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How WWII Fighter Planes Worked


The bombs used by the Japanese planes were fairly simple devices. They did not have any onboard guidance or propulsion systems like you would find in a missile. Instead, they relied on gravity and inertia to provide the speed, and on manual targeting by the aircraft pilot for guidance.

Photo courtesy Naval Historical Center
This photo from a plane above Pearl Harbor shows the impact of bombs on ships and the water.

Photo courtesy Naval Historical Center
Japanese dive bombers severely damaged the battleship USS West Virginia.

The dive bombers were the biggest threat to U.S. forces. Each bomber came barreling out of the sky in a steep dive towards a target. When the plane was a few hundred feet away from the target, the pilot pressed a button to release the bomb. Each bomb was attached to a rack or rail and held in place with a simple latch mechanism. When the latch was opened, the bomb slid off the rail or dropped off the rack. If the pilot timed the release correctly, the bomb hit the target moments after the plane veered away. Upon impact with the target, a percussion cap in the nose of the bomb ignited a small amount of explosive matter. The resulting small explosion set off the main explosive in the bomb, causing it to detonate.

Image courtesy David Llewellyn James Pengam
The Aichi D3A "Val"

Name Designation Manufacturer Weight (fully loaded) Wingspan Length
Val D3A Aichi 8,047 lb (3,650 kg) 47.2 ft
(14.4 m)
33.5 ft
(10.2 m)

Maximum Speed Maximum Altitude Maximum Range
242 mph
(390 kph)
31,170 ft
(9,500 m)
1,131 mi
(1,820 km)

Engine Machine-gun Size Machine-gun Location
Bomb Capacity
Kinsei radial
1,075 hp
7.7 mm Rear cockpit (1)
Wings (2)
2 @ 66 lb (30 kg) each
1 @ 551 lb (250 kg)

The high-level bombers operated much differently from the dive bombers. They flew well above the attack point and dropped multiple bombs at a time, blanketing the area. Again, these bombs relied on gravity for their propulsion and did not have any type of guidance.

The bombs dropped by the torpedo bombers did use both propulsion and guidance. Torpedo bombers are very effective in air-to-sea combat. Like dive bombers, torpedo bombers swoop down toward their target; but they drop their bomb well before they reach the target. The bomb, a torpedo similar to the kind fired by submarines, speeds through the water toward the target.

The charts below show the capabilities of the primary torpedo bomber used by Japan in the Pearl Harbor attack.

Image courtesy David Llewellyn James Pengam
The Nakajima B5N "Kate"

Name Designation Manufacturer Weight (fully loaded) Wingspan Length
Kate B5N Nakajima 8,047 lb (3,650 kg) 51 ft
(15.5 m)
34 ft
(10.4 m)

Maximum Speed Maximum Altitude Maximum Range
217 mph
(349 kph)
25,000 ft
(7,620 m)
683 mi
(1,099 km)

Engine Machine-gun Size Machine-gun Location
Bomb Capacity
Hikari 3 radial
770 hp
7.7 mm Rear cockpit (1) 2 @ 551 lb (250 kg) ea
6 @ 132 lb (60 kg) ea

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