Mitsubishi Zero VH-ZRO Tora replica Down Under

VH-ZRO is the only Tora replica operating outside the USA. John Freedman brings us the history of this unique star of airshows and screen.

Every hero needs a nemesis – where would Superman be without his arch enemy Lex Luther? As such W.W.II Allied fighters like a Spitfire need a combatant. Australia has been lucky to have one of the world’s most recognised opponents in a nearly ‘Mitsubishi Zero’.  But this aircraft didn’t start out that way; VH-ZRO was originally a Harvard Mk.IV built in 1952 by Canadian Car and Foundry for the Royal Canadian Air Force with the serial number CN: CCF-4-153 and numbered 20362. It served with the RCAF until the late 1960s; this is when it started its second career as a movie star.

In 1968 20th Century Fox embarked on one of cinema’s epic productions, a film on the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941. Tora! Tora! Tora! took three years to plan, and principal photography took eight months. With a budget of 25 million dollars the film took extreme care to balance the Japanese and American sides, to the point of using separate directors and two separate production crews, one for the US side and the other (based in Japan) to film the Japanese sections. A myriad of technical advisors were employed to guarantee accuracy, including Minoru Genda who had done most of the actual Pearl Harbor strike planning.

The producers wanted to have authenticity for the film, and most of the Allied aircraft needed, though rare at the time, were available. Boeing B-17s, Curtiss P-40s, Consolidated PBY Catalinas, and a Douglas SBD Dauntless dive-bomber. But there were no flyable Japanese aircraft in the world, so instead of simply painting ‘meatballs’ on easily accessible aircraft, they decided to spend time and considerable money in modifying airframes.  

Jack Canary won the contract to provide the Japanese aircraft. Canary had worked with producer Elmo Williams when he built two Fokker Triplanes for the 20th Century Fox film ‘The Blue Max’. Canary needed to replicate three aircraft types; the Mitsubishi Zero Carrier Fighter (A6M), the Nakajima Type 97 ‘Kate’ Carrier Attack Bomber (B5N), and the Aichi 99 ‘Val’ Carrier bomber (D3A). To do so they decided to use two types of aircraft; the Vultee BT-13 basic trainer and the North American Aviation AT-6 advanced trainer. Both types were used to train thousands of allied airmen during WW2.

Canary was the perfect person for this project as he had worked for North American Aviation for many years, including being a technical representative on the AT-6 Texan.

Lynn Garrison, an ex-RCAF pilot and motion picture aerial coordinator remembers his involvement, “I purchased 20362, along with five other Mk4 Harvards from Crown Assets Disposal Corporation. I kept one and sold the others to Phil Banks in Whittier, California.  When the Tora Tora Tora project was launched we bought the aircraft from Phil and converted it into a Zero.”

Canary and Garrison coordinated the engineering work through two Long Beach shops; Steward-Davis did the Vals, SBD as well as the Catalinas, and Cal Volair the Zeros and Kates - at a cost of around $30,000 each. “The work was done without shortcuts,” remembers Garrison, “The guys doing the hands-on modifications were working in the centre of the aerospace industry, had all of the experience and equipment available. 20th Century Fox allowed sufficient funding to do the job right, rather than a ‘lipstick and rouge’ sort of approach. And, they were thinking of using military pilots, so the standards were driven even higher.”

How did they turn one of the best known trainers into one of the war’s most formidable fighters?

The main area of change was the cockpit. The two place, fairly large greenhouse canopy had to be altered to match the single seat Zero canopy. To do so the windshield was replaced, as was the upper deck, the rails were raised by a few inches and a new canopy was constructed to resemble that of a Zero. The engine cowling was enlarged, and the carburettor air scoop was repositioned with the oil cooler scoop. Non-adjustable cowl flaps were added, wing-to-fuselage fillets changed to help with the Harvard’s aerodynamic shape, and slots cut into the fuselage sides.  The wing tips were reshaped to look more like the Zero’s shape using fibreglass wing tips.

They added BT-13 tail wheel assemblies that were also made to retract. The landing gear had doors attached and the leading edge of the wing had a fibreglass addition to cover from the wing root to the wing attach joint. This was done to hide the shape of the landing gear wheel wells. The rudder profile was changed at upper and lower ends with fibreglass add ons. A rather large spinner was put over the propeller hub, and cowling and wing machine guns were added to round out the lethal look.

