How The Shark Got Its Mouth

On October 15th, 1938, Curtiss test pilot Edward Elliott flew the prototype Curtiss XP-40, on its maiden flight. What later came to be known as the famed P-40, this prototype was powered by a newly installed liquid-cooled, supercharged Allison V-1710 V-12 engine. The original design of the XP-40 initially placed the glycol coolant radiator in an underbelly position on the fighter, just aft of the wing's trailing edge. On subsequent test flights, USAAC Fighter Projects Officer Lieutenant Benjamin S. Kelsey flew her at a less than stellar, 315 miles per hour. Speed was an issue for this new fighter design.

Curtiss engineers focused on improving the XP-40's speed by moving the radiator forward in steps. Each successive move offered little gain in additional speed. Kelsey ordered the aircraft to be evaluated in a NACA wind tunnel to identify solutions for better aerodynamic qualities. After extensive research, Based on the data obtained, Curtiss moved the glycol coolant radiator forward to the chin; its new air scoop also accommodated the oil cooler air intake and allowed Kelsey to bring the XP-40 to speeds in excess of 366MPH.

It was this very unique forward position of the radiator and large intake area that provided the metallic canvas for the famed Sharks Mouth paint scheme to work so very well!

The P-40 is perhaps best known for her service with the Flying Tigers 1st American Volunteer Group (AVG), of the Chinese Air Force, who were American pilots who flew under civilian status with P-40Bs sporting Chinese markings, and the famed Tiger mouth. The Flying Tigers consisted of the "Adam & Eves", the "Panda Bears" and the "Hell's Angels".

P-40B's strengths were that it was sturdy, well-armed, and faster in a dive, as well as an excellent rate of roll. While the P-40s could not match the maneuverability of the Japanese Army air arm's Nakajima Ki-27s and Ki-43s, nor the much more famous Zero naval fighter in a slow speed turning dogfight, at higher speeds the P-40s were more than a match.

Claire Chennault, leader of the Tigers, trained his pilots to utilize the P-40's particular performance characteristics to their own advantage. With higher dive speed than any Japanese fighter aircraft of the early war years, the AVG pilots utilized "boom-and-zoom" tactics. The Flying Tigers were so highly successful, that their feats were widely published, to boost sagging public morale at home.

According to their official records, in just 6 1/2 months, the Flying Tigers destroyed 115 enemy aircraft for the loss of just four of their own in air-to-air combat.




1 comment

  • Ron Laffoon

    Thanks for the post. My last assignment in the USAF was with the 23rd TFW at Wichita, KS 1964-65. The 23rd was the legacy unit of the Flying Tigers. Our commander, Col. Edmund Edwards led one of the first raids on N Vietnam! – in one of our F105s!

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