Warrior to the end
by Budd Davisson
The P-40 Warhawk will never be enshrined in the Hall of Fame of Fantastic Fighters. It was too slow, couldnít 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? Thatís easy. They love the P-40 because it was ìthere.î 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 dependability.
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 encounter.
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.