Aviation History

“The Flying Fortress looked like a roof collapsing upon me:” the Zero pilot that during an attack on a B-17 got scared by the bomber size and erroneously collided with it

The A6M Zero

The Allies’ main opponent in the Pacific air war, the Zero-sen is the most famous symbol of Japanese air power during World War II. The fighter first flew in April 1939, and Mitsubishi, Nakajima, Hitachi and the Japanese navy produced 10,815 Zeros from 1940-1945. Zeros were produced in greater number than any other aircraft. Its distinctive design and historical impact make the Zero an important machine in air power history.

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The A6M first saw combat in China in the late summer of 1940, and it quickly helped Japan dominate the air in Asia. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, 125 Zeros from six aircraft carriers participated. In the early part of the war, Allied aircraft such as the Curtiss P-40 and Seversky P-35 were at a disadvantage in a dogfight with a Zero flown by a skilled pilot, and the A6M became a well-known and dangerous opponent.

As told by Michael John Claringbould, in his book A6M2/3 Zero-sen New Guinea and the Solomons 1942, Zero-sen pilots were particularly vexed by the four-engined Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bomber. The B-17 would prove hard to bring down, with the first example not falling to land-based Zero-sens in the South Seas until Aug. 7, 1942 during a raid on Rabaul.

Zero Vs B-17 Flying Fortress

FPO3c Kyoji Ishikawa was awestruck by the Flying Fortress when he first encountered the bomber;

‘Suddenly, the air raid warning sounded. We had just received Zero fighters as reinforcements, so we scrambled in those. It did not take long to find the enemy in cloud, however. It was the first time I had seen this model, and despite the aircraft’s huge size, its performance at high altitude was excellent and it was hard to catch. Following it, I realized it was a Boeing. So, the unconquerable Fortress has finally come to Rabaul! It shone in the morning sun, and it even looked beautiful.

‘The enemy gunners opened fire from a considerable distance, perhaps 1,000m. The tracers, like a long train, flew straight and then left and right before I thought they would hit me. I opened fire too, but it was difficult to hit. I thought about this later, and decided that the Boeing’s huge size made it so difficult to judge the range. Nobody came home with reports of accurate shooting, and we all had experienced similar difficulty in judging the range. This important and challenging matter was left as one to be resolved.’

How best to fight Allied enemies

One of the leading advocates of the A6M was Lt Mitsugu Kofukuda who encouraged discussion among his Zero-sen pilots on how best to fight their Allied enemies.

One of the robust discussions chaired by Kofukuda at Buin airfield, on Bougainville’s southern coast, aired ideas on how best to bring down a Flying Fortress. His pilots unanimously concluded that a head-on attack from slightly below would be most effective, concentrating fire into what they considered to be the Boeing bomber’s Achilles’ heel – the area where the fuselage joined the wing. Kofukuda authorized practice runs to be made between patrolling Zero-sens in order to perfect pilots’ attacking technique.

This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. B-17G Flying Fortress – 42-31076, LG-V “Chief Sly’s Son” 91st BG, 322nd BS – 1944

B-17 downed

Such training paid dividends on Dec. 1, 1942 when the 204th Kokutai downed a lone B-17E of the 11th Bombardment Group (BG) that was conducting a solo photographic mission to Bougainville. The crew of the Flying Fortress had anticipated interception by defending fighters, and three Zero-sens duly appeared overhead Buin. An initial skirmish unfolded at 1000 hrs, and the B-17 gunners excitedly claimed two fighters destroyed whilst the aircraft headed for the northern end of Choisel Island.

Once there, the bomber was intercepted by what the crew estimated was another flight of six Zero-sens. These circled and maneuvred around out of range until one suddenly “lunged” directly at the nose of the B-17. With a combined collision speed in excess of 400 knots, the Zero-sen tore cleanly through the bomber’s fuselage just behind the wings, neatly cleaving it in two. The tail section, carrying what would prove to be the sole survivor (tail gunner) of the attack, rolled to one side and descended in relative stability.

The Flying Fortress had been struck by future high-scoring ace WO Sho-ichi Sugita, who had taken off that morning with two other warrant officer shotaicho on what was supposed to be a routine training mission. The first of six Zero-sens to depart Buin was to act as a Flying Fortress, against which the three shotaicho would practice their head-on attack skills. All three pilots had been distracted by the appearance of an actual B-17, and Sugita initially kept his distance from the bomber before carefully lining himself up to attack the aircraft from head on.

Zero pilots to approach as close as possible to a B-17 Flying Fortress

He had planned to hit the underside of the B-17 with 20mm cannon shells in an attack that he estimated would last half-a-second. Sugita subsequently related that when he fired, the sudden size of the rapidly approaching Flying Fortress felt like a “roof collapsing upon him,” and he instinctively ducked down in his seat. When Sugita taxied in at Buin, it was obvious that his Zero-sen had lost nearly half of its fin and rudder in the collision. Later that evening, a forgiving Kofukuda sent Sugita a congratulatory bottle of sake.

The next morning, Kofukuda assembled his pilots and told them to approach as close as possible to a B-17 before opening fire with 20mm cannon when almost upon the bomber, then to instantly break away. He stressed that the normal method of placing an aircraft in the gunsight would not work against a Flying Fortress, so he urged his pilots to follow Sugita’s aggressive example of attack, whilst emphasizing that mid-air collisions were not encouraged.

A6M2/3 Zero-sen New Guinea and the Solomons 1942 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: Franck Herete Lot 1: Franck Herete (1967-) Dogfight B17 vs A6M Zero via Invaluable and U.S. Navy

The Koga’s Zero, the captured A6M that helped the F6F Hellcat become the most effective carrier fighter of World War II, at the NACA Langley Reserch Center in Hampton Virginia, in March 1943.
Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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