Curtiss P-40

P-40 Tomahawk/Kittyhawk/Warhawk

Curtiss P-40 Warhawk
Empty6,300 lb2,820 kg
Loaded8,350 lb3,800 kg
Maximum Takeoff11,400 lb5,180 kg

The Curtiss P-40 was an American fighter aircraft which first flew in 1938 and played a vital role in the crucial middle stages of World War II. Developed from the pre-war radial-engined P-36 Hawk, the P-40 became known as the Tomahawk, the Kittyhawk, and finally the Warhawk in different theatres. Warhawk was the name the USAAF adopted for all models, thus it is the official name of the airplane series as a whole, although the Commonwealth air forces always called it the Kittyhawk (models equivalent to P-40E and all later versions) or Tomahawk (models equivalent to P-40B and P-40C)

The first XP-40 was simply a P-36A Hawk with its Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp radial engine replaced by a supercharged Allison V-1710 engine. The liquid-cooled Allison offered no more power than the radial, but its smaller frontal area led to considerably lower drag. In April 1939 the USAAC, no doubt looking over its shoulder at the sleek, new, high-speed, in-line engined fighters of Europe, placed the largest single fighter order it had ever made for fighters: 524 aircraft.

France ordered 140 as the Hawk 81A-1 but the French military had been defeated by the German Blitzkreig before they had left the factory, and the aircraft were diverted to British Commonwealth service, as the Tomahawk 1 - in some cases complete with metric instruments. Deemed unsuitable for use as a fighter in Europe, where it was thought inferior to the Spitfire, Hurricane and Bf 109, the Tomahawk was used for training and some low-level tactical reconnaissance.

It proved more useful as fighter bomber with Commonwealth air forces in the Desert Air Force during the North African Campaign, where Allied air superiority made enemy fighters a minor threat, the P-40's poor high-altitude performance mattered less and its bomb load, and good range were valuable. RAF No. 112 Squadron was the first to fly Tomahawks in the Western Desert, mainly for ground attack. The squadron copied the famous shark mouth markings under the spinner from Luftwaffe Messerschmitt Bf 110 Zerstörer units, and the logo was later adopted by the Flying Tigers in China.

As the first mass-produced US fighter aircraft of WW2, the P-40 served on every single front of World War II, though it was quickly relegated to ground-attack duties whenever more competitive fighters were available. The RAF actually considered opening another production line for the P-40 in order to supply the Commonwealth air forces with fighters, but — when given the option — chose the superior P-51 Mustang instead. The P-40's low price tag kept it in production long after it was actually obsolete as a fighter, turning it into one of the major US combat aircraft types of WW2.

Its greatest claim to fame is the propaganda value that it provided to the Americans while in the hands of Claire Chennault's American Volunteer Group, better known as the Flying Tigers. Always outnumbered, the AVG nevertheless was able to prevail over the Ki-27 and Ki-43 monoplanes they were facing.

While the P-40 deserved its reputation as a mediocre aircraft, it had a few strengths as well, especially when compared to its Japanese adversaries: It was sturdy, faster in a dive than most of its Japanese adversaries, possessed a fair low-speed rate of roll (slightly faster than the P-51B-1NA below 280 mph IAS, but inferior at higher speeds), could carry a reasonably heavy air-to-ground load, it was easy to maintain, and—most important—cheap to produce. Of all the fighter-bomber aircraft built by the US during WWII, it was the third most-produced.

In all 13,738 P-40s had been produced by November 1944, and they were used by the airforces of 28 nations. It saw the majority of its frontline action in the Mediterranean theater, South East Asian theater and South West Pacific Area with the USAAF and Commonwealth forces, and with the VVS (Soviet air force) on the Eastern Front. The VVS also fitted some of their Warhawks with domestic Klimov engines, for ease of maintenance and repair.


