Flying Tigers

Warplanes of Burma and China

All specifications are at the extremes (weight with full combat load, maximum range with internal fuel, and best speed at any altitude) and are for the models most employed in the encounters described in the text.

Brewster Buffalo (F2A) This tubby warplane was the U.S. Navy's first monoplane fighter but was phased out in favor of the Grumman F4F Wildcat. The Buffalo had continual problems with its guns, radio, landing gear, and engine valves, sometimes leaking oil so copiously that a pilot had to leave combat in order to clean his windshield, and as delivered, it had no pilot armor. Engine 1,100 hp Wright Cyclone air-cooled radial; weight 6,500 lb; range 650 miles; speed 325 mph at 21,000 feet; weapons: four .50-cal machine guns and two 100-lb bombs.

Curtiss H-75 (P-36) Handicapped with an engine that didn't do it justice, the H-75 was a sweet plane to fly, and durable beyond compare. The U.S. Army bought 210 in 1938--the largest single order it had ever placed--and took them into service as the P-36. Curtiss built similar aircraft for the French, British (who dubbed it the Mohawk), and Dutch air forces. Other countries acquired a cheaper and lighter version with fixed landing gear, including the fixed-gear H75-M assembled in China by William Pawley. Engine 875 hp Wright Cyclone air-cooled radial; weight 5,300 lb; range 900 miles; speed: 280 mph at 11,000 feet; weapons: one .50-cal and three .30-cal machine guns.

Curtiss Tomahawk (P-40B) When the H-75 airframe was fitted with a liquid-cooled engine, it became Curtiss model H-81. At low altitudes, it would prove equal to such rivals as the Messerschmitt 109 and Mitsubishi A6M Zero, though only if a pilot refused to match the Japanese fighter turn for turn. Curtiss built 524 of these fighters for the U.S. Army and 1,180 for the Royal Air Force, with many of the latter diverted to China, Russia, and Commonwealth air forces. Except for paint, "armourglass" windscreen, and caliber of the wing guns, the H-81-A3 model that equipped the AVG was substantially the same as the U.S. Army's P-40B. Engine 1,040 hp Allison liquid-cooled in-line; weight 8,000 lb; range 700 miles; speed 340 mph at 12,000 feet; weapons: two .50-cal and four 7.92 mm or .303-cal machine guns.

Curtiss Kittyhawk (P-40E) In July 1941 Curtiss-Wright signficantly improved its fighter. As compared to the small-mouthed Tomahawk, Curtiss model H-83 had a more powerful engine, larger airscoop, shorter nose, and higher propeller shaft, giving it a distinctly jut-jawed appearance. The addition of bomb racks and larger wing guns made the new plane immensely effective in tactical ground support missions. Curtiss built more than 12,000, which were used to great effect in climates ranging from the tropical heat of Burma, through the dust of North Africa, to the frost of Alaska and the Soviet Union. Engine 1,150 hp Allison liquid cooled in-line; weight 8,840 lb; range 700 miles; speed 350 mph at 15,000 ft; weapons six .50-caliber machine guns and six 35-lb bombs.

Douglas DC-3 (Dakota; C-47) Arguably the finest aircraft ever built, this twin-engined transport resulted from a 1930 request for an all-metal passenger plane; it became the DC-3 when an airline asked that it be widened to accommodate sleeping berths. Douglas built about 500 by 1942, when it was adapted to military use, with a production run of 31,268 transports before the war ended. They were flown by the U.S. army and navy, the RAF, and even the Japanese navy, which flew a Nakajima-built copy. Intended for 21 passengers, on occasion it carried 70 out of Burma; designed to haul 2,500 pounds on civilian routes, it regularly lifted more than 7,000 pounds of cargo "over the Hump" to China. Engines two 1,200 hp. Pratt & Whitney air-cooled radials; crew two or more; range 2,125 miles; speed 230 mph at 8,500 ft; weapons none.

Hawker Hurricane IIA The mainstay of the RAF at the outbreak of World War II, the Hurricane was slower than most front-line western fighters, but it was maneuverable, tough, forgiving of pilot error, and suitable for night fighting as a result of its exhaust shields and stable undercarriage. Except for its short combat radius, it was the equal of the Curtiss Tomahawk and should have outmatched the Nakajima Nate and even the Hayabusa. However, its record in Southeast Asia was poor. Altogether, 120 Hurricanes saw service in Burma, with 109 lost to accident, combat, and Japanese bombing. Engine 1,280 hp Rolls-Royce liquid cooled in-line; weight 8,000 lb; range 470 miles; speed 340 mph at 22,000 feet; weapons eight .303-cal machine guns and two 250-lb bombs.

