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Zero Pilot

Flying the CAF's A6M2 Zero and dogfighting with a Wildcat

by Jeff Ethell

Copyright 1993 by the Confederate Air Force and Jeff Ethell. All rights reserved.

Originally published in The Dispatch magazine, Volume 18, Number 2, Summer, 1993 edition. If you are interested in subscribing to The Dispatch please write to The Commemorative Air Force, ATTN: Dispatch Editor, PO Box 62000, Midland, TX 79711-2000 or call (432) 563-1000. Reproduced with permission.

The Wildcat was starting to smoke. As it pulled up in front of me in a hard loop, a steady amount of back pressure on the stick easily brought my Zero back into firing position. The harder the Wildcat pilot pulled, the easier it was for me to keep him in my gunsight. Just as I was on the verge of finishing him off, he eased off on the stick, rolled over and pointed his nose toward the earth. Within seconds the Grumman was extending away from me and out of range. There was no way I could follow — no Zero could outdive an American fighter.

But he couldn't dive forever, we were barely above 1,000 feet. He would have to pull out. As soon as he did I was on him. Again he pulled up and started a tight turn. With little effort I pulled tighter and, again, had him in my sights, smoke billowing out of his cowling. Just as I was about to fire he dumped the nose and pulled away. He was good, very good. After a few more clashes, each of us using his aircraft's strong points to keep the other at bay, we broke off. He couldn't out run me. I couldn't outdive him. The classic duel of two pilots using the strong points of their aircraft, each unable to bring his guns to bear on the other as a result.

I wasn't over the Pacific, it was Ellington Field during the "Tora, Tora, Tora" dogfight portion of the Confederate Air Force Wings Over Houston Airshow. Col Randy Wilson was in the Wildcat and I had been asked to fly the Zero when sponsor/pilot Col John Kelley couldn't get the weekend free.

Walking up to a real Zero, knowing you are actually going to fly it, is overwhelming —after all, there are only two flying and there is only one seat. Having studied this legend for so many years, listening to Japanese and American combat pilots describe their impressions, I had a swirl of history in my mind. To experience such history first hand has always given me much sought after depth in researching the World War II history I write.

A close examination of the external airframe shows Jiro Horikoshi's obsession with keeping the airframe light and streamlined. At a gross weight of 5,313 pounds, packed into a 29-foot-8.75-inch length and a 39-foot-4.5-inch span, the fighter weighs about the same as an AT-6 advanced trainer.

With its long landing gear legs, getting one's foot into the lowered step, pulling up with the rod-like hand hold, then stepping onto the extended foot bar and onto the wing walk is quite a feat — much the same impression as mounting a P-47, which really says something considering there is virtually no size comparison. Once up on the wing the airplane becomes quite small. That impression is reinforced by stepping into the cockpit. Clearly the office was designed for smaller pilots.

In general the cockpit is well laid out, though it has been thoroughly modernized with radios, Loran, electrical switches, engine starting switches and other items where the gun breeches would normally protrude into the cockpit. The two 7.7 mm Type 97 cowl mounted machine guns were manually charged from inside. I can't imagine what the cockpit must have smelled like in combat. Two 20 mm Type 99 cannon were mounted in the wings. Most of the fixtures are authentic, including throttle quadrant, stick, seat and instrument panel, which carries the original Japanese lettering. A replica gunsight, complete with good luck tea bag, finishes everything off.

Engine start up was quite easy, standard for any 1830. The first thing I noticed was that little throttle movement produced a great deal of change in power. Kelley had warned me to watch that. Like a Spit, it wouldn't be hard to nose over with excessive power. With the engine running smoothly, the first thing to check, after oil pressure, is hydraulic pressure. The entire aircraft has the original hydraulic Japanese system installed.

Chocks away, a slight burst of power and the Zero moves away without any coaxing it even feels light on the ground. Braking is limited at best with the brakes prone to overheating quickly, and to accumulating engine oil and exhaust residue from their inflight location behind the exhaust stacks. If a new Zero pilot can't fly without depending on the brakes, he should pass it up. They are good for changing direction with a tap and for coming to a complete stop from a slow taxi, that's about it.

Pre-take-off: set elevator trim (the only trim installed) to zero with the big wooden wheel on the left, cockpit checklist complete. Taxi out onto the runway, which disappears completely in front of the very round cowling.

Slowly up on the power and keep it moving forward to get immediate rudder effectiveness. Before I have full power, 45 inches and 2700 rpm, the Zero is pulling mightily to the left but a good boot of rudder holds it down the middle with very little effort, even less than some rudder trim equipped fighters — immediate relief. Apparently rudder trim just wasn't considered that important. Even though the tail flies up a bit, it is mandatory to make a smooth three point take off, applying the rest of the power after lift off.