P-40 Units

US Army Air Force

325th FG "Checkertail Clan"

The 325th FG, better known as the Checkertail Clan, is one of the most well-known Fighter Groups to have fought in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations (MTO). While flying the P-40, the 325th and its three squadrons is credited with at least 130 air-to-air kills while flying the P-40 from April to October of 1943.

57th Fighter Group

The 57th Fighter Group, which also operated in the MTO, was equipped with the Curtiss fighter until early 1944, during which time they were credited with at least 140 air-to-air kills. It was the 57th that took part in the famed "Palm Sunday Massacre" which took place on April 18, 1943. On this day, decoded Ultra ciphers had given away a Luftwaffe plan to cross the Mediterranean Sea with a large formation of German transport planes (Ju-52) and their escorts (Bf-109), and an ambush was laid for them, ignoring the warning of intelligence officers that this might give away the Allied ability to read German ciphers. The three squadrons of the 57th, one squadron from the 324th Fighter Group (also flying P-40s) and a small group of British Spitfires intercepted the German formation and shot down at least 70 German planes, with roughly 6 or 7 Allied airplanes being downed.

23rd Fighter Group

The 23rd Fighter Group, which took over from the famed Flying Tigers after they disbanded, continued to fly P-40s (of newer models) until the end of the war, racking up some of the highest kill-to-loss ratios of any USAAF Fighter Group.

Other Nations

The British Royal Air Force and Commonwealth air forces used 930 aircraft in the European and Mediterranean, issuing them to 16 squadrons — including two South African Air Force (SAAF) and two Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) squadrons — primarily units in the Desert Air Force. The British government also donated 23 P-40s to the VVS.

The RAAF, which was desperately short of modern fighters when the Pacific War commenced, acquired a further 838 Kittyhawks and it became the main Australian fighter aircraft in World War II (ahead of the Mustang). The durability of the P-40 made it ideal for the ground attack role which was the main role of the RAAF throughout the war.

As well as No. 3 and 450 Squadron RAAF, which both served with the Desert Air Force, the P-40 was used by 75, 76, 77, 78, 80, 82, 84, 86 and 120 (Netherlands East Indies) Squadron (a unit recruited from Dutch fliers which served within RAAF formations). Kittyhawks was also used by smaller RAAF units. No. 75 and 76 Squadrons were instrumental in the historic defeat of the Japanese at the Battle of Milne Bay.

The Royal New Zealand Air Force equipped 14 Squadron, 15 Squadron,16 Squadron,17 Squadron,18 Squadron, 19 Squadron, and 20 Squadron with the P40, and these racked up some impressive air-to-air kills over the Japanese during intense fighting in the Pacific Ocean Areas theater from 1942 until 1944.

The VVS used the P-40 quite extensively against the Germans on the Eastern front, where the Warhawk provided good close air support as well as good air-to-air combat performance, with many Soviet pilots becoming aces on the P-40 (although not as many as on the P-39 Airacobra, which was the most popular American fighter used by the VVS).

The P-40 was used by over two dozen countries during and after the war. The last P-40s in military service were serving with the Brazilian Air Force (FAB) when they were finally retired as late as 1958.


Departing from normal USAAC convention, there was no P-40A. Some records indicate this might have been reserved for a reconnaissance variant that was briefly in development by Curtiss, but quickly discarded.

Revised versions of the P-40 soon followed: the P-40B or Tomahawk IIA had extra 0.30 in (7.62 mm) US, or 0.303 in (7.7 mm) UK machine guns in the wings and self-sealing tanks; the P-40C or Tomahawk IIB added underbelly drop tank and bomb shackles, as well as improved self-sealing fuel tanks and other minor revisions, but the extra weight did nothing to help the aircraft's lack-lustre performance. (Weight was always a major problem for the P-40.)

