Can some of the explanation for the P-38's greater success in the Pacific be attributed to poorer Japanese pilots?

NTGray

Airman 1st Class
211
276
Nov 22, 2019
Given that the P-38 enjoyed much greater success in the Pacific than it did in Europe, is it reasonable to wonder whether at least part of that success was due to the Japanese air forces already suffering from reduced pilot competence by the time P-38s began to arrive?

It seems to be universally accepted that the last vestiges of combat effectiveness in Japanese aviation disappeared with the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot. But the results of that battle were so one-sided that it seems that Japanese aviation was already ineffective by mid-1944. And I have read several items lately that suggested that Midway not only deprived the Imperial Navy of most of its good aircraft carriers, but also dealt a heavy blow to the air wing of the navy. And given that Japanese aviation training was far below the quality of American training even in 1942, it seems reasonable to suppose that by early '43 and the abandonment of Guadalcanal, a great many inadequately trained new pilots were mingled with the few remaining good veteran pilots, and the overall decline in Japanese pilot quality would already have been apparent.

That's what I'm thinking, anyway. Anybody here with more knowledge than I have care to chime in? What were the pilots themselves (on both sides) saying in 1943?
 

GrauGeist

Generalfeldmarschall zur Luftschiff Abteilung
When the P-38 arrived in New Guinea in late '42, they were soon engaging both IJN and IJA fighters who's skilled pilot pool had not started to decline yet.

It was the P-38's ability to "energy fight" that put the A6M and KI-43 at a disadvantage. In other words, with the P-38's ability to turn and climb/dive at higher speeds, the Japanese pilots were not able to fully bring an effective fight against the Lightning.
 

NTGray

Airman 1st Class
211
276
Nov 22, 2019
When the P-38 arrived in New Guinea in late '42, they were soon engaging both IJN and IJA fighters who's skilled pilot pool had not started to decline yet.

It was the P-38's ability to "energy fight" that put the A6M and KI-43 at a disadvantage. In other words, with the P-38's ability to turn and climb/dive at higher speeds, the Japanese pilots were not able to fully bring an effective fight against the Lightning.
Clearly the P-38 was a superior plane (as was the F6F that came just a little while later). And I'm not trying to take anything away from the obviously superb skills of the Pacific aces. This is more of a general question of when the decline in skill of Japanese pilots began to be noticed by the combatants themselves, and to what extent that decline worked to the advantage of America's pilots.
 

Macandy

Senior Airman
360
246
Aug 6, 2017
By 1943, the US had hands on experience with a captured A6M and know how to defeat it.
Keep your speed up - it was almost impossible to manoeuvre an A6M when it hit 350kts - even the old F4-F Wildcat would eat it alive in a fast dive.
 

GregP

Captain
8,535
4,813
Jul 28, 2003
Chino, California, U.S.A.
By 1943, the US had hands on experience with a captured A6M and know how to defeat it.
Keep your speed up - it was almost impossible to manoeuvre an A6M when it hit 350kts - even the old F4-F Wildcat would eat it alive in a fast dive.

The A6M never went 350 kts except in a steep dive. The top speed was 565 km/h or 351 mph, not 350 knots. 350 knots is 402 mph. No A6M ever went 402 mph in level, unaccelerated flight.

Steep dives aren't dogfighting maneuvers, they are escape maneuvers. Once the controls got heavy, which was rather quickly once the nose was well down, the steep dive was not an attack maneuver because the aircraft was difficult to guide precisely when it was that fast.

And best-laid plans rarely survive initial contact. A well-flown A6M was a difficult adversary even in 1945, one-on-one. Thinking it was meat on the table was a deadly misconception right up to the end of the war. The expert Japanese pilots may well have been depleted in number, but they weren't gone. Every A6M you encountered wasn't a green newbie.
 

Macandy

Senior Airman
360
246
Aug 6, 2017
The A6M never went 350 kts except in a steep dive. The top speed was 565 km/h or 351 mph, not 350 knots. 350 knots is 402 mph. No A6M ever went 402 mph in level, unaccelerated flight.

Which was how you killed an A6M, dive on him, force him to break and try and dive away, he died.
Once F4F pilots grasped not to turn with a Zero, it was a zero.
 

