The Mitsubishi A6M, or "Zero", was the Imperial Japanese Navy's premier carrier-born fighter throughout most of World War II. It was lightweight and agile, and had excellent range, making it superior to any other fighter in the Pacific Theater early in the war. As time went by, however, the Zero was gradually outmoded by newer Allied fighters, such as the American F6F Hellcat and F4U Corsair, which were more rugged, powerful, and heavily armed. Towards the end of the war, as Japan's situation became increasingly desperate, a number of Zeros were used in Kamikaze missions.
In 1937, the Imperial Japanese Navy issued specifications for a replacement for the A5M Claude to Mitsubishi and Nakajima. The requirements were for a speed of 500 km/h at 4000 m and a climb to 3000 m in 3.5 min. An endurance of two hours at normal power was needed, or six to eight hours at economical cruising speed (both with drop tanks). Armament was to consist of two 20mm cannons and two 7.7mm machine guns and the capacity to mount two 30kg or 60kg bombs. The airplanes would carry all necessary radio equipment and a radio direction finder. In order for it to fit on aircraft carriers, the wingspan had to be less than 12m.
After several months, Nakajima's design team thought that it would be impossible to meet the requirements and withdrew from the competition. Mitsubishi, however, continued and succeeded in meeting the requirements by making the aircraft as light as possible. Much of the airplane was built from a special variety of aluminum called T-7178, which was stronger and lighter than normal aluminum used at the time, but more brittle. No armor was included to protect the pilot, and the aircraft lacked self-sealing fuel tanks.
The early A6Ms were highly successful in China, and when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor prompted the entry of the United States into the war, the American fighters operating at the time were no match for the Zero variant flying at that time, the A6M2-21. Despite this, the American pilots were able to have some success against the Zero by exploiting the strengths of their airplanes, ruggedness and firepower, and avoiding getting into turning fights with the vastly more maneuverable Zero.
The United States learned much of what it knew about the Zero when a relatively undamaged A6M was found on the island of Akutan in the Aleutians. Its pilot had run low on fuel and attempted to make an emergency landing, but had been killed in the process. The Zero was taken to North Air Station in San Diego and studied to learn its strengths and weaknesses.
As the Americans became more successful, and more and more Japanese airplanes were shot down, many of the Imperial Japanese Navy's best pilots were killed, forcing the Navy to be less selective and thorough about training new pilots. As a result, experienced fighter pilots were slowly replaced with poorly trained ones who were easy for the now seasoned American's to shoot down. Japan's failure to gain air superiority enabled the United States to develop new and better fighters that could match the Zero in combat. With its industry being steadily destroyed by American bombing raids, Japan was unable to develop a new generation of fighters to replace the Zero, and as a result, the A6M remained in service until the very end of the war.
- Engine: 1 1130-hp Nakajima NK1C Sakae 21 radial piston engine
- Wingspan: 36ft 1in
- Length: 29ft 9in
- Height: 11ft 6in
- Max speed: 346mph
- Range: 1118 miles (internal fuel)/1930 miles (using centerline drop tank)
- Armament: 2 x 20mm cannon + 2 x 7.7mm machine guns