Soldiers Were Searching Iraq’s Desert When They Spotted Aircraft Tail Fins Emerging From The Sand

The search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq spanned years, involved more than a thousand people and incurred eye-watering expenses. Then, when all was said and done, those responsible had very little to show for it. That doesn’t mean they came away from the Middle East totally empty-handed, though. One day, while combing the country’s sandy landscape, a group of soldiers spotted a hulking object poking out of the dunes. And what was hidden turned out to be pretty astonishing, too.

Saddam Hussein was deposed in 2003, and before soldiers began sweeping the country’s desert, they looted the Iraqi leader’s many palaces. And they turned up all manner of strange and fascinating objects, too, including a copy of the Qur’an supposedly written in the dictator’s blood. Yes, Hussein reportedly commissioned the tome in 1997, which would have been around the time of his 60th birthday.

According to Iraqi media reports at the time of the book’s completion, Hussein commissioned it to give thanks to God. In an address published by the country’s newspapers, Hussein said, “My life has been full of dangers in which I should have lost a lot of blood… but since I have bled only a little, I asked somebody to write God’s words with my blood in gratitude.”

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Spanning more than 330,000 words across more than 6,000 verses, the Islamic holy book requires considerable quantities of ink to rewrite. But Hussein’s ink of choice was his own blood – and the dictator is said to have donated 27 liters to the project. Islamic scribe Abbas Shakir Joudi al-Baghdadi then spent a couple of years penning the hundreds of pages of the religious text.

For a time, in fact, Hussein’s Qur’an was exhibited in the mosque that the tyrant built to commemorate the end of the first Gulf War. However, it’s currently in storage behind three different locks, and only high-ranking officials have access to the keys. Iraqi leaders are unsure of how to deal with the book in the longer term, though. Yes, it’s a historical artifact, but it’s also one that could rally Hussein’s remaining followers.

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The “Blood Qur’an,” as it’s come to be known, is perhaps the most bizarre example of Hussein’s memorabilia. But it’s no secret that the dictator lived an opulent lifestyle, owning as he did dozens of palaces across Iraq. And each of his sprawling homes was lavishly furnished, with chandeliers, gold-plated weapons and even gold-plated toilets.

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Hussein’s office, meanwhile, was home to a 3.5 feet-long ceremonial sword, inscribed with a message to Hussein in golden Arabic text. The ornate weapon was purloined from the dictator’s Baghdad headquarters during the invasion and brought clandestinely to the United States, where it was eventually auctioned off in 2012. But when the U.S. authorities got wind, the sword was labeled as an Iraqi cultural item and was subsequently confiscated.

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Some of Hussein’s more obscure possessions have also turned up Stateside. At the Old Court House Museum in Mississippi, for instance, you’ll find one of the despot’s porcelain sinks, exhibited as “military memorabilia.” Elsewhere, Florida’s Armed Forces History Museum features a service uniform once owned by Hussein – shown on a full-size model of the dictator.

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All of these objects were discovered, reclaimed or just plain pillaged during the mayhem that erupted in Baghdad in 2003. Following years of whispers about the Hussein family’s wealth, the true extent of the disparity between rich and poor in Iraq had been laid bare. So, in March that year, the U.S. and other forces had stormed into the country, overthrowing the dictator and exposing the inner workings of his regime.

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The way in which the Western allies toppled Hussein’s administration had its roots in the first Persian Gulf War. In 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait but faced resistance from a military coalition spearheaded by the United States. While the conflict ultimately ended in defeat for Iraq, Hussein and his Ba’ath Party clung to power by quelling countrywide revolts.

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In the aftermath, the United Nations (UN) instigated strict sanctions against Iraq. These were designed in part to thwart any threat of aggressive retaliation by Iraq and to also slow down the country’s arms production. Specifically, the UN hoped to handicap Iraq’s future development of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).

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During his long rule, Hussein frequently pointed to these economic sanctions to explain the Iraqi people’s plight. Many lived in poverty, you see, with limited access to food and medicine. So, when the true extent of the regime’s extravagance came to light after Hussein’s fall, the Iraqi people reacted with anger and confusion, which in turn contributed to widespread looting.

