100 Hawks for China

In Flying Tigers warpaint, a P-40C from Russia takes to the air
at Chino, California, September 25, 1998 (photo by Tom Cleaver)

Those small-mouthed P-40 survivors

A few years ago, we thought that none of the small-mouthed Curtiss P-40 types had survived the war. If you saw a P-40 in AVG warpaint, it was always tricked up from one of the big-jawed models, "E" or later. Then came the fallout from the former Soviet Union, along with the discovery of some U.S. Army P-40s in California.

Russia's P-40C

The most impressive of the small-mouthed Curtiss fighters recovered from Russia is a U.S. Army P-40C, restored to flying condition by Steve Hinton of Fighter Rebuilders, Planes of Fame museum, Chino, California. At the time, the plane belonged to Stephen Grey of the Fighter Collection in Duxford, Britain. He sent it to Chino for rebuilding, and when Hinton and his colleagues stripped off the paint, they found U.S. Army markings. At first they identified the plane as a P-40B, on the basis of the Army designation painted on the outside of the plane. But the number 194 was stamped on the longerons and other internal parts; this was the "build number" associated with the aircraft that became Curtiss serial 16166--the 63rd P-40C built at Buffalo. (Thanks to Buz in Oz for straightening me out on the subject of build numbers.) It was sent as Lend-Lease to Britain, where it was apparently used for training or as a station hack before being sent along to Russia, which evidently used it in combat. (The standard RAF version was the Tomahawk IIB, which differed from the USAAF "C" model primarily in having no provision for a drop-tank.)

Tragically, the P-40C was one of a pair that lay in the snow north of Murmansk for 50 years. When helicopters tried to lift them out, they exploded a bomb beneath one of the planes, destroying it, the helicopter, and the helo crew. Four years of work went into restoring the survivor, with one part for the engine mount recovered in Australia. As for the plane that blew up, another collector hopes to rebuild it from the wreckage.

The Chino P-40C was flown in the warpaint of a Tomahawk once assigned to AVG pilot Erik Shilling, who was on hand for the maiden flight. The plan was to repaint it as a Desert Air Force Tommi, but the plane was then sold to the Flying Heritage Collection of Seattle or Arlington, Washington. I'm told that Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, is the force behind this collection. Because of the P-40C's rarity, and perhaps because of the nature of the collection, it won't often be flown.

"Project Tomahawk"

Project Tomahawk P-40B takes shape in California (photo kindness of CWHA)

From Greg Diamontopulos: "The Curtiss Wright - Project Tomahawk organization at Torrance Airport, California, six years ago located the remains of a crashed P-40B in the hills around Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The crew working on the plane are all volunteers. They have the original engine rebuilt, and are using components from the wrecked aircraft when ever and where ever possible. When I last saw the aircraft in Jun 98, they had manufactured the airframe aft of the firewall, and tail assembly. I'd say 85-90% of the aircraft to date is re-manufactured; i.e., not original. The workmanship is exquisite, and she is a beauty. They are endeavoring to have her flying in two years, but they desperately need donations of P-40 parts and of course money. They sell various collectibles to help raise money, and they are now a Federal tax-write off donation organization. I might add they were attempting to get a P-40B in the air show circuit long before any of the ones noted in the article on your web page had been discovered. After they get her finished, they plan on building P-36s, as the primary fuselage aft of the firewall, and the wings are common. They will use the beefed up fuselage of the P-40B to eliminate the buckling of the skin experienced by the P-36. Won't it be OUTSTANDING to see both P-40Bs and P-36s airborne again in US skies."

Alas, the Curtiss-Wright Historical Association seems to have bit the dust! I got one newsletter from the group, have heard nothing from them in years, and can't raise them on Google.) P-40B serial number 41-13297 was to have been the main rebuild, using parts from 39-285 and 39-287. If you know what has happened to this project, please send me email.

A Vision So Noble

The Tomahawk rebuild at Pensacola

The "Tomahawk" on display at Pensacola, Florida (photo kindness of National Museum of Naval Aviation)

The National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola has a small-mouthed P-40 painted in the colors of Robert Neale. It carries Bob's fuselage number, the Flying Tiger sharkface, the green apple emblem of his 1st Pursuit Squadron (the Adam & Eves), and the Chinese sun recognition symbol on the wings.

The plane was owned by Don Brooks of Brooks Aviation in Douglas, Georgia, pending formal transfer to the museum. The rebuild was done by Tom Wilson of the Hawk Factory in Griffin, Ga. Don told me that parts of two Tommis went into the final product, one from the Murmansk area and another from around Archangel. "You have to understand that the Russians went at them with pickaxes, trying to find something worth salvaging," he said. The job also involved some original castings for parts of the cowling, which work was done in collaboration with the folks involved with the Chino P-40C.

In 1999 I had a chance to inspect this plane in the company of Ben Schapiro. According to a spreadsheet provided by Don Brooks, it contains 37.7 percent original materials from the Tomahawk IIB (RAF serial AK255) that it supposedly was restored from), 22.1 percent from "the same type aircraft," 10.4 percent "remanufactured parts from the same type aircraft," and 30.3 percent newly manufactured parts. The impression we got, however, was that the plane was pretty much built from the ground up, with lots of pop rivets, plastic automobile fasteners, iron pipe (in lieu of machine guns), and newly bent sheet metal.

Other Tomahawks out of Russia

Warbirds also mentioned Tomahawk IIB, Curtiss serial 14777, RAF serial AK295, likewise taken from the same production run as the first block of AVG Tomahwks. Owned by Tom Wilson's Curtiss Hawk Factory, which did the rebuild on the Pensacola Tomahawk.

There's another Tomahawk IIB, Curtiss serial 14784 (and therefore also from the AK block) at Tidewater Tech near Norfolk, Virginia. This plane may also be restored, though apparently there's not much left to work from. It too came from Russia. As you can see from my list of AVG serials, the Chinese Tomahawks were taken at random from about midway in the production line. Evidently the same was true of the Russian planes, except that they were diverted earlier in the run.

[Photos copyright by Tom Cleaver, Curtiss-Wright Historical Association, and Naval Aviation Museum]

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