ZERO Myth, Mystery, and Fact
Flight Journal|February 2020
A test pilot compares the A6M5 Zero to U.S. fighters
CORKY MEYER

Anyone who grew up in the 1920s and 1930s learned very quickly that “Made in Japan” meant cheap price and poor quality. Almost everything bought in the five-and-dime stores had that tag. It seemed impossible to purchase anything imported from Japan that would not wear out or break after a very short useful life.

That fact and the secrecy of the Japanese in the years before WW II regarding their military buildup anesthetized all of us regarding their real might. The average American believed that in battle, Japanese military forces would crumble as fast as their products had. We were obviously wrong. They overran country after country and their air forces were superior to anything that could be put against them. Americans learned to respect the term “Jap Zero” as defining the epitome of aerial superiority. Just one day after December 7, 1941, “Made in Japan” had an entirely different meaning.

When I arrived at Grumman on November 11, 1942, and started flying the Wildcat fighter, I was immersed in the life-and-death struggle that the Wildcat, the only U.S. Navy fighter, was having with the Zero. All we heard from the communiqués was that we couldn’t build and deliver the Wildcat fast enough. The story was still very fresh in everyone’s mind how “Grummanites” had volunteered to work around the clock for seven days after the Battle of Midway to deliver the much-needed 39 additional Wildcats to the fleet to replace some of the aircraft lost during that pivotal battle. The reason that Grumman could not deliver more at that time was that we had run out of engines. So, I felt somewhat ambivalent when I had the chance to fly the vaunted Zero in October of 1944 at the Joint Services Fighter Conference at the Patuxent Naval Air Test Center.

Many historians have insisted that the Zero was either a copy of the Vought 143 (which the Japanese had purchased) or the Hughes Racer. They did look similar, but the Zero used a much different design philosophy to get its weight lower than any other fighter of the time. Japanese designers reduced the loads on the structure by designing to very restrictive dive speeds and by dispensing with armor protection and self-sealing tanks. They gained further weight savings by moving the wing-fold point nearly out to the wingtips. But that greatly limited the number of aircraft that could be placed on a carrier owing to the long folded wingspan.

Out of the hangar

My first impression of the Zero was that it looked every bit the fighter. It had very trim lines. Except for the canopy bulge, the engine was the biggest volume in the design, and the slim fuselage behind it made it seem smaller than it was. It was, to my eyes, the best-looking fighter at the ’44 Fighter Conference. It certainly had a magnetic drawing power to fighter pilots because of its reputation for unparalleled agility in dogfights.

During my walk-around, I noticed that there were one-inch bamboo rubbing devices attached to the wheel fairings that the tires picked up, to close the wheel well doors as the gear retracted. The Japanese were certainly using all the endemic materials at hand. Another item I noticed was that the Nakajima Sakae 21 engine had an exact replica of the Pratt & Whitney logo, complete with the eagle, with “Nakajima” in Japanese script, but with the words “Dependability and Reliability” in English. I did feel more at home with the Zero after seeing that mark of excellence.

The Zero was the only aircraft that had a pilot to assist in checkout. Because of the Zero’s rarity, Commander Andrews, the Navy project pilot, would not let a pilot start the engine until he was satisfied with his competence.

We started our cockpit checkout in the cool hangar. As we were talking, the airplane was dragged out into the hot sun. I had previously noted that the fabric was drooping between the ribs of the ailerons, but had forgotten to ask Commander Andrews about it. Soon, there were a lot of audible, metallic scraping noises. Commander Andrews then suggested that the fabric would become taut, and the metallic working would stop after the airplane had become acclimated to the higher temperature outside the hangar. That is the only time I have ever “heard” an engineering weight savings.

This Type 52a Zero did not have self-sealing fuel tanks and pilot armor protection. That was to cost them 145 pounds in the Type 52c, which was just being delivered to Japanese squadrons when the Fighter Conference was going on. That weight penalty, plus others to come—without an increase in horsepower—started an inevitable decline in the Zero’s combat agility.

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