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Moreover, those economic sanctions failed to stop Iraq’s government from breaching its weapons embargo in the 1990s. On the rare occasion that they were unhindered by the regime, UN officials were able to find caches of forbidden munitions and hardware. This refusal to comply quickly led to frustration abroad – particularly in the United States.

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Eventually, Iraq’s repeated obstruction of the UN’s inspectors led U.S. President Bill Clinton to approve Operation Desert Fox in 1998. In conjunction with British armed forces, the United States launched air attacks on a number of military sites in Iraq, including arms-manufacturing facilities. The official aim was apparently to severely undermine Iraq’s ability to produce WMDs.

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In the wake of Operation Desert Fox, however, Iraq simply stopped inspectors from coming into the nation altogether. The UN’s economic sanctions were also gradually forgotten, with Iraq’s neighbors restarting dormant economic deals. But four years later George W. Bush came into office. And he announced that diminishing Iraq’s military power was once again an issue of major importance for the U.S. government.

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Among the president’s reasons for this renewed interest in Iraq were the country’s supposed ownership of WMDs and its alleged backing of terror organizations such as al-Qaeda. In November 2002, then, the UN passed a resolution that commanded Iraq to allow inspectors across its borders and to obey all prior UN requirements. And for a short time, it seemed as if Hussein’s regime was playing ball.

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Bush wasn’t satisfied, though, and claimed in early 2003 that Iraq was still obstructing inspections. Then-British prime minister, Tony Blair, supported the U.S. president’s assertions, but leaders from other countries – including the German chancellor and French president – believed the regime was beginning to comply with demands. In March of that year, Bush had given up on the UN’s actions and instead gave his own deadline to Hussein.

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Much to the chagrin of several European leaders, the U.S. president stated that Hussein had two days to abandon his post. The dictator failed to comply, which prompted Bush to order an assault on Iraqi soil. Therefore, on March 20 U.S. forces launched an airstrike on a bunker in which Hussein was thought to be in discussions with Iraqi officials. And days later, U.S. troops who were stationed in Kuwait commenced a ground invasion.

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After meeting only sporadic resistance along the way, the U.S. forces reached Baghdad by early April. They then commenced raids into the city, swiftly overcoming determined but poorly organized Iraqi fighters. By April 9 the opposition had collapsed, and four days later, U.S. troops seized control of Hussein’s hometown, Tikrīt. The nation’s leadership fled, and Bush publicly stated that the conflict was over on May 1.

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In the months that followed, the Iraq Service Group (ISG) of the CIA embarked upon an intense search for the WMDs that Hussein had supposedly been hoarding. These U.S. officials were part of a wider effort that also encompassed a number of UN-appointed investigators. In total, around $1 billion was spent as more than 1,500 people took years searching in close to 2,000 locations for evidence of Iraq’s WMDs.

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Ultimately, however, the search was fruitless: despite their existence being the pretense to war, no WMDs were found in Iraq. Indeed, a report by the ISG concluded that Hussein had actually demolished the last of his WMDs sometime in the early 1990s. And the ousted dictator apparently had had limited ability to create new WMDs by the time of the U.S. invasion even if he’d wanted to.

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Even after the war wrapped up, Bush still pointed to Iraq as a “gathering threat” during his campaign for re-election. But the ISG’s report stood in stark contrast to that claim, instead finding that Hussein’s threat was one of waning importance. Nevertheless, then-ISG chief, Charles Duelfer, concluded that economic sanctions alone couldn’t restrict Hussein’s long-term ambitions.

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That’s because the ISG did locate some proof that – should the UN’s sanctions have been lifted – Hussein intended to reinitialize weapon production schemes. None of that proof was written down, however; instead, it came from Hussein personally. Yes, while he’d gone into hiding after the fall of Baghdad, the dictator was ultimately captured late in 2003. And he apparently informed his captors that he viewed WMDs as a means to stave off the looming danger posed by his Iranian neighbors.

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But while the ISG’s prolonged search campaign may not have turned up any actual WMDs, the organization still made some astonishing finds. You only need to look at the bizarre objects people stumbled across in Hussein’s many palaces, for example. And in August 2003, a U.S. search team made an even more shocking discovery in the sands of Iraq.

