Issue Date: October 04, 2004
Damn the torpedoes!
Crash recovery helps Navy ‘Zero’ in on air supremacy
By Robert F. Dorr
Special to the Times
At the start of World War II, the Allies were stunned by the performance and lethality of the Japanese Zero fighter.
The Zero, properly called the Mitsubishi A6M, was one of the world’s most formidable combat aircraft at the time Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.
In the book “Plane Speaking,” author Bill Gunston wrote that Americans imbued the Zero with “almost magical powers.” U.S. naval aviators discovered to their shock that the Zero could outfight such first-line U.S. fighters as the Navy’s F2A Buffalo and F4F Wildcat.
A team headed by Jiro Horikoshi created the Zero. Horikoshi was famous in Japan, although, in other countries, the public rarely knows the names of aircraft designers.
The Zero was a low-wing fighter with cannons, powered by a Nakajima radial engine. No single feature of the Zero was extraordinary, but the combination of lightweight construction, power and armament produced a maneuverable and deadly fighter.
When the A6M1 prototype made its initial flight in April 1939, the plane was named “Reisen,” short for “Rei Sentoki” — zero fighter, for the last two digits of the Japanese year 2600.
Although Americans often used the word “Zero” loosely to refer to all Japanese planes, real Zeros operated only with the Japanese navy. Japanese factories built 10,499. The Japanese army used different fighters.
The Navy was able to learn more about the Japanese fighter when a crashed but intact Zero was found in the Aleutian Islands in June 1942.
This war prize is sometimes called the Akutan Zero after the island where it was retrieved.
Unaware that Americans in China had gained access to another Zero at least a year earlier, Navy pilots test-flew the Akutan Zero and devised methods to defeat it in combat.
Few aircraft were designed and put into combat as quickly as the U.S. antidote to the Zero, the iron-tough F6F Hellcat — 12,272 of which were produced by Grumman in just 30 months.
When the Hellcat reached American carriers in the Pacific, the Zero met its match. Hellcats shot down 6,000 Japanese airplanes and toted up a 6-1 kill ratio over the Zero. The Zero quickly became obsolescent.
After the June 15, 1944, Allied invasion of Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands, U.S. troops captured no fewer than seven Zeros. By then, the intelligence value of the Zero had been reduced.
“The Hellcat came on the scene by then and made mincemeat of the Japanese Zero force,” said Barrett Tillman, author of several books about Navy fighters.
The seizure and testing of the Akutan Zero is often described as an intelligence coup, like the U.S. code-breaking efforts that tapped into Japanese communications. In the book “Japanese Aircraft of the Pacific War,” Rene Francillon wrote that the Akutan Zero was “an invaluable prize for Allied technical intelligence.”
Gunston wrote that the significance of the Zero acquired in China was never understood in Washington.
The author quoted a veteran who remembered, “The U.S. State Department found our capture embarrassing and hushed up everything to avoid diplomatic repercussions.”
The US had a US Army Air Corp unit that specialized in captured aircraft, the Zero was not the only one they put in the air to test.
what was it about the hellcat design that made it a better plane?
It was faster, it could dive better, it was much, much better armored (built like a tank), it was heavily armed.
And the Hellcats pilots adopted tactics that played to it strengths. For instance the kenw not to get into a turning match with a Zero.
The most valuable commodity when it comes to a carrier war is well trained carrier pilots.
The Hellcat was rugged (armored, self-sealing tanks), packed a punch (6 x .50cal BMGs), had a great powerplant (P&W R2800), and was easier to bring aboard the carrier (as compared to the Corsair) due to its view over the nose and wide-stanced landing gear. The Hellcat gave novice aviators the chance to survive a mistake against enemy pilots or a poor approach onto a carrier. The Zero was not as forgiving. Given the distances in the Pacific, a single .50cal hit on a Zero's fuel tank meant that there was a very good chance that the Zero would blow up or it would lose enough fuel to deny it the range to return to its carrier/land base and almost certain death for its pilot in the Pacific Ocean.
Japanese naval aviators were extremely well trained compared to their 1941 US Navy/USMC counterparts, however, unlike the US which rotated experienced pilots back to the States for training and maintained high standards for Naval & Marine aviators, the Japanese pilots flew in combat until they died. Compounding things further is the fact that the new pilots who replaced those lost in combat didn't receive anything close to the quality of training that their pre-1941 counterparts did.