The Mitsubishi A6M Reisen

Allied codename 'Zeke' or 'Zero Fighter'

Japan
Japan

side view front view under view

The Mitsubishi A6M is probably the most famous warplane of the Japanese air forces of World War 2. The A6M is mostly known by it's nickname 'Zero', which comes from the official Japanese designation Navy Type 0 Carrier Fighter. The 0 (zero) stands for the year 2600 according Japanese numbering system, which is also reflected in the name Reisen which means Zero fighter.
During 1937 the Mitsubishi A5M had entered service only shortly, and proved to be superior to most contemporary fighters. The Naval Staff wanted a to stay ahead of developments, and issued another requirement, the Navy Experimental 12-Shi Carrier Fighter. This requirement was based on the operational experiences of the A5M in China, and called for a very maneuverable fighter with a very long range. The structure was of the light alloy type with fabric-covered control surfaces, and in layout the new fighter was a cantilever monoplane with an oval-section fuselage carrying a cantilever tail unit of the plain type with a single vertical surface and a low-set dihedraled one-piece wing that was tapered in thickness and chord, and carried on its trailing edge the standard combination of outboard ailerons and inboard split flaps. Notable features of this basic design were its compact size, light structure weight, aerodynamic cleanliness, and high-set cockpit, the latter covered by a completely framed canopy that provided excellent fields of vision in all directions. The airframe was completed by the tailwheel landing gear, which was fully retractable and included wide-track main units retracting inward, and the arrester hook. Initially the A6M was a little underpowered, and failed to meet the requirement for speed, but later aircraft were fitted with a more powerful one, and easily exceeded all requirements. A legend was born…

Versions:

Further pictures:

Mitsubishi A6M Reisen in full flight.
Mitsubishi A6M Reisen in full flight.

Mitsubishi A6M Reisen quarter front view with drop tank
Mitsubishi A6M Reisen quarter front view with drop tank

Mitsubishi A6M Reisen quarter rear view
Mitsubishi A6M Reisen quarter rear view

 

Technical data on the Mitsubishi A6M2 Model 21
Powerplant 1 × Nakajima NK1C Sakae 12 radial, rated at 950 hp (708.22 kW) Role during war
  • Air superiority Fighter
  • Fighter
  • (Ground) Attack Fighter
  • Fighter-bomber
  • Night-Fighter
  • Long range (attack) Fighter
Length 29 ft 8.75 inch Height 10 ft 0 inch
Empty weight 3704 lb Operational weight 5313 lb typical,
6164 lb max
Wing Span 39 ft 4.5 inch Wing Aspect ratio 6.42
Wing Area 241.54 sq ft Service ceiling 32810 ft
Maximum speed 332 mph at 14930 ft Cruising speed 207 mph at optimum altitude
Initial climb rate 4,517 ft per min.
Climb to 19,685 ft in 7 min 27 sec
Range 1625 miles typical,
1929 miles max
Fuel capacity internal 120 Imp gal (144 US gal) Fuel capacity external Up to 73 Imp gal (87 US gal) in one drop tank
Machine guns
  • 2 × 0.303 inch Type 97 fixed forward-firing in the upper nose, 500 rounds each
Cannons
  • 2 × 20 mm Type 99 fixed forward-firing in the wing leading edges, 60 rounds each
Bomb load Up to 265 lb, carried on two underwing hardpoints rated 132 lb each. General disposables load consisted of:
  • 2 × 132 lb bombs
Torpedoes/rockets -
Crew 1 Naval or ground based Ground and Naval
First flight (prototype) 1 April 1939 Operational Service July 1940 - 1945
Manufacturer Mitsubishi Jukogyo K.K. Number produced 10.449 total (excluding specials versions), 8.209 this version
Metric system
Length 9.06 m Height 3.05 m
Empty weight 1680 kg Operational weight 2410 kg typical,
2796 kg max
Wing Span 12 m Wing Aspect ratio 6.42
Wing Area 22.44 m² Service ceiling 10000 m
Maximum speed 534 km/h at 4551 m Cruising speed 333 km/h at optimum altitude
Initial climb rate 1.377 m per min.
Climb to 6.000 m in 7 min 27 sec
Range 2615 km typical,
3104 km max
Fuel capacity internal 545 liters Fuel capacity external Up to 330 liters in one drop tank
Machine guns
  • 2 × 7,7 mm Type 97 fixed forward-firing in the upper nose, 500 rounds each
Cannons
  • 2 × 20 mm Type 99 fixed forward-firing in the wing leading edges, 60 rounds each
Bomb load Up to 120 kg, carried on two underwing hardpoints rated 60 kg each. General disposables load consisted of:
  • 2 × 60 kg bombs
Torpedoes/rockets -

