This aircraft served across nearly every theatre of WWII, across several air forces
An early-war fighter design that never quite earned the recognition of many of its contemporaries, this aircraft nonetheless made a huge contribution to Allied air forces around the globe
Developed by Curtiss-wright Corporation in the 1930s, the P-40 ‘Warhawk’ found itself suddenly thrust on to the front line once the USA entered the Second World War in 1941. The P-40 was the successor to the obsolete P-36 ‘Hawk’, which experienced many of the drawbacks that would hamper the Warhawk’s performance in wartime. Despite lagging behind in terms of combat optimisation, among which was an engine ill-suited to higher altitudes and limited armament, P-40s nonetheless bolstered the Allies’ desperate need for fighter planes during the dark early days of the war. The Tomahawk and Kittyhawk (illustration left) iterations, reconfigured for British and Commonwealth service, were found to be highly effective in the North African theatre.
However the P-40’s most famous incarnation was undoubtedly with the American Volunteer Group (AVG) nicknamed the ‘Flying Tigers’. These airmen, with their colourfully decorated aircraft, fought alongside forces of Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalist China, during the Second Sino-japanese War. By the end of the war, close to 14,000 P-40s had been built.
“THE P-40 ‘WARHAWK’ FOUND ITSELF SUDDENLY THRUST ON TO THE FRONT LINE ONCE THE USA ENTERED THE SECOND WORLD WAR IN 1941”
Early versions of the P-40 were poorly prepared for combat, without adequate armour plating or self-sealing fuel tanks, which had quickly become the standard in the European theatre. These earlywar iterations also performed poorly at higher altitudes, relegating them mostly to reconnaissance roles in North Africa and Europe. Later variants, including the Tomahawk and Kittyhawk, largely solved these shortcomings. Nonetheless the narrow landing gear track made the P-40 prone to accidents on the ground, and numerous fighters were lost in training accidents, with novice pilots at the controls.
“THE NARROW LANDING GEAR TRACK MADE THE P-40 PRONE TO ACCIDENTS ON THE GROUND, AND NUMEROUS FIGHTERS WERE LOST IN TRAINING ACCIDENTS”
Though very early prototypes of the P-40 were fitted with only two machine-guns in its upper cowling, eventually more were added to increase the firepower of the aircraft. The British Tomahawks also fitted .30-calibre guns, and eventually a hardpoint was added to the underside of the airframe to carry a bomb load or an additional fuel tank, allowing for greater versatility in a fighter-bomber or long-distance reconnaissance role. Later iterations of the P-40 carried up to six machine-guns, mounted into the upper cowling and on the wings.
Visibility for the pilot was adequate although restricted by the complex windscreen frame. Ground visibility was especially poor, which contributed to accidents along with the narrow landing gear. Later a bubble canopy was fitted to increase visibility. Earlier iterations also did not feature bullet-proof glass in the cockpit, something that was quickly rectified as a result of combat experience. A fire extinguisher was kept under the seat and a first aid kit was attached to the right-hand side of the cockpit – both could mean the difference between life and death.
The Allison V-1710 was the USA’S primary aero engine, and the first American-built liquid-cooled system capable of achieving over 1,000 horsepower. It was used in most US Army aircraft, including the Lockheed P-38, Bell P-39 and P-63, and earlier P-51 Mustangs. However in the P-40 the Allison underperformed at higher altitudes, and was put through numerous upgrades before the end of WWII. In 1941 the British and Canadian-operated ‘Kittyhawk’ P-40 was fitted with a Rolls-royce Merlin engine, vastly improving the aircraft’s performance.
“EARLIER ITERATIONS ALSO DID NOT FEATURE BULLET-PROOF GLASS IN THE COCKPIT, SOMETHING THAT WAS QUICKLY RECTIFIED”
The Curtiss P-40 saw action in nearly every theatre of the Second World War, serving within American, British, Commonwealth and Soviet air forces. In 1940, 140 P-40s bound for France were redirected to Britain after the capitulation of the French government. Though the RAF found the P-40s were currently inadequate for defending against the Luftwaffe attacks during the Battle of Britain, they were put to work in reconnaissance roles and in 1941 used by the Desert Air Force (DAF). The P-40’s most iconic role by far was as part of the ‘Flying Tigers’, the squadrons of the American Volunteer Group (AVG) fighting against the Japanese in China. The distinctive shark’s mouth and menacing eye painted the nose cowls of the aircraft – first adopted by the DAF – soon became famous around the world and a morale-boosting symbol of the American fightback after Pearl Harbor. By the end of the war the P-40 still remained second, or third, choice behind its far speedier and moreeffective contemporaries such as the P-51 Mustang and P-38 Thunderbolt.
A first production Curtiss P-40
Pilots in formation flying the shark-nosed P-40 fighter aircraft
Royal Australian Air Force mechanics carrying ammunition belts for Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk fighters at an Australian airfield, circa 1943
US Army Air Force Curtiss P-40E Warhawk at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio
The Allison V-1710 engine Mechanics George Johnson and James C. Howard work on a Curtiss P-40
Hell’s Angels, the 3rd Squadron of the 1st American Volunteer Group ‘Flying Tigers’
US Army Air Forces Liberator bomber crosses the bows of US P-40 fighter planes at an advanced US base in China, c. 1943