Japan's World War II Zero Fighter Terrified the Allies

May 8, 2019 Topic: Security Region: East Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Imperial JapanWorld War IIPearl HarborWarZero Fighter

Japan's World War II Zero Fighter Terrified the Allies

A captured plane provided some key insights.

Rising Sun Replaced With U.S. Navy Insignia in San Diego

Koga’s Zero was carefully removed from the island and packed for shipping to the Repair & Assembly Department at the Naval Air Station North Island, San Diego, where it arrived in August 1942. There it was carefully disassembled and studied in an old blimp hangar. The damaged portions were repaired, and the plane restored with the markings of the U.S. Navy in place of the Rising Sun.

Major repairs were needed for the tail, canopy, and nose, and the broken Sumitomo-made propeller was replaced with an American-made one from Hamilton Standard, which was virtually identical. This repair work, without any ability to consult technical data or blueprints, was difficult and time-consuming. It was completed by early October, about the same time that Zero 3372 was taking to the air in China. A series of tests was begun in San Diego, the first formal evaluation of a Zero under controlled conditions, and later completed at Wright Field in Ohio. The legendary fighter began to give up some of its most prized secrets.

Restored Zero Gives America’s Best a Run For Their Money

What the Americans found astonished them. The Zero was flight-tested against the most modern aircraft then in the U.S. inventory, namely the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, Bell P-39 Airacobra, North American P-51 Mustang, P-40 Warhawk, Grumman F4F Wildcat, and Chance Vought F4U Corsair. The Zero bested them all in range and maneuverability, but also betrayed its weaknesses. Lacking in armor protection or self-sealing fuel tanks, the Zero was discovered to be a literal flying lighter, likely to erupt in flames from the slightest burst of gunfire. It had a limited low speed when put into a dive, a slow rate of roll, and insufficient high-altitude performance. While a fragile aircraft, it was still a deadly menace in the hands of an experienced pilot, and since it surpassed every U.S. aircraft then flying, new dogfighting tactics were devised to give Allied pilots locked in a life-and-death struggle in the Pacific a fighting chance.

Lieutenant Commander John S. Sati was the officer charged with the task of devising tactics to counter the dreaded Zero and had flown the plane in its first test flight at the San Diego Naval Air Station. The best tactic seemed to involve taking a position above the Zero and making a quick dive to gain airspeed and get in the first blow.

Turning the Tide Against Japanese Air Superiority

 

Technical data gleaned from the Zero also went into the design and evolution of the Navy’s new Grumman F6F Hellcat, then just beginning to enter service. With massive armor, a tough internal structure, and heavy machine-gun armament, the Hellcat was the Navy’s answer to the Zero. While not quite as elegant or agile as the Mitsubishi design, its rugged performance enabled it to absorb tremendous punishment while delivering the same to the lightweight Japanese fighter. The days when the Japanese ruled the skies over the Pacific were over.

In a final test of structural strength at Wright Field, Koga’s captured Zero was reduced to scrap in December 1942, but it had served its American captors well. The results of the tests made with the Army’s Zero 3372 and the Navy’s Aleutian Zero were found to be in agreement, and the findings were disseminated to aircraft designers and fighter pilots alike.

Japanese Design Changes Too Little, Too Late

As the war progressed the Japanese continued to refine and further develop the Zero. Improvements included self-sealing fuel tanks (somewhat belatedly), improved handling and control surfaces, and engines with greater horsepower for an increased rate of climb and speed, but the days of the plane’s supremacy had passed.

In the hands of a skilled pilot the Zero was still a worthy adversary, but Japan’s last advantage also ebbed away as the losses of skilled, battle-tested pilots increased at an ever alarming rate with fewer and fewer replacements available. Training programs were drastically cut, younger and less capable pilots were hurriedly pressed into service, and it was not uncommon during the last year of the war for a new Zero pilot to be barely able to take off and land the aircraft without any additional combat training. The inevitable kamikaze attacks followed, with predictable results.

The zenith of the Zero’s career had passed in the latter half of 1942. An inside look at an opponent’s most advanced technology does not often happen in the course of a war, in spite of the best intelligence available. To this end, the Zero aircraft lost by Inoue and Koga helped immeasurably to shorten the war, ironically saving countless lives on both sides.

This article originally appeared on the Warfare History Network.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.