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The Wind Rises: Jiro Horikoshi’s Love Affair with Flight

A6M3-3 ‘Zero-sen’ (‘Zero fighter’) – Artwork by Basel Hammond.

It is easy to look back at Mitsubishi’s infamous A6M ‘Zero’ and simply see it like any of the Second World War fighter aircraft that were conceived by pencil and paper, but analysing the genius behind its design suggests it is unique in aviation history. Even more so, the young aeronautical engineer who created it – Jiro Horikoshi. The Wind Rises, an anime film directed by Hayao Miyazaki, is a very watchable depiction of Jiro’s life. But arguably even more poignant is his wartime memoir, The Eagles of Mitsubishi. One can effectively put themselves in the mind of Horikoshi and become the designer of the plane that changed the world during the first years of World War II.

It could be said that the Zero was the equivalent of our Spitfire in Japan. It symbolised not only freedom, but a new era of technological advancement that redefined ‘made in Japan’. Prior, the nation was very reliant on Western technology, particularly in aeronautical design. Horikoshi himself was American trained.  But having made its first flight only five months before the outbreak of the Second World War, the Zero was the most advanced aeroplane in the world. It had a top speed of 330 miles per hour, used an engine that barely produced 1000 horsepower and its agility was described as ‘superb’ by its pilots. But most impressive of all was its range: the Zero’s efficient airframe and aerodynamics ensured it could fly distances of up to 2600 kilometres, more than twice the range of its competitors. Even Mitsubishi’s rival, Nakajima (now Subaru cars) pulled out of the competition to meet the Navy’s specifications, which they thought called for an aircraft that was impossible to conceive. But how did Mitsubishi do it?

Horikoshi had already left his competitors behind. He had perfected the construction technique of ‘flush riveting’ with his previous design, the A5M, which was the first all-metal naval aircraft. To put it simply, a rivet that is ‘flush’ with a surface is one where its head is pushed in line to match the surface it is being fitted to. You could run your hand over the surface of the now smooth metal skin, without feeling the bumps where bolts and rivets would be. Most aircraft have thousands of rivets bolted onto them. If not flush with the wings and fuselage, each contributes a very small amount of drag by the way they slightly stick out. If you added up the drag from all these rivets, an aircraft could lose 20 miles per hour in speed. ‘Flush riveting’ therefore reduces this cumulative air resistance.

One thing I found particularly interesting about Horikoshi’s book was his memory of drawing out the Zero for the first time. I followed along with my own pen and paper, to put myself in his mindset and see what I would come up with.

Quick sketch of the early A6M Zero – a purposefully simple and clean aircraft yet so advanced for its time, with retractable undercarriage and the ability to land on an aircraft carrier. Sketch by Basel Hammond.

As you can see, the Zero is quite a clean aircraft – a very purposeful planform – compromising bulk for efficiency and speed, giving the pilot the best possible aircraft to fly in the most critical situations. In my opinion, it has the lines of a real ‘pilot’s aeroplane’ – in other words, one that a pilot could bond with and enjoy flying rather than going to war in it. The aircraft was designed to be the purest flying machine possible. Lightening holes were drilled into the wings, tail and fuselage wherever there was space, making the Zero half the weight of its contemporaries. Armour and protection was kept at a minimum, resulting in an aircraft that a pilot could thoroughly feel as if he was part of it; a flying Samurai.

It was beautiful with its trim wing arranged in straight lines and the well-balanced position of its tail. The fuselage was streamlined from the cowling to its aftermost point.

Jiro Horikoshi
A6M2 Model 21 Zero – exactly the aircraft that participated during the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941. Artwork by Basel Hammond.
The A6M5-52, perhaps the most definitive version of this aircraft. It has a thicker fuselage and shorter wings compared to the Model 21 illustrated above. In the ‘-52’, the 5 means the 5th wing design and ‘2’ stands for the 2nd engine type fitted to the Zero. Artwork by Basel Hammond.

‘It’s beautiful!’ I exclaimed as it looped round in the spring blue sky – when I realised I was its designer.

Jiro Horikoshi

The Wind Rises and subsides

The Zero went on to serve with honour with the Imperial Japanese Navy, bettering all its adversaries until it was eventually outperformed with the arrival of new and more powerful aircraft in mid-1942. By then, it was the most feared aircraft in the world – a Samurai sword in the air and a legend of the skies. But what of the man who conceived it? As I read further on with Horikoshi’s memoir, he increasingly expresses his remorse for his creation, which was used in war to take the lives of others. His sadness is made even more understandable by the fact that his Zero – once the finest fighter in the world – was suddenly a plane of destruction, now being used for Kamikaze operations. It was something completely out of his power and knowledge, and it hurt him to think that teenagers were sent to their deaths in an aircraft he designed. 

After the war, Horikoshi did not let his passion for aeronautics fall away – he became the professor of aeronautical engineering at a university in Tokyo (imagine having this prolific man as your lecturer!) and would frequently receive letters from aviation enthusiasts across the world. Jiro Horikoshi was a man who saw aeroplanes as beautiful dreams, a thought that I live by today. This is very much depicted in the film The Wind Rises, in which Jiro declares, ‘I just want to create beautiful aeroplanes’. And given the plethora of the weird and wonderful aeroplanes that I have seen in my time, he certainly did.