Mitsubishi A6M Zero
A light and nimble fighter, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero was the first carrier based fighter capable of besting its land based opponents, and was Japan’s main fighter of WWII. The Zero’s design sacrificed protection for speed, maneuverability, and long range, on the theory that superior speed and maneuverability were protections in their own right, with long range an added bonus. The A6M came as a shock to Allied pilots when first encountered, because it could outmaneuver every airplane it faced at the time.
A better dogfighter than anything the Allies had at the start of the Pacific War, the Zero’s superior performance, especially in the hands of Japan’s elite naval aviators, exceeded anything the Allies had hitherto expected from the Japanese. In the war’s early days, Japanese naval aviators flying Zeroes achieved a 12:1 kill ratio.
To counter the Zero’s advantages, American pilots adopted team work tactics such as the “Thach Weave” which required pilot pairs to work in tandem, or the “Boom and Zoom”, in which American pilots engaged the Zero only in diving attacks, as the acceleration of their heavier planes in a dive allowed them to flee if the diving attack failed.
While holding considerable advantages in maneuverability and speed, the Zero’s lack of protection for either the pilot or the fuel tanks proved a steadily mounting disadvantage as the war progressed, since the heavier and more rugged American fighters could absorb considerable punishment from Zeroes, while a single machine gun burst from the American plane could disintegrate a Zero.
By 1943, attrition had thinned the ranks of Japan’s elite aviators, and the Japanese Navy’s training pipeline could not produce enough replacements of similar caliber. As a result, there were fewer and fewer Japanese pilots capable of extracting the most out of the Zero’s advantages while minimizing its disadvantages. Which was bad news for the Japanese, as the quality of American aviators was increasing, due to wartime experience as well as an extensive training program that produced capable aviators at a rate Japan could not match. That was exacerbated by the introduction of new American fighters, such as the F4U Corsair and the F6F Hellcat, that were a significant improvement over their predecessors, and proved more than a match for the Zero, with greater firepower, armor, speed, and similar maneuverability.
By 1944 the Zero was obsolescent and rapidly becoming obsolete, but it remained in front line service because the Japanese faced production difficulties in fielding a replacement. From its heyday at war’s beginning when it ruled the skies of the Pacific while flown by elite pilots, A6Ms were reduced by war’s end to flying kamikaze missions under the controls of barely trained novices.