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Yes, sticking up out of the top of the terrain was what looked like the tail of an aircraft. And when they crept closer, the search officials realized they’d stumbled on the remnants of the Iraqi air force’s firepower. The planes had been submerged under the sand at an airbase in Al Taqaddum, which is situated some 50 miles outside Baghdad. What’s more, they’d never been flown in the war.

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In fact, the Iraqi air force had been totally absent from the conflict that had swept through the country in 2003. At the time, it was assumed that Iraq’s pilots knew they would have been outgunned by coalition forces. And while both British and American bombers had targeted grounded aircraft, reports indicated that none of the Iraqi jets had ever attacked allied forces.

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According to information gathered prior to the U.S. troops arriving on Iraqi soil, then, Hussein’s regime possessed several hundred military planes. These weren’t modern aircraft, however, with most dating back to the Gulf War. Among them were outmoded Mirage fighters from France as well as Sukhois and MiGs.

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Approximately 30 of these various models were dug up in the sands of the airbase in Al Taqaddum, including an MiG-25 interceptor dating back to the Cold War. It was, in fact, the twin tail fins of this aircraft that first alerted the search team to the planes’ presence. Officials also found Su-25 ground attack jets at the site, although none of them were deemed to be WMDs.

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Several of the planes were apparently in poor condition, casting doubt over their ability to ever be operable again. That’s perhaps not too surprising, though, given they’d been submerged in the sand for an undetermined period of time. Despite missing their wings, some of the aircraft seemed to be remarkably well-kept – raising the question of why they’d ever been buried at all.

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To answer that question, we need to look back to the 1980s, when Iran and Iraq were engaged in a bitter war. At the time, Iraq’s air force could just about stand up to the firepower of Iran’s aircraft, which had been sourced from the United States. However, equipment alone wasn’t enough, and the Iraqi pilots were generally outclassed by the skills of their Iranian counterparts.

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Given that Hussein’s pilots hadn’t managed to match Iran in the air, then, he knew that his air force wouldn’t stand a chance against the U.S. military. What’s more, a sizeable chunk of his airborne artillery had been lost to Iran during the first Gulf War. The Iraqi dictator had hoped to temporarily move the aircraft into Iran out of harm’s way – but Iran then opted to keep them for good.

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The UN’s economic sanctions had also made it difficult for Hussein’s regime to maintain and repair its remaining planes. In addition, these aircraft rarely flew during the 1990s, owing to the no-fly zone that stretched across much of the country. This had been implemented by the U.K. and the United States to safeguard groups previously targeted by Hussein in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War.

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Even if Iraq’s limited air force couldn’t hold its own against U.S. firepower, its planes could still be used in other conflicts. Hussein’s pilots were in fact more than capable of holding their own when confronted by most other Middle Eastern nations. But the aforementioned economic sanctions meant the dictator couldn’t afford to replace any planes that he’d likely lose in any conflict.

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As a result of these factors, Hussein instructed his officials to break down and bury his most modern aircraft. In doing so, he was seemingly hoping that invading forces wouldn’t commandeer the best his air force had to offer. And given that the coalition disassembled any aircraft left in plain sight, the dictator’s actions seem sensible in hindsight.

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For instance, a group of Australian troops discovered a hoard of fighter planes at the Iraqi airbase in Al Asad. It’s located 100 or so miles away from Baghdad and was home to not only Soviet-era MiGs, but also a trio of MiG-25 Foxbats. At the time of their discovery, these modern planes were the speediest of their kind in operation.

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The planes at Al Asad had managed to avoid detection during the initial bombing campaign by coalition forces. A number had simply been covered by camouflage sheets or masked by trees, while others had been submerged – much like those at Al Taqaddum. Iraqi officials had also deliberately placed aircraft debris across the base, seemingly hoping to confuse allied bombers.

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Hussein’s plan for his buried planes had presumably been to recover them after coalition forces departed Iraq. But it was all for nothing, of course, because the invading allies successfully overthrew his regime. In the end, then, it was the U.S. search team who’d discover and dig up the buried remnants of Iraq’s air force.

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According to Porter Goss, then-head of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee, the discovery was an example of the lengths to which Hussein’s regime was prepared to go to deceive the invaders. Goss also agreed that the planes had been buried to make sure the U.S. couldn’t put them to use. According to Fox News, he said at the time, “Our guys have found 30-something brand new aircraft buried in the sand to deny us access to them.”

