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Aces of Aviation

Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero of Saburo Sakai

Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero of Saburo Sakai

Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero from the Tainan Kokutai of the Imperial Japanese Navy, piloted by First-class Officer Saburo Sakai, in July 1942.

Wingspan: 12.00 meters.

Length: 9.06 meters.

Height: 3.05 meters.

Engine[s]: Nakajima Sakae 12 of 940 horsepower.

Maximum speed: 535 kilometers/hour.

Service ceiling: 10000 meters.

Range: 1870 kilometers.

Armament: Two Type 99 20-millimeter cannons; two Type 97 7.7-millimeter machine guns; two 60-kilogram bombs.

Surpassed only by the records of their German and Finnish counterparts, those of the four main fighter pilots of the Japanese Imperial Aeronaval Force were the result of the superiority of the fighter aircraft piloted by the Japanese in the Pacific during the first part of the Second World War. At the lead of such excellent class was the splendid Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero-Sen, which was the main aircraft piloted in combat by Japanese aces Hiroyoshi Nishizawa, Tetsuzo Iwamoto, Shoichi Sugita and Saburo Sakai. This latter wrote: "The Zero excited me like no other thing did before. It was the most sensitive aircraft that I had ever piloted; the slightest pressure of the fingers caused an instant response."

Born the 26th August 1916 in the bosom of a humble family, Saburo Sakai enlisted in the Japanese Imperial Navy as a simple mariner at the age of sixteen, but he applied for aviation tasks in 1937, when he reached the rank of Third-class Officer. He entered combat for the first time during the Campaign of China of 1938-39, when he destroyed a Polikarpov I-16 over Hankow. His following victory, also over China, did not happen until August 1941. Then, while piloting a Zero at the beginning of the war in the Pacific, Sakai downed the first American aircraft fallen during the Campaign of the Philippines, when he managed to destroy the Boeing B-17D Flying Fortress bomber piloted by Captain Collin Kelly, from the 14th Bomber Squadron of the 19th Bomber Group, over Clark Field, the 8th December 1941.

Sakai was sent to fight in the aerial campaign unleashed over Java in the early 1942, where he reached a record of thirteen victories, including two Hawker Hurricane and four Brewster F2A Buffalo, before getting sick in March. He returned to the theater of operations three months later, joining the Tainan Kokutai in Lae, New Guinea. There he was assigned to the flight commanded by Lieutenant Junishi Sasai, a small group which would become the unit holding the absolute record of victories of the whole front of the Pacific; apart from Sakai (27 victories), the group included Hiroyoshi Nishizawa (87 victories), Toshio Ota (34 victories) and Toraichi Takatsuka (16 victories). Almost all of their opponents were aircraft of inferior prestations, such as the Grumman F4F Wildcat, Bell P-39 Airacobra and Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, piloted by inexpert aviators who the Japanese simply swept away from the skies of New Guinea.

Sakai's record quickly increased and on the early August he had already reached 57 victories, which in that moment was the highest record achieved by any pilot in the war in the Pacific. The 8th August Sakai and his flight departed for a long mission, with their tanks full of fuel, to take part in the fight as support of the Japanese forces which were fighting the American Marines during the amphibious landings of Guadalcanal, in the Solomon Islands. Joining the combat against the American bombers and fighters, Sakai put out of action two Wildcat and one Douglas SBD Dauntless before attacking a flight of Grumman TBF Avenger. He downed two of them, but the response cross-fire from the bombers hit his Zero and severely injured him in the head and face. Despite the terrible pain and the loss of vision in an eye, the heroic pilot managed to return his aircraft to Lae. He was immediately sent to Japan, where he remained retired from the battlefront until 1944; from that moment he took part only in some operations due to the loss of an eye.