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

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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”

DE­SIGN

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”

AR­MA­MENT

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.

COCK­PIT

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.

EN­GINE

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”

SER­VICE HIS­TORY

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

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