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Mitsubishi A6M2 – Scared the Americans

The Mitsubishi A6M2 Reisen contributed significantly to the triumph of the Imperial Naval Air Force, which completely outclassed its opponents in the opening six months of combat. Under the designation „Zero“, the A6M2s became a true legend. The development was initiated on the basis of requirements issued by the Imperial Navy Air Bureau in 1937.

The prototype A6M1 flew on April 1, 1939. It represented the first Japanese naval fighter with an enclosed cabin and retractable landing gear. Three prototypes were followed by 16 preproduction A6M2 machines. After that, serial production began. In the Imperial Naval Air Force, the A6M2 was designated as Deck Fighter 0, or Rei-Shiki Kanjo Sentóki (Deck Fighter 0) in Japanese, or by the abbreviation Reisen (while the name of the deck fighter, Kanjo Sentóki, was sometimes shortened to Kansen).

Samurai sword
Its official American codename was Zeke. The Micubishi A6M2 was a modern and powerful type, structurally honed as a samurai sword to suit the Japanese naval aviation imagination. The fighter combined a maximally lightweight all-metal airframe with an NK1C Sakae 12 engine (not very powerful by Western standards at 709 kW) into a remarkable unit.

The structural strength and possible protection of the pilot by armour were deliberately sacrificed for offensive capabilities – especially agility, maneuverability, quality gunnery and at the same time extremely long range, necessary for successful offensive warfare in the wide Pacific. The initial part of the Reisen deployment during the Pacific War was accompanied by great successes.

In addition to the quality of the design, the high standard of the Imperial pilots was a decisive contributor. However, the success of the A6M began to decline in the second half of 1942, after the shock of their exceptional combat qualities wore off on the Allied side. Once the A6Ms encountered tactically advanced opponents (and did not have to operate a performance superior type), their losses began to mount. The key was to never attempt to shoot down a Zero in maneuver combat, and instead choose tactics of rapid attacks and evasions using dive flight.

Micubishi A6M2
Range: 12 m
Length: 9.06 m
Take-off weight: 2 410 kg
Max. speed: 533 km/h
Range: 10 000 m
Range: 3 105 km
Powerplant: 1× 709 kW Nakajima NK1C Sakae 12 radial
Armament: 2× 20mm cannon, 2× 7.7mm machine gun
Crew: 1 man
Users: Japan

As the quality of the Japanese fighters declined and the skill of their rivals (and the performance of their aircraft) increased, the shortcomings of the Reisen played an increasing role in combat: too fragile construction and the lack of passive protection for the aircraft and pilot. During 1942, the A6M3 variant was introduced into service (temporarily designated Hap by the Americans, then Hamp, and then Zeke again).

The most numerous Japanese machine
By 1943, the Reisen can be considered an obsolete aircraft. The final high-volume variant, the A6M5, was already lagging behind the new American fighters of the naval and army aviation. It did not help that it had already undergone some structural strengthening and gained passive protection for the pilot and tanks. Since the Japanese naval air force could not find an adequate replacement for the A6M, the fighters were produced in large numbers until the bitter end of the war.

With a total of 11,000 examples produced, the A6M became the most numerous Japanese aircraft of World War II. The Reisens made it through the entire Pacific War, from the initial Imperial Air Force deck attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, to the suicide attacks against American ships and the final engagements over the Japanese islands just before the surrender. They became actors not only in the rise of the Japanese carriers, but also in their fall in a series of battles against the ever-strengthening Americans.


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