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Curtiss P-40 Warhawk

The Curtiss P-40 Warhawk was the foremost American fighter at the start of World War II. The P-40 saw action in nearly every theater of the war, from engaging with the Japanese during the attack on Pearl Harbor to their famed use by the Flying Tigers in China in early 1942 and by the first all-black U.S. Army Air Forces unit, the 99th Pursuit Squadron.

Curtis P-40 Warhawk belonging to Eleventh Fighter Squadron, 343rd Fighter Group, the Aleutian Tigers, commanded by Major John Chennault, son of Gen. Claire Lee Chennault, commander of the CBI Flying Tigers
Curtis P-40 Warhawk belonging to Eleventh Fighter Squadron, 343rd Fighter Group, the "Aleutian Tigers," commanded by Major John Chennault, son of Gen. Claire Lee Chennault, commander of the CBI "Flying Tigers."

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Curtiss P-40 Warhawk in World War II

More P-40s were built between 1940 and 1942 than any other American fighter, with the total built during the war exceeding 13,000. The Warhawk served in the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations (MTO), and in the Far East and Southwest Pacific. Some P-40s were sent to the Soviet Union under lend-lease, and many served with British and Commonwealth allies.

What the P-40 lacked in speed and maneuverability compared to enemy fighters, it made up for with extreme ruggedness. The P-40 did not have a two-stage supercharger, limiting its effectiveness at higher altitudes, and as a result, was rarely used in Northwest Europe. But it played a crucial part in North Africa, China, and the Southwest Pacific, where it performed well enough to be an effective fighter bomber or escort plane.

The P-40 first saw combat with British Commonwealth squadrons in the Middle East and North Africa as a part of the Desert Air Force (DAF) in June 1941. The P-40B was adopted by the American Volunteer Group (AVG), unofficially and better known as the Flying Tigers, in late 1941 as a part of the Republic of China Air Force. The Flying Tigers were divided into three fighter interceptor squadrons, the "Hells Angels," "Adam & Eves," and "Panda," with all planes sporting the shark-face emblem on their noses. The Flying Tigers shot down 286 Japanese aircraft, losing only eight P-40s.

Curtiss P-40 Warhawk Models and Production History

The P-40 was developed from the P-36 by Curtiss Corporation. The prototype XP-40 had an Allison V-1710 V-12 engine instead of the Pratt & Whitney R-1830 radial engine used in the P-36 Hawk. It was built with a five-spar wing, giving it a strong structure that made it durable in virtually any climate. Modular design made maintenance and field modification straightforward. The United States Army Air Corps, later to become the Army Air Force, gave the name "Warhawk" to all P-40s. However, the British and Soviet forces referred to the P-40B as the Tomahawk, and the P-40D and later models as the Kittyhawk.

The P-40's cockpit was positioned far back on the fuselage, so pilots had zero visibility over the nose when on the ground. Someone had to sit on a wing to guide the pilot when taxiing. But in the air, the P-40 outperformed other fighters with its fast dive speed and excellent roll rate. Tactics such as "boom and zoom" were adopted to make the most of the P-40's strengths.

A total of 13,738 P-40s were built, all at the main production facility of Curtiss-Wright in Buffalo, NY. The P-40 was the original model, with 200 built. The P-40A was a modified P-40 used for photo reconnaissance. Other important models are:

Model P-40B

The P-40B had extra .30 cal. machine guns in the wings, and some protection for the fuel system. In Britain, the P-40B was designated the Tomahawk IIA, where .303 cal. machine guns were used. The Tomahawk also had an underbelly drop tank, self-sealing fuel tanks, and bomb shackles. In China, the P-40B was used by the Flying Tigers. A total of 131 were built.

Model P-40D

The P-40D was known as the Kittyhawk Mk I when used by the British RAF, but only about 50 were built. The new Allison engine improved performance to meet British needs. Other improvements included a narrowed fuselage and redesigned canopy and cockpit, with the nose-mounted .50 guns replaced with a pair of .50 guns in each wing. A total of 22 were built.

Model P-40E

The P-40E was the first major production model of the P-40. Similar to the P-40D, it had a slightly more powerful engine and an extra .50 cal. machine gun in each wing. A total of 2,320 were built.

P-40F and P40-L

This pair of models was noted for having a Packard V-1650 Merlin engine instead of the Allison found in other models. The P-40F/L performed better at higher altitudes. The P-40F/L was used throughout the Mediterranean Theater of Operations by U.S. fighter groups. A total of 1,311 P-40Fs and 700 P-40Ls were built.


The P-40M was similar to the P40-L, but with an Allison V-1710-81 engine for better performance at higher altitudes. The P-4M was primarily used for pilot training in the U.S., though many went to the U.K. and U.S.S.R. A total of 600 were built.

Model P-40N

The final production model, the P-40N saw its rear fuselage lengthened as a countermeasure for the higher torque of the more powerful Allison engine. The cockpit was altered to further improve visibility. Also, the plane was lightened as much as possible to improve climb rate. Variants of this model had different numbers of guns in the wings, sacrificing combat strength for speed depending on tactical need. A total of 1,977 P-40N-1-15s, 3,022 P40N-20-35s, and 220 P-40N-40-CUs were built.

Curtiss P-40 Warhawk Characteristics

ArmamentSix .50 cal. machine guns
Bomb load700 lbs. (external)
EngineAllison 1,150 hp. V-1710
Maximum speed362 mph
Cruising speed235 mph
Range850 mi.
Ceiling30,000 ft.
Span37 ft. 4 in.
Length31 ft. 9 in.
Height12 ft. 4 in.
Weight9,100 lbs. loaded

Note: Characteristics vary slightly with the P-40 Warhawk variant, manufacturing site, and date.

Curtiss P-40 Warhawk in flight
Curtiss P-40 Warhawk in flight.

Curtiss P-40 Warhawk with K3B camera installed
Curtiss P-40 Warhawk with K3B camera installed.

Curtiss P-40 Warhawk
Curtiss P-40 Warhawk.

Curtiss P-40E Warhawk in flight, 1940s
Curtiss P-40E Warhawk in flight, 1940s.

Curtiss P-40 Warhawks of the 325th Fighter Group on board the USS Ranger, en route to North Africa, January 1943
Curtiss P-40 Warhawks of the 325th Fighter Group on board the USS Ranger, en route to North Africa, January 1943.

Repairing a Flying Tiger P-40 at Kunming, China
Repairing a Flying Tiger P-40 at Kunming, China.

Recommended Books about the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk

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