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Introduced early in World War II, the unrivalled manoeuvrability and long range of the Mitsubishi Zero caught its adversaries by surprise. So much so that it initially achieved a combat kill ratio of 12 to 1.
Capable of searching out an enemy hundreds of kilometres (miles) away, bringing them to battle, then returning hundreds of kilometres back to its base or aircraft carrier the Zero gained a legendary reputation as a dogfighter and was considered the most capable carrier-based fighter in the world.
However, by mid-1942, the tide turned with the development of new tactics by the Allied Forces as well as the introduction of more powerful aircraft with greater firepower, armour, speed and manoeuvrability. Allied pilots were at last able to exploit the inherent weak points of the Zero and engage it on equal terms. By 1944 the Zero was outdated.
Designed by Jiro Horikoshi to a requirement for a carrier-based fighter for the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN), the Mitsubishi A6M was a development of the A5M that had entered service in 1937 and saw action during the Japanese invasion of China. Based on the experiences of the A5M in China, the IJN approached Nakajima and Mitsubishi. Both firms started preliminary design work while they awaited more definitive requirements to be handed over.
The Imperial Navy's requirements called for fighter with a wingspan of less than 12 m (39 ft) to allow for carrier-based use, a speed of 600 km/h (370 mph) and a climb to 3,000 m (9,800 ft) in 3.5 min. The manoeuvrability was to be at least equal to that of the A5M. Armament was to consist of two 20 mm cannons, two 7.7 mm (.303 in) machine guns and two 30 kg (66 lb) or 60 kg (132 lb) bombs. Endurance, with drop tanks at normal power, was required to be two hours or six to eight hours at economical cruising speed. A complete radio set was to be mounted in all aircraft, along with a radio direction finder for long-range navigation. All this was to be achieved with available engines.
Nakajima's team considered the new requirements unachievable and pulled out of the competition. Jiro Horikoshi, Mitsubishi's chief designer, although sceptical, was tasked with the design. He knew that the only way to meet the requirements was to make the A6M as light as possible and he opted to use an extremely light aluminium alloy developed by Sumitomo Metal Industries. However, that was not enough and Horikoshi was forced to incorporate every possible weight saving measure. He did away with armour for the pilot, engine or other critical points of the aircraft as well as self-sealing fuel tanks. This was to lead the weak points that Allied pilots were later to exploit. A short burst of fire from heavy machine guns or cannon was often enough to bring down the fragile Zero.
In contrast, Allied fighters were designed with ruggedness and pilot protection in mind. This was a factor in preventing the Zero from attaining total domination.
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On 13 September 1940, Zero's flew their first operational sortie and the 13 Zeros on a patrol encountered 27 Soviet-built Polikarpov I-15s and I-16s of the Chinese Nationalist Air Force (CNAF), shooting down all the CNAF fighters without loss. 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, 420 Zeros were active in the Pacific. The carrier-borne Model 21 was the type encountered by the Americans. Its tremendous range of over 2,600 km (1,600 mi) allowed it to range farther from its carrier than expected.
The Zero was one of the most modern aircraft in the world at the time of its introduction. The first Zeros went into operation in July 1940 and they quickly gained a fearsome reputation. 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 manoeuvrability, allowing it to out-turn any Allied fighter of the time. Thanks to a combination of excellent manoeuvrability and firepower, high turn rate and ability to stay almost three times as long in the air as its Allied opponents, it reigned supreme in the early months of 1941.
However, Allied pilots soon developed tactics to cope with the Zero and as the war dragged on and new types like the powerfully armed Lockheed P-38 Lightning, the Grumman F6F Hellcat and Vought F4U Corsair eventually sealed the fate of the Zero.
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Due to shortages of high-powered aviation engines and problems with planned successor models, the Zero remained in production until 1945. More Zero-Sens were produced than any other wartime Japanese aircraft. Mitsubishi alone produced 3,879 aircraft of this type, and Nakajima built 6,215. Altogether, with the 844 trainer and floatplane variants produced by Sasebo, Hitachi and Nakajima, production of the A6M series aircraft totalled 10,938 aircraft
Four flyable Zero airframes exist. Three have had their engines replaced with similar American units. Only one, the Planes of Fame Museum's A6M5, recovered from Saipan, has the original Sakae engine.
A large number are preserved as static displays in museums.
The rarity of flyable Zeros accounts for the use of single-seat North American T-6 Texans, with heavily modified fuselages and painted in Japanese markings, as substitutes for Zeros in the films Tora! Tora! Tora! The Final Countdown and many other television shows and films. One Model 52 was used during the production of Pearl Harbour.
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