Mitsubishi A6M Zero file photo

A6M Zero

CountryJapan
ManufacturerMitsubishi Heavy Industries
Primary RoleFighter
Maiden Flight1 April 1939

Contributor: C. Peter Chen

In Oct 1937, the Japanese Navy sent out requests for a new advanced naval aircraft to Japanese manufacturing firms Nakajima and Mitsubishi. On 17 Jan 1938, requirements were revealed to representatives of the two firms at Yokosuka, Japan, which called for an aircraft with speed of 500 kilometers per hour at 4,000 meters and a climb to 3,000 meters in altitude in 3.5 minutes. The Nakajima team immediately thought it was impossible to achieve and pulled out of the bidding process. The executives at Mitsubishi, knowing that the firm was already occupied with the navy bomber project, also considered to reject the project, but designer Jiro Horikoshi pressed hard to embark on this task, arguing that his team would be able to achieve the high performance demanded by reducing the weight of the aircraft. After negotiations, the navy dropped the bomber project, and Horikoshi was able to embark on this fighter project.

The result was the Type 0 Carrier Fighter (Japanese: Rei-shiki kanjo sentoki, or Reisen for short), the most maneuverable fighter aircraft in aviation history. The Zero fighters were made out of lightweight duralumin alloy for maximum maneuverability. Horikoshi and his team had to make sacrifices to achieve such high performance, especially considering the relatively weak 950 horsepower powerplant. Armor plating and self-sealing fuel tanks, for example, were deleted from the blueprint to save weight. On 23 Mar 1939, a prototype Zero fighter was taken apart, loaded onto two ox carts, and moved about 25 miles to the naval base of Kagamigahara, Japan, where it would take its maiden flight on 1 Apr. The second prototype was delivered on 25 Oct 1939. Production began soon afterwards, with the first production example delivered on 31 Jul 1940.

Most Japanese Navy pilots immediately found A6M Zero fighters to be the most efficient aircraft they had ever flown. Saburo Sakai later recalled that "[t]he Zero excited me as nothing else had ever done. Even on the ground it had the cleanest lines I had ever seen in an aeroplane. it was a dream to fly."

Zero fighters' first combat mission took place in China on 19 Aug 1940, when 12 of them escorted 54 G3M2 bombers on a bombing mission against the capital city of Chongqing. On 13 Sep 1940, the pilots of the 12th Combined Naval Air Corps shot down 27 Chinese I-15 and I-16 Russian-made fighters while flying a bomber-escort mission. After a year in combat in China, the small number of Zero fighters shot down a total of 44 Chinese aircraft at the loss of only two fighters, and they were lost to anti-aircraft fire rather than in dogfights. This led to the belief that the Zero fighters, in the hands of capable pilots, were nearly invincible. Japanese Navy aviation leadership believed that each Zero fighter would be enough to counter two to five enemy fighters. This belief was shown during the Pearl Harbor strike in Dec 1941, in which only 108 of the 400 Zero fighters available to the Japanese Navy at the time were deployed in the attack; the naval commanders thought 108 were enough to handle American fighters at Pearl Harbor.

Initially, these commanders were correct, as the American and British had no fighters that could match the Zero fighters' high performance and long range. In the first three months of the Pacific War, from the attack on Pearl Harbor to the end of the Dutch East Indies campaign, Zero fighters claimed 471 kills out of 565 of all enemy planes destroyed. They continued to hold a technological advantage over their American counterparts until the introduction of Grumman F6F Hellcat, Vought F4U Corsair, and Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighters later in the war.

Zero fighters were typically deployed in three-fighter flights, each called a shotai. Unlike western flights, the Japanese flight leader flew far ahead of the two wingmen, while the wingmen weaved left and right and up and down, covering more blind spots than their western counterparts. When attacking, instead of the entire flight attacking the target, the three Zero fighters would attack in succession, thus never giving the target any chance for a break during the entire attack. When the flight was attacked, however, the shotai, given the distance between the flight leader and the wingmen, was easily broken up, leaving each fighter to fend for itself. Early in the war, when the Zero fighters were by far the most maneuverable fighters, they relied on the maneuverability to recover from the occasions when the flights were broken up.

