“I never felt that I was a second-class citizen in a P-40. In many ways I thought the P-40 was better than the more modern fighters. I had a hell of a lot of time in a P-40, probably close to a thousand hours. I could make it sit up and talk. It was an unforgiving airplane. It had vicious stall characteristics. … If you knew what you were doing, you could fight a Jap on even terms, but you had to make him fight your way.”
— Joel Paris, P-40 pilot, 49th Fighter Group.
Durability – The P-40 can absorb considerable battle damage and still bring its pilot back home.
Guns – Four .30 caliber and two .50 caliber guns are insufficient to deal much damage to enemy planes, particularly bombers.
High Altitude Performance – While it is nimble and agile at low altitudes, the lack of a decent supercharger makes the P-40 a sluggish performer above 10,000 feet.
During production of the Hawk 75 fighter for the US Army in 1937, Curtiss modified the original radial engine design to accommodate the new Allison V-1710 inline, liquid-cooled engine. The new design benefited from both streamlining and increased engine power and was flown for the first time in October 1938 as the XP-40. Performance was so impressive that the Army ordered 524 production machines, which was at that time the largest-ever single production order for a US fighter.
The first production P-40s began to appear in May 1940, and the US Army elected to defer delivery of the new fighter to allow production and delivery of the export version (known as the Hawk 81A) to France. However, the initial production version was hardly combat ready, lacking armor protection and self-sealing fuel tanks, which delayed deliveries until September 1940. By then, France had fallen and the RAF had taken over the production order from the French Air Force.
The British replaced the two .30 caliber Browning machine guns in the wings with guns chambered for the .303 round, but retained the two .50 caliber machine guns in the nose. With some armor protection and self-sealing fuel tanks, the new machine was designated the “Warhawk IIA” for RAF service and was virtually identical to the USAAF’s P-40B, which began to reach service units in early 1941.
For the next variant, the P-40C model (Warhawk IIB to the RAF), improvements were made to the self-sealing fuel tanks and an additional .30 caliber machine gun was added to each wing, which increased gross weight, reducing the maximum speed. By the time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the Army had 62 P-40Bs and 11 P-40Cs, the majority of which were destroyed on the ground. However, several survived the initial attack and were able to score the AAFs first “kills” of the war. Two weeks later, on December 20, 1941, the American Volunteer Group, aka the “Flying Tigers”, took to the skies in their P-40Cs and destroyed six of ten Japanese bombers attacking Kunming.
Green, William; War Planes Of The Second World War: Fighters Volume Four; Macdonald & Co., London; 1961.
Davis, Larry; Curtis Army Hawks In Action, Aircraft No. 128; Squadron/Signal Publications, Carrollton, Texas; 1992.
McDowell, Ernest R.; Curtiss P-40 In Action, Aircraft No. 26; Squadron/Signal Publications, Carrollton, Texas; 1976.