Technical data on the Mitsubishi A6M3 Model 32
Powerplant 1 × Nakajima NK1F Sakae 21 radial, rated at 1130 hp (842.4 kW) Role during war
  • Air superiority Fighter
  • Fighter
  • (Ground) Attack Fighter
  • Fighter-bomber
  • Night-Fighter
  • Long range (attack) Fighter
Length 29 ft 8.68 inch Height 11 ft 6.15 inch
Empty weight 3984 lb Operational weight 5906 lb typical
Wing Span 36 ft 1.06 inch Wing Aspect ratio unknown
Wing Area 231.746 sq ft Service ceiling 36250 ft
Maximum speed 338 mph at 19685 ft Cruising speed 230 mph at optimum altitude
Initial climb rate Climb to 19,685 ft in 7 min 19 sec Range 1477 miles max
Fuel capacity internal 120 Imp gal (144 US gal) Fuel capacity external Up to 73 Imp gal (87 US gal) in one drop tank
Machine guns
  • 2 × 0.303 inch Type 97 fixed forward-firing in the upper nose, 500 rounds each
Cannons
  • 2 × 20 mm Type 99 fixed forward-firing in the wing leading edges, 60 rounds each
Bomb load Up to 265 lb, carried on two underwing hardpoints rated 132 lb each. General disposables load consisted of:
  • 2 × 132 lb bombs
Torpedoes/rockets -
Crew 1 Naval or ground based Ground and Naval
First flight (prototype) 1 April 1939 Operational Service July 1940 - 1945
Manufacturer Mitsubishi Jukogyo K.K. Number produced 10.449 total (excluding specials versions), 903+ this version
Metric system
Length 9.06 m Height 3.51 m
Empty weight 1807 kg Operational weight 2679 kg typical
Wing Span 11 m Wing Aspect ratio unknown
Wing Area 21.53 m² Service ceiling 11049 m
Maximum speed 544 km/h at 6000 m Cruising speed 370 km/h at optimum altitude
Initial climb rate Climb to 6.000 m in 7 min 19 sec Range 2377 km max
Fuel capacity internal 545 liters Fuel capacity external Up to 330 liters in one drop tank
Machine guns
  • 2 × 7,7 mm Type 97 fixed forward-firing in the upper nose, 500 rounds each
Cannons
  • 2 × 20 mm Type 99 fixed forward-firing in the wing leading edges, 60 rounds each
Bomb load Up to 120 kg, carried on two underwing hardpoints rated 60 kg each. General disposables load consisted of:
  • 2 × 60 kg bombs
Torpedoes/rockets -

