Plane of the Week #13: Curtiss P-40 Warhawk

This week’s plane of the week is the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk.

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The Curtiss P-40 Warhawk was 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, especially the United States and England, during World War II, and remained in frontline service until the end of the war. It was the third most-produced American fighter, 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.

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Early combat operations pointed to the need for more armor and self-sealing fuel tanks, which were included in the P-40B. These improvements came at price: a significant loss of performance due to the extra weight. Further armor additions and fuel tank improvements added even more weight in the P-40C. Curtiss addressed the airplane’s mounting performance problems with the introduction of the P-40D (Kittyhawk Mk I), which was powered by a more powerful version of the Allison V-1710 engine, and had two additional wing-mounted guns. The engine change resulted in a slightly different external appearance, which was the reason the RAF renamed it from the Tomahawk to the Kittyhawk. Later, two more guns were added in the P-40E, and this version was used with great success by General Claire Chenault’s American Volunteer Group in China.

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Colonel Claire Lee Chennault had been in China since the mid-Thirties. An outspoken advocate of “pursuit” (as fighter planes were called then), in an Army Air Force dominated by strategic bomber theorists, he alienated many of his superiors. But in China, equipped with P-40’s, he developed the basic fighter tactics that American pilots would use throughout the war. The Japanese planes used over China were much more maneuverable than his Warhawks, whose advantages were speed in a dive, superior firepower, and better ability to absorb battle damage. Chennault worked out and documented the appropriate tactics that capitalized on the relative strengths of the American fighters: intercept, make a diving pass, avoid dogfighting, and dive away when in trouble. This remained the fundamental U.S. fighter doctrine throughout the Pacific War. Chennault’s American Volunteer Group, popularly known as “The Flying Tigers” flew their P-40B’s and P-40C’s with great success against the Japanese aircraft. They were probably the most famous pilots of the P-40.

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The AVG never had more than three squadrons of 18 P-40s at any time. Flying their first combat mission on December 20, 1941, the Flying Tigers operated under extremely difficult conditions at the end of the world’s longest supply line — and with the war’s lowest supply priority. Nevertheless, by the time the group disbanded six months later, its pilots had shot down 286 Japanese aircraft. During a period in the war when everybody else in the Far East was being soundly defeated by the Japanese, their achievements were truly phenomenal.

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It is unfortunate that, even with all its victories, the P-40 appears on many people’s “worst fighters of WW II” list. At best it is considered mediocre. Even though it served brilliantly, frequently fighting against the odds, and amassed an exceptional kill to loss ratio, it is still often thought of as a slow, unmanuverable, and obsolescent fighter. It fought in the Pacific against overwhelming enemy numbers, flying in some of the harshest conditions to be found on earth, and held the line for two years, until newer planes could be brought into service. After all that, it defended other (smaller) countries for several more years. It really wasn’t as bad as it was made out to be.

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Next week: in Soviet Russia, the plane flies you!

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Plane of the Week #13: Curtiss P-40 Warhawk

Plane of the Week #12: Douglas DC-3

This week’s plane of the week is the Douglas DC-3.

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The Douglas DC-3 is a fixed-wing propeller-driven airliner. Its cruising speed and range revolutionized air transport in the 1930s and 1940s. Its lasting effect on the airline industry and World War II makes it one of the most significant transport aircraft ever made. The major military version, of which more than 10,000 were produced, was designated the C-47 Skytrain in the USA and the Dakota in the UK. I don’t know why they changed it, but they did. I had heard it called both and assumed that it was known as the Skytrain initially and was later changed to Dakota, like how the Huey helicopter was renamed the Iroqois, but apparently it was called the Dakota in the UK only. Weird.