33k in the air

Staff Sergeant
806
1,095
Jan 31, 2021
Which was how you killed an A6M, dive on him, force him to break and try and dive away, he died.
Once F4F pilots grasped not to turn with a Zero, it was a zero.

I thought it was more of a case of diving on the target, make a firing pass, then use the energy gained in the dive to zoom climb back up to regain your altitude advantage. Repeat as necessary until the target is shot down or you decide to disengage.
 

Macandy

Senior Airman
360
246
Aug 6, 2017
Some things are easier said than done.


The A6M pilot had an instinctive desire to turn into the fight, but he can't - he has to try and get away from the faster plane - and then his crappy controls lock up

Turning into the fight was not an option for an A6M pilot of the other guy kept his speed up.
 

MIflyer

1st Sergeant
4,514
6,843
May 30, 2011
Cape Canaveral
The performance margin the P-38 enjoyed over Japanese aircraft was much greater than over German aircraft. The pre-J model P-38 did not have much if any of a performance advantage with the BF-109G above 30,000 ft. In contrast, compared to the Zeke and Oscar, any P-38 model was in a whole other league. In its first combat engagement in the Pacific an F-4 had one engine shot out but still managed to escape its Japanese attacker. And yes, despite what the editor at Aviation History Magazine told me, if you have taken battle damage, you've been in combat even if you are not carrying any guns.

The twin engine reliability and longer range capabilities of the P-38 also were valuable features for the P-38 in the Pacific Theater.
 

GregP

Captain
8,535
4,813
Jul 28, 2003
Chino, California, U.S.A.
Which was how you killed an A6M, dive on him, force him to break and try and dive away, he died.
Once F4F pilots grasped not to turn with a Zero, it was a zero.

The average A6M pilot would never try to dive away from a diving attack. It wasn't his airplane's strength. He'd break into the attack and try to dogfight and catch you on your way back up.

Only green newbie would try to dive away from someone who was already in a diving attack maneuver.

Don't get me wrong, there WERE a few green newbies. But not an many as you seem to indicate.
 

GregP

Captain
8,535
4,813
Jul 28, 2003
Chino, California, U.S.A.
The A6M pilot had an instinctive desire to turn into the fight, but he can't - he has to try and get away from the faster plane - and then his crappy controls lock up

Turning into the fight was not an option for an A6M pilot of the other guy kept his speed up.

The A6M may be a lot of things, but crappy ain't one of them. Get out of the propaganda comic books and look at the real war. The Japanese were strapped for raw materials due to the embargo, but they were never stupid or non-inventive. Japanese pilots were among the best in the world when the war started, and only the ones trained after about 1943 were lacking a bit. They had the same issues we had. New pilots who survived early combat rapidly turned into veterans. Many didn't survive early combat.

You might be surprised how many Allied aircraft were shot down by Japanese combat pilots.
 

Greg Boeser

Master Sergeant
2,748
4,734
Jul 29, 2016
Minnesota
Japanese commanders were complaining about the poor quality of replacement pilots as early as late 1942. One problem they had was production of the Zero barely kept pace with attrition, so the guys coming from rear areas and flight schools had no time in them, as they were still flying A5Ms. The IJA units committed to New Guinea at the end of 1942 arrived with Ki-43 Is. These were hand me downs from units in Burma and the NEI, which were transitioning to Ki-43 IIs
 

GregP

Captain
8,535
4,813
Jul 28, 2003
Chino, California, U.S.A.
Good points, Greg, I am not saying the IJN and IJA air arms were top-notch by late 1943, but neither was it safe to assume they were not good pilots or that their airplanes weren't up to good air combat. Many were, as the Allies found out. Guys like Saburo Sakai were flying until the end of the war.

Dismissing them as not up to our standards simply didn't happen. If it did, those guys were likely dead soon after.

Ditto the Luftwaffe. They had pilot training issues, too, but the experienced guys were flying on the last day of the European war. When they surrendered, Erich Hartmann was among the people who did. Ignoring him as not up to par would be laughably stupid, including his Bf 109.
 

Users who are viewing this thread