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Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk

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The P-40 was the most extensively built American fighter of the Second World War with over 13,000 produced. Famed for its shark tooth design the Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk, or Warhawk and Tomahawk as it was also known, was used by the 'Flying Tigers', the American Volunteer Group in China.

Quick Facts
Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk side profile image
First flight
14th October 1938
Entered service
June 1940
Total built

Front view
P-40 Kittyhawk front view photo
Side view
P-40 Kittyhawk side view photo
Rear view
P-40 Kittyhawk rear view photo

During 1938 the tenth Curtiss P-36A was used for an experimental engine conversion from a radial to a inline engine, this was designated the Hawk 81 by Curtiss. When on the 14th October 1938 the Hawk 81 flew it was powered by a 1,160-hp Allison V-1710-19 engine, but was basically similar to the P-36A, with the radiator first mounted beneath the aft fuselage before being placed under the nose. Flying in May 1939, and now designated the XP-40, against other pursuit aircraft prototypes in competition against each other, the XP-40 was chosen for production by the United States Army Air Corps, and on the 27th April 1939, and at the time representing the United States Army's largest single order for fighters, 524 P-40s were ordered.

As soon as the first three P-40s rolled of the production line during May 1940 they were sent for service trials, although these P-40s would be powered by a less powerful supercharged Allison V-1710-33 engine. The Curtiss P-40 began to enter service in June 1940 with the 33rd, 35th, and 36th Pursuit Squadrons receiving the first deliveries and by September 1940 the USAAC had received 200 P-40s. 140 similar Hawk 81A-1 fighters had been ordered by France but none of these reached France before the end of resistance. Instead designated Tomahawk I the aircraft were used by the Royal Air Force in Europe where the aircraft were to prove unsuited for deployment, and after replacing Westland Lysanders of No.2 Squadron during August 1941 they were soon relegated to training duties, they also served in North West Africa. No. 112 Squadron was the first RAF overseas squadron to take delivery of the aircraft and it was this squadron who would introduce the famous shark tooth design onto the aircraft. Operating in the Western Desert in a low level ground attack role the P-40 enjoyed limited success.

The Tomahawk IIA was the next version used by the RAF, the same as the P-40B, with a number of modifications adding to the weight of the aircraft, such as armour and two more 0.303-in machine-guns, and as such performance of the aircraft was reduced. The P-40C was the next variant and as with the P-40B the introduction of two more machine-guns and improved self-sealing tanks would increase the weight of the aircraft and thus decrease performance. A number were converted for reconnaissance duties and designated RP-40 and the P-40C that would serve with the RAF was designated Tomahawk IIB.

A number of P-40s destined for use with the Royal Air Force were instead diverted to China to serve with Brigadier General Claire Chennault's 1st American Volunteer Group, otherwise known as 'The Flying Tigers', who also had the shark tooth design on their aircraft. This squadron was working within the Chinese Air Force playing a role in defending China from Japanese air attacks. The AVG would provide some much needed success over the Imperial Japanese Air Force, and provide America with some much needed morale in the early stages of their entry into the war. When Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor on the 7th December 1941, which brought the US into the war, it was the P-40 which would be one of the first American aircraft to face Japanese aircraft in combat.

The P-40D was the product of Curtiss's re-design of the P-40C. A 1,150-hp Allison V-1710-39 engine was installed, armour was added and other changes which would also include the option of either an external fuel tank or a 500lb bomb and four 0.50-in machine-guns, this was first flown on the 22nd May 1941 and was designated by the RAF Kittyhawk I. However just over 20 of this type would be built as two more machine-guns were added to bring the total to six and a new designated of P-40E or Kittyhawk IA when used by the RAF, and working along side the Hawker Hurricane in North Africa the Kittyhawk would find success in the ground-attack role. A number were also converted to two-seat trainers.