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There was also an attack version of the C-47. The Douglas AC-47 Spooky (also nicknamed “Puff, the Magic Dragon”) was the first in a series of gunships developed by the United States Air Force during the Vietnam War. It was designed to provide more firepower than light and medium ground-attack aircraft in certain situations when ground forces called for close air support. It was replaced by the AC-119G Shadow and AC-119K Stinger, which were replaced by the AC-130 Spectre/Spooky/Ghostrider/Stinger II. The Air Force has also considered making an AC-17 or an AC-5, either of which would obviously be the most powerful aircraft on earth. If only they could take off vertically from a carrier like the F-35

*BRRRRRRTT*
BRRRRRRTT

Thousands of surplus C-47s, previously operated by several air forces, were converted for civilian use after the war and became the standard equipment of almost all the world’s airlines, remaining in frontline service for many years. The ready availability of cheap, easily maintained ex-military C-47s, both large and fast by the standards of the day, jumpstarted the worldwide postwar air transport industry. While aviation in prewar Continental Europe had used the metric system, the overwhelming dominance of C-47s and other US war-surplus types cemented the use of nautical miles, knots and feet in postwar aviation throughout the world.

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Douglas developed an improved version, the Super DC-3, with more engine power, greater cargo capacity and a different wing, but with all the bargain-priced surplus aircraft available, they did not sell well in the civil aviation market. Only five were delivered, three of them to Capital Airlines. The U.S. Navy had 100 of its early R4Ds converted to Super DC-3 standard during the early 1950s as the R4D-8, later C-117D. The last U.S. Navy C-117 was retired July 12, 1976. The last U.S. Marine Corps C-117 was retired from active service during June 1982. Several remained in service with small airlines in North and South America in 2006. There was also a more successful DC-4, which looked like a four-engined DC-3, but it was actually a separate aircraft and I will not describe it in detail.

No, not like this.
No, not like this.

The DC-3 is my favorite transport/passenger aircraft of all time and I know many other people share that opinion. I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. The DC-3 is one of the most classic airplanes ever built and will be flown for many years to come. Long live the Gooney Bird.

Next week: the “Flying Tiger”.

Plane of the Week #12: Douglas DC-3

Plane of the Week #11: Vought V-173 Flying Pancake

This week’s plane of the week is the Vought V-173 Flying Pancake.

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The V-173 was one of the weirdest planes ever considered by the U.S. Military. It doesn’t even look like it should fly. It does, though, and quite well, I might add.

The first flight of the V-173.
The first flight of the V-173.

The Vought V-173 “Flying Pancake” designed by Charles H. Zimmerman was an American experimental test aircraft built as part of the Vought XF5U “Flying Flapjack” World War II United States Navy fighter aircraft program. Both the V-173 and the XF5U featured an unorthodox “all-wing” design consisting of flat, disk-shaped bodies serving as the wing. Two piston engines hidden in the body drove propellers located on the leading edge at the wingtips. The small wing provided high maneuverability with greater structural strength.

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The first flight of the V-173 was on November 23, 1942 with Vought Chief Test Pilot Boone Guyton at the controls. Flight testing of the V-173 went on through 1942 and 1943 with 190 flights, resulting in reports of UFOs from surprised Connecticut locals. Charles Lindbergh piloted the V-173 during this time and found it surprisingly easy to handle and exhibiting impressive low-speed capabilities. On one occasion, the V-173 was forced to make an emergency landing on a beach. As the pilot made his final approach, he noticed two bathers directly in his path. The pilot locked the aircraft’s brakes on landing, causing the aircraft to flip over onto its back. The plane proved so strong that neither the plane nor the pilot sustained any significant damage, surprisingly.

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Unfortunately, the program was cancelled. The Navy decided it didn’t need any more propeller planes, because they could not compete with the power and speed of jet aircraft. If a jet could be made to take off a carrier, they did not need a new propeller plane. The V-173 was one of the first successful VTOL planes, but it did not matter to the Navy. Ironically, the Navy is now buying the F-35, a plane famous for its VTOL capabilities.

A V-173 undergoing restoration.
A V-173 undergoing restoration.

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Next week: the most famous early airliner.

Plane of the Week #11: Vought V-173 Flying Pancake

Plane of the Week #10: Messerschmitt Me 262

This week’s plane of the week is the Messerschmitt Me 262.

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The Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbe/ Sturmvogel (Swallow/Storm Bird) of Nazi Germany was the world’s first operational jet-powered fighter aircraft. Design work started before World War II began, but engine problems and top-level interference kept the aircraft from operational status with the Luftwaffe until mid-1944. Heavily armed, it was faster than any Allied fighter, including the British jet-powered Gloster Meteor. One of the most advanced aviation designs in operational use during World War II, the Me 262 was used in a variety of roles, including light bomber, reconnaissance, and even experimental night fighter versions.

