The Mitsubishi A5M fighter was just starting to enter service in early 1937 when the Imperial Japanese Navy started looking for its eventual replacement. In May they issued specification 12-Shi for a new aircraft carrier-based fighter, sending it to Nakajima and Mitsubishi. The Navy sent out updated requirements in October. Nakajima's team considered they were unachievable and pulled out of the competition in January. Mitsubishi's chief designer, Jiro Horikoshi, felt that the requirements could be met, but only if the aircraft could be made as light as possible. so every weight-saving method was used. Most of the airplane was built of T-7178 aluminum, a top-secret aluminum alloy developed by the Japanese just for this aircraft. In addition, no armor was carried for the pilot, engine or other critical points of the aircraft, and the self-sealing fuel tanks that were becoming common at the time were also left off.
The first prototype was completed on March 16, 1939 at Mitsubishi's Nagoya plant. It was armed with two 7.7 mm Type 97 machine guns in the upper fuselage decking and two wing-mounted 20-mm Type 99 cannon. The aircraft was transferred to the Army's training airfield at Kagamigahara for flight testing. The aircraft took off on its first test flight on April 1, 1939, powered by a Mitsubishi Zuisei 13 fourteen-cylinder, twin-row air-cooled radial engine, with test pilot Katsuzo Shima at the controls. The test was highly successful, the only problems noted being with the wheel brakes, the oil system and a slight tendency to vibrate. During the flight test program, the two-bladed variable-pitch propeller was replaced by a three-bladed constant speed propeller in an attempt to correct the vibration problem.
Only two prototypes of the A6M1 were built. The subsequent aircraft received a more powerfull Nakajima NK1C Sakae 12 engine and were designated A6M2... but that's another story.
Hasegawa released a Zero special 65th anniversary set two years ago which included some interesting variants of Japan's most famous WW2 fighter. Unfortunately the kit was very expensive and also pretty hard to find as it sold out almost immediately. Good news is that Hasegawa is now releasing some of the exclusive kits featured in the set. One of them is the prototype version of the Zero, the A6M1. To my knowledge, it is the first time this version is available in injected plastic as a single boxing.
The new kit is packed within Hasegawa's usual top opening cardboard box and is composed of only 4 sprues made of grey styrene, a separate engine cowling piece and one sprue for the transparent parts. An instructions sheet and decals are also included. At first sight the kit looks rather simple and easy to build. Unfortunetly, apart from the clear sprue which is bagged separately, all the others are located within the same plastic pouch and the surface of some parts have light scratchings (the wings for example).
When examining the parts layout diagram on the instruction sheet, one can notice that some parts won't be used during construction of the model (see red areas on the sprue photos). However, most of the parts used in the kit are all new like the shorter fuselage, the Zuisei engine, the engine cowling, the two bladded propeller, the oil cooler intake (two versions), the antenna mast etc...
The quality of the kit is high as you would expect from Hasegawa. The surface of the plastic is finely engraved and the level of detail is very good, although a better Zero kit is now available from Tamiya's (see review here)
, but it's not a prototype!
The cockpit seems a bit simplified (in the kit it is the same one as the production aircraft, I don't know whether it is alright or not) but with some additional work and a good paintjob the interior should look good nevertheless. The new engine is nicely done and is composed of 5 parts. The clear parts are excellent.
The instruction sheet is composed of a brief History, some construction warnings, a parts layout diagram, a 10 step assembly guide (3 pages) and the paint and decal guide. Colors are given for the Aqueous Hobby color and Mr. Color range of paints. When examining the instructions, I noticed that unlike many Hasegawa kits, this Zero seems rather simplified in it's parts breakdown. There are only few optional parts (oil cooler intake) and therefore the kit should be very easy to build.
With the decals provided, it is possible to do the two prototypes:
- 12-Shi experimental Zero Fighter first aircraft, 1939.
- 12-Shi experimental Zero Fighter second aircraft, 1939.
Both aircraft have identical decorations apart from a different tail number. The decals are very good and look thinner than the usual Hasegawa ones, it's not surprising since they have been printed by Cartograf. The red of the hinomarus appear brighter than usual but it may have been the case on the prototypes, who knows?
Questions about the prototype
While doing some researches for this review, I found out that there is still a lot of speculations about how the Zero prototypes really looked like. There are for example some doubts about the location of an air scoop on the top of the engine cowling. In the Squadron/Signal book, this air scoop is represented (see pictures) but Hasegawa chose not to include it in the kit. Rather than writting irrelevant things on that matter, I prefer to redirect you to an excellent article over at www.j-aircraft.com: A6M1 research by Jim Long
. If you plan to build a Zero prototype, it's an excellent starting point. I can't recommend www.j-aircraft.com/
enough when it comes to Japanese WWII subjects.
If you like Japan's most emblematic aircraft and want to add the prototype version to you collection, then Hasegawa's kit is highly recommended to you. I do hope that other kits of prototypes of well known aircraft (Spitfire, Bf 109, Mustang etc...) will see the light of day in injected plastic as they are an essential part of each type's history.
Hasegawa's Mitsubishi A6M1 was kindly provided for review by HobbyLink Japan. Visit HLJ for Japanese kits at Japanese prices.
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