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Once Iraq’s air force was eventually revived in the late 2000s, though, those Soviet-era planes were no longer required. Indeed, they were ultimately replaced by spare American fighters, in an effort that represented a new challenge for the United States Air Force. While its role would typically be to provide components or training to a partner nation, it now had to rebuild an air force almost from scratch.

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Over the course of more than a year, hundreds of U.S. and UN investigators combed Iraq for WMDs. And while they would never find any evidence of Hussein’s regime possessing nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, they did find weapons of a different kind. Rather than lose his planes altogether, the dictator had simply chosen to hide them – a decision that ultimately proved futile.

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It’s not uncommon for countries to want to hide details of their air forces from their foes, but the circumstances are usually a little different. They may want to keep the special design features of their aircraft a secret, for instance, as it will likely have an influence on how they fare in conflict. As we know, Japan and the U.S. fought against each other in WWII, but when an airman called Steve Barber studied one of Japan’s fighters, he discovered a rather alarming truth about the plane’s design.

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The year is 1991, and researchers have discovered the wreck of a Mitsubishi Zero A6M deep within the Indonesian jungle. It’s been 50 years since this aircraft – a legendary Japanese dogfighter – was gunned down over New Guinea, and soon the plane will be shipped to the United States before making its way to veteran Steve Barber. Yet the story is only just beginning. After years of studying the once-great Zero, the ex-Marine will uncover some startling facts about its past.

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For all its ability to turn like a top, the Zero was something of a deathtrap. As Barber told Air & Space/Smithsonian magazine in 2007, “The Japanese government didn’t care if the pilot survived. They were looking for climbability and maneuverability.” The airman has a deep understanding of the Zero, too, and this knowledge has yielded a rather shocking secret.

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The Zero that Barber has flown, though, was originally shot out of the sky in 1941 during World War II. Having crashed into the Indonesian jungle, the plane was then pulled out of its resting place 50 years on. Apparently, whoever had recovered the craft had intended to fix it back up, but the job was not complete. Now, however, the Zero is the only plane of its type that can still fly.

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In fact, the Zero had only needed a handful of changes – the addition of GPS navigation, for instance – to bring it in line with modern aviation standards. Barber explained to Stuff, “The airplane is as it was. The cockpit is original.” Indeed, as a whole, he said, the retrieved dogfighter looked as though it had just come out of the factory.

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And once the plane’s restoration was finished, the craft was in good enough condition to become a movie star. In a July 2011 video interview, Barber explained to AVWeb of the Zero, “This particular aircraft was just completed in time to fly in the… movie Pearl Harbor.

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Yes, similar planes had taken off from aircraft carriers on that fateful day in December 1941 when the U.S. war with Japan began. And back then, the Zeros had been a deadly secret that it seemed the Americans had no good answer to. But as Barber would reveal, these powerful machines actually had close connections to the United States.

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Barber is no stranger to war, either, having served as a Marine in Vietnam for four years from 1966. Nowadays, though, he’s a member of the Commemorative Air Force (CAF), operating as wing leader for its Southern California branch in Camarillo.

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Based in Texas, the CAF is a non-profit organization whose aim is to get the viewing public up close and personal with aircraft from history. Members demonstrate World War II planes in action, in fact, and close to ten million people in the U.S. watch the CAF’s restored craft every year.

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All in all, then, the CAF has come a long way since Lloyd Nolen and four buddies bought a P-51 Mustang to restore. The $1,500 purchase marked the beginning of the organization, although before long it had also acquired two Grumman F8F Bearcats. And when the CAF realized that no one seemed to care about maintaining the aerial heritage of World War II, its members duly stepped into the breach.

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Nowadays, hundreds of the CAF’s volunteers actually fly the planes or work as ground crew. The mission to rescue combat planes, meanwhile, has spread to more than 12,000 people across the States and overseas. And from 1981, the CAF has maintained a wing in southern California that has attracted hundreds of members.

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In 2015, then, the CAF as a whole had 166 planes, with 131 of these being able to fly. Most of this “Ghost Squadron” consists of American aircraft of many varying types, although the CAF does also operate some foreign planes from the Axis powers and the Soviet Union. And included among this number is the Mitsubishi Zero A6M that was discovered in the Indonesian jungle.

