The Curtiss P-40 Warhawk may not have been the best fighter plane of World War 2, but thanks to the painting skills of British and American pilots who flew it in North Africa and China, it was one of the coolest looking. The British in North Africa and the American Volunteer Group or AVG (more commonly known as the “Flying Tigers”) both painted an open shark’s mouth with very sharp teeth around the gaping air intakes of their P-40 Warhawks. The iconic look has made the P-40 Warhawk a favorite airplane for generations of scale modelers and radio controlled plane enthusiasts. With almost 14,000 P-40 Warhawks produced before and during the war, it was one of the most common aircraft of the war.
P-40N BASIC STATISTICS
According to Weapons of World War II by Alexander Ludeke, the P-40N had the following characteristics:
Engine: Allison V 1710 81 V12, 1200 horsepower
Armament: 6 .50 caliber machine guns, 1500 pounds of external weaponry.
Top Speed; 343 miles per hour at 15,235 feet
Operational Ceiling: 31,500 feet
Weight: 6,194 pounds empty, 8,841 pounds maximum takeoff weight
Dimensions: 33.9 feet long, 12.5 feet tall, 37.9 feet wingspan
The P-40 Warhawk was preceded by the P-36 Hawk. The Warhawk was identical to the Hawk up to the engine firewall. However, forward of the firewall, the Warhawk had 150 more horsepower from a more powerful Allison engine and was 50 miles per hour faster than the Hawk. As it developed, the P-40 Warhawk gained heavier armament and the ability to carry external weaponry.
The conventional wisdom is that the P-40 Warhawk was outclassed by the first line fighters of the Axis powers. Fighters like the Japanese Zero were more maneuverable. However, when war starts, a country fights with what it has. The P-40 Warhawk had a distinguished war record and acquitted itself well against all enemies. The P-40 Warhawk scored the first American military air-to-air victories over the enemy in the Pacific and North Africa. On December 7, 1941, a handful of American pilots flew P-40 Warhawks and P-36 Hawks against the Japanese attackers from an auxiliary airfield on Oahu, Hawaii. According to Clash of Wings, Second Lieutenant George S. Welch shot down four Japanese aircraft and Lieutenant Kenneth M. Taylor shot down two Japanese aircraft and damaged a third. Finally, the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk was also flown by the famed Tuskegee Airmen, the African-American pilots of the 99th Fighter Squadron, until they switched to more modern P-51 Mustangs when they became available.
According to a Chuckhawks.com article by Patrick Masell, “The Warhawk was, in fact, a much better fighter than most observers believe.” He points out that, in the early stages of the war, the P-40 Warhawk’s performance was comparable to opposing fighters. He also notes that units flying the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk had excellent combat records with a high ratio of kills to losses. In Asia, the P-40 Warhawks of the Flying Tigers had a spectacular war record due to superior tactics. Since they were faster than a Japanese Zero in a dive, they found that they could dive down on Japanese planes fire and dive away to escape. According to Masell, “in Italy the 325 Fighter Group, commonly known as ‘The Checker-Tailed Clan’ amassed one of the best kill to loss ratios of any fighter group in the European Theater.” The 325th Fighter Group shot down 135 Axis warplanes and lost only 17 of their own. The Air Force of New Zealand had similar results against enemy aircraft. The sturdy P-40 Warhawk provided capable when flown with resolve and with the right tactics to take advantage of the fighter’s firepower and speed in a dive.
According to wikipedia, there are about 70 surviving P-40 Warhawks today. Some are on museum display, some are in storage, and others are being restored, but around 30 are still airworthy and many still fly. The aircraft still inspires fan sites like p40warhawk.com. It is one warplane that continues to soar in the imaginations of aviation buffs everywhere.
Boyne, Walter J. Clash of Wings. Simon & Schuster, 1997.
Ludeke, Alexander. Weapons of World War II, Parragon Press, Bath, UK, 2007.
Masell, Patrick. “The Curtiss P-40 Warhawk”, Chuckhawks.com, 2001
National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, “Fact sheet: Curtiss P-36 Hawk”
National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, “Fact sheet: Curtiss P-40E Warhawk”