The Curtiss P-40 achieved its greatest fame with the Flying Tigers, but it also proved itself in every theater of war. Rarely the fastest or most maneuverable aircraft in a combat, it was often the most rugged and served its nation well.
World War II U.S. fighter. The Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, made famous by the legendary Flying Tigers, was one of America’s most important fighter aircraft of World War II. The P-40 originated in 1938 as the XP-40, a derivation of the mid- 1930s Curtiss radial-engine design, the P-36 Hawk. Unlike the Hawk, however, the P-40 was equipped with a liquid-cooled Allison V-1710-33 inline engine, which greatly reduced frontal area and increased performance.
Although the P-40 was sturdy, with good diving characteristics and an attractive, sleek-looking design, it exhibited only mediocre performance compared to most other fighters of the day. By the start of the war, in fact, the P-40 was virtually obsolete. Still, it continued to be produced in great numbers, as it was one of the few fighters already in full production and readily available from war’s outset.
The P-40’s chief claim to fame was its use by General Claire Chennault’s American Volunteer Group (AVG), immortalized as the Flying Tigers. The AVG operated in China under the control of General Chiang Kai-shek in the early months of World War II. With the colorful but intimidating shark’s teeth painted on their noses, the P-40 fighter aircraft flown by the flamboyant and highly capable pilots of the AVG were extremely successful in intercepting and destroying invading Japanese aircraft. Although consistently outnumbered, pilots flying the P-40 registered a kill ratio of 25 Japanese aircraft for every P-40 destroyed in aerial combat. Because of its effectiveness, as well as the popular cause the AVG supported, the P-40 became one of the most recognized aircraft in history.
The P-40 saw extensive service throughout World War II—beginning with the actual attack on Pearl Harbor. In addition to its use by the United States, the P-40 was used by 28 Allied nations, including the British in North Africa, the Australians in the South Pacific, and the Russians on the Eastern Front. Indeed, even as late as 1943 the P-40—in combination with the Bell P-39—still represented over half of the total fighter strength in the U.S. Army Air Forces.
The P-40 underwent numerous design modifications throughout the war, but when the far superior P-38, P-47, and P-51 fighters arrived on the scene, the P-40 was quickly relegated to roles other than air-to-air combat, such as ground support. By the end of the war, only one U.S. squadron was still equipped with the P-40.
The rugged P-40 played a significant role in winning the war because it was available at a time when most other World War II fighters were still in the planning stages, and it performed dependably and effectively until more advanced fighters became available. Even though a total of 13,738 P-40s were built from May 1940 through 1944, only a handful of these classic and historic aircraft are still flying today.
The Warhawk has respectable speed for a fighter of 1940. Its climb rate, however, is poor. One virtue it has is handling – particularly roll rate – at high speed. Compared to Axis types, the P-40 would only be competitive in speed with the early war Messerschmitt 109E-3. The Emil can easily out climb the Warhawk, however. Compared to all types, only the Hurricane and the Zero are appreciably slower. All fighters can out climb the Warhawk, and out turn it. The P-40’s only edge on some aircraft, particularly the Zero, is diving ability, and high speed handling….
P40 vs. Japanese Zero
The P-40 was, all around, at least the equal of the Zeke in combat, though the Zeke had tremendous range and other assets. The decision early on to deprive the P-40 of its intended supercharger left it with poor high-altitude performance, and the plane has consequently suffered an unwarranted reputation as second-rate. It was tough and maneuverable, though I wouldn’t go trying to out-turn a Zeke. Rate of roll was better than a Zeke’s, I believe the Japanese regarded the P-40 as the Allies’ best fighter at low altitude.
The P-40 was equal to the Zero in a general comparison. Unfortunately, most of the books many of us (myself included) grew up with have formed a powerful — yet inaccurate — myth that the Zero was a “Super Plane” that ploughed through huge formations of obsolete Allied planes in the early days of the Pacific War with barely a loss. But as we’re finally starting to see some 60 years later, many Allied aircraft, such as the P-40, performed much better in combat than we were originally led to believe.