As the Zero breaks ground at around 650 feet, its 4,500 fpm climb rate is immediately evident. It claws for altitude, even at a climb power setting of 34 inches and 2450 rpm, at something like a 45 degree angle. The slightest forward pressure on the stick drives the airspeed up. Got to get the gear up before 105 knots.

Unlike every other stock World War II fighter I've flown, the Zero had an EGT (exhaust gas temperature gauge) for optimum leaning and the manual is very specific in telling the pilot how to use it. No wonder the Zero had such fantastic range, figuring 10 minutes at combat power, the manual gives the A6M2 a normal range of 1,025 miles. Those figures weren't seen again until the Merlin powered P-51. American pilots refused to believe Zeros over the Philippines and Guadalcanal were not flown from carriers.

Visibility from the cockpit is outstanding for this period in the war. Though there are several canopy braces to get in the way, compare the Zero's canopy shape, particularly toward the rear, to the F4F, P-40 and razorback P-47 and P-51. After a few quick glances around, I found the bracing almost unnoticeable since I had excellent rearward visibility. This had to be a significant advantage for Japanese fighter pilots.

The next impression I had was being cramped. I was never able to stretch out, and on a long cross country that can generate a fair amount of fatigue, as it did flying the relatively short 1.3 hour hop to Houston from Dallas for the airshow. A shorter pilot probably wouldn't notice this but those six hour plus missions flown by the Japanese pilots would have been agony in this somewhat hunched up position.

My first turn was effortless — look at how much of the trailing edge of the wing is taken up by aileron. A quick reverse … I almost banged my head on the canopy. Nose up slightly, roll … zap! The machine goes around instantly. Into a near 90 degree bank … pull … the same thing. It almost turns on itself and I would imagine could easily keep up with a Spitfire V, its contemporary. Slightly nose down, pull. It loops the same way and can loop out of cruise as low as 150 knots quite easily. Of course, all this is below 200 knots, where it handled the Wildcat quite easily on all terms. Once above that speed, things change rapidly.

With the nose down and going past 250 knots, all controls get very stiff past 300 knots they are almost immovable. Red line speed in the manual is listed as 340 knots indicated, with a + 7G limit. I can't imagine that the pilot could move anything at that speed. This was the real achilles heel of the Zero. Col. Claire Chennault, Jimmy Flatley and others who knew the Zero ordered pilots not to maneuver with Japanese pilots but revert to dive and slash attacks. Much to the horror of the Imperial Japanese Navy's fine pilots, this virtually neutralized the Zero's superiority. Everyone was warned about trying to turn with or outmaneuver a Zero — it couldn't be done. After fighting Wilson in the Wildcat, I experienced both sides of the coin. If we got below 200 knots, I could eat him up. When he put the nose down, I was left behind trying, without much success, to muscle the Zero through a corkscrew trailing descent.

Stalls are barely worth mentioning. The Zero is docile throughout the stall series with no tendency to snap or spin at all. The pilot can pull as hard as he wants straight into the stall without having to worry about spinning out or losing control. The aircraft is so light the power off stall speed with gear and flaps down is 60 knots.

The manual recommends 70 to 72 knots on short final for what it calls a spot (carrier) landing. The original aircraft had a crosshair display index on the left gearshield for this purpose, a precursor to angle of attack indicators. The manual recommended, "Turn the face gradually to the left side and look at the spot landing points on the right hand chart positions." Fascinating. This delicate device has long since disappeared. I would have loved to have tried it.

Since the Zero is so light, too much speed is not healthy. Hold about 80 to 85 knots on short final, eventually bleeding the speed down to 75 knots. Once over the numbers pull the throttle all the way to idle and pull the stick back. The fighter flares into a beautiful three point landing and is near viceless on the ground, thanks in large measure to the effective rudder and wide landing gear. It can be wheeled on but, like the Spitfire, it doesn't like it since there is fat less control. It wants to float and skip down the runway on the edge of positive control.

There is really no need for brakes at all on a long runway unless you want to make a sharp turn. Off the active runway, stop. Silence. The brain is incredulous. Ethell, you have flown a pinnacle in aviation history, a very rare privilege indeed.

Sitting in that cockpit for several hours, pushing the Zero back and forth across its performance envelope, did more to open up the Pacific air war than anything in recent memory. The basics of air combat in that theater sorted themselves out in real terms almost immediately as I made the Zero do things for which it was superbly equipped, and tried to do things to which it could not hope to aspire. It is one of the few military aircraft I have flown that matches almost everything written about it, good and bad, from both sides. Though it can be exhausting to fly, its basic docile nature and ease on the controls had to give its pilots great confidence. Indeed, the Zero ruled the skies … but not long enough.

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