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Me 262 pilots claimed a total of 542 Allied kills, although higher claims are sometimes made. The Allies countered its potential effectiveness in the air by attacking the aircraft on the ground and during takeoff and landing. Captured Me 262s were studied and flight tested by the major powers, and ultimately influenced the designs of a number of post-war aircraft such as the North American F-86 Sabre and Boeing B-47 Stratojet.A number of aircraft have survived on static display in museums, and there have also been several privately-built flying reproductions.

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The Me 262’s top ace was probably Hauptmann Franz Schall with 17 kills, which included six four-engine bombers and 10 P-51 Mustang fighters, although night fighter ace Oberleutnant Kurt Welter claimed 25 Mosquitos and two four-engine bombers shot down by night and two further Mosquitos by day flying the Me 262. Most of Welter’s claimed night kills were achieved in standard radar-less aircraft, even though Welter had tested a prototype Me 262 fitted with FuG 218 Neptun radar. Another candidate for top ace on the aircraft was Oberstleutnant Heinrich Bär, who claimed 16 enemy aircraft while flying the Me 262.

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After the end of the war, the Me 262 and other advanced German technologies were quickly swept up by the Americans, British, and Soviets. Many Me 262s were found in readily repairable condition and were confiscated. Both the Soviets and Americans desired the technology to serve as a basis for their own jet fighters. The USAAF compared the P-80 Shooting Star and Me 262 concluding, “Despite a difference in gross weight of nearly 2,000 lb, the Me 262 was superior to the P-80 in acceleration, speed and approximately the same in climb performance. The Me 262 apparently has a higher critical Mach number, from a drag standpoint, than any current Army Air Force fighter.”

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Next week: the Flying Pancake.

Plane of the Week #10: Messerschmitt Me 262

Plane of the Week #9: 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group

This week’s plane place of the week is the Boneyard.

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The 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, often called The Boneyard, is a United States Air Force aircraft and missile storage and maintenance facility in Tucson, Arizona, located on Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. AMARG was previously Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center, AMARC, the Military Aircraft Storage and Disposal Center, MASDC, and started life after World War II as the 3040th Aircraft Storage Group.

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The Boneyard takes care of more than 4,400 aircraft, which makes it the largest aircraft storage and preservation facility in the world. An Air Force Material Command unit, the group is under the command of the 309th Maintenance Wing at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. AMARG was originally meant to store excess Department of Defense and Coast Guard aircraft, but has in recent years been designated the sole repository of out-of-service aircraft from all branches of the US government.

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There are four categories of storage for planes at AMARG:

Long Term – Aircraft are kept intact for future use
Parts Reclamation – Aircraft are kept, picked apart and used for spare parts
Flying Hold – Aircraft are kept intact for shorter stays than Long Term
Excess of DoD needs – Aircraft are sold off whole or in parts
AMARG employs 550 people, almost all civilians. The 2,600 acres facility is adjacent to the base. For every $1 the federal government spends operating the facility, it saves or produces $11 from harvesting spare parts and selling off inventory. Congressional oversight determines what equipment may be sold to which customer.

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An aircraft going into storage undergoes the following treatments:

All guns, ejection seat charges, and classified hardware are removed.
The fuel system is protected by draining it, refilling it with lightweight oil, and then draining it again. This leaves a protective oil film.
The aircraft is sealed from dust, sunlight, and high temperatures. This is done using a variety of materials, ranging from a high tech vinyl plastic compound, called spraylat after its producer the Spraylat Corporation, of an opaque white color sprayed on the aircraft, similar to garbage bags. The plane is then towed by a tug to its designated “storage” position.
The Group annually in-processes an undisclosed number of aircraft for storage and out-processes a number of aircraft for return to the active service, either repainted and sold to friendly foreign governments, recycled as target or remotely controlled drones or rebuilt as civilian cargo, transport, and/or utility planes. There is much scrutiny over who can buy what kinds of parts. At times, these sales are canceled. The Air Force for example reclaimed several F-16s from the Boneyard for the Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor Courses which were originally meant to be sold to Pakistan, but never delivered due to an early-90’s embargo.

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Next week: the famous Nazi jet.

Plane of the Week #9: 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group