While the P-40 didn’t match up against the Zero in a classic dogfight, it was vastly superior in many other areas. The P-40 was built to fight AND survive, meaning that it incorporated many features that became commonplace on every American fighter of WW2. These features included self-sealing fuel tanks, good armor, excellent pilot protection, extremely heavy firepower (in later models), good horsepower and above all — tough, durable construction that allowed it to absorb tremendous damage and still come home. (This pattern continues with modern US aircraft even today. With the possible exception of the F-16, every US aircraft currently in service is big, durable and incorporates all of the features listed above.) But while these items increased the P-40’s survivability, they also helped decrease performance.
With this in mind, the Zero wasn’t THAT much BETTER than the P-40. But rather they were two designs that were on completely opposite ends of the spectrum. While the P-40 was a rugged, powerful design with lesser performance, the Zero was designed from the start to be a small, lightweight, high-performance fighter that sacrificed armor and pilot protection to achieve maximum range and performance. (The Zero could even out-turn the P-51 Mustang, which was easily the best all-around US fighter in service during the war!) But as we all know, it didn’t take much to make one burn in a dogfight.
However, it’s interesting to note that as the war dragged on, even the Japanese realized the Zero’s limitations. Most late-war Japanese fighters abandoned the “no armor” concept and evolved into very dangerous opponents sporting greater power, firepower and pilot protection. As a result, many of these designs were at least equal or superior to Allied aircraft in many areas. Unfortunately, the Japanese no longer had the ability to produce them in the necessary quantities. But that’s another subject!
The Hellcat was distinctly superior to the Zeke, and at extreme altitudes, it could even outmaneuver the Japanese plane. The Lightning was a complete success in the Pacific, where its supercharger problems were not evident. As for the Corsair, it may be the best prop fighter ever built.
The Wildcat was the approximate equal of the Zeke. In the first year or so of the war, the two had very similar records in head-to-head confrontations. I mentioned the Zeke’s advantage in range. But the Wildcat had another advantage, one that was even more significant in battle. A radio. The typical Zeke had no radio, and the airmen could not coordinate their actions as effectively. The Americans had a highly effective team concept that went far in defeating the Zeke, but this was possible only because the Wildcat had a radio.
The ability to out-turn a Mustang does not make the Zeke its equal. A Sopwith Camel can out-turn a Spitfire, but which would you rather have in an air battle? Of course, no plane is invincible or even close to that.
Actually, even the Hurricane II’s that appeared in early 1942 were able to inflict some severe reversals on IJAAF and IJNAF aircraft. The few that reached Singapore managed to regain air-superiority until they were attritioned down. I don’t have any direct combat facts to compare the two planes (since the A6M was flying over Malaya and Singapore at the time).
The A6M was a good plane, but, I don’t think it would have survived very long on the Western Front even as early as the beginning of 1942!
An important point to remember in this discussion is that an airplane (any airplane) is only as good as its pilot. Although the P-40 didn’t necessarily match up 100% against the Zero performance-wise, excellent pilot training and tactics, combined with the factors detailed in my earlier message, let it remain competitive until more modern types reached the front.
Also remember that most US pilots flying P-40s against the Japanese in the Philippines and NEI were fresh out of flight school. Although they had operational flight training, they had no combat experience. And if I remember correctly, many had never before flown the P-40E version, which was substantially more advanced than the earlier P-40B and P-40C.
In comparison, they faced the best trained pilots Japan had to offer. Most (both IJAF and IJN) had extensive combat experience over China and Manchuria (against the Russians) before the Pacific War. Prior to Pearl Harbor, the IJN trained only a few hundred pilots a year and took only the absolute best qualified candidates available from thousands of applicants. Although the IJAF training standards were somewhat lower, their pilots were equally skilled.
Combine these variables with the fact that the Allies planes were usually outnumbered with poor radar facilities and weak AA defenses and it becomes impossible to gauge the effectiveness of the P-40 against the Zero based on early war encounters. Skip ahead to later in the War and one sees that more experienced P-40 pilots, although still often outperformed by the Zero, was usually able to hold their own under better operating conditions.