Technical data on the Mitsubishi A6M5 Model 52
Powerplant 1 × Nakajima NK1F Sakae 21 radial, rated at 1130 hp (842.4 kW) Role during war
  • Air superiority Fighter
  • Fighter
  • (Ground) Attack Fighter
  • Fighter-bomber
  • Night-Fighter
  • Long range (attack) Fighter
Length 29 ft 11.09 inch Height 11 ft 6.15 inch
Empty weight 4136 lb Operational weight 2733 lb typical
Wing Span 36 ft 1.06 inch Wing Aspect ratio unknown
Wing Area 229.27 sq ft Service ceiling 38520 ft
Maximum speed 351 mph at 19685 ft Cruising speed 230 mph at optimum altitude
Initial climb rate Climb to 19,685 ft in 7 min 1 sec Range 1194 miles max
Fuel capacity internal 120 Imp gal (144 US gal) Fuel capacity external Up to 73 Imp gal (87 US gal) in one drop tank
Machine guns
  • 2 × 0.303 inch Type 97 fixed forward-firing in the upper nose, 500 rounds each
Cannons
  • 2 × 20 mm Type 99 fixed forward-firing in the wing leading edges, 60 rounds each
  • 1 × 20 mm Type 99 fixed oblique-firing fuselage mounted (night fighter version)
Bomb load Up to 265 lb, carried on two underwing hardpoints rated 132 lb each. General disposables load consisted of:
  • 2 × 132 lb bombs
Torpedoes/rockets -
Crew 1 Naval or ground based Ground and Naval
First flight (prototype) 1 April 1939 Operational Service July 1940 - 1945
Manufacturer Mitsubishi Jukogyo K.K. Number produced 10.449 total (excluding specials versions), 847+ A6M5 versions
Metric system
Length 9.12 m Height 3.51 m
Empty weight 1876 kg Operational weight 1240 kg typical
Wing Span 11 m Wing Aspect ratio unknown
Wing Area 21.3 m² Service ceiling 11741 m
Maximum speed 565 km/h at 6000 m Cruising speed 370 km/h at optimum altitude
Initial climb rate Climb to 6.000 m in 7 min 1 sec Range 1922 km max
Fuel capacity internal 545 liters Fuel capacity external Up to 330 liters in one drop tank
Machine guns
  • 2 × 7,7 mm Type 97 fixed forward-firing in the upper nose, 500 rounds each
Cannons
  • 2 × 20 mm Type 99 fixed forward-firing in the wing leading edges, 60 rounds each
  • 1 × 20 mm Type 99 fixed oblique-firing fuselage mounted (night fighter version)
Bomb load Up to 120 kg, carried on two underwing hardpoints rated 60 kg each. General disposables load consisted of:
  • 2 × 60 kg bombs
Torpedoes/rockets -

Technical data on the Mitsubishi A6M8 Model 64
Powerplant 1 × Mitsubishi MK8P Kinsei 62 radial, rated at 1560 hp (1162.96 kW) Role during war
  • Air superiority Fighter
  • Fighter
  • (Ground) Attack Fighter
  • Fighter-bomber
  • Night-Fighter
  • Long range (attack) Fighter
Length 30 ft 1.06 inch Height 11 ft 11.22 inch
Empty weight 4740 lb Operational weight 6945 lb typical
Wing Span 36 ft 1.06 inch Wing Aspect ratio unknown
Wing Area 229.27 sq ft Service ceiling 37075 ft
Maximum speed 356 mph at 19685 ft Cruising speed unknown
Initial climb rate Climb to 19,685 ft in 6 min 50 sec Range unknown
Fuel capacity internal 120 Imp gal (144 US gal) Fuel capacity external Up to 77 Imp gal (93 US gal) in one drop tank
Machine guns
  • 2 × 0.51 inch Type 3 fixed forward-firing in the wing
Cannons
  • 2 × 20 mm Type 99 fixed forward-firing in the wing
Bomb load Up to 1,102 lb, carried on one underfuselage hardpoint rated 1,102 lb. General disposables load consisted of:
  • 1 × 1,102 lb bomb
Torpedoes/rockets
  • 8 × 22 lb air-to-air rockets underwing, or
  • 2 × 132 lb air-to-air rockets underwing
Crew 1 Naval or ground based Ground and Naval
First flight (prototype) 1 April 1939 Operational Service July 1940 - 1945
Manufacturer Mitsubishi Jukogyo K.K. Number produced 10.449 total (excluding specials versions, unknown this version
Metric system
Length 9.17 m Height 3.64 m
Empty weight 2150 kg Operational weight 3150 kg typical
Wing Span 11 m Wing Aspect ratio unknown
Wing Area 21.3 m² Service ceiling 11300 m
Maximum speed 573 km/h at 6000 m Cruising speed unknown
Initial climb rate Climb to 6.000 m in 6 min 50 sec Range unknown
Fuel capacity internal 545 liters Fuel capacity external Up to 350 liters in one drop tank
Machine guns
  • 2 × 13,2 mm inch Type 3 fixed forward-firing in the wing
Cannons
  • 2 × 20 mm Type 99 fixed forward-firing in the wing
Bomb load Up to 500 kg, carried on one underfuselage hardpoint rated 500 kg. General disposables load consisted of:
  • 1 × 500 kg bomb
Torpedoes/rockets
  • 8 × 10 kg air-to-air rockets underwing, or
  • 2 × 60 kg air-to-air rockets underwing

