Mitsubishi A6M Reisen Zeke Vol. I

Until 1925 the entire output of Japanese aircraft industry was based on technologies obtained overseas, mainly from France, Great Britain, Germany and the USA. This imported know-how not only greatly accelerated the development of local aircraft industry, but also allowed Japanese engineers access to U.S. universities and the best technical institutes. In the early 1930s government guidelines recommended that Japanese aircraft manufacturers should base their work on locally-developed technological processes, although using foreign know-how was not entirely discouraged. The new approach proved to be a success to the point that by 1936 Japanese aircraft manufacturers not only became independent of imported technologies, but also began to crank out aircraft designs, such as Mitsubishi G3M, Ki-15, A5M or Nakajima B5N, that were on par with their foreign counterparts, if not better. This rather remarkable development went largely unnoticed by the leading world powers as they continued to view Japan as an insignificant Asian nation, capable of little more than copying foreign ideas, with the economy well known for mass production of cheap, low quality products.

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First Japanese carrier-based fighter aircraft
In the early 1920s the mainstay of the IJN air arm was the Gloster Sparrowhawk biplane fighter. Fifty examples of the aircraft were built for the Japanese at Gloster Aircraft Company, while another forty were assembled using imported components at Yokosuka Arsenal. The aircraft soldiered on in Japanese service until 1928. Most of them operated from land bases, but several examples were used in tests using a launch platform mounted on top of a main battery turret of the battleship Yamasiro. Some (probably ten examples) were modified for carrier operations, although they were never used in that configuration having been superseded by a more modern fighter type built by Mitsubishi.
The design of the Mitsubishi 1MF and delivery of the fighter’s prototype took the British team led by Herbert Smith only several months. The aircraft made its first flight in 1921.
The Mitsubishi 1MF1, officially designated “Navy Type 10 Carrier Fighter”, was a design typical for its time. This all-wood, fabric-covered biplane was powered by the eight-cylinder, liquid-cooled Hispano-Suiza 8 engine developing 300 hp. The powerplant was in fact license-built in Japan under designation Mitsubishi Type Hi. Offensive armament was mounted above the engine and consisted of two 7.7 mm Vickers machine guns. The first prototype featured a front-mounted radiator, which was responsible for the fighter’s characteristic “boxy” nose. Later versions of the fighter were equipped with a twin Lamblin radiators mounted between the landing gear struts. Another feature characteristic of the 1MF1 and absent in later versions (which also featured greater wingspan) was the “ear” or extended ailerons similar to the Fokker DVII. The 1MF1 designation stood for a single-seat aircraft (“1”), manufactured by Mitsubishi (“M”), fighter type (“F”), first production version (“1”). The 1MF2 version, which went into full-scale production, featured increased vertical stabilizer area.

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The 1MF3 variant saw the installation of the Lamblin radiators, which resulted in a more streamlined shape of the fighter’s nose section. One of the sub-variants, the 1MF3a, featured a redesigned vertical stabilizer, which well concealed the type’s Sopwith pedigree. Other, often minor modifications were also introduced, among them position lights on wingtips (a first in a Japanese design!). Some sources claim that the aircraft earmarked for carrier operations had their “claws” mounted on wheel axles removed and replaced with proper arresting hooks attached to the tail skid. More substantial changes were introduced in the 1MF4 version of the fighter. One of them was moving the cockpit forward to better manage the aircraft’s center of gravity. This resulted in the cockpit placed directly underneath the top wing, which would have greatly limited visibility. In order to compensate for that, a large cutout was introduced in the top wing.
The final iteration of the fighter was the 1MF5 and its training derivative 1MF5a. Among modifications introduced in that version was jettisonable landing gear and two cigar-shaped floats underneath the lower wing, which were supposed to keep the aircraft afloat in the event of an emergency water landing.
On February 28, 1923 the flight deck of the newly commissioned aircraft carrier Hosho was used in the first successful launch and recovery of an aircraft. At the controls of a 1MF3 was William Jordan, a member of Herbert Smith’s team and Mitsubishi’s chief test pilot. A month later Lt. Shunichi Kira became the first Japanese aviator to have performed a launch and recovery on an aircraft carrier.
In order to improve the aircraft’s directional control on a relatively narrow flight deck, a dozen or so cables were strung along the deck. Those were supposed to keep the aircraft from veering off the desired track. It soon became clear that the system was neither practical, nor useful and the whole idea was abandoned. In its place a system of three sets of lamps was adopted (red, yellow and green), which were carefully arranged at very specific angles, so that only one row of lights was visible to the pilot, depending on the aircraft’s relation to the glideslope. The system worked extremely well and its basic principle is used to this day in “meatballs” installed on flight decks of modern US Navy carriers.
Beginning in late 1923 1MF3 fighters were permanently embarked on Hosho and in 1927 the type was also assigned to Akagi, followed by Kaga in 1928.
Type 10 fighters were manufactured until 1929. In total, 138 examples of the type were produced, including the prototypes and trainer versions. The first Japanese carrier-based fighter proved to be a robust design, easy to handle and very forgiving in the air. The Type 10 never saw combat before it was withdrawn from service in 1930 and replaced by the Type 3 (Nakajima A1N). Some of the ex-navy examples were sold to civilian operators, who continued to use them in a variety of roles. The Mitsubishi 1MF was the world’s first purpose-built carrier-based fighter.

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