The 1944 Curtiss P-40 was conceived as a pursuit aircraft and was agile at low and medium altitudes but suffered from a lack of power at higher altitudes
The single-seat Curtiss P-40 Warhawk was obsolete when it was drafted for service at the start of World War II. But it was the best fighter that the United States had available in large numbers, according to a report at the Museum of Flight. Despite continued improvements, the P-40 never equaled the capabilities of its German or Japanese adversaries. But it had one priceless advantage, “It was available and being efficiently mass-produced when needed most.”
The solid and reliable Warhawk was an effective weapon when its strengths were leveraged: diving passes and rapid departure without engaging in a turning dogfight with more agile opponents.
According to Airplane-Online.com, the P-40 was a descendant of the “Hawk” line produced by the Curtiss-Wright Aircraft Corp. in the 1930s and 1940s. It shared certain design elements with its predecessors, the Hawk and Sparrowhawk.
The all-metal fighter was first flown in 1938, and the P-40 was kept in production until 1944. The P-40 was the third most-produced American fighter, after the P-51 Mustang and P-47 Thunderbolt.
Warhawk in Wartime
With its six .50-caliber Browning machine guns and a 700-pound bombload (one 500-pound and two 100-pound bombs), the P-40 served in all theaters of operation. The U.S., Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Free French, South Africa, and Russia flew the Curtiss fighter.
“The British called it the Tomahawk (B and C models) and Kittyhawk (D and E models). The F through R versions were known as Warhawks in U.S. service. The N model had decreased fuel capacity and increased armor, along with other minor system changes, relative to its predecessors.
“The most famous P-40 unit was undoubtedly the American Volunteer Group, better known as the ‘Flying Tigers.’ Painted with a shark-mouth face, the P40 had great success flying the plane in China and Burma in early 1942.
In the hands of a skilled pilot, the P-40 could exceed its limitations and out-maneuver and out-fight anything in the sky, Flying Tiger ace David L. “Tex” Hill said in 2005 interview for DefenseMediaNetwork.com.
“It was sturdy and handled well, except in a spin, but you never piloted a P-40 without wishing you had something a little better,” Hill said.
P-40 at Pearl Harbor
P-40s engaged Japanese aircraft at Pearl Harbor and in the Philippines in December 1941. They also served in North Africa in 1943 with the 99th Fighter Squadron, the first African American U.S. fighter unit.
Though often slower and less maneuverable than its adversaries, the P-40 Warhawk earned a reputation in battle for extreme ruggedness. It served throughout the war but was eclipsed by more capable aircraft.
More than 13,738 P-40 fighters were built from 1939-1944 at the Curtiss plant in Buffalo, Ny.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is another image from my dad, Paul Smith Maynard, who worked four decades in aviation as an engineer.
Dad began his career in about 1943 after graduating from West Virginia University. He started with the Curtiss-Wright Corp., an early pioneer in making flying machines. He went on to work at North American Aviation and Rockwell International.
See more of his vintage plane pics here.