As the attempts to improve the P-40 had still left its performance at altitude inadequate for it to fill the role of an effective fighter aircraft, a P-40D was used as the test bed to see if the introduction of a Rolls-Royce Merlin 28 engine could improve the situation. Flown on the 25th November 1941 the XP-40D showed improvement at high altitude and the 1,300-hp Packard built V-1650-1 Merlin engine would power the P-40F. An XP-40G prototype appeared with fuel tank and armament changes, and existing P-40s were modified to this version.

Although the introduction of the Packard built Merlin had improved performance there was a shortage of these engine in the US so the P-40J had a turbo charged Allison engine to overcome this problem, however this project was abandoned in May 1942. Instead the P40K would be the next variant to enter service during August 1942, powered by a 1,355-hp Allison V-1710-73 engine, and later production P-40Ks would have a dorsal fin fitted to help fix the problem of the aircraft swinging on take-off due to the more powerful engine.

The P-40M & P-40L were Curtiss's attempts to give the Kittyhawk the extra performance needed to become more suited to the fighter role. Despite a weight loss of 250lb on the P-40M and the introduction of a 1,200-hp Allison V-1710-81 engine on the P-40L hardly any performance increase was achieved.

As 1943 drew to a close it was clear that despite all the attempts to increase the performance of the P-40 that the aircraft's days were numbered, unless a performance increase was found. The P-40N, the last production version, was born, featuring the same Allison V-1710-81 engine that appeared on the P-40L, the P-40N featured a reduction in armament to four guns mounted in the wings, less fuel capacity and other minor changes. As a result the maximum speed of the aircraft was 378 mph, meaning it was the best basic production aircraft of the type. Later on some P-40Ns were modified to become fighter-bombers with two more machine-guns and a bomb load of upto 1,500lb. This variant would prove to be the most extensively built.

The XP-40Q appeared which identified three prototypes built by Curtiss in its further efforts to improve the P-40 even more, but despite the introduction of a 1,425-hp Allison V-1710-121 engine and other improvements its maximum speed of 422 mph was still below other Allied and Axis fighters in service at the time and development of the aircraft was stopped. In comparison the Hawker Tempest Mk I was able to achieve a speed of 466 mph.

Seeing action in the Middle East and the Pacific the Kittyhawk would serve with a number of Air Forces including, the USAAF, RAF and Soviet Union, and by the time production was ended in December 1944 around 14,000 had been delivered.

Technical Details

Click on the aircraft image to view a larger version.

Top Speed Range Service Ceiling Armament
P-40 357 mph 950 miles 32,750 ft two 0.50-in machine-guns
two 0.303-in machine-guns
P-40A Skipped designation applied later on to a camera carrying P-40.
P-40B 352 mph 730 miles 32,400 ft four 0.303-in machine-guns
two 0.50-in machine-guns
P-40B side profile image
P-40C 344 mph 730 miles 29,000 ft four 0.303-in machine-guns
two 0.50-in machine-guns
P-40D 360 mph 800 miles 29,100 ft four 0.50-in machine-guns
P-40E 367 mph 700 miles 28,700 ft six 0.50-in machine-guns
P-40E side profile image
P-40F 365 mph 700 miles 33,990 ft six 0.50-in machine-guns
and either a 500lb or 1,000lb bomb
P-40G Only one built.
P-40J Improved P-40E with turbo, project cancelled.
P-40K 363 mph 700 miles 28,500 ft six 0.50-in machine-guns
P-40L 371 mph 650 miles 38,550 ft four 0.50-in machine-guns
P-40M 362 mph 700 miles 29,740 ft six 0.50-in machine-guns
P-40N 378 mph 750 miles 33,000 ft four or six 0.50-in machine-guns
XP-40Q Modified cooling system installed into three aircraft, two P-40Ks and a P-40N.
P-40R Modified P-40F and P-40L with different engines.
TP-40 Modified to serve as two seater training aircraft.


Click on a photo to view a larger version.
P-40C P-40F

See This Aircraft

(C) = Cockpit only exhibit. (F) = Fuselage only exhibit. (R) = Remains of an aircraft.

P-40C Imperial War Museum, Duxford
P-40N Royal Air Force Museum, London

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