The best known Japanese aircraft of World War II is the A6M Zero. This really isn’t even close.
After the jump, a look at the type that shocked the western allies and dominated the first year of the Pacific War.
In 1937 the Imperial Japanese Navy issued a specification for a new generation of carrier fighter. They required a top speed of 350kts, climb to 3000 meters in 3 1/2 minutes, 8 hours extended cruise range, firepower of two machine guns and two cannon and maneuverability equal to current types. The Nakajima Company looked at these requirements and said it couldn’t be done. But Mitsubishi’s Head Designer, Jiro Hirakoshi was up to the challenge.
The A6M was a clean design mated to Nakajima’s 1000 hp Sakae engine. It met the Navy’s design requirements easily. The first service test of the type involved 13 A6M2s sent to China. In a year of operations they destroyed 100 or more Chinese aircraft (much more according to Japanese records) for no loss. Throughout the year 1941 as the type was entering widespread service it had a huge effect on Japanese war planning. Its range was such that it reduced the need for satellite airfields and even aircraft carriers.
The Japanese were confident they had the greatest carrier fighter in the world, and when the war started in December of 1941 most of their opponents would come to agree with them. The Zero was fast, long ranged and maneuverable to such a degree it annihilated opposing air forces and terrified pilots. Cmdr John Thach, who developed defensive tactics that allowed the US Navy to achieve parity with the Japanese was furious at the Wildcat’s inadequacy. Famous British test pilot Eric Brown described the Zero as the most maneuverable fighter he ever flew and believed it to be the greatest fighter in the world until mid 1943.
In time, better allied aircraft would come available that could take advantage of the Zero’s shortcomings (lightness of construction, lack of armor and self sealing fuel tanks, and loss of maneuverability at high speeds).
This example is from the Hasegawa kit. It is an aircraft attached to the famous Tainan Air Group based in Formosa at the start of the war. This group produced more aces than any other including Hiroyoshi Nishizawa and Saburo Sakai. It destroyed allied air power in the Philippines, Singapore and Dutch East Indies. It was eventually ground down in the lengthy New Guinea/Solomons campaign that continued into 1943. But here, in its earliest wartime markings, the Zero was at the height of its invincibility.