Here is a quick overview of all different versions, without the full technical specifications:

Different versions of the Mitsubishi A6M  Reisen
Mitsubishi A6M1 Reisen The first A6M1 prototype was completed in March 1939 and made its maiden flight on the first day of the following month powered by 1 × Mitsubishi MK2 Suisei 13 radial piston engine installed in a very neat low-drag cowling, rated at 780 hp (582 kW) for take-off and 875 hp (652 kW) at 11,810 ft (3.600 m), and driving a two-blade metal propeller of the variable-pitch type that was soon replaced by a three-blade metal propeller of the constant-speed type. The flight tests revealed that the A6M1 possessed exceptional agility and beautiful handling characteristics, and met or exceeded all the requirement parameters except that of speed. This deficiency was cured in the second and third prototypes by the adoption of a different engine, the Nakajima NK1C Sakae 12 radial unit rated at 940 hp (701 kW) for take-off and 950 hp (708 kW) at 13,780 ft (4.200 m). The second prototype began its flight trials in December 1939, and proved to be everything for which the Imperial Japanese navy air force had hoped.
Number built: 3+
Mitsubishi A6M2 Reisen Even before the second and third prototype were delivered, a pre-production batch of 15 aircraft was ordered. The pre-production aircraft were tested operationally in China, and were quickly joined by many more production aircraft. During the whole production proces a number of improvements were incorporated :
  • Reinforced rear spar of the wing (from the 22nd aircraft onward)
  • Manually folding wing tips (from the 65th aircraft onward)
  • Modified aileron tab (from the 192nd aircraft onward)
The manually folding wingtips caused the official designtaion to be changed to Navy Type 0 Carrier Fighter Model 21
Number built: 8.209
Mitsubishi A6M3 Reisen Soon after the introduction of the A6M2 Mitsubishi and the Imperial Japanese Navy were looking to improve the fighter. This version was powered by 1 × Nakajima NK1F Sakae 21 radial, rated at 1,130 hp (843 kW). This engine had a two-speed supercharger in stead of the single-speed one on the Sakae 12. Because the new engine installation required the fire wall to be moved 8 inch (200 mm) to the rear the capacity of the fuel tank directly situated behind the engine had to be reduced from 21.6 to 13.2 Imp gal (25.9 to 15.85 US gal; 98 to 60 liters). The shape of the cowling was also altered by the incorporation of a supercharger air inlet in its upper lip.
The increase of engine power also meant a better performance. However, the performance increase was below expectations. At teh suggestion of service pilots the folding wingtips were omitted, which meant that the wings had a smaller span and area, a decrease of 3 ft 3.4 inch (1 m) and 9.80 sq ft (0,91 m²) respectively.
Number built: 903+
Mitsubishi A6M3a Reisen This subversion of the A6M3 Reisen was identical to the A6M3, but was armed with 2 × 20 mm Type 99 Model 2 Mk 3 cannon, which had longer barrels.
Number built: unknown out of 903+
Mitsubishi A6M5 Reisen The A6M3 could handle itself very well at low altitudes, but was outclassed at medium and high altitudes. The logical development was to install an engine which had a turbocharger for improved high altitude performance. Two A6M2 fighters were fitted with experimental turbocharged Sakae engines, designated A6M4. However, there were many problems with this engine, and no orders were placed for this version.
It was intended that the A6M should be replaced by the Mitsubishi A7M Reppu, but this type was still under development and it was therefore necessary to keep the A6M in production. The only option left to the Japanese aircraft designers was an improvement on the A6M to try and keep up with the Allied technical advances. One of the A6M3’s limitations was the insufficient strength of its wing, which allowed Allied fighters to dive to safety as the A6M3 pilot pulled out of his dive lest the wing break away. This factor was addressed in the A6M5 by the adoption of heavier-gauge skinning on a wing revised with rounded tips on a span of 36 ft 1 in (11,00 m) with an aspect ratio of 5,68 and an area of 229.27 sq ft (21,30 m²). This wing was combined with the otherwise standard airframe, armament and fuel tankage of the A6M3, and powered by a Sakae 21 radial engine modified with individual ejector exhaust stubs for greater thrust augmentation. This meant that although the A6M5 was heavier than the A6M3, it was somewhat faster in level flight and could also be dived to an indicated speed of 410 mph (660 km/h) without fear of a structural failure in the wings.
