One of a Kind

Beau­ti­ful Beast

Flight Journal - - CONTENTS - By Joe Gertler

XP-37: Beau­ti­ful Beast

The sleek, long-nosed, Cur­tiss XP-37 bore a sim­i­lar­ity to some of the most suc­cess­ful, high-pow­ered air­craft that com­peted in the Na­tional Air Races from 1935 to 1937. But while air rac­ers were only re­quired to fly a few times per year, the ex­treme rear­ward po­si­tion of the cock­pit and cor­re­spond­ing lack of pilot vis­i­bil­ity were go­ing to be a ma­jor prob­lem for a fighter.

Don Berlin, one of the great air­craft de­sign­ers, with suc­cess­ful prod­ucts for Dou­glas and Northrop, even­tu­ally found his way to Cur­tiss-Wright in 1934. The com­pany was for­tu­nate to en­joy con­sid­er­able suc­cess with his P-36 and, later, the P-40 fighters.

In 1936–37, fighter de­sign­ers in Europe and the United States were at­tempt­ing to im­prove per­for­mance with bet­ter stream­lin­ing. With war loom­ing, Roll-Royce, Mercedes, Packard, and oth­ers made good use of their decades of avi­a­tion pow­er­plant lead­er­ship. The United States in­vested more than a half mil­lion dol­lars to de­velop a new liq­uid-cooled, stream­lined en­gine: the Al­li­son V-1710. The mil­i­tary chal­lenged the air­craft man­u­fac­tur­ers to come up with planes that were best suited for it.

Cur­tiss took its pro­to­type Model 75D air­frame and mounted the 1150hp, turbo-su­per­charged Al­li­son V-12 on the front, with a beau­ti­fully stream­lined cowl­ing. Or­dered on Fe­bru­ary 16, 1937, it first flew in April 1937. It was Army se­rial # 37-375. It seems like a pos­si­ble af­ter­thought that the en­gine length be­came a chal­leng­ing prob­lem, when the cock­pit had to have a ma­jor re­lo­ca­tion, rear­ward, to ac­com­mo­date the mas­sive turbo-su­per­charger and three ra­di­a­tors. The long nose and cowl­ing as well as the main wing not only ob­structed pilot vis­i­bil­ity in the air but also (even worse) on the ground.

An ad­di­tional un­for­tu­nate de­vel­op­ment re­sulted when the early su­per­charger ma­te­ri­als proved incapable of with­stand­ing the stresses re­quired. Fail­ures were rou­tine. But the mil­i­tary was much im­pressed with the high-speed per­for­mance of 340mph (about 20mph faster than the stan­dard P-36), which seemed to jus­tify or­der­ing an­other 13 to be mod­i­fied and con­structed as ser­vice test air­craft. There was a con­sid­er­able ad­di­tion to the length of the fuse­lage be­hind the cock­pit, and the su­per­charg­ers were im­proved, though still not re­li­able. The strong neg­a­tive as­sess­ments by pi­lots as well as the un­re­li­a­bil­ity fac­tor sunk any plans for pro­duc­tion and ser­vice. It was not long be­fore the planes were trans­ferred to me­chan­i­cal-train­ing fa­cil­i­ties.

Tak­ing note of the pos­i­tives and neg­a­tives, Berlin took an­other P-36 and worked on the for­ward en­gine com­part­ment, with nu­mer­ous re­vi­sions of ra­di­a­tor po­si­tion­ing; ex­tended the fuse­lage by some 4 feet; and re­stored the cock­pit lo­ca­tion to a more stan­dard con­fig­u­ra­tion. In the on­go­ing, fren­zied pace of air­craft de­vel­op­ment, this be­came the XP-40, lead­ing to the long and suc­cess­ful use of the clas­sic P-40 fighters, the third-most-pro­duced Amer­i­can fighter of World War II. The in­flu­en­tial link of the XP-37 be­tween the P-36 and the even­tual P-40 fighter de­vel­op­ment was a note­wor­thy con­tri­bu­tion.

“This orig­i­nal photo from the Cur­tiss Com­pany archival files il­lus­trates the glar­ingly ob­vi­ous ma­jor prob­lem of lack of pilot vis­i­bil­ity.”

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