Dan Ford's books
For print editions of Dan's books, go here      For the e-books, go here

HOME > TIGERS > P-43 > PART 1

REPUBLIC P-43 AND CHINA'S AIR WAR

Richard L. Dunn c 2004

ABSTRACT

The acquisition and use of the Republic P-43 fighter in China plays a small but interesting role in the long quest of the Chinese Nationalist Government to build an air force capable of opposing Japanese aggression. The P-43 also flew for the U.S. in China.

This article traces the background of China's quest for modern aircraft, its first interest in the P-43, the evolving international situation, and the eventual fielding and use of the P-43 in China.

Fragments of the story and cryptic comments about the P-43's selection and use in China have appeared in a variety of articles and books with varying degrees of accuracy. Through the use of a number of eclectic sources, this article assembles key facts and outlines the essential elements of the P-43's connection to the conflict in China. In addition it places the P-43's operations in the context of Chinese Air Force operations involving other aircraft during the period of the P-43's service. It is a step (hopefully not the last) in correcting erroneous information and filling factual gaps in the story of the P-43 as well as illuminating the operations of the Chinese Air Force.

I. BACKGROUND

The Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and confrontation in Shanghai in 1932 were the opening rounds of bloody conflict between China and Japan that burst into open war in 1937 lasting until 1945. Those same events also marked a decline in U.S.-Japan relations that ultimately led to war.

By U.S. estimates the Chinese had an air force of eighty combat planes and eighty pilots in August 1931. In a preview of problems to come only 10-12 pilots were "first class combat pilots" [1 notes follow the text]. The Nationalist Chinese Government's quest for modern aircraft was evident at that early date as included among its aircraft were a number of new Junkers K-47s [2].

Attempts to build up military aviation in China were buffeted by many winds. The unofficial American air mission (1932-1935) led by John H. Jouett (Lt. Col., U.S. Army, retired) apparently did good work in cutting through the maze of "money, family, [and] political power" in Chinese aviation, but diplomatic or political pressure brought the mission to a premature end [3]. A variety of countries sought to sell warplanes to China and various aerial soldiers of fortune sold their "skills" to the Chinese Air Force as well. By July 1937 the Chinese Air Force numbered 600 aircraft according to one Chinese source [4].

The story of the air war in China 1937-1941 has been told with varying degrees of specificity in a number of works available in English [5]. The P-43's earliest connection with China stems from that period. It was a period when the Soviet Union was the dominant supplier of combat aircraft to China [6]. The U.S. was among the many other countries seeking to sell aircraft to China. U.S. companies sometimes engaged in "cut-throat" competition among themselves while some U.S. airplane manufacturers engaged agents to deal with the Chinese rather than "dirty their hands" with the kickbacks routinely expected in Chinese Government transactions [7].

Seversky P-35

Cutthroat competition reportedly resulted in the cancellation of a contract ("Patterson contract") that included an order for 54 Seversky P-35 fighters (predecessor to the Seversky/Republic P-43). Col. Claire Chennault had recommended the P-35s (along with other aircraft) to the Chinese government [8].

The Chinese Air Force was repeatedly rejuvenated with an influx of new aircraft only to suffer disaster. The introduction of the Japanese navy's Type Zero carrier fighter in 1940 increased Japanese air superiority. The Soviet fighters supplied to the Chinese at the end of 1940 clearly were not able to reverse this superiority [9].

By the end of 1940 the idea of creating a "special air unit" of American planes and pilots was being discussed at a high diplomatic level between China and the U.S. [10]. The "special air unit" eventually became the American Volunteer Group (A.V.G.) or Flying Tigers. In addition, the quest for modern aircraft for existing Chinese air units and effective training for its pilots continued [11]. Relatively modern P-40 Tomahawks that were supplied to the A.V.G. might have been destined for regular Chinese units in the minds of some Chinese [12]. In the summer of 1941 the Tomahawks went to the A.V.G. as planned. Hopes for regular Chinese Air Force (C.A.F.) units to replace their obsolescent Russian fighters rested on the arrival of P-43s, Vultee 48C (P-66) fighters and such P-40s as might be allocated to China at a later date.

Republic P-43 in U.S. service

II. REPUBLIC P-43

The P-43 was the first production aircraft of the Republic Aviation Corporation, Farmingdale, New York, the company that emerged from the Seversky Aviation Corporation after its reorganization in bankruptcy proceedings and the ouster of the legendary Alexander de Seversky as its head. In its waning days Seversky Aviation redesigned its P-35. Fitted with a mechanical two-stage supercharger, it became the XP-41. A more ambitious privately funded project was the AP-4. This was an entirely new aircraft equipped with a turbo-supercharger. While under re-organization, Seversky received a limited production order for thirteen AP-4s, designated YP-43 for service tests, in March 1939. Republic Aviation eventually performed the contract and the aircraft were delivered between September 1940 and May 1941.

The new Republic Aviation Corp. received larger production orders in late 1939 and early 1940. According to some sources these orders were in large measure an expedient to keep the new company solvent until it completed design and production plans for the P-47 [13].

Production for the U.S. Army Air Corps included orders for 54 P-43s (coincidentally the same number of P-35s in the cancelled Chinese order) and later 80 P-43As (in lieu of 80 cancelled P-44s; some were converted to P-43B and P-43C photo reconnaissance aircraft). In 1941, while the initial production models were still coming off the production line at Farmingdale, 125 P-43A-1s were ordered. These were purchased with newly authorized Lend-Lease funds for China. Eventually 108 were actually assigned for shipment to China. Several of the remaining seventeen went to the Royal Australian Air Force as photo reconnaissance aircraft [14].

P-43s were fitted with the reliable Pratt & Whitney R-1830 engine. The P-43A-1 was powered by the R-1830-57 version. It mounted four fifty-caliber machine guns. Despite its thick appearance the P-43 was of medium size (span 36', length 28' 6", maximum weight 8,480 lbs.). It was fast (nominally, 356 mph at 20,000'), featured a good climb rate, and had a service ceiling in excess of its officially credited 36,000'. On paper the P-43 appeared roughly equal to the P-40B being supplied to China for the A.V.G. in 1941, and its turbo-supercharger made it clearly superior at high altitude.

Published sources conflict concerning whether the P-43A-1 was equipped with pilot armor and fuel tank protection [15]. The P-43s in the C.B.I. were fitted with pilot armor. The P-43 did not have self-sealing fuel tanks, and because of its thin wings and the tanks' integral design there was not space to retrofit them [16]. The tanks had seams and rivets capable of becoming loose and leaking. The tanks had not generated any "unsatisfactory reports" in U.S. operations but proved troublesome once the aircraft arrived in Asia and nearly ended its combat career before it started.

continued in part 2