Number built: 847+
Mitsubishi A6M5a Reisen This subversion had still heavier-gauge wing skinning for an indicated speed of 460 mph (740 km/h) in the dive, and another change was the replacement of the 2 × 20 mm Type 99 Model 2 Mk 3 cannon, each fed with ammunition from a 100-round drum, by 2 × 20 mm Type 99 Model 2 Mk 4 belt-fed from magazines each holding 125 rounds.
Number built: unknown out of 847+
Mitsubishi A6M5b Reisen The protection of the A6M was still too weak, and this was improved in a joint program by Mitsubishi and the Dai-Ichi Kaigun Kokusho (First Naval Air Arsenal). This resulted in the A6M5b that was accepted for service as the Navy Type 0 Carrier Fighter Model 52B with armor glass behind the standard windscreen and automatic fire extinguishers for the fuel tanks. The opportunity was also taken to provide a slightly heavier armament by replacing one of the 0.303 in (7,7 mm) Type 97 machine guns in the upper part of the forward fuselage by a 0.52 in (13,2 mm) Type 3 machine gun.
Number built: unknown out of 847+
Mitsubishi A6M5c Reisen Development of the type was continuing apace as both its intended replacements, the Mitsubishi J2M Raiden land-based fighter and A7M Reppu carrierborne fighter, were not yet ready for production. Both the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Force and Mitsubishi now admitted to complete obsolescence of the A6M, but decided that an obsolete fighter was better than now fighter at all. Thus development of the A6M continued under the different engineering leadership of Eitaro Sano. In the aftermath of the Battle of the Philippine Sea, Mitsubishi received from the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Force an urgent requirement for an A6M variant with an additional 2 × 0.52 in (13,2 mm) Type 3 machine guns in the wing roots to boost the armament, underwing racks for air-to-air rockets, armor plate behind the pilot for improved protection, and a 30.8 Imp gal (37 US gal; 140 liter) self-sealing fuel tank behind the cockpit for longer range without increased fire risk.
Sano quickly assessed the changes as feasible, but requested permission to change the powerplant to the more powerful Mitsubishi Kinsei radial engine so that performance would not be degraded by the inevitable weight increases of the additional armament, protection and fuel. The Imperial Japanese Navy Air Force saw the logic of Sano’s request, but could brook no delay in this urgent program and therefore demanded the retention of the Sakae radial engine, initially in the form of the current Sakae 21 until the more powerful Sakae 31, fitted with a methanol/water power-boost system, became available.
The prototype was a converted A6M5 that made its initial flight in September 1944. Flight trials revealed the need for thicker-gauge wing skinning in the region of the gun bays, and with this change the type was placed in production, of which 93 were delivered.
Number built: 93 out of 847+
Mitsubishi A6M5d-S Reisen The last variant of the A6M5 series was the A6M5d-S, a designation applied to conversions from A6M5 standard for the night-fighter role with a 20 mm cannon installed in the fuselage to the rear of the cockpit. This weapon was arranged to fire obliquely upward and forward so that the Japanese fighter pilot could reach a point below and behind the target bomber and fire into its belly, similar to the German Shräge Musik installations.
Number built: unknown out of 847+
