The Curtiss P-40 Warhawk became a symbol of the United States Army Air Corps in the fierce battles to contain the Japanese.
Officially commissioned in 1939, the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk was one of the most widely seen and used fighters of World War II, yet it’s often overshadowed in modern-day literature by readily recognized names like Lightning, Thunderbolt and Mustang.
The P-40 design was a modification of the previous Curtiss P-36 Hawk which reduced development time and enabled a rapid entry into production and operational service. The Warhawk was used by most Allied powers during World War II, and remained in frontline service until the end of the war. It was the third most-produced American fighter of World War II, after the P-51 and P-47; by November 1944, when production of the P-40 ceased, 13,738 had been built.
Not a very special aircraft compared to its contemporaries, the P-40 Warhawk was still a deadly fighting machine in the hands of skilled pilots. She fielded a formidable armament of 4 x 12.7mm Browning M2 heavy machine guns in her nose and wings. This would later be complemented by the airframe’s ability to carry a modest bombload in an attempt to increase the workhorse’s workload in war.
The Warhawk was powered by an Allison V-12 liquid-cooled piston engine, with 1,240 hp, a departure from the more popular air-cooled radials seen in many fighter types of the period. The Warhawk could reach a top speed of 334 mph, a range of 716 mi, and a service ceiling of 29,100 ft.
The P-40’s lack of a two-speed supercharger made it inferior to Luftwaffe fighters such as the Messerschmitt Bf 109 or the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 in high-altitude combat and it was rarely used in operations in Northwest Europe. However, between 1941 and 1944, the P-40 played a critical role with Allied air forces in three major theaters: North Africa, the Southwest Pacific, and China. It also had a significant role in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, Alaska and Italy.
The P-40’s performance at high altitudes was not as important in those theaters, where it served as an air superiority fighter, bomber escort and fighter-bomber. Although it gained a postwar reputation as a mediocre design, suitable only for close air support, more recent research including scrutiny of the records of individual Allied squadrons indicates that this was not the case: the P-40 performed surprisingly well as an air superiority fighter, at times suffering severe losses, but also inflicting a very heavy toll on enemy aircraft.
As the first American single-seat fighter to be mass-produced, it took the on full weight of air warfare in several theaters of battle. Its shortcomings were partly compensated for by its sturdiness, which enabled it to absorb punishment, and its ability to outdive virtually any other aircraft it was likely to face.
Based on war-time victory claims, over 200 Allied fighter pilots – from the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, the US and the Soviet Union – became aces flying the P-40. These included at least 20 double aces, mostly over North Africa, China, Burma and India, the South West Pacific and Eastern Europe. The P-40 offered the additional advantages of low cost and durability, which kept it in production as a ground-attack aircraft long after it was obsolescent as a fighter.