During the Battle of Midway in Jun 1942, Japan lost four fleet carriers and 234 aircraft. What caused the most harm was the loss of more than ten percent of the navy's experienced fighter pilots. In response, the Japanese Navy recalled many veteran fighter pilots back to Japan to train replacements. Meanwhile, Mitsubishi worked on the next major variant of the Zero fighter, which was revealed in Oct 1942. The powerplant was upgraded to the supercharged Sakae 21 engine, which was rated at 1,130 horsepower, although the armament remained the same; despite the engine upgrade, however, performance remained roughly the same. Meanwhile, Allied fighters continued to improve. In order to counter the fact that Zero fighters were becoming out-classed, the three-fighter shotai was revised to four fighters each, hoping to use new tactics to bring balance to the dogfights, but by then it was already too late to make a difference. Additionally, poor Japanese fuel quality toward the end of the war also plagued the remaining Zero fighters; the fuel was so bad that the Zero fighters often emitted a thin trail of dirty smoke behind them when they were at wide-open-throttle, at times even letting out bright flashes of flames from exhaust ports (interestingly, these fuel issues sometimes led to US pilots believing they had successfully damaged the enemy, which in turn led to inflated kill scores).

Toward the end of the Pacific War, the large numbers of Zero fighters in service and their high maneuverability made them ideal for suicide special attacks, more popularly known to westerners of the day as "kamikaze". Out of the 2,363 Japanese Navy aircraft that participated in special attack missions, 1,189 of them were A6M Zero fighters.

By the end of WW2, 10,937 Zero fighters were manufactured. Mitsubishi built only 3,880, while the majority of the remainder were built by Nakajima, the company that declined to bid on the original request for such a fighter.

After the war, most surviving A6M Zero fighters were destroyed. A few of them were sent to the United States for testing. Many of them were abandoned across the various Pacific islands, rusting very quickly in jungle climates. Only about 13 were available for museum display today, such as the Zero fighter on display at Yushukan museum adjacent to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, Japan. Only a very small number are in flyable condition today.

Sources:
Bruce Gamble, Target: Rabaul
Donald Nijboer, Seafire vs A6M Zero
Dan van der Vat, The Pacific Campaign
Wikipedia

A6M Zero Timeline

17 Jan 1938 Japanese Navy revealed requirements for the next generation of carrier fighters to representatives from Nakajima and Mitsubishi; Nakajima thought the requirements were impossible and dropped out of the race, while Mitsubishi was able to meet the requirements with its prototype A6M Type 0 fighter in 1939.
1 Apr 1939 Prototype A6M Zero fighter took its maiden flight at Kagamigahara airfield, Japan.
25 Oct 1939 Mitsubishi delivered the second Zero fighter prototype to the Japanese Navy for testing.
10 Jul 1940 The Japanese deployed the new A6M Zero fighters against Chinese forces.
31 Jul 1940 Mitsubishi delivered the first production Zero fighter to the Japanese Navy.
19 Aug 1940 Twelve A6M2 Model 11 Zero fighters escorted fifty four G3M2 Type 96 bombers on a mission against the Chinese city of Chongqing; this was the first combat mission of the Zero fighter.
13 Sep 1940 13 Zero fighters escorted bombers on a mission to raid Chongqing, China; the Zero fighters downed 27 of the Chinese I-15 and I-16 Russian-made fighters.
1 Nov 1940 During this month, Japanese Navy began receiving the carrier version of the A6M Zero fighter.
10 Jul 1942 An American PBY Catalina crew spotted the wreck of a Japanese aircraft on Akutan Island, US Territory of Alaska.
11 Jul 1942 US military personnel studied the "Akutan Zero", a Zero fighter that had crashed in the Aleutian Islands.
15 Jul 1942 A salvage crew arrived at Akutan Island, US Territory of Alaska to recover a A6M2 Zero fighter that had crashed there during the Japanese attack in the prior month.

