The year is 1991, and researchers have discovered the wreck of a Mitsubishi Zero A6M deep within the Indonesian jungle. It’s been 50 years since this aircraft – a legendary Japanese dogfighter – was gunned down over New Guinea, and soon the plane will be shipped to the United States before making its way to veteran Steve Barber. Yet the story is only just beginning. After years of studying the once-great Zero, the ex-Marine will uncover some startling facts about its past.
For all its ability to turn like a top, the Zero was something of a deathtrap. As Barber told Air & Space/Smithsonian magazine in 2007, “The Japanese government didn’t care if the pilot survived. They were looking for climbability and maneuverability.” The airman has a deep understanding of the Zero, too, and this knowledge has yielded a rather shocking secret.
The Zero that Barber has flown, though, was originally shot out of the sky in 1941 during World War II. Having crashed into the Indonesian jungle, the plane was then pulled out of its resting place 50 years on. Apparently, whoever had recovered the craft had intended to fix it back up, but the job was not complete. Now, however, the Zero is the only plane of its type that can still fly.
In fact, the Zero had only needed a handful of changes – the addition of GPS navigation, for instance – to bring it in line with modern aviation standards. Barber explained to Stuff, “The airplane is as it was. The cockpit is original.” Indeed, as a whole, he said, the retrieved dogfighter looked as though it had just come out of the factory.
And once the plane’s restoration was finished, the craft was in good enough condition to become a movie star. In a July 2011 video interview, Barber explained to AVWeb of the Zero, “This particular aircraft was just completed in time to fly in the… movie Pearl Harbor.
Yes, similar planes had taken off from aircraft carriers on that fateful day in December 1941 when the U.S. war with Japan began. And back then, the Zeros had been a deadly secret that it seemed the Americans had no good answer to. But as Barber would reveal, these powerful machines actually had close connections to the United States.
Barber is no stranger to war, either, having served as a Marine in Vietnam for four years from 1966. Nowadays, though, he’s a member of the Commemorative Air Force (CAF), operating as wing leader for its Southern California branch in Camarillo.
Based in Texas, the CAF is a non-profit organization whose aim is to get the viewing public up close and personal with aircraft from history. Members demonstrate World War II planes in action, in fact, and close to ten million people in the U.S. watch the CAF’s restored craft every year.
All in all, then, the CAF has come a long way since Lloyd Nolen and four buddies bought a P-51 Mustang to restore. The $1,500 purchase marked the beginning of the organization, although before long it had also acquired two Grumman F8F Bearcats. And when the CAF realized that no one seemed to care about maintaining the aerial heritage of World War II, its members duly stepped into the breach.
Nowadays, hundreds of the CAF’s volunteers actually fly the planes or work as ground crew. The mission to rescue combat planes, meanwhile, has spread to more than 12,000 people across the States and overseas. And from 1981, the CAF has maintained a wing in southern California that has attracted hundreds of members.
In 2015, then, the CAF as a whole had 166 planes, with 131 of these being able to fly. Most of this “Ghost Squadron” consists of American aircraft of many varying types, although the CAF does also operate some foreign planes from the Axis powers and the Soviet Union. And included among this number is the Mitsubishi Zero A6M that was discovered in the Indonesian jungle.
Known as the “Terror of the Pacific,” the Japanese warplane would prove itself more than worthy of that nickname. Yes, the Zero defied its small size to prove a dangerous enemy. And in the early months of the war, examples of the craft ended up dominating the skies of the Pacific theater.
The Zero model itself had been built by the Mitsubishi Aircraft Company – a division of the huge Tokyo-based industrial group that still exists today – and flown over long ranges by the Imperial Japanese Navy. Zeroes also took off from carriers, allowing them to appear almost anywhere without warning – making these planes the perfect weapon for the surprise attack that opened the war in the Pacific.
