When it was introduced early in WWII, the Zero was the best carrier-based fighter in the world , combining excellent maneuverability and very long range. In early combat operations, the Zero gained a legendary reputation as a "dogfighter", gaining the outstanding kill ratio of 12 to 1. However, by November 1944 the Zero-Sen was outclassed by the American shipboard fighters, the F6F Hellcat and the F4U Corsair, both in performance and armament. The rigid wooden tail and the lack of self-sealing fuel tanks made the A6M burn if light damage was inflicted on it. Plus, the toll on Japanese pilots meant that most were green fliers right out of flight school. Zero's were used in almost all major Japanese campaigns in the Pacific, and Asia, which helped Japan expand it's Empire quickly, and efficiently.
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Superb Japanese fighter aircraft
This monoplane fighter was at its peak when the Japanese hit Pearl Harbor. Although subsequently overtaken by Allied designs, its firepower, versatility and early reputation helped to keep it flying throughout the war. In the end, Japan's failure adequately to replace the Zero was to weigh against her. But in the early months the Zero was supreme. Until General Chennault's China-based American Volunteer Group devised their successful fighter tactics, the Zero was master of all the American, British and Dutch fighter types in the Pacific area. Long-range fuel tanks also made the Zero a first-rate bomber escort, able to make 1,000-mile round trips, for example, in the raids against Chunking. The Zero's other functions included those of fighter-bomber, dive-bomber, and suicide plane.
The prototype of the Zero-Sen, or 'Zeke' as it was code-named by the Allies, first flew in April 1939. In 1940 an up-engined version, the A6M2 Model 11, entered service and flew in China. Next came the Model 21, with folding wingtips to reduce its stowage space aboard carriers. The A6M3 featured a 1,130 hp engine (in contrast to the 780 hp of the prototype) and had shorter wings in its main version, the Model 32, which went into service in 1942.
By the following year the Zero design was showing its age, and was in danger of being left behind by America's new generation of carrier-borne fighters. Allied pilots realised also that Zeros were badly under-protected, and that one burst of machine-gun fire into the fuel tanks was a knock-out blow. The manufacturers responded with the A6M5 which had an improved top speed of 358 mph (576 kph). "Further modifications were carried out, and the last model, the A6M8, powered by a 1,560 hp engine, was ready to go into mass production when Japan surrendered. Total production of Zeroes was 10,610, the work being shared in an approximate ratio of 2:3 by the Mitsubishi and Nakajima factories respectively.
Zero-Sen details (A6M5):
Length: 29 ft 9 ins (9.07 m). Span: 36 ft 1 in (10.96 m). Engine: one 1,130 hp Sakae 21 radial. Combat weight: 6,047 lbs (2,742 kg). Crew: one. Top speed: 358 mph (576 kph). Armament: two 20-mm cannon: two MGs; up to 700 lbs (31 7 kg) of bombs.