SPECIFICATIONS

A6M8 Model 64
MachineryOne Mitsubishi MK8P Kinsei 62 fourteen-cylinder air-cooled radial, rated at 1,560 hp for take-off, 1,340 hp at 2,100 m and 1,180 hp at 5,800 m, driving a three-blade metal propeller
Armament2x wing-mounted 13.2mm Type 3 machine guns; 2x wing-mounted 20mm Type 99 cannon; external stores carried 2x60 kg bombs (1x250kg for suicide missions)
Crew1
Span21.44 m
Length9.24 m
Height3.64 m
Wing Area21.30 m
Weight, Empty2,150 kg
Weight, Loaded3,150 kg
Service Ceiling11,200 m

A6M2 Model 21
MachineryOne Mitsubishi Zuisei 13 fourteen-cylinder air-cooled radial, rated at 780 hp for take-off and 875 hp at 3,600 m, driving a two- or three-blade metal propeller
Armament2x7.7mm Type 97 machine guns in the upper fuselage decking; 2x20mm wing-mounted Type 99 cannon; external stores carried 2x60 kg bombs (1x250kg for suicide missions)
Crew1
Span21.44 m
Length9.06 m
Height3.05 m
Wing Area22.40 m
Weight, Empty1,680 kg
Weight, Loaded2,410 kg
Weight, Maximum2,796 kg
Speed, Maximum533 km/h
Rate of Climb15.70 m/s
Service Ceiling10,000 m
Range, Normal1,600 km
Range, Maximum3,105 km

A6M3 Model 32
MachineryOne Nakajima NK1F Sakae 21 fourteen-cylinder air-cooled radial, rated at 1,130 hp for take-off, 1,100 hp at 2,850 m and 980 hp at 6,000 m, driving a three-blade metal propeller
Armament2x7.7mm Type 97 machine guns in the upper fuselage decking; 2x wing-mounted 20mm Type 99 cannon; external stores carried 2x60 kg bombs (1x250kg for suicide missions)
Crew1
Span21.44 m
Length9.06 m
Height3.51 m
Wing Area21.50 m
Weight, Empty1,807 kg
Weight, Loaded2,544 kg
Service Ceiling11,050 m

A6M5 Model 52
MachineryOne Nakajima NK1F Sakae 21 fourteen-cylinder air-cooled radial, rated at 1,130 hp for take-off, 1,100 hp at 2,850 m and 980 hp at 6,000 m, driving a three-blade metal propeller
Armament2x7.7mm Type 97 machine-guns in the upper fuselage decking; 2x wing-mounted 20mm Type 99 cannon; night version carried one fuselage-mounted oblique-firing 20 mm Type 99 cannon; external stores carried 2x60 kg bombs (1x250kg for suicide missions)
Crew1
Span21.44 m
Length9.12 m
Height3.51 m
Wing Area21.30 m
Weight, Empty1,876 kg
Weight, Loaded2,733 kg
Service Ceiling11,740 m

Photographs

A6M Zero fighters of Japanese Navy Genzan Air Group at Genzan (now Wonsan), Korea, 1940-1941Two A6M2 Type 0 Model 11 Zero fighters in flight from Yichang, Hubei Province to attack Nanzheng, Shaanxi Province in China, 26 May 1941Group portrait of carrier ShokakuA6M2 Zero fighter aboard carrier Akagi prior or during the attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec 1941
See all 72 photographs of A6M Zero Fighter



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Visitor Submitted Comments

  1. Hobilar says:
    22 Sep 2007 04:05:01 AM

    The last paragraph is incorrect. Mitsubishi built 3,879 (3,880)Zeros, Nakajima built 6,215 (6,570), Hitachi built 279 and 21st Naval Dockyard built 236. (Figures in brackets are from a second published source).
  2. Anonymous says:
    18 Feb 2009 01:58:16 PM

    Photo of zero in formation: Mitsubishi A6M2 Reisen (Zero Fighter) of the 12th. Rengo Kokutai shortly after the type's entry into service. On 21, July the navy decided to assign fifteen A6M2's to the 12th. Rengo Kokutai (12th Combined Naval Air Corps) for combat in China.
  3. Anonymous says:
    18 Feb 2009 02:19:02 PM

    Zero fighter production: Mitsubishi 3,879, Nakajima 6,570. total production of land based fighter's 10,449. The model A6M2-N and A6M5-K are reported separately, they are: a total of 327 A6M2-N's were built Koizumi by Nakajima Hikoki K.K. between Dec. 1941 and Sept. 1943. A total of 515 A6M2-K and A6M5-K were built as follows. Dai-Nijucichi Kaigun Kokusho at Omura (Sasbo) 236 A6M2-K (Nov. 1943 to Aug. 1945. Hitachi Kokuki K.K. 272 A6M2-K mAY 1944 to Aug. 1945, and 7 A6M5-K mAR. TO aUG. 1945
  4. jacob archer age 15 says:
    4 May 2009 01:18:44 PM

    the altutude is wrong. the A6M2 can climb to 3,000m in 4.5 minutes
  5. Steve Voskian says:
    19 Aug 2010 06:59:15 PM