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Known as the “Terror of the Pacific,” the Japanese warplane would prove itself more than worthy of that nickname. Yes, the Zero defied its small size to prove a dangerous enemy. And in the early months of the war, examples of the craft ended up dominating the skies of the Pacific theater.

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The Zero model itself had been built by the Mitsubishi Aircraft Company – a division of the huge Tokyo-based industrial group that still exists today – and flown over long ranges by the Imperial Japanese Navy. Zeroes also took off from carriers, allowing them to appear almost anywhere without warning – making these planes the perfect weapon for the surprise attack that opened the war in the Pacific.

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The name “Zero,” meanwhile, is derived from the craft’s navy designation, as the Japanese called it the Type 0 carrier fighter. Officially, however, the plane was known as the “A6M,” with “A” designated to fighters that were based on carriers, “6” because the Zero was the sixth model in its line and “M” for Mitsubishi. The Allies, on the other hand, knew this type of plane as “Zeke.”

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Whatever name it went by, though, the A6M Zero was highly regarded. Whether the craft launched from a carrier or land, its exceptional range and top-level handling made it formidable. And in 2011 Barber took the opportunity to explain to AVWeb some of the features that made the plane so special.

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To begin with, Barber reveals that the Zero he displayed had been the third iteration of the A6M. It turns out that the first prototypes in the series had taken to the air in the spring of 1939, and these had been such a success that by the fall of that year, the Japanese Navy wanted to test them.

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In his video interview, Barber also tells AVWeb that the later model has extended wings that were intended to carry fuel tanks. This feature was part of a redesign that aimed to give the updated Zero the extremely long range that an earlier model had enjoyed. Ultimately, then, the plane stored 87 gallons in wing tanks to supplement its interior 150-gallon reservoir.

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However, as Barber points out, this initially created a conundrum. Owing to these longer wings, the Zero would no longer be able to fit into the elevators that would bring it up onto the flight deck of carriers. As a result, then, Mitsubishi ultimately fitted the fighter with wingtips that could fold up.

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Next, Barber considers the plane’s light weight. At first, the aircraft designers had been presented with a problem: while the engines that they had to work with were not very powerful, they still needed to provide speed and range in any resulting prototype. In addition, the Zero team aimed to make a fighter that weighed half as much as its American equivalent.

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So, design boss Jiro Horikoshi went all out to cut the plane’s weight. In the end, then, the aircraft was predominantly constructed from an aluminum alloy called extra super duralumin, which had the advantage of being both less heavy and more durable than other mixtures of metals. And while this material was subject to corrosion, the plane was ultimately treated to prevent this eventuality.

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But that drive to cut the Zero’s weight down to the bare minimum had its drawbacks. Barber explains, for example, that the Zero lacked the armor that other planes of the period possessed; all it had for protection was a single plate that lay behind the pilot. This measure stands in marked contrast to the ones taken with American fighters, which each carried about 160 pounds of armoring that shielded the pilot and any parts that could explode.

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On top of that, the Zero did not feature the self-sealing fuel tanks that were common on aircraft of the time. In fact, as Barber tells AVWeb, the Zero’s equivalents were very simply constructed. He says, “The tanks were strictly aluminum – no liners in them.” And this fateful decision occasionally proved deadly.

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You see, the Zero was liable to be set on fire and explode when caught by bullets. As Barber told Air & Space/Smithsonian magazine in 2007, “If you hit a Zero with a tracer, they’d almost always catch fire.” It’s no wonder, then, that versions of the craft are often seen going down in balls of flames in films.

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The danger didn’t end there for the pilot, however. Barber explains another potential peril to AVWeb, remarking, “[American planes] had bulletproof glass [in the windshield], which would stop a .50 caliber bullet. [The Zero] has about 3/8-inch Plexiglas.” And the airman is skeptical, too, about the Zero windshield’s power, adding, “[The glass] wouldn’t stop a BB [gun pellet].”

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However, despite this seeming disregard for pilot safety, Horikoshi succeeded in his aim of creating a very light plane. As Barber tells AVWeb, the craft “weighs about what planes with half the horsepower do” – in this case, 4,300 pounds without pilot or fuel.

