October 14, 1938: P-40 Warhawk, The Most Underrated US Fighter Plane

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A Brief History

On October 14, 1938, the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk made its first flight, leading to an eventual production run of 13,738 of the rugged fighters.  Although often referred to as “obsolete” at the beginning of World War II, and famously rejected by the British for combat in the Northern European theater, the plane flown by the Flying Tigers with its intimidating shark mouth paint job became one of the main Allied fighters of World War II.  (Previously, on November 6th we featured an article, The Hawker Hurricane: The Most Underrated Fighter Plane of World War II, and on May 29th we ran another article titled 10 Most Underappreciated Fighter Planes, while on December 20th we published the article History and Headlines Corrects What History Got Wrong About the Flying Tigers.  Please see these articles for more context on the subject of the P-40.)

Digging Deeper

Developed from the Curtiss P-36 Hawk, a decently performing fighter for its time (introduced 1938), although under-gunned with only a single .50 caliber and a single .30 caliber machine guns, the P-40 differed from the P-36 mainly by the use of an inline V-12 Allison engine with a single speed supercharger and improved armament of 2 X .50 caliber and 4 X .30 caliber machine guns (later upgraded to either 4 X .50 caliber machine guns or more commonly 6 X .50 caliber machine guns).  While only 1115 of the P-36 models were built (215 for the US Army and the other 900 for export), the P-40 became the third most produced US fighter plane of all time, trailing only the P-47 and the P-51.  (All P-40’s were built at the same Curtiss factory in Buffalo, New York.)

The lack of a two-speed supercharger limited the high altitude performance of the early P-40 models, resulting in its rejection by the British for fighting over Britain and France.  The British did use the Warhawk (which they called Tomahawk or Kittyhawk, depending on the model) in all other theaters, especially in the North African campaign where the P-40 was the main British fighter, outnumbering and outflying the Hurricane and outnumbering the Spitfire.  The P-40 was the original fighter flown by the famous “Redtails” or “Tuskeegee Airmen,” and served these African American pilots well.  In the Pacific, the P-40 was as fast as the Japanese Zero, could out dive the Zero, and could out turn the Zero at speeds above 275 mph.  Although the Zero boasted better climb rates and low speed turning, used properly the far more rugged P-40 was a superior design.  Liberal use of armor around the cockpit and engine and a self-sealing fuel tank, along with generally far stronger construction made the P-40 capable of taking much more punishment than Japanese airplanes.  Production was simple, maintenance was easy, and the plane was as rugged as they come.

Used mostly as an air superiority fighter during the early part of World War II, the last couple years of the war saw a shift in the use of the P-40 as a ground attack fighter bomber, capable of carrying up to 2000 pounds of bombs (although normal bombloads were usually either 500 or 1000 pounds). The most exported US plane to the Soviet Union, the Soviets used the P-40 to great effect in the fighter bomber role, and the generally lower altitudes flown by fighters on the Eastern Front minimized the weakness of the P-40 at higher altitudes (above 16,000 feet).  Below 16,000 feet, the P-40 was the equal of the Bf-109 and Fw-190 flown by the Germans.

Problems encountered with the P-40 by the Soviets were unreliable parts, and wearing out of engines by using maximum power more often than suggested.  Soviet aviation fuel was generally of lower quality and octane rating than American avgas, resulting in fuel related problems as well.  The main limitation of the P-40 in the Pacific theater was its lack of long range ability compared to the P-38, P-47 and P-51, meaning its use during the island-hopping campaign was limited.

Produced from 1939 to 1944, the P-40 evolved through various improvements and models over its production life as do virtually all other fighter planes.  Increased power for the Allison engines, addition of a two-speed supercharger, replacing the Allison engine with a Rolls Royce Merlin (the engine of the Spitfire, Hurricane, and P-51D Mustang), modifying the machine gun layout, lengthening the fuselage, adding bomb shackles and drop tanks, and improving rearward visibility were all modifications made to various models.  The P-40 remained on duty in South America until Brazil retired its P-40 fleet in 1958.  An experimental YP-40SW was made with swept wings, a really different looking Warhawk!  Sometimes the P-40 was stripped of excess weight and 2 of the .50 caliber machine guns removed to create a faster, more nimble fighter.  One prototype model was capable of 422 mph, but was not developed for production.

Although you will not encounter many, if any at all, opinions about the P-40 being the “best” fighter of World War II, we think it is reasonable to consider the Warhawk/Tomahawk/Kittyhawk as perhaps the most underrated fighter of the war, or at least the most underrated and underappreciated American fighter of World War II.  What do you think?  Please give us your thoughts, opinions, and perhaps insight into the design and use of the P-40.

See the excerpt below from 10 Most Underappreciated Fighter Planes (May 29th, History and Headlines):

You will rarely if ever hear or read of this fine fighter without some reference to it being obsolete or under performing right from the start.  Actually, at lower altitudes it performed quite well and only suffered at higher altitudes.  When equipped with 6 X .50 caliber machine guns (most of them) it was well enough armed (same as the Mustang) and was rugged enough for heavy use as a fighter bomber.  Its superior speed in a dive was used to foil Japanese lightweight fighters in the Pacific theater, and a whopping 13,738 were built (that is what is known as “a clue”).  Post war analysis of combat records indicate the P-40 was much more successful in the air to air role than is generally reported, with most accounts sniffing that the plane was good for ground attack alone.  Although originally designed as a ground attack plane, the ability of the P-40 to turn tightly at high speed was superior to that of the flimsy Japanese fighters that could out turn the Warhawk at lower speeds.  Exploiting the difference in dive speed and high speed performance made all the difference in the hands of pilots trained properly.  The P-40 was considered superior to the Hurricane in the Mediterranean Theater and also by the Soviets, who received over 2400 Kittyhawks and Tomahawk models

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.