Posts Tagged ‘Curtiss P-40 Warhawk’

I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas.  Last time I wrote…well…it was nearly last year.  I’ve been away too long, but that’s ok.  Most of us have had plenty of other good diversions to keep us busy.  It’s another quickie…

During the last half of the 1930s, Americans watched the increased aggression taking place abroad.  A great number of people wanted nothing to do with foreign intervention, or entanglements, or war.  But as Hitler expanded out from Germany and Mussolini did the same in Africa and southern Europe, it became pretty apparent that war would come.  And there was growing disquiet over Japan’s push in China and her desire to create a giant Japanese pond out of the Pacific Ocean.

Of course, the U.S. military noticed all this as well, and they began pushing for increased armaments production.  It was during this time that the potential for war actually gave America the head start she would need when war did arrive in 1941.

One of the better-known projects to come out of this period was the Consolidated B-24 Liberator.  The Consolidated Aircraft Company had been approached by the Army Air Corps to produce B-17 Flying Fortresses under license from Boeing.  The B-17 was a durable, rugged aircraft that was pretty well loved by those who flew it, and Boeing couldn’t keep up with the increased demand.

But Consolidated believed they could do better.  And just like North American Aviation (when asked to build P-40 Warhawks for Curtiss), Consolidated’s leadership believed they could build a better plane.  So they built a four-engine bomber that was a bit faster, climbed a little more quickly, and could perform a 2,000-mile mission carrying three tons of bombs.

The new mark first flew on December 29, 1939 and, while there was favorable response to the aircraft’s abilities, actually flying the plane turned out to be a more difficult affair.  It didn’t fly in formation nearly as well as the Flying Fortress.  It’s lightweight design (which gave it greater range) meant it couldn’t withstand the same level of damage as the 17s.  And they had a tendency to catch fire.

But they could carry a big bombload for quite a distance, and that made Liberators a very popular weapon of choice.  So popular, in fact, that the B-24 would become the most mass-produced aircraft in U.S. history, with on the order of 18,000 being produced.  And with so many in service, lots of guys flew them, including my next-door neighbor when I was growing up.  He flew in Germany and was actually shot down.

And while there were myriads produced, hardly any are still flying.  There are a handful of survivors on static display, but only two are still capable of taking to the skies.

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Two Kawanishi H8K Emily flying boats may not seem like a lot of firepower in our day of jet power, stealth, and super-cruise capability.  But back in 1942…well…it wasn’t much firepower then, either.

But that’s what the Japanese could spare, and it’s what they used to carry out “Operation K”, their second attack on Pearl Harbor, executed March 4, 1942.  The two flying boats had stopped in the French Frigate Shoals to refuel the night before, then took off again, heading for their targets.

When they arrived, they found that they hadn’t achieved anywhere near the surprise of the December operation.  The U.S. Navy was on a hair-trigger state of readiness to begin with.  But cryptologists had also gotten wind of potential attacks through intercepted messages from the Japanese they had decoded.  Furthermore, Hawaii radars picked up the incoming planes early and P-40 Warhawks had been sent aloft to engage.

Fortunately for the attackers, cloudy skies prevented the fighter cover from locating the flying boats as they flew in.  Unfortunately for the attackers, cloudy skies prevented them from finding their targets.  In the end, they dropped their bombs on nothing of consequence and made their escapes.

And while this seems like an insignificant incident, it really had far-reaching consequences.  First off, it further verified that American code-breakers were accurately deciphering enemy messages.  Second (and just as important), it tipped the U.S. Navy off to the fact that the Japanese were using French Frigate Shoals.

A month later, as code-breakers began to clearly see the plans for another major operation against Midway, planners deduced (correctly) that the Japanese Navy might try to make use of the French Frigate Shoals again.  So they parked a seaplane tender out there.

Indeed, the Japanese had designs on the Shoals.  Another plan, also called Operation K, was set up to allow float planes to refuel and then set out for Pearl, this time to report back on which ships left Pearl Harbor to head for Midway.  As we know, this second Operation K was foiled, and its failure was one of the reasons the Battle of Midway was an unmitigated disaster for Japan.

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Claire Chennault is certainly not the most recognizable name in the annals of World War II.  And the American Volunteer Group (or AVG) he headed in Burma in 1941 probably doesn’t cause instant recognition, either.   But the photo on the left should give you a pretty good idea of where we’re headed.  Indeed, Chennault’s relative obscurity makes him the perfect subject for Today’s History Lesson.

