The Planes of Fame Museum in Chino, CA has an extraordinary collection of aircraft. Even more extraordinary is that most of their historic planes still fly. One of the crown jewels in their collection is this Mitsubishi A6M5 Zero. It’s the only original Zero in existence that still flies. They flew it this past weekend and I took my son to see it. It was magnificent.
At the start of WWII, the Zero was probably the best fighter plane around. In fact, US Navy pilots were told not to engage in dogfights with the Zero. They were designed to be light, fast, and maneuverable. But it didn’t take long for the US to catch up, building fighter planes like the Hellcat that may not have been as agile, but could take punishment. As you can tell by looking closely at the photos, this Zero doesn’t look as rugged as the American planes that would later take them on and bring them down in huge numbers.
For one thing, they didn’t have resealable fuel tanks, which would become standard on US planes. So whereas a plane like the Hellcat could take several 50 caliber rounds and suffer little damage, one or two well-placed shots could turn the Zero into a fireball. That’s why there are so few left.
Sleek as it looks on the ground, it’s nothing compared to the way it looks in the air. My son and I have gone to many flying events at Planes of Fame and we’ve seen more warbirds fly than I can count. But the Zero looked positively majestic. It seemed to fly effortlessly as a bird.
As graceful as it looked in the sky, it was hard not to think about what it must have been like to hear that exact engine roar overhead 70 years ago as machines like this one and its cousins unleashed their fury upon an unsuspecting Pearl Harbor. I’m not exaggerating when I say it was exquisitely chilling.