Whether known as the Warhawk, Tomahawk, or Kittyhawk, the Curtiss P-40 proved to be a successful, versatile fighter during the first half of World War II. The shark-mouthed Tomahawks that Gen. Claire Chennault's "Flying Tigers" flew in China against the Japanese remain among the most popular airplanes of the war. P-40E pilot Lt. Boyd D. Wagner became the first American ace of World War II when he shot down six Japanese aircraft in the Philippines in mid-December 1941.
Curtiss-Wright built this airplane as Model 87-A3 and delivered it to Canada as a Kittyhawk I in 1941. It served until 1946 in No. 111 Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force. U.S. Air Force personnel at Andrews Air Force Base restored it in 1975 to represent an aircraft of the 75th Fighter Squadron, 23rd Fighter Group, 14th Air Force.
Whether it was the Tomahawk, Warhawk, or Kittyhawk, the Curtiss P-40 was a successful and versatile fighter aircraft during the first half of World War II. The shark-mouthed Tomahawks that General Claire Chennault led against the Japanese remain among the most popular airplanes of the war. In the Phillipines, Lt. Boyd D. Wagner became the first American ace of World War II while flying a P-40E when he shot down six Japanese aircraft during mid-December 1941. P-40s were first-line Army Air Corps fighters at the start of the war but they soon gave way to more advanced designs such as the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt and the Lockheed P-38 Lightning (see NASM collection for both aircraft). The P-40 is not ranked among the best overall fighters of the war but it was a rugged, effective design available in large numbers early in the war when America and her allies urgently required them. The P-40 remained in production from 1939 to the end of 1944 and a total of 13, 737 were built.
Design engineer Dr. Donovan R. Berlin layed the foundation for the P-40 in 1935 when he designed the agile, but lightly-armed, P-36 fighter equipped with a radial, air-cooled engine. The Curtiss-Wright Corporation won a production contract for 210 P-36 airplanes in 1937-the largest Army airplane contract awarded since World War I. Worldwide, fighter aircraft designs matured rapidly during the late 1930s and it was soon obvious that the P-36 was no match for newer European designs. High altitude performance in particular became a priceless commodity. Berlin attempted to improve the P-36 by redesigning it in to accommodate a turbo-supercharged Allison V-1710-11 inline, liquid-cooled engine. The new aircraft was designated the XP-37 but proved unpopular with pilots. The turbo-supercharger was not reliable and Berlin had placed the cockpit too far back on the fuselage, restricting the view to the front of the fighter. Nonetheless, when the engine was not giving trouble, the more-streamlined XP-37 was much faster than the P-36.
Curtiss tried again in 1938. Berlin had modified another P-36 with a new Allison V-1710-19 engine. It was designated the XP-40 and first flew on October 14, 1938. The XP-40 looked promising and Curtiss offered it to Army Air Corps leaders who evaluated the airplane at Wright Field, Ohio, in 1939, along with several other fighter proposals. The P-40 won the competition, after some modifications, and Curtiss received an order for 540. At this time, the armament package consisted of two .50 caliber machine guns in the fuselage and four .30 caliber machine guns in the wings.
After production began in March 1940, France ordered 140 P-40s but the British took delivery of these airplanes when Paris surrendered. The British named the aircraft Tomahawks but found they performed poorly in high-altitude combat over northern Europe and relegated them to low-altitude operations in North Africa. The Russians bought more than 2,000 P-40s but details of their operational history remain obscure.
When the United States declared war, P-40s equipped many of the Army Air Corps's front line fighter units. The plucky fighter eventually saw combat in almost every theater of operations being the most effective in the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater. Of all the CBI groups that gained the most notoriety of the entire war, and remains to this day synonymous with the P-40, is the American Volunteer Group (AVG) or the Flying Tigers. The unit was organized after the Chinese gave former U. S. Army Air Corps Captain Claire Lee Chennault almost 9 million dollars in 1940 to buy aircraft and recruit pilots to fly against the Japanese. Chennault's most important support within the Chinese government came from Madam Chiang Kai-shek, a Lt. Colonel in the Chinese Air Force and for a time, the service's overall commander.
The money from China diverted an order placed by the British Royal Air Force for 100 Curtiss-Wright P-40B Tomahawks but buying airplanes was only one important step in creating a fighting air unit. Trained pilots were needed, and quickly, as tensions across the Pacific escalated. On April 15, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt quietly signed an Executive Order permitting Chennault to recruit directly from the ranks of American military reserve pilots. Within a few months, 350 flyers joined from pursuit (fighter), bomber, and patrol squadrons. In all, about half the pilots in the Flying Tigers came from the U. S. Navy and Marine Corps while the Army Air Corps supplied one-third. Factory test pilots at Bell, Consolidated, and other companies, and commercial airline pilots, filled the remaining slots.
The Flying Tigers flew their first mission on December 20. The unit's name was derived from the ferocious fangs and teeth painted on the nose of AVG P-40s at either side of the distinctive, large radiator air intake. The idea is said to originate from pictures in a magazine that showed Royal Air Force Tomahawks of No. 112 Squadron, operating in the western desert of North Africa, adorned with fangs and teeth painted around their air intakes. The Flying Tigers were the first real opposition the Japanese military encountered. In less than 7 months of action, AVG pilots destroyed about 115 Japanese aircraft and lost only 11 planes in air-to-air combat. The AVG disbanded on July 4, 1942, and its assets, including a few pilots, became a part of the U. S. Army Air Forces (AAF) 23rd Fighter Group in the newly activated 14th Air Force. Chennault, now a Brigadier General, assumed command of the 14th AF and by war's end, the 23rd was one of the highest-scoring Army fighter groups.
As wartime experience in the P-40 mounted, Curtiss made many modifications. Engineers added armor plate, better self-sealing fuel tanks, and more powerful engines. They modified the cockpit to improve visibility and changed the armament package to six, wing-mounted, .50 caliber machine guns. The P-40E Kittyhawk was the first model with this gun package and it entered service in time to serve in the AVG. The last model produced in quantity was the P-40N, the lightest P-40 built in quantity, and much faster than previous models. Curtiss built a single P-40Q. It was the fastest P-40 to fly (679 kph/422 mph) but it could not match the performance of the P-47 Thunderbolt and the P-51 Mustang so Curtiss ended development of the P-40 series with this model. In addition to the AAF, many Allied nations bought and flew P-40s including England, France, China, Russia, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, and Turkey.
The Smithsonian P-40E did not serve in the U. S. military. Curtiss-Wright built it in Buffalo, New York, as Model 87-A3 and delivered it to Canada as a Kittyhawk IA on March 11, 1941. It served in No. 111 Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). When the Japanese navy moved to attack Midway, they sent a diversionary battle group to menace the Aleutian Islands. Canada moved No. 111 Squadron to Alaska to help defend the region. After the Japanese threat diminished, the unit returned to Canada and eventually transferred to England without its P-40s. The RCAF declared the NASM Kittyhawk IA surplus on July 27, 1946, and the aircraft eventually returned to the United States. It had several owners before ending up with the Explorer Scouts youth group in Meridian, Mississippi. During the early 1960s, the Smithsonian began searching for a P-40 with a documented history of service in the AVG but found none. In 1964, the Exchange Club in Meridian donated the Kittyhawk IA to the National Aeronautical Collection, in memory of Mr. Kellis Forbes, a local man devoted to Boys Club activities. A U. S. Air Force Reserve crew airlifted the fighter to Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, on March 13, 1964. Andrews personnel restored the airplane in 1975 and painted it to represent an aircraft of the 75th Fighter Squadron, 23rd Fighter Group, 14th Air Force.