Born in Louisiana in the 1890’s, he joined the Army and learned to fly during WWI.  Health issues and conflicts with commanding officers caused him to resign in 1937, but he was soon flying again in Southest Asia as an air advisor, training Chinese pilots.

In August of 1941, war was in full swing in Chennault’s backyard.  As Japan ripped through China, Chennault formed the American Volunteer Group.  Because he wasn’t part of the U.S. military, he threw out much of their training.  But because he wasn’t part of the U.S. military (and we still weren’t at war), aircraft acquisition was also a problem.  But a clandestine deal between the Roosevelt government and Chiang Kai-shek provided Chennault with Curtiss P-40 Warhawks, pretty much the best plane in the U.S. inventory at the time.

Thailand fell to the Japanese in early October 1941, and the Burma Road, China’s last main supply route, was now threatened.  Chennault’s group stepped it up.  The AVG knew the Warhawk couldn’t compete with the Mitsubishi Zero in a turning dogfight, so their training emphasized loose formations and slashing attacks that used the Warhawk’s superior speed in a dive and heavy armament to best advantage.

On December 20, 1941, Chennault’s men took to the skies for the first time.  The Japanese bombed Kunming on the 18th, and came back expecting little resistance, so they sent no air cover for their bombers.  The P-40’s, with bright red shark teeth painted on the radiator cowling, proceeded to chop the bomber group to pieces, with only one actually returning to base.  The Chinese rejoiced, and newspaper headlines lauded Chennault’s pilots as “Flying Tigers”.

The name stuck, as did the reputation.  Over the next 6 months, the Flying Tigers would engage Japanese airpower hundreds of times, knocking down 300 of their planes while losing just 32 of their own.  Fewer than 20 Tiger pilots would be lost…half of those in accidents.

In July of 1942, the Flying Tigers would be absorbed into the USAAF, and Chennault was rejoined with his military cohorts, this time as a Colonel.  But in that short half-a-year, the Flying Tigers became synonymous with the P-40 Warhawk and helped create the mystique that surrounded the World War II fighter pilot.

Recommended Reading: Best Little War Stories From World War II

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In the fall of 1940, the British were withstanding the Blitz, and Adolf Hitler had already said goodbye to his old love (Operation Sealion…the invasion of Britain) and was flirting with a new interest…the invasion of the Soviet Union.  This, to a small degree, gave the island redoubt a bit of rest from her labors and a chance to evaluate her situation…which wasn’t too good.

All alone in Western Europe, she was besting the German onslaught, aided by the strength of her people, the will of her Prime Minister, the tenacity of her pilots, and the quality of the Supermarine Spitfire.  But taking the fight to the enemy would require more of all of them, particularly the airplanes.  The Spitfires, fighting over Britain, were able to mask the only real shortcoming they had: very short range.  Going on the offensive, however, would require more than just defending the homeland.

As improved (read: longer-range) versions of the Spitfire hit the drawing boards, the British turned to America for help.  The closest fighter to the Spitfire in the U.S. inventory was the Curtis P-40 Warhawk, an extremely maneuverable but rather slow aircraft.  But asking Curtiss to build more Warhawks was impossible as their factory was already at capacity, so the British turned to North American Aviation and asked them to build Warhawks.

North American president James Kindelberger knew an opportunity when he saw one, and responded that he could build a better plane than the P-40 in less time than it took to re-tool to Warhawk production.  The British took the bet and ordered more than 300.  In an amazing feat of speed and manufacturing prowess, the NA-73X Project (as it was called) produced its first prototype just 117 days after the order was placed.  Two months later, on October 26, 1940, that prototype would take to the skies for the first time.

With smooth handling, good maneuverability, and outstanding range, the plane was faster than the Warhawk at all altitudes.  What’s more, the advanced aerodynamics of the new mark actually made it faster than the Spitfires at medium altitude, despite a distinct horsepower disadvantage caused by use of the Warhawk’s Allison engine.  The British couldn’t help but be pleased that such a quality product could be delivered in such a short time frame.  They began taking delivery of the aircraft, giving it the name Mustang.  The U.S. Army Air Corps would also purchase a few Mustangs, as their terrific low-level performance made them ideal for ground-attack and reconnaisance roles.

October 26th was a good day for North American Aviation.  But the Mustang’s rise was only just beginning and, as we’ll see in the future, developments would turn this “Warhawk replacement” into the finest piston-engined fighter of World War II…and one of the best fighter aircraft of all time.

Recommended Reading: The Mustang Story – The Mustang is my all-time favorite airplane (somebody needs to donate one to me).  This book does it justice.

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