Only a small handful of P-40Ds were made—less than 50. With a new, larger Allison engine, slightly narrower fuselage, redesigned canopy, and improved cockpit, the P-40D eliminated the nose-mounted .50 in guns and instead had a pair of 0.5 in (12.7 mm) guns in each wing. The distinctive chin airscoop grew larger in order to adequately cool and aspirate the large Allison engine.

The P-40E or Kittyhawk I was very similar in most respects to the P-40D, except for a slightly more powerful engine and an extra .50 in gun in each wing, bringing the total to 6. Some aircraft also had small underwing bomb shackles.

P-40F and L, which both featured a Packard Merlin engine in place of the normal Allison, and thus did not have the carburetor scoop on top of the nose. Performance for these models at higher altitudes was better than their Allison-engined cousins. The L in some cases also featured a fillet in front of the vertical stabilizer, or a stretched fuselage to compensate for the higher torque. The P-40L was sometimes nicknamed "Gypsy Rose Lee", after a famous stripper of the era, due to its lighter weight.

P-40K, an Allison engined P-40L, with the nosetop scoop retained and the Allison configured scoop and cowl flaps

P-40M, a P-40E with a more powerful Allison engine and minor other improvements

P-40N, the final production model. The P-40N featured a stretched rear fuselage to counter the torque of the larger, late-war Allison engine, and the rear deck of the cockpit behind the pilot was cut down at a moderate slant to improve rearward visibility. A great deal of work was also done to try and eliminate excess weight to improve the Warhawk's mediocre speed. Early N production blocks dropped a .50 in. (12.7 mm) gun from each wing, bringing the total back to 4; later production blocks reintroduced it after complaints from units in the field.

P-40Q with a 4-bladed prop, cut-down rear fuselage and bubble canopy, supercharger, squared-off wingtips and tail surfaces, and improved engine was tested, but its performance was not enough of an improvement to merit production when compared to the current late model P-47Ds and P-51Ds pouring off the production lines. The P-40Q was however the fastest of the P-40 series, boasting a top speed of 422 mph. With the end of hostilities in Europe, and the introduction of the P-47N and P-51H (the latter which did not see combat), the P-40 came to the end of its life.

Span: 37 ft 4 in (11 m)
Length: 31 ft 9 in (10 m)
Height: 12 ft 4 in (3.75 m)
Weight: 8,280 lb loaded
Weight: 9,200 lb (4 t) maximum
Armament: 6 x 0.5 in (12.7 mm) machine guns; 700 lb (300 kg) of bombs.
Engine: Allison V-1710-39 1150 hp (860 kW)
Maximum speed: 362 mph (580 km/h)
Range: 650 miles clean (1050 km)
Service ceiling: 29,000 ft (9100 m)

Span: 37 ft 4 in (11 m)
Length: 33 ft 4 in
Height: 12 ft 4 in (3.75 m)
Weight: 8,350 lb loaded
Weight: 11,400 lb maximum
Armament: 6 x 0.5 in (12.7 mm) machine guns; 2,500 lb (1135 kg) of bombs.
Engine :One Allison V-1710-81 at 1,200 hp
(later P-40N's had V-1710-115 of 1,360 hp)
Maximum speed: 378 mph at 16,400 ft (early P-40Ns..later blocks slower due to weight increase)
Range: 750 miles clean
Service ceiling: 31,000 ft
P-40N information from (

P-40 MTO squadron number information taken from P-40 Warhawk Aces of the MTO by Carl Molesworth.

P-40N information also from Joe Baugher's American Military Aircraft website ( and P-40 Warhawk (Warbird History series) by Frederick A. Johnsen.

Updated information on P-40N armament comes from P-40 Warhawk (Warbird History series) by Frederick A. Johnsen

Related content
Related development
Similar aircraft
Designation series

XP-37 - P-38 - P-39 - P-40 - XP-41 - XP-42 - P-43

Related lists List of military aircraft of the United States - List of fighter aircraft

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Airports | Airlines | Air forces | Aircraft weapons | Missiles | Timeline of aviation

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