The name “Zero,” meanwhile, is derived from the craft’s navy designation, as the Japanese called it the Type 0 carrier fighter. Officially, however, the plane was known as the “A6M,” with “A” designated to fighters that were based on carriers, “6” because the Zero was the sixth model in its line and “M” for Mitsubishi. The Allies, on the other hand, knew this type of plane as “Zeke.”
Whatever name it went by, though, the A6M Zero was highly regarded. Whether the craft launched from a carrier or land, its exceptional range and top-level handling made it formidable. And in 2011 Barber took the opportunity to explain to AVWeb some of the features that made the plane so special.
To begin with, Barber reveals that the Zero he displayed had been the third iteration of the A6M. It turns out that the first prototypes in the series had taken to the air in the spring of 1939, and these had been such a success that by the fall of that year, the Japanese Navy wanted to test them.
In his video interview, Barber also tells AVWeb that the later model has extended wings that were intended to carry fuel tanks. This feature was part of a redesign that aimed to give the updated Zero the extremely long range that an earlier model had enjoyed. Ultimately, then, the plane stored 87 gallons in wing tanks to supplement its interior 150-gallon reservoir.
However, as Barber points out, this initially created a conundrum. Owing to these longer wings, the Zero would no longer be able to fit into the elevators that would bring it up onto the flight deck of carriers. As a result, then, Mitsubishi ultimately fitted the fighter with wingtips that could fold up.
Next, Barber considers the plane’s light weight. At first, the aircraft designers had been presented with a problem: while the engines that they had to work with were not very powerful, they still needed to provide speed and range in any resulting prototype. In addition, the Zero team aimed to make a fighter that weighed half as much as its American equivalent.
So, design boss Jiro Horikoshi went all out to cut the plane’s weight. In the end, then, the aircraft was predominantly constructed from an aluminum alloy called extra super duralumin, which had the advantage of being both less heavy and more durable than other mixtures of metals. And while this material was subject to corrosion, the plane was ultimately treated to prevent this eventuality.
But that drive to cut the Zero’s weight down to the bare minimum had its drawbacks. Barber explains, for example, that the Zero lacked the armor that other planes of the period possessed; all it had for protection was a single plate that lay behind the pilot. This measure stands in marked contrast to the ones taken with American fighters, which each carried about 160 pounds of armoring that shielded the pilot and any parts that could explode.
On top of that, the Zero did not feature the self-sealing fuel tanks that were common on aircraft of the time. In fact, as Barber tells AVWeb, the Zero’s equivalents were very simply constructed. He says, “The tanks were strictly aluminum – no liners in them.” And this fateful decision occasionally proved deadly.
You see, the Zero was liable to be set on fire and explode when caught by bullets. As Barber told Air & Space/Smithsonian magazine in 2007, “If you hit a Zero with a tracer, they’d almost always catch fire.” It’s no wonder, then, that versions of the craft are often seen going down in balls of flames in films.
The danger didn’t end there for the pilot, however. Barber explains another potential peril to AVWeb, remarking, “[American planes] had bulletproof glass [in the windshield], which would stop a .50 caliber bullet. [The Zero] has about 3/8-inch Plexiglas.” And the airman is skeptical, too, about the Zero windshield’s power, adding, “[The glass] wouldn’t stop a BB [gun pellet].”
However, despite this seeming disregard for pilot safety, Horikoshi succeeded in his aim of creating a very light plane. As Barber tells AVWeb, the craft “weighs about what planes with half the horsepower do” – in this case, 4,300 pounds without pilot or fuel.
And, apparently, the Japanese had focused in on the kind of aerial maneuvers that had been seen in World War I, when airplanes needed to be able to turn tightly in close dogfighting. That need to spin then drove the requirement for light loads on the wing – which in turn required scanty, unarmored aircraft.
Yet the Zero’s specialized wing had to be built in one piece, meaning it could not be made in small workshops that were simple to protect. And building the plane needed a lot of labor to boot, with the result being that only 10,000 Zero planes were constructed during the model’s seven-year production life. By contrast, the same number of American fighters could be churned out in only half the time.
