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How WWII Fighter Planes Worked

Zero Fighters

Fighter planes, both then and now, are designed for maneuverability and speed. The main goal of a fighter is to shoot down other airplanes, but a fighter can use its weapons to do a lot of damage on the ground as well. While some of them carried a small number of bombs, the primary offensive weapon of a fighter during WWII was the machine gun.

At the beginning of the war, the Japanese Zero fighter was an incredibly good fighter compared to the competiton. It had three key strengths:

  • Speed
  • Maneuverability
  • Range
The speed came from a powerful 14-cylinder radial engine. This engine had two banks of seven cylinders and generated around 1,000 horsepower. The engine gave the Zero a top speed of 330 MPH, although its normal cruising speed was just over 200 MPH. The aircraft also had retractable landing gear to reduce drag.

The maneuverability came from the fact that the Zero was a small, light plane. It was made of lightweight aluminum and weighed approximately 3,700 pounds empty (about 6,000 pounds fully loaded with pilot, fuel and ammunition). The wingspan was just shy of 40 feet, and the length just shy of 30 feet. To get an idea of how big this is, you can compare it to a Cessna 152. The Cessna is a small plane commonly used today for pilot training -- you see these little planes at any small airport. The Cessna 152 is about as small as small planes get, and it has a wingspan of 33 feet and a length of 24 feet. The Zero was not much bigger, but had about ten times the horsepower of the Cessna and an incredibly strong airframe.

Especially at lower speeds, the Zero had an extremely small turning radius. The ability to make sharp turns let it outmaneuver any other fighter. At higher speeds, however, the maneuverability decreased. See this page for details.

Range came from large gas tanks. The Zero could carry about 150 gallons (almost 600 liters) of gasoline, as well as another 94 gallons (355 liters) of gasoline in an external drop tank. This gave it a range of 1,200 miles (almost 2,000 miles with the external tank).

The Zero had three types of armament:

  • Two 7.7 mm machine guns on the fuselage (500 rounds each)
  • Two 20 mm cannons on the wings (60 rounds each)
  • Two small, optional bombs weighing about 130 pounds each.
The Zero was not perfect. As mentioned above, it lost maneuverability at high speed. The pilot was totally unprotected by armor, the fuel tanks were thin and light, and there was nothing onboard to extinguish a fire. These omissions kept the plane lightweight, but made it fragile -- it did not take much to shoot down a Zero.

The following charts summarize the Zero's stats:

Name Designation Manufacturer Weight (fully loaded) Wingspan Length
Zero A6M Mitsubishi 5,828 lb (2,644 kg) 39.3 ft
(12 m)
29.7 ft
(9.1 m)

336 mph
(541 kph)
32,000 ft
(9,754 m)
1,200 mi
(1,932 km)

Engine Machine-gun Size Machine-gun Location
Cannon Size Cannon Location
Bomb Capacity
Sakae 21 radial
1,030 hp
7.7 mm Fuselage (1)
Wings (2)
20 mm Outer wings (2) 2 @ 132 lb (60 kg) each

The Japanese Zero fighters dominated the Pearl Harbor attack, strafing ships and airfields with machine-gun fire. Due to the complete surprise of the attack, the United States had very few planes actually make it off the ground. The majority of the planes that were stationed at Pearl Harbor were Curtiss P-36 Hawks and Curtiss P-40 Warhawks.

On the next page, we'll take a look at the Japanese bombers used in the raid.