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Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, (Tomahawk/Kittyhawk)

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P-40 Warhawk - Important Fighter Early in WWII


P-40 Warhawk - WWII American fighter plane

First flown in 1938 the single-seat P-40 Warhawk was available in large numbers when World War II started, making it one of the most important fighters at the beginning of the war.

The total number of P-40s built was over 17,000, with more than 4,000 going to air forces outside the United States. In the British, Commonwealth, and Soviet air forces it was called the Tomahawk or Kittyhawk depending on the model.


Improvements to the P-40 Warhawk


P-40s at Pearl Harbor

P-40 Warhawk - WWII American fighter plane

In US service the P-40s first saw combat on December 7, 1941 during the attack on Pearl Harbor. About 75 Warhawks were destroyed on the ground, however, pilots George Welch and Kenneth Taylor were able to take off and shoot down several Japanese aircraft in their P-40s.


Warhawks and the Flying Tigers

P-40 Warhawks were already in China at the time under the Volunteer Group "Flying Tigers", commanded by General Claire Chennault. This group saw success in action against the Japanese, 12 days after the Pearl harbor attack, boosting American moral.


The use of early warning, good teamwork and careful tactics allowed the Flying Tigers to achieve a two to one combat kill ratio against the Japanese Army Air Force, a solid but modest success relative to the claims routinely circulated in the press. They continued defending Burma from the Japanese until being disbanded in 1942. US government photo above, right shows a P-40 Warhawk painted with a shark mouth (tiger mouth) on the fuselage and a Nationalist Chinese emblem on the wing, in the service of the American Volunteer Group (AVG).

Warhawks were vital to Allied air forces in North Africa, the Southwest Pacific and China until sufficient numbers of P-38 Lightnings, P-47 Thunderbolts and P-51 Mustangs became available. The P-40 also had a significant role in Southeast Asia, Alaska and Italy, where high altitude performance was not as critical as in western Europe. Between 1941 and 1943 P-40 Warhawks also served as fighter defense to protect the Panama Canal.


Although Being Replaced, P-40 on Front Line until War's End

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Although the most numerous American fighter when the United States entered World War II, the Warhawk proved to be less capable than the Lightning, Thunderbolt, or Mustang.

Nevertheless, it played a valuable role until it could be replaced by the more advanced aircraft, and remained in production until November 1944. In theaters where high altitude performance was less important, the P-40 proved an effective fighter, remaining in front line service until the end of the war.


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* P-40 Warhawk facts

Category Fighter plane
Manufacturer Curtiss-Wright Corporation
Introduced 1938
Used in
WW II by


United States Army Air Forces

Royal Air Force
Royal Australian Air Force
Royal New Zealand Air Force
South Africa Air Force
Royal Canadian Air Force
Free French Air Force
Nationalist Chinese Air Force

Soviet Air Force
Produced 1939–1944
Number built 13,738
Cruising speed 270 mph
Max. speed 360 mph
Altitude 29,000 feet service ceiling
Range 650 miles
* Numbers are approximate