of the gain in weight, this variant was used mainly for intercepting B-29s and special attack.
Allied pilots soon developed tactics to cope with the Zero. Due to its extreme agility, engaging a Zero in a traditional, turning dogfight was likely to be fatal. It was better to swoop down from above in a high-speed pass, fire a quick burst, then climb quickly back up to altitude. (A short burst of fire from heavy machine guns or cannon was often enough to bring down the fragile Zero.) Such "boom-and-zoom" tactics were used successfully in the China Burma India Theatre (CBI) by the "Flying Tigers" of the American Volunteer Group (AVG) against similarly manoeuvrable Japanese Army aircraft such as the Nakajima Ki-27 Nate and Nakajima Ki-43 Oscar. AVG pilots were trained by their commander Claire Chennault to exploit the advantages of their P-40s, which were very sturdy, heavily armed, generally faster in a dive and level flight at low altitude, with a good rate of roll.
Another important manoeuvre was Lieutenant Commander John S. "Jimmy" Thach's "Thach Weave", in which two fighters would fly about 60m apart. If a Zero latched onto the tail of one of the fighters, the two aircraft would turn toward each other. If the Zero followed his original target through the turn, he would come into a position to be fired on by the target's wingman. This tactic was first used to good effect during the Battle of Midway and later over the Solomon Islands.
When the powerfully armed Lockheed P-38 Lightning, armed with four "light barrel" AN/M2 .50 cal. Browning machine guns and one 20 mm auto-cannon, and the Grumman F6F Hellcat and Vought F4U Corsair, each with six AN/M2 heavy calibre Browning guns, appeared in the Pacific theatre, the A6M, with its low-powered engine and lighter armament, was hard-pressed to remain competitive. In combat with an F6F or F4U, the only positive thing that could be said of the Zero at this stage of the war was that, in the hands of a skilful pilot, it could manoeuvre as well as most of its opponents.
Many highly experienced Japanese aviators were lost in combat, resulting in a progressive decline in quality, which became a significant factor in Allied successes. Unexpected heavy losses of pilots at the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway dealt the Japanese carrier air force a blow from which it never fully recovered.
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