Mitsubishi A6M6c Reisen The availability of the Sakae 31 engine finally allowed the A6M5c to be turned into the A6M6c that was built by Nakajima with self-sealing fuel tanks in the wings The availability of the methanol/water power-boost system opened the possibility of greater level speeds, but this advantage was seldom attainable in service because of teething problems with the Sakae 31 engine and the greater drag of an airframe that was generally finished to lower standards than that of earlier A6M models as a result of the indifferent industrial work force that was now used even in Japanese aircraft factories.
Number built: unknown
Mitsubishi A6M7 Reisen The A6M7 was a fighter-bomber version. Thie official design of the type was preceded by service pilots, which had replaced the attachments for the ventrral drop tank with attachments to carry 1 × 551 lb (250 kg) bomb. Since by now there were no Aircraft carriers left, the Navy Air Force decided it would be wise to be able to use the A6M as a fighter-bomber as well. This type had limited dive-bombing capabilities, a strengthened tail unit, and provision for 2 × 77 Imp gal (92.5 US gal; 350 liter) drop tanks outboard of the wing-mounted 0.52 in (13,2 mm) machine guns
The performance of the A6M5c and A6M6c was highly disappointing to the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Force, which was finally forced to agree with Sano’s demand for the use of the Kinsei radial engine, which became inevitable after Nakajima ceased production of the Sakae to concentrate on construction of its considerably more potent Homare radial piston engine. It was in November 1944 that Mitsubishi finally received authorization to use the Kinsei engine, and the first of two Kinsei-powered prototypes was completed in March 1945 as a development of the A6M7, powered with 1 × MK8P Kinsei 62 engine, rated at 1,560 hp (1.163 kW) for take-off and 1,180 hp (880 kW) at 19,030 ft (5.800 m). The new engine had a greater diameter than the Sakae it replaced, and this involved considerable redesign of the forward fuselage and the elimination of the two 0.303 in (7,7 mm) machine guns mounted there. Other changes were an improved fuel tank fire-extinguishing system and a revised oil-cooling system, and in this form the A6M8 was accepted for service as the Navy Type 0 Carrier Fighter Model 64, but none of the 6,300 such aircraft that had been ordered was delivered before the end of World War II.
Number built: unknown
Navy Type 0 Carrier Fighter Model 11 Official Imperial Japanese Navy designation for the A6M2
Navy Type 0 Carrier Fighter Model 21 Official Imperial Japanese Navy designation for the A6M2 with manually folding wingtips.
Navy Type 0 Carrier Fighter Model 32 Official Imperial Japanese Navy designation for the A6M3.
Navy Type 0 Carrier Fighter Model 22 Official Imperial Japanese Navy designation for the A6M3. Folding wingtips and additional fuel tanks in the outboard wing.
Navy Type 0 Carrier Fighter Model 22A Official Imperial Japanese Navy designation for the A6M3a with the longer-barreled cannon.
Navy Type 0 Carrier Fighter Model 52 Official Imperial Japanese Navy designation for the A6M5.
Navy Type 0 Carrier Fighter Model 52A Official Imperial Japanese Navy designation for the A6M5a.
Navy Type 0 Carrier Fighter Model 52B Official Imperial Japanese Navy designation for the A6M5b.
Navy Type 0 Carrier Fighter Model 52C Official Imperial Japanese Navy designation for the A6M5c.
Navy Type 0 Carrier Fighter Model 53C Official Imperial Japanese Navy designation for the A6M6c.
Navy Type 0 Carrier Fighter Model 63 Official Imperial Japanese Navy designation for the A6M7.
Allied Code names It was during 1942 that the Allies, lacking realistic intelligence information about Japanese aircraft or even their real designations, started to use reporting names for the Japanese aircraft they encountered. There was a lack of communication between various theaters, however, and this meant that the A6M series initially received a number of different reporting names. Thus the A6M was originally the:
  • Ray (A6M2)
  • Ben (A6M2)
  • Zeke (was later standardized)(A6M2)
  • Hap (A6M3 with square wingtips)
  • Hamp: 'Hap' was soon changed to ‘Hamp’ in an effort to avoid the displeasure of General H.H. ‘Hap’ Arnold, commanding general of the US Army Air Forces) until it was appreciated that the type was an A6M variant and then became the ‘Zeke 32'
  • Zeke 32 (A6M3 with square wingtips)
  • Zero (A6M in general)

