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Mitsubishi A6M Zero

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A6M "Zero"
Mitsubishi A6M3 Zero Model 22 (NX712Z), recovered from New Guinea in 1991 and used in the film Pearl Harbor
Role Fighter
Manufacturer Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd
First flight 1 April 1939
Introduction 1 July 1940
Retired 1945 (Japan)
Primary users Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service
Chinese Nationalist Air Force
Produced 1940–1945
Number built 10,939
Variants Nakajima A6M2-N

The Mitsubishi A6M Zero was a long-range fighter aircraft operated by the IJN Imperial Japanese Navy from 1940 to 1945. The A6M was designated as the Mitsubishi Navy Type 0 Carrier Fighter (零式艦上戦闘機, rei-shiki-kanjou-sentouki?), and also designated as the Mitsubishi A6M Rei-sen and Mitsubishi Navy 12-shi Carrier Fighter. The A6M was usually referred to by the Allies as the "Zero", from 1940 the year in which the aircraft entered service with the Imperial Navy. The official Allied reporting name was "Zeke".

When it was introduced early in World War II, the Zero was considered the most capable carrier-based fighter in the world, combining excellent maneuverability and very long range.[1] In early combat operations, the Zero gained a legendary reputation as a dogfighter, achieving the outstanding kill ratio of 12 to 1,[2] but by mid-1942 a combination of new tactics and the introduction of better equipment enabled the Allied pilots to engage the Zero on more equal terms.[3] The IJNAS also frequently used the type as a land-based fighter. By 1943, inherent design weaknesses and the failure to develop more powerful aircraft engines meant that the Zero became less effective against newer enemy fighters that possessed greater firepower, armor, and speed, and approached the Zero's maneuverability. Although the Mitsubishi A6M was outdated by 1944, it was never totally supplanted by the newer Japanese aircraft types. During the final years of the War in the Pacific, the Zero was used in kamikaze operations.[4] In the course of the war, more Zeros were built than any other Japanese aircraft.[5]

Design and development

Mitsubishi A6M3 Zero wreck abandoned at Munda Airfield, Central Solomons, 1943
A6M2 Zero photo c. 2004
Carrier A6M2 and A6M3 Zeros from the aircraft carrier Zuikaku preparing for a mission at Rabaul
A6M3 Model 22, flown by Japanese Ace Hiroyoshi Nishizawa over the Solomon Islands, 1943

The Mitsubishi A5M fighter was just entering service in early 1937, when the Imperial Japanese Navy started looking for its eventual replacement. In May they issued specification 12-Shi for a new carrier-based fighter, sending it to Nakajima and Mitsubishi. Both firms started preliminary design work while they awaited more definitive requirements to be handed over in a few months.

Based on the experiences of the A5M in China, the Navy sent out updated requirements in October calling for a speed of 370 mph and a climb to 3,000 m (9,840 ft) in 3.5 min. With drop tanks, they wanted an endurance of two hours at normal power, or six to eight hours at economical cruising speed. Armament was to consist of two 20 mm cannons, two 7.7 mm (.303 in) machine guns and two 30 kg (70 lb) or 60 kg (130 lb) bombs. A complete radio set was to be mounted in all aircraft, along with a radio direction finder for long-range navigation. The maneuverability was to be at least equal to that of the A5M, while the wing span had to be less than 12 m (39 ft) to allow for use on aircraft carriers. All this was to be achieved with available engines, a significant design limitation. (The Zero's power plant seldom reached 1,000 horsepower (750 kW) in any of its variants).

Nakajima's team considered the new requirements unachievable and pulled out of the competition in January. Mitsubishi's chief designer, Jiro Horikoshi, felt that the requirements could be met, but only if the aircraft could be made as light as possible. Every possible weight-saving measure was incorporated into the design. Most of the aircraft was built of a new top-secret 7075 aluminium alloy developed by Sumitomo Metal Industries in 1936. Called Extra Super Duralumin (ESD), it was lighter and stronger than other alloys (e.g. 24S alloy) used at the time, but was more brittle and prone to corrosion[6] (it was painted with an anti-corrosion lacquer as a countermeasure). No armor was provided for the pilot, engine or other critical points of the aircraft, and self-sealing fuel tanks, which were becoming common at the time, were not used. This made the Zero lighter, more manueverable, and the longest range single engine fighter of WWII; which made it capable of searching out an enemy hundreds of miles away, bring them to battle, then return hundreds of miles back to its base or aircraft carrier. However, that trade in weight and construction also made it prone to catching fire and exploding when struck by enemy rounds.[7]

With its low-wing cantilever monoplane layout, retractable, wide-set landing gear and enclosed cockpit, the Zero was one of the most modern aircraft in the world at the time of its introduction. It had a fairly high-lift, low-speed wing with a very low wing loading. This, combined with its light weight, resulted in a very low stalling speed of well below 60 kn (110 km/h; 69 mph). This was the main reason for its phenomenal maneuverability, allowing it to out-turn any Allied fighter of the time. Early models were fitted with servo tabs on the ailerons after pilots complained control forces became too heavy at speeds above 300 km/hr. They were discontinued on later models after it was found that the lightened control forces were causing pilots to overstress the wings during vigorous maneuvers.[8]

It has been claimed that the Zero's design showed clear influence from American fighter planes and components exported to Japan in the 1930s, and in particular 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 [sic] 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."[9] While the sale of the V-143 was fully legal,[9][10] Wilson later acknowledged[9] the conflicts of interest that can arise whenever military technology is exported. In fact, there was no significant relationship between the V-143 (which was an unsuccessful design that had been rejected by the US Army Air Corps and several export customers) and the Zero, with only a superficial similarity in layout. Allegations about the Zero being a copy have been mostly discredited.[10][11]

Name

The A6M is universally known as the "Zero" from its Japanese Navy type designation, Type 0 Carrier Fighter (Rei shiki Kanjō sentōki, 零式艦上戦闘機), taken from the last digit of the Imperial year 2600 (1940), when it entered service. In Japan, it was unofficially referred to as both Rei-sen and Zero-sen; Japanese pilots most commonly called it Zero-sen.[N 1] [12]

In the official designation "A6M" the "A" signified a carrier-based fighter, "6" meant it was sixth such model built for the Imperial Navy, and "M" indicated the manufacturer, Mitsubishi.

The official Allied code name was "Zeke", in keeping with the practice of giving male names to Japanese fighters, female names to bombers, bird names to gliders, and tree names to trainers. "Zeke" was part of the first batch of "hillbilly" code names assigned by Captain Frank T. McCoy of Tennessee, who wanted quick, distinctive, easy to remember names. When in 1942 the Allied code for Japanese aircraft was introduced, he logically chose "Zeke" for the "Zero." Later, two variants of the fighter received their own code names: the Nakajima A6M2-N (floatplane version of the Zero) was called "Rufe" and the A6M3-32 variant was initially called "Hap". After objections from General "Hap" Arnold, commander of the USAAF, the name was changed to "Hamp". When captured examples were examined in New Guniea, it was realized it was a variant of the Zero and finally renamed "Zeke 32."

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