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Mitsubishi Zero – Turning on a Dime

The Mitsubishi A6M Zero was one of the most significant air opponents of the Allies during the War in The Pacific. The A6M was designed for the Japanese Imperial Navy in the 1930s as a long-range fighter that could outperform its enemies and fly long distances to escort Japanese bombers on missions to China. Its innovative assembly process resulted in an extremely lightweight fighter.

During the Second World War, its agility in the air was often feared by Allied aircrew performing sorties in the Pacific to the point of the US Navy Command having to develop new tactics to outsmart it.

A pair of Zeros flying over China.
The Zero was feared by Allied pilots.



The origins of the Zero began in 1937 when the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) began exploring options to replace the Mitsubishi A5M. Although the A5M had just entered service that year, Japan wanted to further develop its fighter capabilities based on experiences from pilots who had flown missions over China.

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The IJN issued a specification to aircraft manufacturers in October 1937, calling for a fighter plane with a fast climb speed that was capable of reaching 310 miles per hour. The IJN also explored fitting drop fuel tanks to the new aircraft to reach an endurance time of two hours in the air under normal conditions and between six to eight hours when flown economically.

Jiro Hirokshi was tasked with being the fighter’s chief designer and production was contracted to the Mitsubishi Aircraft Company. Hirokshi decided to factor lightness as a core component of his design and paid very close attention to details. For example, plywood was used instead of aluminium to reinforce the plane’s frame.

The Zero was one of the best turning fighters of the war.
The ethos of the Zero was lightness. This gave the aircraft incredible turn performance.


While other aircraft are built in separate stages before the parts are put together for final assembly, Hirokshi’s design differed by building the wings fixed to the fuselage and made the fuselage itself out of a superlight duralumin metal known as “extra super duralumin” developed in secret by the Sumitomo Metals Industries in 1936.

The engine was also fitted close to the cockpit to save further weight and building materials. Repositioning the cockpit not only saved weight but gave the Zero its prowess and manoeuvrability in the air. However, to save further weight no armour was placed around the cockpit.

The aircraft made its first test flight in December 1939 and exceeded many of its requirements and expectations. Even after its initial test, modifications continued to be made to the Zero, including producing models with folding wings to be used as aircraft carrier-borne fighters.

Mass production started that year.

The Zero's 20mm cannons.
The Zero used the Type 99 20mm cannon. Here are both versions.

Testing found the A6M had the capability of climbing to around thirty thousand feet within seven minutes. It was also armed with two Type 97 machine guns in the fuselage and two wing-enclosed Type 99 cannons.

The Zero (initially named the Type 0) was given its name as it rolled off the production line in 1940 which coincided with the Japanese Imperial Year of 2600 and became officially known as the A6M Reisen.

The Zero in Service

Japanese pilots gave the Zero the nickname “Zero-sen,” taking the first part of the word sentōki which translates as fighter or warplane. Allied forces would later codename the Zero “Zeke” in the tradition of codenaming Japanese fighters with male names and bombers after female names.

A total of over ten thousand examples of the Zero were produced during the duration of the war, with production ceasing in 1945.

A6M5s being scrapped.
By the end of the war, many variants had been produced. Alot of them were captured and destroyed by the US forces.

The Zero made its combat debut in 1940 in China and played a crucial role in helping the Japanese Navy to gain air superiority over China and advance the Japanese invasion.

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Most notably, however, the Zero took part in the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941. It is estimated around 125 Zero fighters took part in the attack which was launched from three different carriers.

The attack on Pearl Harbor struck a blow to the US Navy and Zero squadrons effectively decimated US air power above the island of Oahu within two hours. Only nine Zero fighters were lost during the attack.

However, the attack also drew the United States into the war and helped to significantly shift the balance of military strength in favour of Allied forces but US military pilots found themselves in frontline combat with the Zero.

USS Arizona at Pearl Harbour sinking whilst covered in smoke.
The attack on Pearl Harbour was successful due to the Zero giving the Japanese air superiority.

Initially, the A6M was considered a fierce and lethal opponent to Allied airmen. US pilots were extensively using the Curtiss P-40 and the Seversky P-35 following America’s entry into the war, but aircrews quickly found themselves outmatched by the faster and more advanced Zero.

When flown by an experienced fighter pilot, the Zero could score multiple kills against Allied airmen and some American pilots refused to engage in air combat with the Zero unless they already had an advantage with height and speed.

When aerial battles did occur, American pilots would attempt what was known as a “boom-and-zoom” tactic: performing one sweep against a Zero formation, hoping to strafe and take out a Zero, and then fly off and to avoid a full-on dogfight before regrouping and returning for a second pass from above.

Zeros taking off from a carrier to begin the assault on Pearl Harbour.
Japanese naval aircraft prepare to take off from an aircraft carrier (reportedly Shokaku) to attack Pearl Harbor on the morning of 7 December 1941.

Combat Prowess

American forces wanted to find any means they could to gain air superiority over the Zero and learn how to effectively defeat it.

