Curtiss P-40 Warhawk
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Curtiss P-40 Warhawk

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More than 13,000 P-40’s served in combat during World War 2, seeing action in every major theatre. They were not the most advanced plane we had, nor the fastest, nor the most maneuverable, but they were reliable, sturdy, and armed with six deadly wing-mounted 50 caliber machine guns. The Warhawks were the planes sent to China with the famous group of American volunteer pilots known as the “Flying Tigers.” The Warhawks were the planes that were assigned to the Tuskegee Airmen in North Africa, where both the planes and the pilots proved their worth.
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Curtiss P6e Hawk
Curtiss P-6e Hawk at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, OH.
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Curtiss P-6E Hawk

Starting in 1925 Curtiss Aviation built several variations of pursuit planes for the US Army Air Corps using the name Hawk. These planes were typical war planes improving upon the bi planes of the First World War, but otherwise in a transitional period of development leading up the the Second World War. The challenge of a single wing plane that could have enough power to achieve lift for a short take off was not met until later in the 1930’s.
The Army ordered a number of the P-6E, but the plane, occupying the space between major wars, was never used in combat. Nevertheless, the Hawk led the way to the single wing planes that Curtiss would have ready when the U.S. entered the Second World War. Powered with a 600 hp engine, the P-6E had a top speed of 204 mph, a speed considered way too slow in the mid-1940’s. Armament was two .30 caliber machine guns.

The U.S. Air Force maintains an extensive collection of early and WW2 planes at its Dayton, Ohio museum… and a web site chock full of photos and information:
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Curtiss P-36 Hawk
Curtiss P-36 Hawk at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, OH.
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Curtiss P-36 Hawk

In the 1930’s aircraft manufacturers were working to develop faster, more powerful single-wing war planes. Boeing introduced theP-26 “Peashooter” in 1932. With a large air cooled radial engine, it could reach a speed of 234 mph. The competition for Army Air Corps orders was on. After losing an Army competition to Seversky’s P-35. Curtiss ultimately came out ahead with a large order (210 planes) from the Air Corps for its P-36 Hawk with retractable landing gear and a top speed of 313 mph. By the time the U.S. was getting into the war, the Army was looking for a faster plane.
The P-36 was most of the way there. The solution, it turned out was to replace the radial engine with an inline engine, thereby substantially reducing drag. The U.S. and its allies needed a lot of planes fast, and the 6 was already in production. A change in engine design could be accomplished quickly because the rest of the plane could stay the same.

For a more detailed description and history of this transitional plane we recommend: the Aviation History site:
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National Museum of the U.S. Air Force
P-40 at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, OH.
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National Museum of the U.S. Air Force

Curtiss P-40 Warhawk

The P-40 would not be as fast or as advanced as planes introduced after we got into the War, but US Army, along with the RAF, needed a good fighter fast, and they needed a lot of them. The Army had ordered over 200 P-36's in 1937, but the P-36 was not competitive with planes already in use by the axis powers, The solution was to change the design of the PP-36 to accommodate an Allison V-12 liquid cooled engine. This resulted in a much more aerodynamic cowling. The air intake for the radiator was under the nose cone. Consequently, Curtiss Wright could ramp up production of the P-40 very quickly, using the production line already set up for the P-36. The engine was pretty much the only change.

Like most other war planes, the first ones produced were improved upon after production started. So later versions flew faster than the early production version. The P-40, armed with three .50-cal. machine guns in each wing proved its value early in the war against Germany and Italy. Without a supercharger, it was not designed for higher altitudes, but the Army was planning mostly for ground support missions, where the plane was very effective.
Warhawks Basics

Length: 31 ft. 9 in.
Wingspan: 37 ft. 4 in.
Weight: 9,100 lbs loaded
First Flight: Oct. 14, 1938
First Service in USAAF: Dec.7, 1941 at Pearl Harbor
Number Built: 14,000+
Top Speed: 362 mph
Range: 850 miles loaded
Cruising Speed: 255 mph
Ceiling: 30,000 ft.
Crew: 1
Power: Allison V-1710 12-cylinder producing 1,150 hp
Armament: Six wing-mounted .50-cal machine guns, 700 lb. external bomb capacity
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Flying Tigers
Flying Tigers over mountains in China, 1943. USAF photo. Click on image to enlarge

The Flying Tigers

In 1937, retired US Army Air Force officer Claire Lee Chennault went to China to be an aviation advisor to General Chiang Kai-shek. The Soviet Union had supplied planes to China, but withdrew them in 1940, and China had only a weak defense against devastating Japanese bombardments. So on behalf of the Chinese, Chennault went to Washington, where he convinced President Roosevelt to allow him to recruit 100 experienced pilots and 200 ground crew and to allow China to purchase 100 P-40 Warhawks.
This new fighting force was named the 1st American Volunteer Group or AVG. This was before Pearl Harbor, and the U.S. had not yet entered the War.
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Tuskegee Airmen
Tuskegee pilots at , 1943. USAF photo. Click on image to enlarge

The Tuskegee Airmen

Leading up to World War II, the U.S. was still a racially divided nation, with African Americans subject to "Jim Crow" laws in many states, especially in the South. The U.S. Army was segregated. Despite many ongoing challenges and difficulties caused by prejudice and discrimination, with the persistence of strong leaders, a flight and air field school was established in June, 1941 at Tuskegee, Alabama. The 99th Pursuit Squadron consisted of 47 officers and 429 enlisted men, training ground crew as well as pilots. In March, 1941 First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt climbed into a Piper J-3 Cub with a black civilian flight instructor named Alfred Anderson and, to the horror of many bigoted white folk went for a half hour flight. She used her influence to help finance the construction of the air field.
The Tuskegee Airmen went to fight valiantly in several theaters of WW2 starting with flying P-40 Warhawks on ground support missions in North Africa. Then then flew P-51 Mustangs in Italy, proving their skills and courage in air combat with German pilots. The U.S. won the war, but every time I read about what we were up against with very well armed Axis powers, it becomes more clear that winning was far from a foregone conclusion. We needed every ship and every plane, without which the outcome might have been very different. The fighting Tuskegee Airmen certainly did their share, despite having been turned away for so many years, and the nation is indebted to these men as well as all the others who served.

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Jacqueline Cochran, WASP
Jacqueline Cochran head WASP the Women Airforce Service Pilots. USAF photo. Click on image to enlarge


Women didn't just build military aircraft during WW2, they also flew them. Over 25,000 women applied to the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), and just over a thousand were accepted and trained. They had prior flying experience but needed training in the military planes. During the war, these women flew a total of 60 million miles in every type of military plane, from the fast Mustang to the large bombers.

Women Airforce Service Pilots

Today women serve in combat roles and fly our most advanced jets, but in the 1940's, the Army or the Country as a whole was not quite up to speed with what women can do. The women of WASP were civilian government employees, not military, but they freed up the male pilots for combat duty, while they few the planes from factories to bases.


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