The P-40: This Vicious WWII Fighter Kept the Allies Competitive In Both Europe And The Far East


The Curtiss P-40 Warhawkfirst flown on October 14, 1938, is an American single-engine, single-seat, all-metal fighter. The Warhawk was used by most Allied forces during World War II, and remained in frontline service until the end of the war. A total of 13,738 P-40s were produced. Its production numbers are exceeded only by the P-51 and the P-47.

More Than Just Available

The P-40 Warhawk was the most numerous fighter aircraft available at the beginning of WWII. The Lockheed P-38 Lightning, also available, could outperform the P-40, but the P-40 was less expensive, easier to build and maintain, and it was in large-scale production at a critical period in the nation’s history when fighter planes were needed in large numbers.

Another Low-Altitude Performer

Originally conceived as a pursuit (fighter) aircraft, it was very maneuverable at low and medium altitudes. But due to the lack of a two stage turbocharger, it was less effective at higher altitudes. At medium and high speeds, it was one of the tightest turning early fighters of the war. Like all Allied Fighters, at lower airspeed the A6M Zero could out-turn the P-40.

What’s in a Name?

P-40 Warhawk was the fighter’s official United States Army Air Corps name. The British Commonwealth and Russian air forces used the name Tomahawk for models equivalent to the P-40B and P-40C, and the name Kittyhawk for models equivalent to the P-40D and later variants. P-40s first flew into combat with the British Desert Air Force in the North African campaign. It was also here that the aircraft was first given its distinctive “shark mouth” paint scheme.

Finding a Niche

The P-40 performed surprisingly well as an air superiority fighter and ground attack aircraft. It performed well against early German Bf-109s, especially at lower altitudes, at times suffering severe losses but also taking a very heavy toll of enemy aircraft. The P-40 offered the additional advantage of low cost, which kept it in production as a ground-attack aircraft long after it was obsolete as a fighter.

Early P-40S in formation

The Top Ace Tells It Like It Was

The highest-scoring P-40 ace with 22 kills, Clive Caldwell of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), claimed that the P-40 had “almost no vices” and that it was “faster downhill than almost any other aeroplane with a propeller.” The P-40 had one of the fastest maximum dive speeds of any fighter of the early war period and good high speed handling.

Strengths Against Weaknesses

In another account, Robert DeHaven describes how to use the P-40’s strengths against the A6M Zero: “…you could fight a [Zero pilot], but you had to make him fight your way. He could out-turn you at slow speed. You could out-turn him at high speed. When you got into a turning fight with him, if you dropped your nose down so you kept your airspeed up, you could out-turn him. At low speed he could out-roll you because of those big ailerons on the Zero. If your speed was up over 275, you could out-roll a Zero. His big ailerons didn’t have the strength to make high speed rolls. You could push things, too. Because, if you decided to go home, you could go home. He couldn’t because you could outrun him. That left you in control of the fight.”

Those Famous Flying Tigers

By far the most well-known of all Curtiss fighter groups was Clair Chennault’s American Volunteer Group (AVG), or “Flying Tigers,” in China. The AVG was equipped with 100 British Tomahawk aircraft. Although the shark mouth was first used in North Africa, the AVG’s exploits made it so famous that P-40 units all over the world began copying it from them.

P-40 warhawk on display at the national museum of the U.S Ari Force

Excelling On Their Own

The AVG was not an Allied military unit, and all pilots and ground personnel were volunteers, helping to defend China from Japanese attacks. Flying their first combat mission on December 20, 1941, the Flying Tigers operated under extremely difficult conditions. Their exploits were chronicled in the book Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and the American Volunteer Group, (Daniel Ford, Harper Collins, 1941). During a period in the war when everybody else in the Far East was being soundly defeated by the Japanese, the Flying Tigers’ achievements were truly phenomenal.

P-40 warhawk at the national naval aviation museum

Warhawks Today

Today, more than 20 P-40s are still airworthy and examples and flight demonstrations can frequently be seen at major airshows. Many more can be seen at aviation museums. Both the national Naval Aviation (Pensacola) and Air Force (Dayton) museums have examples on display.

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