Warrior to the end
The P-40 Warhawk will never be enshrined in the Hall
of Fame of Fantastic Fighters. It was too slow, couldn’t turn
tight enough, was hard to handle on the ground and, compared to some
fighters, had nasty stall characteristics. Further, its hydraulic system
was too complicated, its landing gear too rudimentary and its Allison
V-12 too anemic.
If the foregoing is all true, then why, when you get a bunch of WWII
vets together who were in uniform on that December day in 1941, do they
speak of the P-40 in such reverent terms? That’s easy. They love
the P-40 because it was “there.” It was on-line, it was
flying, it was available to carry on the fight regardless of the odds.
An outgrowth of the round-motored P-36A, the P-40 wedded the new Allison
V-12 to “…one of them new-fangled monoplanes…”
at a time when biplane fighters were still flying for both the Army
and the Navy. Later pilots would bemoan the lack of a two-stage supercharger
to give them enough power for high altitude operations like the Mustang,
but mechanics much preferred the Allison over the British-designed Merlin
because it was a joy to work on with none of the “built like a
watch” eccentricities of the Merlin. Like the airplane itself,
what the Allison lacked in finesse, it more than made up for in rugged
On the very first day of combat, it was P-40’s over Pearl that
made at least a few Japanese pilots sorry they’d picked a fight
that day. Mere hours later P-40’s over Clark Field in the Philippines
did their best to hold back an enemy force of gargantuan size. The few
bright lights in a very dark December came from the exploits of P-40
pilots, including those who went on to gain legendary status as the
American Volunteer Group, or Flying Tigers.
The P-40 wasn’t without its strong points, pun intended. For one
thing, it was hell for stout and could absorb a terrific amount of punishment
and, as long as the coolant system was still intact, bring its pilot
home. If the pale haze of leaking glycol forecast imminent engine seizure,
the hulking airframe could do its best to protect its pilot in any airplane-versus-ground
The Warhawk could also dive as if it invented gravity. When they had
the altitude advantage, Warhawk pilots would fall upon their prey like
enraged cougars, slash through them unscathed and convert all that speed
and energy into a high speed zoom that put them back above their enemy
again. The ability to dive, coupled with the awesome firepower of six
of John Brownings .50 caliber machine guns, gave them a life saving
choice—dive into the fight when it looks good and dive out of
it, when the tables turn against you.
It’s unfortunate that the P-40 will forever in the eyes of America
wear the sharks mouth paint job of the AVG because the airplane was
so much more than that. The majority wore plain olive drab paint as
if they were dressed in coveralls to go to work. Which, in fact they
were. The P-40 was the hard-working journeyman fighter of WWII, always
there, always doing what was asked of it. .
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