Curtiss P-40: A Hawk With Shark's Teeth!

Known as the ‘Warhawk’, the ‘Tomahawk’ AND the ‘Kittyhawk’; it’s perhaps tricky to know what to call the iconic looking P-40 (‘P’ for ‘Pursuit’), but at least it’s easy to spot on the flight line, especially if the distinctive shark mouth is painted on the large engine intake under the nose.

AvBuyer  |  29th February 2024
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    Curtiss P-40 with shark paint


    In actual fact, back in the day; the name all depended on where you were standing before you climbed in and sat down; in the US, the fighter was named the 'Warhawk'. The British re-named theirs the 'Tomahawk', up until the P-40D that is, whereupon the D and all subsequent models were named the 'Kittyhawk'. 

    Hawk family 

    Following it’s prototype trials in late 1938, the modified design of the Curtiss P-36 Hawk was a tough and rugged aircraft and after a little help from some wind tunnel testing at a NACA facility (NACA was later named NASA), it quickly become quicker; indeed, an attribute of this front-line fighter was its high dive speed and the speed at which it could get there! 

    The radial engine of the P-36 was swapped out for the more powerful and more streamlined Allison V-1710 engine; a 1,150 horsepower, liquid-cooled engine that required the cockpit to move back a little to make space for a supercharger. Through the prototype phase, the radiator/s moved around a little but were finalised under the nose giving the aircraft its most distinctive-looking design feature; many squadrons yet to come would paint on a hungry-looking set of shark teeth – the first of which appeared over North Africa care of RAF No. 112 Squadron. 

    In the spring of 1940, the first overseas batch of aircraft (quantity 140) changed course from France to Britain. But, with only a single-stage supercharger, the British forces found the high altitude performance against the Messerschmitt Bf 109 (and later the Focke-Wulf Fw 190) to be insufficient. However, it flew well at mid and low altitudes and stayed readily available with a good supply of parts, so a later decision was made to dispatch a number to North Africa where it performed well.

    Following some ‘in service’ experience, several improvements were addressed, this led to the type progressing to the D model which changed the aircraft quite a bit: The landing gear track was widened, the wing had some design changes, and the nose was modified to accommodate an improved engine. The armament was significantly increased which at the time made it the most heavily armed US fighter in the sky. This was the birth of what the British called the 'Kittyhawk'. The E model came next and was the US aircraft that took a brunt of air combat in the first half of 1942. It could reach a cruise speed approaching 300 mph and could achieve a range of around 700 miles. It still wasn't a high-altitude fighter, but it knew its place in the sky and was well equipped to be there, and its pilots knew they could rely on its handling (including high g manoeuvring) and rugged build quality.

    Whilst the P-40 wasn't ever going to be considered the dominant fighter of its era, it did boast several attributes which together with its high production numbers and availability, led to it being considered an absolute front line workhorse. Namely, it was very fast in a dive (and accelerated quickly), plus it was a tough battle-ready aircraft that could tolerate high g combat manoeuvrers and after returning to the field it could be patched up much easier than other types. And.... there were a lot of them! Supply and parts were an important commodity making it an aircraft that stood out as being ready, willing, and able when it was needed most. 

    Perhaps one of the more notable milestones in the history of the aircraft was its participation in the American Volunteer Group ('AVG') led by retired U. S. Army Air Corps Captain; Claire Lee Chennault (or "Old Leatherface" or "the Old Man" to his friends!). The ‘AVG’ were a volunteer-led unit comprising of almost 100 aircraft and airmen, and nearly double that number of ground support technicians. All of which were civilians at the time of deployment (although ex-service). 

    Organizing his fleet into three squadrons of P-40B 'Warhawks' (nicknamed the "Adam and Eves," the "Panda Bears" and the "Hell's Angels") Chennault, knew the pros and cons of the P-40 well, so developed a different approach in terms of combat manoeuvering and overall strategy to gain the advantage; following an intensive training program (with penalties for landing long when returning to base), he taught his pilots to avoid slow speed turns during combat which the P-40 was inferior with against opposing aircraft, instead: arrive fast (making use of a high-speed dive), engage, break off, and repeat. He also made good use of an enemy aircraft early warning system thanks to a widespread network of radio-equipped out posts scattered in remote areas and villages that could raise the alarm well in advance of an offensive formation coming the other way. His collective presence of aircraft called themselves the 'Flying Tigers'. 

    Their aircraft retained the already established shark mouth that had become synonymous with the type, and additionally added a flying Bengal tiger to the fuselage as a distinctive badge. In the Spring of 1942, Chennault was recognised for his success and was invited back into US Service as a Colonel, closely followed by promotion to Brigadier General. In later years his pilots were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and his teams on the ground: the Bronze Star Medal. 

    Development and design work continued through several marks with the P-40N achieving the title of most built, accounting for nearly 40% of the total production line. The 'N' was lighter than its predecessors and was powered by a newer spec Allison engine, and would be the fastest of them all achieving speeds of nearly 400 mph. 

    The Merlin engine (built by Rolls Royce and later Packard) also found its way into some suitably modified airframes; it was tested in the D and installed in the F, but some supply issues in the US found the powerplant needing to be returned back to the Allison (other than a brief appearance in the L model).

    The P-40 remained in production from 1939 to the end of 1944 with the total number built clocking just under 14,000 airframes – all built in Curtiss’ main production facilities in Buffalo, New York –, making it not just one of the highest-produced fighters of World War II but one of the best known and widely used too!  

    CURTISS P-40N

    Wingspan: 11.3 m
    MGW: 4,014 kg
    Powerplant: Allison V-1710, V-12 producing 1,240 hp
    VNE: 378 mph
    Cruise speed: 285 mph
    Service ceiling: 31,000 ft

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