As the war progressed, American aircrews began to study the Zero closely in the air during engagements. American volunteer pilots in China, known as the “Flying Tigers” also closely studied the Zero’s flying and fighting capabilities in the air.

The Flying Tiger’s Commander, Claire Chennault, observed that the heavier but sturdy and well-armed P-40 was faster in dive situations and at lower altitudes than the Zero, which made attacks from beneath and above on Zero squadrons quite effective.

The Zero was so agile that no Allied fighter could turn tighter.
The common tactic used against the Zero was to ‘boom and zoom’ them.

A second tactic to defeat the Zero in the air was devised by American naval pilot Lieutenant Commander John S. Thatch which became known as the “Thatch Weave.” To perform this manoeuvre, two US pilots would fly 200 feet apart. If a Zero began pursuing one of them, both pilots would fly towards each other in a horseshoe shape, and if the Zero followed it would be fired upon by the oncoming fellow American fighter.

The Thatch Weave tactic was used extensively during the Battle of Midway and the Battle of the Solomon Islands with good tactical results.

Although the lack of armour gave the Zero better performance, it was also found to leave the pilots vulnerable. In the latter stages of the war from 1943 onwards, Allied pilots began to exploit this weakness and the Japanese began to lose skilled pilots.

An A6M3 Zero replica in flight witht smoke coming from the engine.
A replica A6M3 that will often appear at airshows. Photo credit – Kogo GFDL.

Concurrently, the Americans were giving their pilots more up-to-date training based on experience fighting the Zero and made technological advancements to their fighter planes.

To deal with the extreme fighting and natural conditions in the Pacific, America designed its newer fighter aircraft such as the Grumman F6F Hellcat and the Vought F4U Corsair with sturdiness and pilot protection in mind.

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Japan meanwhile was relatively slower to update the Zero’s design.

Successive modifications were eventually made to the Zero in response to mounting losses, including thicker armour to protect the pilot and sealed fuel tanks, but this began to impede on the Zero’s speed and handling.

A6M5s in a line before take off.
Additional modifications did eventually offer some pilot protection such as the A6M5. However, these negated some of the Zero’s performance.

The substantial loss of Japanese aircraft carriers and planes during the Battle of Midway also severely depleted Japan’s Zero squadrons to a point of being almost impossible to recover from.

As Allied forces began to make significant advances against Japan in the Pacific Theatre, the IJN began to switch tactics using the Zero.

In October 1944, the Zero was first used in kamikaze (meaning Divine or Spirit Wind) attacks against US forces in the Philippines. The attacks consisted of often young Japanese airmen who would fly their planes loaded with explosives in a suicide attack against Allied targets, usually naval vessels.

The Zero was very vulnerable to taking fire.
A downed A6M3.

The Zero was used extensively in such attacks by the Divine Wind Special Attack Unit which carried out kamikaze missions, and while they had a low success rate, two kamikaze pilots flying Zero aircraft caused extensive damage to the USS Bunker Hill aircraft carrier in May 1945. These attacks have been described by history as one of the more disturbing methods used during the war.

Towards the end of the war, Japan continued to modify the Zero with the Model 63 Zero released in May 1945 which featured a more powerful engine. The IJN also experimented with the Zero Model 64 built with the even more powerful Mitsubishi Kinsei engine and a modified fuel tank for longer-range attacks.

While the IJN ordered over six thousand of the Model 64s, mass production was never fully completed due to the Atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, followed by the end of the war.


The Zero remains an enduring image of the War in the Pacific and is sometimes associated with the dangerous conditions encountered by all forces fighting in the region.

A6M3 Zeros parked with a crew gathered around it.
Whilst excellent in terms of flight characteristics, the Zero did have some serious survivability issues.

The Zero was regarded as a significant opponent to Allied and American pilots at the time of America’s entrance into the Second World War. It played a key role in American pilots having to adapt to different air tactics in order to gain superiority and defeat devastating attacks by the Zero against Allied forces.

Although the Zero had an innovative design at the start of the war and remained in service until the end, it began to technologically lag behind the development of rival American fighter planes as the war continued and as a result, Japan’s air superiority was weakened.

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A number of Zero models survived the war but in varying conditions. Some Zero aircraft were restored for display but had to use surviving parts from other aircraft or new components built from scratch. One example of a flying Zero was used in the production of the 2001 film Pearl Harbor.

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  • Crew: 1
  • Length: 9.06 m (29 ft 9 in)
  • Wingspan: 12 m (39 ft 4 in)
  • Height: 3.05 m (10 ft 0 in)
  • Empty weight: 1,680 kg (3,704 lb)
  • Max takeoff weight: 2,796 kg (6,164 lb)
  • Powerplant: 1 × Nakajima NK1C Sakae-12 14-cylinder air-cooled radial piston engine, 700 kW (940 hp) for take-off
  • Maximum speed: 533 km/h (331 mph, 288 kn) at 4,550 m (14,930 ft)
  • Range: 1,870 km (1,160 mi, 1,010 nmi)
  • Service ceiling: 10,000 m (33,000 ft)
  • Rate of climb: 15.7 m/s (3,090 ft/min)