Piloting a Zero

I’ve been looking at the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter recently. Specifically, ways of flying the plane that allows the pilot to survive against late-war Allied aircraft and score some kills. So I visited some online forums for games such as War Thunder, Il-2 Sturmovik, Aces High and Warbirds Online.

There appears to be two schools of thought. One school advocates keeping the Zero slow and low which is where the fighter does best, turning very tight. One flyer in War Thunder insists on vertical loops. Another never goes above 170mph and using an odd combo of rudder, elevator and aileron to corkscrew: in other words, he and other players have rediscovered the old Hineri-komi manoeuvre, which was actually taught in Japanese fighter schools. In the hineri-komi, the plane banks a bit then uses the rudder to slide sideways, in the direction of the downward wing. It is strictly a low-speed manoeuvre, most often performed when the enemy is following you up  and slowing down as well. One flyer in Aces High never goes above 120 mph, turning the plane on a dime.

I found this depiction of the hineri-komi at a War Thunder forum, where both low-speed and high speed tactics were advocated for the Zero:


The “hineri-komi” manoeuvre in an overhead loop. At (5)  the Zero is turning sideways using the rudder.


The second school advises keeping the Zero fast. Well, fast for a Zero, up to maybe 250mph. And using it as what one flyer in the War Thunder forum calls “micro boom-and-zoom”, using energy tactics over short distances.  Get close to score hits. The Zero’s strengths, other than turning, are high initial acceleration and sharp climb angle. While prolonged dives are bad, you *can* dive a Zero for short sprints. When not shooting, pick up altitude and potential energy so you can pounce downwards.

Bob the Zero up and down, as needed. Western planes like to shallow climb over long distances, Zeros can climb steeply to gain potential energy. Western planes build up heavy speed, shallow diving over long stretches; the Zero (A6M3 and A6M5 models) has better initial dive acceleration at short stretch with full throttle, although the final speed is low.  Just remember to ease the throttle if diving for long, otherwise the controls jam due to the forces exerted on the control surfaces at high speed.

Turning hard with flaps spills energy by air resistance; better to do a small high yo-yo (short climb and turn), slowing down by climbing but picking speed up again coming down. High yo-yo is a maneuver devised for planes with poor turning; I find it ironic that some Zero flyers use it. Don’t turn 270 degrees, you get too slow; if you can’t nail him turning 45 degrees, let him go. One surviving Zero ace described his fighting over Okinawa in 1945 as consisting of high speed barrel rolls and violent slidesand avoiding hineri-komi turns altogether since it robbed his fighter of speed. I am still not sure what he means by sliding.

Scare the opponent by pinging with machine guns, make him turn and lose speed, then throttle up and dash in, turning hard to aim the guns a bit ahead of him so the bullets arrive at the right moment, walking the shot from nose to tail, quite possibly killing the pilot. If he’s broadside to you and close, let rip with the cannons! Don’t chase a diving enemy too long, stay up and eventually he’ll have to come back up, climbing slowly: the perfect time to pounce.

I like the idea. It’s like fighting with a short sword, quick and lethal once you get close.

Last of all, the late war A6M5 has strengthened wing skin and shorter wings, improving its dive speed to 400mph. This suggests that a high speed slash and run attack is possible if the Zero starts at higher altitude. Unfortunately the fighter’s handling at high speed is famously bad, especially the aileron roll above 300mph, so I am not sure.


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