Mitsubishi Zero

Missing image
Mitsubishi A6M2 "Zero" Model 21 (cowling removed)

The Mitsubishi A6M was a light-weight carrier-based fighter aircraft employed by the Imperial Japanese Navy from 1940 to 1945.

While the official Allied code name was Zeke (or Hamp for the A6M3 variant), it is universally known as Zero from its Japanese Navy designation, Type 0 Carrier Fighter (零式艦上戦闘機), taken from the Imperial year 2600 (1940).

A combination of excellent manuverability and very long range made it one of the best fighters of its era and gained it a legendary reputation, but design weaknesses and lack of more powerful engines eventually doomed it.



The Mitsubishi A5M was just starting to enter service in early 1937 when the IJN started looking for its eventual replacement. In May they issued specification 12-Shi for a new aircraft carrier-based fighter, sending it to Nakajima and Mitsubishi. Both started preliminary design work while they awaited more definitive requirements to be handed over in a few months.

Based on the experiences of the A5M in China, the Navy sent out updated requirements in October. The new requirements called for a speed of 500 km/h at 4000 m, and a climb to 3000 m in 3.5 min. They needed an endurance of 2 hours at normal power, or 6 to 8 hours at economical cruising speed (both with drop tanks). Armament was to consist of two 20 mm cannons and two 7.7 mm machine guns, and two 30 kg or 60 kg bombs. A complete radio set was to be mounted in all planes, along with a radio direction finder for long-range navigation. Finally the maneuverability was to be at least equal to A5M, while the wing span had to be less than 12 m to fit on the carriers.

Nakajima's team thought the new requirements were ridiculous and pulled out of the competition in January. Mitsubishi's chief designer, Jiro Horikoshi, felt that the requirements could be met, but only if the aircraft could be made as light as possible. Every weight saving method was used, and the designers made extensive use of the new duralumin alloy. With its low-wing cantilever monoplane layout, retractable wide-set landing gear and enclosed cockpit, the design was not only much more modern than any the Navy had used in the past, it was one of the most modern in the world.

At the time of Pearl Harbor there were only 420 Zeros active in the Pacific. The carrier-borne Model 21 was the type encountered by the Americans, often much further from its carriers than expected, with a mission range of over 1600 statute miles (2,600 km). They were superior in many aspects of performance to all Allied fighters in the Pacific in 1941 and quickly gained a great reputation. However, it failed to achieve complete superiority due to the development of innovative tactics by the Allies that utilized the advantages of formation flying and systematc mutual support.

When the powerful Grumman Hellcat, Vought F4U and Lockheed P-38 appeared on the PTO, the A6M with its low-powered engine lost its competitiveness, although in competent hands it could still be deadly at the end of the war. Because of the scarcity of high-powered aviation engines and some problems with planned successor models, the Zero remained in production until the end, with over 11,000 of all types produced.

Designed for attack, the Zero gave precedence to manoeuvrability and fire-power at the expense of protection—most had no self-sealing tanks or armour plate—thus many Zeros were lost too easily in combat.

Due to the high agility of the Zero, the Allied pilots found that the correct combat tactic against Zeros was to remain out of range and fight on the dive and climb. By using speed and resisting the deadly error of trying to out-turn the Zero, eventually cannon could be brought to bear and a single burst of fire was usually enough. Another important maneuver was called the "Thach Weave", named for the man that invented it, then-LtCdr John S. "Jimmy" Thach. It required two planes, a leader and his wingman, to fly about 200 feet apart. When a Zero would latch onto the tail of one of the fighters, the two planes would turn toward each other. If the Zero followed its original target through the turn, it would come into a position to be fired on by his target's wingman. This tactic was used with spectacular results at the Battle of the Coral Sea and at the Battle of Midway, and helped make up for the inferiority of the US planes until new aircraft types were brought into service.

When the US had learned the "secret" of the Zero, new aircraft such as the Grumman Hellcat and Vought Corsair were introduced, planes that outperformed the Zero in every way but in maneuverability. The result was that the US Navy's 1:1 kill ratio suddenly jumped to better than 10:1.


General characteristics (A6M2 Model 21)

  • Wing span : 39 ft (12 m)
  • Length : 29 ft 9 in (9 m)
  • Engine : 925 hp (690 kW)
  • Max weight : 5,300 lb (2,400 kg)
  • Armament : 2 x 7.7 mm MG, 2 x 20 mm cannon; 2 x 66 lb (30 kg) or 1 x 132 lb (60 kg) bombs; 2 fixed 250 kg bombs for kamikaze


  • Max Speed : 336 statute mi/h at 20,000 ft (540 km/h at 6,000 m)
  • Ceiling : 10,000 m (32,800 ft)
Related content
Related Development

Nakajima A6M2-N

Similar Aircraft

Grumman Wildcat

Designation Series

A3N - A4N - A5M - A6M - A7M

Related Lists

List of military aircraft of Japan - List of fighter aircraft

Lists of Aircraft | Aircraft manufacturers | Aircraft engines | Aircraft engine manufacturers

Airports | Airlines | Air forces | Aircraft weapons | Missiles | Timeline of aviation

de:Mitsubishi A6M fr:Mitsubishi A6M ja:零式艦上戦闘機 pl:Mitsubishi Zero


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