Remarks:

The Zero was the the most-built Japanese warplane of World War 2. The number reflects the trust that was placed in the type by the Naval Staff of Japan. Indeed, especially in the beginning the Zero showed an incredible superiority over contemporary enemy aircraft. However, in a later stage of the War the failure to produce a goo dreplacement meant that the Zero was kept in front-line service even after it was rendered obsolescent by the increasingly powerful Allied aircraft.
The first theatre in which the Zero was used operationally was in China during the Second Sino-Japanese conflict. The first victory of the Zero was claimed on 13 September 1940, and later the first unit equipped with Zero's (12th Rengo Kokutai) had claimed 99 Chinese aircraft for the loss of only 2 of their own (due to ground fire).
By the time that the attack on Pearl Harbour attack was launched, the A6M2 was the most important fighter of the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Force, and comprised 328 of the 521 first-line fighters. Between the fights in China and the attack on Pearl the Japanese had learned how to expoit the aircraft best, and how to fly the aircraft the most economical with it's fuel. This resulted in almost unprecedented ranges for a single-engine fighter.
The failure to destroy the aircraft carriers of the US Navy during the attack on Pearl Harbour was a major setback for the Japanese Navy. Within months the American forces were able to launch a counter attack. During a number of major battles the Allied forces had to wrest air superiority back from the Japanese forces. The main American carrier fighter was the Grumman F4F Wildcat, which had less range, lighter armament, and less maneuverability. The Wildcat however had armor protection for pilot and fuel, and the radioes worked pretty well whereas the Japanese had almost no armor protection, and radios that suffered a lot of disturbance and noise from the engine. This meant that the American Navy pilots could cooperate using their radioes, whereas the Japanese pilots were unable to do so. In a 1 vs 1 dogfight the Wildcat was doomed, but with help of the radio any pilot in trouble could call for help, and decide on tactics and maneuvers to get the attacker.
The A6M3 was first deployed to land bases in the area of New Guinea and the Solomon Islands during the spring of 1942, and was then allocated for service on the aircraft carrier force of the Imperial Japanese navy in time for the decisive Battles of the Coral Sea and of Midway. The Battle of the Coral Sea (May 1942) was a tactical victory for Japan that nevertheless had adverse operational results, while the Battle of Midway (June 1942) was one of history’s most decisive battles of all time: the Imperial Japanese navy lost four aircraft carriers while suffering a tactical, operational and strategic defeat that turned the tide of the Pacific War against it. What was more alarming still for the proponents of the A6M series in general and of the A6M3 in particular was the fact that the Americans had clearly learned from their earlier losses against this nimble and well armed fighter, and had devised slash-and-run tactics that allowed their heavier and faster fighters to make high-speed diving attacks in the course of which their fighters made single firing passes before breaking away to re-form (also called Boom and Zoom, a tactic extensively used by German pilots).
The self-sealing fuel tanks and increased armor protection of the American fighters made it all the more difficult for the Japanese pilots to score decisive hits, while the fire of the American fighters’ 4 or 6 ×' 0.5 in (12,7 mm) Browning machine guns ripped the light structure of the Japanese fighters apart, which also lacked fuel tank and pilot protection. Another factor that was now becoming increasingly important in the air war over the Pacific was the better tactical skills of the American pilots: survivors of the earlier battles had been used to create improved tactics that were eagerly received in American training schools. At the same time, the Imperial Japanese navy air force’s pool of highly skilled pilots, most of whom had learned