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How WWII Fighter Planes Worked

        Science | World War II

The Deep Blue Yonder
On November 26, 1941, 30 Japanese ships and a separate fleet of submarines departed the Kurile Islands (also spelled "Kuril") in the North Pacific on a course for Hawaii. The Japanese fleet was based around six aircraft carriers, huge ships capable of carrying a large number of planes and providing a place for them to take off and land.


Photo courtesy Naval Historical Center
The Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi was one of six that were sent to Pearl Harbor.

Between the six carriers, they had a combined total of 420 planes, including:

  • Fighters - These planes were the most versatile, capable of air-to-air combat with enemy planes as well as air-to-ground combat. Fighters carried a few bombs but mostly relied on cannon and machine guns.
  • Dive bombers - These planes were designed to carry bombs that could be released quickly at a specific target as the plane dove toward the target. After releasing the bombs, the plane would veer back up into the sky.
  • High-level bombers - These large planes flew high over a target area and dropped several bombs, essentially blanketing an area. While it was not easy to target a specific object, such as a building, the sheer number of bombs dropped greatly increased the chance of hitting the object.
  • Torpedo bombers - These planes carried torpedoes that they dropped into the ocean on a trajectory intended to hit a ship or submarine.


Photo courtesy Naval Historical Center
Japanese fighter planes preparing to launch from the deck of an aircraft carrier

When the Japanese fleet was a little less than 300 miles (483 km) north of Pearl Harbor, the first wave of 181 planes was launched. This wave left the carriers at approximately 6:00 a.m. on December 7, 1941, and consisted of planes of all four types listed above. About half an hour after the first wave departed, another wave of about 170 planes was launched. The biggest difference between the two waves was that the second wave contained no torpedo bombers and more dive bombers.


Photo courtesy Naval Historical Center
Japanese aircraft are prepared for takeoff.

On the next page, we will examine how these planes worked.


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