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No. 470:
The Japanese Zero

Today, we learn things from a Japanese airplane. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

WW-II filled me with a child's excitement and a child's dread. We felt dread when we found the Japanese had a superior fighter plane called the Zero. A popular song told about a failing student who quit school to become a fighter pilot. The refrain went, "Johnny got a Zero, Johnny got a Zero, Johnny got a Zero today." I was a poor student, and the song cheered me up. Maybe I could quit school and shoot down the dreaded Zeros.

The Mitsubishi Company made the Zero. The name comes from the last digits of the year they made it -- the year 2600 in the old Japanese calendar. The crowning irony is that you can watch WW-II footage of the Zero today on your Mitsubishi TV set.

Steven Thompson tells the story of the Zero in Air and Space Magazine. It is a story of near-triumph over adversity. In 1937, the Japanese Navy handed a set of airplane specifications to a young designer, Jiro Horikoshi. The demands for altitude, speed, firepower, and range might've been reasonable if Japan had had an advanced engine to drive it. She did not.

The only solution was fanatical weight reduction and a real stretch of human ingenuity. So Horikoshi mixed invention with sacrifice. First he rewrote airplane design codes. Then he got his hands on a new super-aluminum. But he also made the Zero without armor for the pilot and without self-sealing gas tanks.

The Japanese army flew an early version of the Zero against our Flying Tigers in China. Our old P-40s held their own against it. We were sure our newer airplanes could handle the Zero. But their navy's Zero was another matter. It took higher G-loads. It moved with a ballet dancer's grace. We met it in 1942, and it seemed unbeatable. It demolished our myths of air superiority.

Then we began learning its secrets. We pieced one together from parts of crashed Zeros. It turned more tightly than our planes, but it was clumsy in high-speed dives. The moral: Fight it diving. Don't fight it climbing. For a while, the only way we could fight this better plane was with better tactics.

Then a far more subtle weakness doomed the Japanese. The Zero had been so successful that they didn't go beyond it. By 1943, we finally had better planes in the air. Japan tried to stay with their winner, and it was soon obsolete.

Yet the Zero had one more lesson to teach us before it was done. Japan built Zeros in modular units -- not in one long assembly line. Those methods returned in the '70s to revolutionize the Japanese auto industry. Today our combat with Japan takes a wholly new form. Yet the ghost of this amazing machine -- this child of adversity -- still hovers over our competition.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Thompson, S. L., The Zero One Step Beyond: An Object Lesson in the Element of Surprise. Air and Space, February/March, 1990, pp. 28-38.

For more on the Zero, see