Curtiss Hawk 81A-2

Flying Tigers

In the first six months of war against Japan, allied successes were few and far between.  One of the bright spots was a small group of American mercenaries flying for a disgruntled, half deaf old fighter pilot on the payroll of the Chinese government.

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After the jump, we’ll take a look at an unlikely group of heroes and the fighter plane they made famous.

In modern terminology the Flying Tigers might be called “Independent Contractors” or “Black Ops” or some other euphemism.  They do fall into a sort of grey area of classifications, that fit the complicated situation of 1941 politics.  Former US Army Air Force fighter pilot Claire Chennault was hired by the Chinese government in 1937.  He had several aviation related responsibilities but was primarily charged with running a flight school in Kunming.  The Sino-Japanese War was well underway at this point and the primary source of Chinese air power was from the Soviet Union (see Polikarpov I-16 Type 10 post).  Not surprisingly the Chinese wanted an indigenous air force and Chennault was charged with creating that.

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Japanese and Soviet forces clashed overtly in the Nomonhan War of 1939, this resulted in a Soviet withdrawal from China.  Unfortunately, it was quickly shown that Chinese air power alone could not fill the void.  It is no doubt difficult to build a fighting air force from scratch during a war!  And China presented many challenges largely due to not being “modern” at this time.

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So Chennault arranged to go to the US in 1940.  The US was still neutral in the expanding World War, but the country and President Roosevelt’s sympathies were clearly with the Chinese.  A deal was struck where 100 of the current Curtiss Hawk 81 were purchased by China.  More importantly, Chennault was allowed to recruit active duty pilots and maintenance personnel from all branches of the US Military.  FDR signed an executive order in April of 1941 that allowed pilots and maintenance personnel to resign their commission and be reinstated at a later date when their service in China was complete.  I can only imagine how American commanders would have felt about this poaching of their staff!  Perhaps some did see it as a chance to gain experience for their most adventurous sorts.

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Among the best known markings of the Second World War; a Flying Tigers shark mouth.

The new group was officially known as the American Volunteer Group.  Pilots and ground crew shipped to China over the next couple months and trained hard through Summer and Fall.  Chennault had several radical ideas about how to fight the Japanese based largely on his own flying experience.  He knew Japanese types were far more maneuverable than American planes, and Japanese tactics stressed a twisting and turning sort of dogfight. So Chennault advocated speed and teamwork.  Especially diving, hit and run firing passes.  This was not at all what pilots were being taught in the States.
The new AVG was broken into three squadrons, that became well known as “Adam and Eves”, “Panda Bears” and “Hell’s Angels”. Shortly before the group was declared battle ready the pilots chose a distinctive Tiger Shark marking for all their planes.  They called their planes “sharks”, but when photos began to appear in the press in the States they became known as the “Flying Tigers”.

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The group first saw combat 12 days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.  And this wasn’t even in China; the 3rd Pursuit Squadron, the Hell’s Angels, joined with the RAF for the defense of Rangoon.
Chennault’s tactics proved effective.  In seven months of operations the Flying Tigers destroyed 229 Japanese aircraft in the air, for a loss of 14 pilots.  That means they were the only allied unit in that period to have a positive kill ratio against the Japanese.
On July 4, 1942 the Tigers were absorbed into the US Army Air Force and became the 23rd Fighter Group under Claire Chennault. They continued their fight against the Japanese using unconventional tactics to the end of the war.

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Although Claire Chennault was the first westerner to accurately report the abilities of the famous Japanese Zero, his American Volunteer Group would rarely face the Japanese Navy, they almost entirely fought the Japanese Army. The Army’s Nate (grey) and Oscar (green) usually greatly outnumbered the Tiger’s sharks. And they were completely dissimilar in performance, all about maneuver and aerobatics; while the Hawk 81 was all about speed, ruggedness and firepower.

