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
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
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