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The Curtiss P-40 Warhawk is an American single-engined, single-seat, all-metal fighter and ground-attack aircraft that first flew in 1938. 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, all at Curtiss-Wright Corporation's main production facilities at Buffalo, New York.
P-40 Warhawk was the name the United States Army Air Corps gave the plane, and after June 1941, the USAAF adopted the name for all models, making it the official name in the U.S. for all P-40s. The British Commonwealth and Soviet air forces used the name Tomahawk for models equivalent to the original P-40, P-40B, and P-40C, and the name Kittyhawk for models equivalent to the P-40D and all later variants.
P-40s first saw combat with the British Commonwealth squadrons of the Desert Air Force in the Middle East and North African campaigns, during June 1941. No. 112 Squadron Royal Air Force, was among the first to operate Tomahawks in North Africa and the unit was the first Allied military aviation unit to feature the "shark mouth" logo, copying similar markings on some Luftwaffe Messerschmitt Bf 110 twin-engine fighters.
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. 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.
Revised versions of the P-40 soon followed: the P-40B or Tomahawk IIA had extra .30 in (7.62 mm) U.S., or .303 in (7.7 mm) machine guns in the wings and a partially protected fuel system; the P-40C or Tomahawk IIB added underbelly drop tank and bomb shackles, self-sealing fuel tanks and other minor revisions, but the extra weight did have a negative impact on aircraft performance. (All versions of the P-40 had a relatively low power-to-weight ratio compared to contemporary fighters.)
In all, 18 Royal Air Force (RAF) squadrons, four Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), three South African Air Force (SAAF) and two Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) squadrons serving with RAF formations, used P-40s. The first units to convert were Hawker Hurricane squadrons of the Desert Air Force (DAF), in early 1941. The first Tomahawks delivered came without armor, bulletproof windscreens or self-sealing fuel tanks, which were installed in subsequent shipments. Pilots used to British fighters sometimes found it difficult to adapt to the P-40's rear-folding landing gear, which was more prone to collapse than the lateral-folding landing gear of the Hawker Hurricane or Supermarine Spitfire. In contrast to the "three-point landing" commonly employed with British types, P-40 pilots were obliged to use a "wheels landing": a longer, low angle approach that touched down on the main wheels first.
Testing showed the aircraft did not have the performance needed for use in Northwest Europe at high-altitude, due to the service ceiling limitation. Spitfires used in the theater operated at heights around 30,000 ft (9,100 m), while the P-40's Allison engine, with its single-stage, low altitude rated supercharger, worked best at 15,000 ft (4,600 m) or lower. When the Tomahawk was used by Allied units based in the UK from February 1941, this limitation relegated the Tomahawk to low-level reconnaissance with RAF Army Cooperation Command and only No. 403 Squadron RCAF was used in the fighter role for a mere 29 sorties, before being replaced by Spitfires. Air Ministry deemed the P-40 unsuitable for the theater. UK P-40 squadrons from mid-1942 re-equipped with aircraft such as Mustangs.