Kawasaki Ki-48 (Lily) Encountering Russian bombers in China in the fall of 1937, Japanese commanders were astonished by their speed, and they called for the development of a similar aircraft. The Ki-48 had a slender tail section behind the bomb-bay, making room for a rear-facing gunner (otherwise the navigator) on a platform that swung down from the fuselage step, giving him a better range of motion than the porthole belly gunner on other bombers. It went into service in 2599 (1939) and was therefore designated Type 99 Light Bomber. Engines two 950 hp Nakajima air-cooled radials; crew four; weight 13,000 lb; range 1,500 miles; speed 300 mph at 11,500 feet; weapons three 7.7 mm machine guns and 880 lb bombs.

Kawasaki Ki-45 Toryu Aware that the western powers were developing long-range, twin-engined escort fighters, the JAAF in 1937 staged a competition to build a similar plane. The successful designer was Kawasaki, whose prototype was lovely to see, with a needlelike nose, two neatly faired radial engines, and a rear-facing gunner. Performance was sluggish, however, and the project was shelved until the Hayabusa powerplant became available. Production began early in 1942, so the plane went into service as the Type 2 Army Two-Seater Fighter. It was dubbed Toryu (Dragon Killer). The fighter squadron at Hanoi received its first Ki-45s in February, but the June 12 shootout at Guilin seems to have been its baptism of fire. Disappointed by its performance against the Kittyhawk, the JAAF thereafter used it against ground targets and Allied shipping. Engines two 950 hp Nakajima air-cooled radials; crew two; weight 11,600 lb; range 1,400 miles; speed 340 mph at 23,000 feet; weapons one 20 mm cannon, two 12.7 mm and one 7.92 mm machine guns, and 1,100 lbs bombs.

Mitsubishi Ki-21 (Sally) The standard heavy bomber of the Japanese Army Air Force, the Ki-21 was adopted in 1937 and saw service over Hankou, Chongqing, and the Burma Road. The wings were mounted at midpoint on the fuselage and had a distinct dihedral, giving the aircraft the appearance of a soaring though overweight hawk. The rudder was huge. By the outbreak of the Pacific War, most bomber groups had converted to the Ki-21-II, whose specifications are given here. Engines: two 1,500-hp Mitsubishi air-cooled radials; crew six or seven; weight 16,500 lb; range 1,500 miles; speed 300 mph at 15,500 feet; weapons: one 12.7 mm and four 7.7 mm machine guns and 2,200 lbs bombs.

Mitsubishi Ki-30 (Ann) This workhorse of the Japanese army was likewise introduced in 1937 and saw combat in China starting in October 1938 and against the Russians in the summer of 1939. It boasted an internal bomb bay but seemed old-fashioned in its use of fixed landing gear, rifle-caliber machine guns, and long greenhouse canopy. Production ended in 1940, and Burma was its only significant deployment during the Pacific War. Engine 950-hp Mitsubishi air-cooled radial; crew two; weight 7,320 lb; range 1,000 miles; speed 260 mph; weapons one fixed and one flexible 7.7 mm machine gun, 900 lb bombs.

Nakajima Ki-27 (Nate) This gnat-like aircraft was the JAAF's first monoplane fighter. To meet army requirements, Nakajima produced a fragile craft with fixed landing gear and no starter motor, tail-wheel, pilot armor, or self-sealing fuel tanks. The Ki-27 went into service in the year 2597 (1937) and was therefore known as Type 97 Army Fighter. From China, Claire Chennault warned U.S. authorities that it "climbs like a sky rocket and maneuvers like a squirrel." Engine 650 hp Nakajima air-cooled radial; weight 4,000 lb; range 500 miles; Speed 290 mph at 13,000 feet; weapons: two 7.7 mm machine guns and four 55-lb bombs.

Nakajima Ki-43 (Hayabusa) For its first retractable-gear fighter, the JAAF again turned to Nakajima, which again delivered a comparatively fragile plane without pilot armor, self-sealing fuel tanks, or internal starter. Nevertheless, the Ki-43 proved clumsy and stiff in its combat trials, causing its development to be shelved. In the spring of 1941, butterfly combat flaps were added, increasing the wing area and transforming a sluggish fighter into one that could actually turn inside a Zero. It went into service in July, by which time the JAAF was giving pet names to its warplanes, to oblige journalists who found it difficult to write about aircraft identified only by number and function. Thus the Ki-43, officially Type 1 Army Fighter, became the Hayabusa (Falcon); Allied pilots would call it Oscar. Engine 1,050 hp Nakajima air-cooled supercharged radial; range 750 miles; speed 305 mph at 15,000 feet; weight 5,000 lb; armament one 12.7 mm and one 7.7 mm machine guns and two 33-lb bombs.

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