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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.)
Chennault received crated Model Bs which his airmen assembled in Burma at the end of 1941, adding self-sealing fuel tanks and a second pair of wing guns, such that the aircraft became a hybrid of B and C models. These were not well-liked by their pilots: they lacked drop tanks for extra range, and there were no bomb racks on the wings. Chennault considered the liquid-cooled engine vulnerable in combat because a single bullet through the coolant system would cause the engine to overheat in minutes. The Tomahawks also had no radios, so the AVG improvised by installing a fragile radio transceiver, the RCA-7-H, which had been built for a Piper Cub. Because the plane had a single-stage low-altitude supercharger, its effective ceiling was about 25,000 feet (7,600 m). The most critical problem was the lack of spare parts; the only source was from damaged aircraft. The planes were viewed as cast-offs that no one else wanted, dangerous and difficult to fly. But the pilots did appreciate some of the planes' features. There were two heavy sheets of steel behind the pilot's head and back that offered solid protection, and overall the planes were ruggedly constructed.
Compared to opposing Japanese fighters, the P-40B's strengths were that it was sturdy, well armed, faster in a dive and possessed an excellent rate of roll. While the P-40s could not match the maneuverability of the Japanese Army air arm's Nakajima Ki-27s and Ki-43s, nor the much more famous Zero naval fighter in slow, turning dogfights, at higher speeds the P-40s were more than a match. AVG leader Claire Chennault trained his pilots to use the P-40's particular performance advantages. The P-40 had a higher dive speed than any Japanese fighter aircraft of the early war years, for example, and could exploit so-called "boom-and-zoom" tactics. The AVG was highly successful, and its feats were widely publicized by an active cadre of international journalists to boost sagging public morale at home. According to its official records, in just 6+1⁄2 months, the Flying Tigers destroyed 297 enemy aircraft for the loss of just four of its own in air-to-air combat.