But the lightweight construction of the Zero does pay off, with Barber explaining to AVWeb that the plane “goes well.” Having widely spaced landing gear, for instance, allows the craft to move in a straight line down the runway. “I think [the Zero is] a joy to fly,” Barber adds.
Originally, though, the Zero sported an array of weaponry that made it potentially deadly. Barber explains that as well as the 20mm cannon on each wing, each single plane also boasted two .30 caliber guns mounted on its cockpit. Any shells were then ejected through ports at the side of the cockpit.
Barber adds that the Zero’s pilot could select which weapons they wanted to fire by using a switch. In addition, a synchronizer would make sure that the bullets could pass through the propeller that drove the plane.
It should be noted, though, that American planes each carried six .50 caliber guns that had the potential to obliterate the Zero’s light body. Even so, the Japanese believed that U.S. fighters wouldn’t be able to get their guns to bear on the Zero. They saw the craft as a weapon by which to attack rather than one that would need much defending.
Barber shows off the Zero’s maneuverability, however, in mock dogfights with preserved American warplanes. For example, visitors to the air displays in which the ex-Marine participates can see him do battle with a Grumman F6F Hellcat. This carrier aircraft was designed to take on the Zero, and it would become the U.S.’ predominant fighter for the latter part of the war.
What’s more, in one video uploaded to YouTube in 2013, Barber shows off the extremely low speed that the Zero can reach without stalling. And being able to fly at only 69 mph allows the craft to maneuver incredibly, with no Allied fighter being able to match its ability to turn. Apparently, then, British pilots discovered that the tactics that had served them well in Europe could not prevail against the Japanese planes’ aerobatics.
And in his video interview, Barber tells AVWeb that he had demonstrated those aerobatics in a mock fight with a Vought F4U Corsair. On that occasion, too, the pilot of the American plane had begged Barber to slow down as he hadn’t been able to keep up. Barber explains, “I was doing a third-stick deflection; he was doing a full-stick deflection to roll at the same rate.”
To power that flight, the Zero had been been fitted with a Pratt & Whitney R1830 radial engine instead of its original Nakajima Sakae 21 powerplant. And switching one for the other proved no problem – despite the fact that the Pratt & Whitney component was American-built.
Barber explained of the change, “Of course, the first ten Zeros [that] flew had American engines. Since we were nice enough to sell Japan some Pratt & Whitney engines, they turned around and essentially copied them, which is why the parts are nearly interchangeable today.” And this in turn opens up a shocking possibility.
The CAF’s Southern California Wing said, “There is, nevertheless, the fact that Japan had a contract with Pratt & Whitney before WWII in which P&W provided engines for fighter planes and other aircraft. It is therefore conceivable that some of the planes participating in the Pearl Harbor attack could have been powered by American engines.”
And the American influence on the Zero may go even deeper. Some say, for instance, that the design of the plane had been based on the Vought V-143 that Japan had bought in 1937. Indeed, when Vought’s president Eugene Wilson saw a Zero in 1943, he apparently said that it was “the spitting image” of the V-143. But that isn’t all.
You see, the Japanese had allegedly showed a willingness to rip off other American ideas. The way in which the Zero’s wheels stowed away when retracted, for instance, brought to Wilson’s mind a similar feature by Northrop. It’s said, too, that Zero engineers had copied Pratt & Whitney’s parts so closely that they even included a Navy inspection stamp. Nonetheless, no one had broken the law in selling the Japanese weapons.
Perhaps as a result of such similarities, Barber explains to AVWeb that the Zero did compare well to American planes of the time. And while later U.S. craft would eventually be faster than the Mitsubishi plane, the CAF member concludes of the Zero, “If the Japanese could get our American pilots below 175 knots, nothing would touch this airplane.”