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Mitsubishi A6M2b Model 21

Length: 29 feet 8 inches
Wingspan: 39 feet 4 inches
Wing area: 241.5 square feet
Height: 10 feet
Weight: 3,704 pounds (empty); 5,313 pounds (loaded)
Armament: Two 7.7 mm Type 97 machine guns and two 20 mm Type 99 Mark 1 cannons
Engine: 940 hp Nakajima NK1C Sakae 12
Max speed: 331 mph
Climb rate: 3,100 fpm
Max range (with auxiliary tank): 1,930 miles

While chief engineer Jiro Horikoshi acknowledged having studied Allied designs, his Mitsubishi A6M2 was largely an original, a refinement of his already proven A5M fighter. He had crafted the A6M2 with the sleekest and lightest possible airframe to compensate for the limited power of the 940-hp radial engine the Japanese navy had selected. The result was an astonishingly fast, nimble and far-ranging creation, the first carrier-based fighter capable of besting land-based opponents. Entering service in 1940 (2600 on Japanese calendars), it was designated the Rei shiki Kanjo sentoki (“Type 0 Navy Carrier Fighter”). Japanese pilots foreshortened its name to Reisen (“Zero Fighter”), and its Western opponents likewise knew it as the “Zero,” though its Allied code name was “Zeke,” in keeping with giving male names to Japanese fighters.

From its combat introduction in China in September 1940 until encounters with improved Allied fighters in 1942, the Zero dominated the skies over the Pacific. It was also the most-produced Japanese warplane of World War II, with 10,939 built. Shocked by its performance, Western aviation experts declared it a copy of foreign aircraft. Despite airframe and weapon enhancements and the installation of more powerful engines, it ultimately succumbed to the weaknesses inherent in its weight-saving design and by early 1944 was being downed in steadily increasing numbers—taking with it a generation of experienced pilots. By then the limitations of Japanese industry thwarted production of a replacement fighter in adequate quantities, forcing the Zero to fight to war’s end. Even so, an Allied airman dismissed it at his peril. MH