“20362 was the first conversion because it was available immediately, since my friend owned it. I did the first test flight, on what was to become VH-ZRO and was impressed with its handling characteristics. It was a little peppier than the stock Harvard and could execute more aerobatics, while maintaining altitude”, states Garrison, “The first flight was, as always, an exhilarating one. But it had a special excitement to it. This comes back to me whenever I think of our conversions.”

The footage of the Japanese aircraft taking off for the raid was actually filmed on the USS Yorktown (CVS-10). The film producers leased the ship, and paid Navy personnel to work on the production. Yorktown was scheduled to be decommissioned at some time after the production.  The take off shots were filmed off San Diego. At 06:00 on the day of filming the aircraft were lined up across the flight deck. The ship was turned into the wind as the lead aircraft started his take off roll.

ZRO was one of four centre stage star aircraft in the movie. The aircraft had different levels of modifications if they were background aircraft or in front of the camera. For the film she wore A1-110 representing an A6M2, Model 21 operated by the 1st Koku Sentai on the carrier Akagi at Pearl Harbor. ZRO was one of the aircraft that launched off the Yorktown on that day.

The flying scenes from Tora! Tora! Tora! are some of the best ever put to film. The movie set benchmarks in both accuracy and in flying action. The footage has been used in many movies since then, and will likely never be replicated due to the current industry reliance on computer generated special effects.  After filming, the aircraft were sold at auction for about $1,500 a piece, and several aircraft were donated to the Commemorative Air Force. ZRO was sold into private hands, and made its way to Ray and Mark Hannah’s Old Flying Machine Company in the UK as N15798.

The paint was changed to its present scheme for the film Empire of the Sun and it took the Rabul markings of 10288 representing a A6M3 Model 22 of the 1st Koku Sentai operation from the carrier Zuikaku in Bruin.  Then it went to New Zealand, and Sir Tim Wallis’ Alpine Fighter Collection at Wanaka. There it took the registration of ZK-ZRO.

After a time in N.Z. it was purchased by Australian warbird collector Randal McFarlane, and naturally got its current registration of VH-ZRO.

“The opportunity to acquire this aircraft came when I purchased the Grumman TBM-3E Avenger from the Alpine Fighter Collection in 1999. The Zero and the Avenger made a perfect ‘Pacific War’ airshow duo that represented the two principal combatants in WW2 in the Pacific.” says McFarlane.

Later the aircraft passed onto the current owners Garry Cooper and Jeff Muller. “We’d been working on Spitfire Mk14 RM797 (VH-XIV) for many years. However, no matter how much we spent on it, the gap in years and $$$ to an estimated completion forever increased! We thus swapped the project for ZRO 5 or 6 years ago,” says Muller.

ZRO as it is known has appeared at many airshows in Australia since then, and is a crowd favourite. Garry says that he loves to fly the aircraft, not because it is a movie star, but because it flies so well. With the three-blade prop and geared engine it operates very smoothly and the spinner causes it to run cooler and faster.

ZRO was not a one hit wonder though, after Tora! Tora! Tora! It went on to star in another 20th Century Fox production Midway in 1976. Midway used many of the converted aircraft, as well as using stock footage from Tora, a practice that has continued ever since! ZRO was used in many more films; Steven Spielberg’s Empire Of The Sun, in 1987, the ABC TV Mini-series War and Remembrance of 1988, as well as the cult TV series Baa, Baa, Black Sheep.  

Little did they imagine the longevity of the aircraft, never thinking that forty years later these same modified machines would fly on. “ I really didn’t think they would be as robust as they have been in reality,” says Garrison, “The Tora Tora Tora aircraft will be flying in air shows long after we are simply good or bad memories. They are sort of a living memorial to all the guys who worked on the concept and have been forgotten.”

Reluctantly the owners have put the aircraft up for sale; “I just don’t have time to use the aeroplane regularly, and that’s what it needs,” says Muller. “I would not like to see it sold overseas as it is a great airshow aircraft,” says Cooper, “A Spitfire shooting down a Kittyhawk, or some other allied aircraft, just does not seem authentic.”

ZRO is the only Tora replica operating outside of the US, and it is hoped that it will stay in the country, so Australians can see not only a great aircraft, but one that has plenty of history, both on screen and off.  

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