The Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” was a long-range fighter aircraft formerly 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 Zero is this generation’s Galactic Tie fighter which if it really existed would be an extremely maneuverable and lightly armored fighter that was well respected by its enemies. But Hollywood has this very extreme way of portraying the zero as it’s either God’s gift to man or a flying coffin doused in gasoline. The truth was a bit more complicated than that.
The Mitsubishi Zero was a result of Japanese ingenuity and also limitations. The Japanese military had very high demands for this aircraft from the very beginning. First it had to be able to accompany long-range bombers all the way to China, at the same time they wanted a fighter that could outmaneuver its opponents and also be able to climb high enough and fast enough to engage enemy bombers. Because of these incredibly challenging demands along with the engines available, the designers realized in order to make it all work they had to make the planes incredibly light. Now many people criticize the Zero for its lack of safety features, mainly the lack of cockpit armor and also a self-sealing fuel tank. This criticism is a result of hindsight at the time of the Zeros development, very few planes actually had these safety measures it wasn’t until the extremely brutal Battle of Britain in the early 40s that plane designers on both sides started incorporating these safety measures, besides the Japanese were well known for their warrior-like spirits so a lot of pilots early on in the war refused to even carry a parachute because parachutes for sissies. The Japanese military was not putting up with their nonsense and eventually forced all the pilots to wear parachutes although it should be noted that bailing out of the airplane before ejection seats were invented was incredibly dangerous. It usually involved slightly tilting the airplane over and trying to let gravity take over.
The Zero also featured some pretty impressive design choices. It was one of the earlier planes that had a canopy that gave the pilot a 360-degree view of the battlefield which was extremely advantageous during a dogfight. You see the majority of dogfights were actually won by the individual who saw the other pilot first the Zero also featured flush rivets which meant that every fastener on the surface of the plane was flattened and didn’t disrupt the aerodynamics, something that’s kind of obvious now that we look back at it but was actually not widely practice in aircraft manufacturing. It also used in advanced aluminum alloy similar to today’s aircraft-grade aluminum and as a result, you had an incredibly maneuverable aircraft that also had an incredibly long range that kind of had the structural integrity of a paper airplane.
From the beginning, the Zero was designed to use external fuel tanks, and the A6M Zero which attacked Pearl Harbor had an impressive range of 2,600 kilometers. In the 1930s reports of the Japanese plane were so one-sided that the American military thought it was just propaganda. In one incident, 13 Japanese Zeros shot down 27 Soviet biplanes piloted by the Chinese in just under 3 minutes. The American military was slightly racist, they thought that the Japanese were just not capable of making something that advanced so when the first Japanese fighters encountered American fighters, the American aviators were in for a surprise. The nimble A6M Zero was able to out climb and out turn the heavier P-40 Warhawk and F4F Wildcats. At the beginning of the war, the Japanese pilots ranks weren’t completely depleted like they were at the end of the war. American pilots were even trained not to engage the more nimble Zeros in a dogfight. Instead, their strategy was to uses a heavier American plane with superior diving speed to swoop in on the Zeroes for a quick slashing attack.
In early combat operations, the Zero gained a 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. As the war went on America’s manufacturing power kicked in at full gear and we started upgrading our fighters until we completely outmatched the Japanese Zeros, We introduced aircraft like the F6F Hellcat and the F4U Corsair, both extremely heavy well armored, and powerful planes with engines pushing 2,000 horsepower. The Japanese did try to upgrade the A6M Zero but they were fighting a losing battle. By this point as the war continued to drag on the Japanese were short in war materiel, their factories were being bombed to hell and they’re losing pilots at a much faster rate than they could replace them. The Zero was a true work of art and for a time it dominated the Pacific but just like Japan as a whole the Zero’s were never really resilient enough to last the entire war against America’s manufacturing might. The longer the war went on the more apparent it became that the Zero and Japan were outclassed by American Muscle.