When introduced in 1940, the Mitsubishi A6M2, code name Zeke, was the best carrier-based fighter in the world. This aircraft gets the name “Zero” from Japanese system of identifying aircraft by the last two digits of the year accepted into service. Since the A6M you see in this exhibit was accepted in the Japanese calendar year of 2600 (1940), the aircraft was designated as Navy Type 00 Carrier-Based Fighter. The Allied forces nicknamed it “Zeke.” The Zero’s lightweight design made it fast and maneuverable, having a high power to weight ratio. Two forward firing 7.7 mm machine guns and two wing-mounted 20 mm cannons, coupled with its superbly trained and experienced pilot, made it a deadly menace in air-to-air combat.
However, aircraft design is all about tradeoffs. To achieve the lightweight design, armor protection for the pilot and the engine were omitted. The Zero also lacked self-sealing fuel tanks. One bullet could penetrate the fuselage killing the pilot or hit the wing fuel tank, sending the aircraft down in a ball of flames. Despite these design faults, on December 7, 1941, the Mitsubishi Zero controlled the skies.
Eventually American and British manufacturers would produce fighters with greater firepower, armor, and durability than the Zero, and Allied aviators would develop tactics to counter the Zero’s maneuverability.
The Navy paint scheme and markings on the aircraft in the exhibit are identical to those found on the Zero Nishikaichi crashed landed on the island of Niihau following Pearl Harbor attack. However, this particular aircraft actually served in combat in the Solomon Islands in 1943.