The type of plane used by the Flying Tigers is a source of some confusion in main stream books.  It is often called a P-40.  When I was a kid just getting interested in such things I remember reading that the only difference between a P-40B and a P-40C was that the “C” had fittings for a drop tank…  and the Flying Tigers flew “C” models without the fittings for a drop tank…
Of course this is a bad explanation.  Curtiss called the plane a Hawk 81A-2.  They shared the assembly line with the P-40c for the USAAF and the Tomahawk IIb for the RAF.  Some production shuffling occurred due to the rush nature of the order, some sources claim they were released from the British order and thus were mostly British.  But as a sort of rush job they also inherited some parts meant for P-40C production.  I think the Curtiss designation is the only meaningful one we can use.
They were delivered without gunsights, radios or weapons.  All these were to be supplied by the Chinese government, which led to a sort of odd missmatch of equipment.  Some aircraft even entered combat with incomplete or inoperative systems. Maintenance would be a problem throughout the group’s history and they struggled to keep more than 60 planes operational.  In the last few weeks of operations they also received 50 P-40E Warhawks direct from US stocks, no doubt the coming switch to the regular US Army Air Force made this possible.

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Wartime color photo of Flying Tigers over China. This is from late in the unit’s history with the Disney designed Flying Tiger emblem on the fuselage. (photo from the-wanderling.com)

This particular aircraft was a part of the Hell’s Angels squadron and assigned to Pilot Duke Hedman.  It is from the ancient Monogram kit with Aeromaster decals.  This kit is still considered the best shaped Hawk 81 on the market, but its age shows in a couple ways.  First it has only the most basic of detail, very little in the interior or gear wells.  Second, its fit is terrible. That is largely a function of worn out molds, if you can get a boxing from the 1970s it should go together much better.  Newer kits of this airplane all seem to have noticeable outline or detail problems, hopefully the coming kit from Airfix will finally give us a decent modern early P-40!
The Aeromaster decals were a delight to work with. I particularly liked the very detailed marking and colors guide.

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Late in the history of the AVG a number of P-40E models arrived as reinforcements. Both versions used the Alison V-1710 engine, but on the later “E” model the supercharging was improved so the plane would perform well up to 10000 ft. The earlier Hawk was at its best only down very low.

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About atcDave

I'm 53 years old and live in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I'm happily married to Jodie. I've been an air traffic controller for 30 years; grew up in the Chicago area, and am still a fanatic for pizza and the Chicago Bears. My main interest is military history, and my related hobbies include scale model building and strategy games.
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16 Responses to Curtiss Hawk 81A-2

  1. Theresa says:

    I had a relative who was recruited into the Flying Tigers as a maintenance personnel in 1940. He stayed in China until 1947.

  2. jfwknifton says:

    #68 in the photo does have a really striking shark profile and the magnificent teeth just complete the illusion!

    • atcDave says:

      Yeah I always thought the early P-40 had the perfect shape for that motif.

      And of course, it was RAF No112 Squadron that first used it. The Flying Tigers literally got the idea from a magazine article about them.

  3. Pierre Lagacé says:

    I built one in the 60s and one in the 90s. Now I understand the poor fitting of the last one.
    I still have it.

    • atcDave says:

      I’ve got a couple more too, but I think I’ll hold out for the new Airfix kit before I build another!

      • Pierre Lagacé says:

        If I remember the Monogram kit was first released in the mid 60s with the Spitfire, the Me-109, the Zero, the Wildcat, etc… Later came the FW-190 and the Hurricane close behind.

      • atcDave says:

        I started building in the early ’70s, and those were all among my first subjects.

      • atcDave says:

        It is impressive too that it is still considered the best shaped early P-40. There’s been at least three more recent attempts, but Monogram is still considered the best.

  4. Pierre Lagacé says:

    Always informative and well researched Dave. The only thing missing is John Wayne…

  5. Beautiful finish as always Dave. There is something incredibly ‘romantic’ about the Flying Tigers. Although, I suspect the reality was quite different. Nevertheless, these brave volunteers have gone down in history, and are remembered for their ingenuity, their great flying skill, and most of all their bravery. Great post.

  6. atcDave says:

    I suppose I should mention that I have now seen the new Airfix molding of the Hawk 81. I can report that it looks beautiful, good in outline and detail; and I know early build reviews have been positive.

    I HOPE this means we now have a good and modern tooling of this subject. It will be a while before I find out for myself, but I’m feeling optimistic.

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