    The Zero was a good fighter when flown by an experienced pilot against an inferior foe. But it met it's match against well trained American pilots flying F4F,s F6F, Corsairs, Mustangs, etc.
  6. Jan Koso says:
    19 Aug 2010 07:15:08 PM

    When you compromise armour for agility, you will lose when your opponent can take some battle damage and you can not.
  7. Leo Grospe says:
    19 Aug 2010 07:24:26 PM

    its ok to compromise the armour
    for the agility of the plane..
    the odds are just the same..
    either u die or u live
    to tell about it..
    ...its ok to be good and excel at something than to be a jack of trades..

    as for the pilots..
    many japanese experienced pilots are dead
    in the middle stages of the war..
    thats why the imperial navy lost big time
    in the marianas and the battle of leyte gulf..
    it was like a turkey shoot..
  8. Chris Sheppard says:
    19 Aug 2010 07:46:25 PM

    The Japanese and the Germans both failed in the training of pilots to replace those lost, you cannot just "Make" new pilots. In combat, experience is a big factor in survival.
    The recovery of the downed Zero in Alaska, the studies of it's strengths and weaknesses aided the US airmen in taking advantage of its weaknesses.
  9. Jhun Garcia says:
    20 Aug 2010 04:45:03 AM

    mitsubishi engine right?
  10. Jhun Garcia says:
    20 Aug 2010 05:00:34 AM

    what's the US counterpart of this aircraft and what engine?
  11. Brooks Ashley Rowlett says:
    20 Aug 2010 07:07:35 AM

    The engine of the Reisen (Type 0) was actually by Nakajima: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nakajima_Sakae
    which strangely enough was designed after the Japanese aquired a license to the Gnome-Rhone 14K
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gnome-Rhne_Mistral_Major
  12. Anonymous says:
    12 Jul 2011 01:36:25 PM

    Is there any information on the names of the military personnel who were inspecting the crash of this plane? My step father was stationed there during this time and the thirs picture in the set of 3 has a person standing on the aircraft on the right that looks like it could possibly be him. Any info you could help me with would be very appreciated. thanks
  13. Ron says:
    19 Mar 2012 11:11:24 PM

    The Japanese say they could overboost the A6M2 to 345+mpn level speed. This is the reason there was such a discrepancy between US tested examples and those flown by Japanese against the US pilots. When told that our tests showed the F4F-3 egual to the A6M2, the surviving US pilots would reply "NO" in no uncertain terms.
    Our test pilots didn't know the boost settings used by the Japanese and got misleading performance on paper which showed both could do 331 mph and climb over 3,000 fpm. Same basically goes for the P-39 and P-40 pilots of 1942. They experienced the Zero 21 keeping in range of them in speed and climb too. Is this why initial climb for the A6M2 ranges from 2700 fpm (in US hands) to 4517 fpm as well? Never mind the Zero's 1/2 turn at 240 mph in 5.62 seconds while its carrying fuel for longer legs than any other fighter at the time! At least they agreed on that part.
    I like the roll rate of the clipped A6M3 but the glory days of the Zero were ending.
  14. takushi tachibana says:
    28 Jul 2013 04:38:53 AM

    We have zero fighter's manual.air frame and engin.
    These documents is not ten pieaces in japan.Please
    buy Thease Document.
  15. Kermit says:
    25 May 2014 08:07:59 PM

    I think 'span' figure is incorrect. 12m for the A6M2 Model 21 but 11m for the clipped wing for the rest.

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More on A6M Zero
Notable Figure(s):
» Jiro Horikoshi
» Tetsuzo Iwamoto
» Tomokazu Kasai
» Saburo Sakai
» Junichi Sasai

Notable Event(s):
» Attack on Pearl Harbor

Related Books:
» Seafire vs. A6M Zero: Pacific Theater

Related Document(s):
» Bert Earnest Interview


A6M Zero Fighter Photo Gallery
A6M Zero fighters of Japanese Navy Genzan Air Group at Genzan (now Wonsan), Korea, 1940-1941
See all 72 photographs of A6M Zero Fighter



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