their trade in the early stages of the 2nd Sino-Japanese War, had been picked off one by one in earlier fighting, and then more than decimated in the Battle of Midway. As a result, the Imperial Japanese navy had lost not only four of its finest aircraft carriers, but also the top of its fighter pilots who had been retained on operations instead of being used as instructors to pass their skills to a new generation of pilots who were being produced, moreover, at a rate that could not match demand (this was one of the major problems of the German Luftwaffe as well). The net effect was a smaller Imperial Japanese navy air force with less skilled pilots and a primary fighter that was now getting obsolescent at a time when the enemy was introducing more and better aircraft carriers equipped with more and better warplanes operated by more and better aircrews.
The losses at sea were bad enough in themselves, but the Imperial Japanese navy found itself further stretched as it tried to support land operations in the south-eastern theater. In this area American forces had landed in Guadalcanal Island in the eastern Solomons during August 1942, and in the process started a fierce, bitter battle of attrition that the Japanese were bound to lose in the end. The Japanese did not give in, however, and kept feeding men and materials into the Guadalcanal battlefield. Required to provide cover of the land operation and to escort the naval forces ferrying men and equipment to Guadalcanal, the Imperial Japanese navy air force was faced with the fact that it lacked airfields closer than 635 miles (1.020 km) to the battlefield. The A6M series had always been notable for its excellent range, but this put the battlefield at the limit of the A6M2’s range, and this meant that endurance over the battlefield was distinctly limited and that a wounded pilot or damaged fighter faced a long flight home over long stretches of water and uninhabited or enemy-occupied islands. Losses to the A6M2 force were therefore high in terms of aircraft and pilots.
This problem was even more acute for the A6M3, whose internal fuel capacity had been reduced by the change to the Sakae 21 radial engine, whose fuel consumption was higher than that of the earlier Sakae 12. Many A6M3 fighters were lost as they ran out of fuel on the return leg of a sortie to the eastern Solomons, and at the urgent request of operational units Mitsubishi effected a short-term solution.
This solutions involved the installation of two 9.9 Imp gal (11.9 US gal, 45 liter) tanks in the wing outboard of the cannon bays and, in an effort to keep the wing loading from rising as a result, the restoration of the folding wing tips.The droptanks increased the ranges to original distances, but the newest Allied fighters had a better performance.
During the Fall of 1943 the new A6M5 entered service. The advent of the A6M5 coincided approximately with the arrival of the Grumman F6F Hellcat, and although the two types were roughly equal in basic performance, the slightly greater agility of the Japanese fighter was more than offset by the sturdier structure, better protection and more effective firepower of the Allied fighter, which was flown by better trained pilots and was also at the beginning of its development life with considerably more capability to be extracted from it as the situation demanded.
Even though the A6M5b was a lot better protected and could dive better than it's predecessors, the obsolesense was clearly shown when it entered service. During the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot the Japanese Navy Air Force was almost annihilated. After this battle, more and more A6M's were expended in Kamikaze attacks, where the fighter carried 1 × 551 lb (250 kg) bomb in stead of a ventral drop tank. The first of these attacks with the A6M was on 25 October 1944, when five A6M's of the Shikishima unit formed out of volunteers of the 201st Kokutai sattacked and sank the escort carrier St Lo, and damaged the carriers Kalinin Bay, Kitkun Bay and White Plains.

Strengths:

Weaknesses:

 

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© by Frans Bonné, 2000
Last revision: 5/20/01