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And, apparently, the Japanese had focused in on the kind of aerial maneuvers that had been seen in World War I, when airplanes needed to be able to turn tightly in close dogfighting. That need to spin then drove the requirement for light loads on the wing – which in turn required scanty, unarmored aircraft.

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Yet the Zero’s specialized wing had to be built in one piece, meaning it could not be made in small workshops that were simple to protect. And building the plane needed a lot of labor to boot, with the result being that only 10,000 Zero planes were constructed during the model’s seven-year production life. By contrast, the same number of American fighters could be churned out in only half the time.

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But the lightweight construction of the Zero does pay off, with Barber explaining to AVWeb that the plane “goes well.” Having widely spaced landing gear, for instance, allows the craft to move in a straight line down the runway. “I think [the Zero is] a joy to fly,” Barber adds.

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Originally, though, the Zero sported an array of weaponry that made it potentially deadly. Barber explains that as well as the 20mm cannon on each wing, each single plane also boasted two .30 caliber guns mounted on its cockpit. Any shells were then ejected through ports at the side of the cockpit.

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Barber adds that the Zero’s pilot could select which weapons they wanted to fire by using a switch. In addition, a synchronizer would make sure that the bullets could pass through the propeller that drove the plane.

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It should be noted, though, that American planes each carried six .50 caliber guns that had the potential to obliterate the Zero’s light body. Even so, the Japanese believed that U.S. fighters wouldn’t be able to get their guns to bear on the Zero. They saw the craft as a weapon by which to attack rather than one that would need much defending.

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Barber shows off the Zero’s maneuverability, however, in mock dogfights with preserved American warplanes. For example, visitors to the air displays in which the ex-Marine participates can see him do battle with a Grumman F6F Hellcat. This carrier aircraft was designed to take on the Zero, and it would become the U.S.’ predominant fighter for the latter part of the war.

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What’s more, in one video uploaded to YouTube in 2013, Barber shows off the extremely low speed that the Zero can reach without stalling. And being able to fly at only 69 mph allows the craft to maneuver incredibly, with no Allied fighter being able to match its ability to turn. Apparently, then, British pilots discovered that the tactics that had served them well in Europe could not prevail against the Japanese planes’ aerobatics.

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And in his video interview, Barber tells AVWeb that he had demonstrated those aerobatics in a mock fight with a Vought F4U Corsair. On that occasion, too, the pilot of the American plane had begged Barber to slow down as he hadn’t been able to keep up. Barber explains, “I was doing a third-stick deflection; he was doing a full-stick deflection to roll at the same rate.”

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To power that flight, the Zero had been been fitted with a Pratt & Whitney R1830 radial engine instead of its original Nakajima Sakae 21 powerplant. And switching one for the other proved no problem – despite the fact that the Pratt & Whitney component was American-built.

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Barber explained of the change, “Of course, the first ten Zeros [that] flew had American engines. Since we were nice enough to sell Japan some Pratt & Whitney engines, they turned around and essentially copied them, which is why the parts are nearly interchangeable today.” And this in turn opens up a shocking possibility.

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The CAF’s Southern California Wing said, “There is, nevertheless, the fact that Japan had a contract with Pratt & Whitney before WWII in which P&W provided engines for fighter planes and other aircraft. It is therefore conceivable that some of the planes participating in the Pearl Harbor attack could have been powered by American engines.”

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And the American influence on the Zero may go even deeper. Some say, for instance, that the design of the plane had been based on the Vought V-143 that Japan had bought in 1937. Indeed, when Vought’s president Eugene Wilson saw a Zero in 1943, he apparently said that it was “the spitting image” of the V-143. But that isn’t all.

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You see, the Japanese had allegedly showed a willingness to rip off other American ideas. The way in which the Zero’s wheels stowed away when retracted, for instance, brought to Wilson’s mind a similar feature by Northrop. It’s said, too, that Zero engineers had copied Pratt & Whitney’s parts so closely that they even included a Navy inspection stamp. Nonetheless, no one had broken the law in selling the Japanese weapons.

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Perhaps as a result of such similarities, Barber explains to AVWeb that the Zero did compare well to American planes of the time. And while later U.S. craft would eventually be faster than the Mitsubishi plane, the CAF member concludes of the Zero, “If the Japanese could get our American pilots below 175 knots, nothing would touch this airplane.”

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