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The Vultee P-66 in Chinese service (part 1)

Airplanes of the Chinese Air Force, 1942-1943:
The Vultee P-66 and Other Aircraft

Richard L. Dunn (c) 2005

Joining Daniel Ford's Flying Tigers (P-40s supplied to the American Volunteer Group) and the author's earlier work on the Republic P-43 on this website, this article tells the story of the third type of American fighter operated in quantity by the Chinese Air Force (C.A.F.) in 1942 and 1943, the Vultee P-66 Vanguard. Additionally, it comments on other aircraft used by China during this period including the last increments of Soviet aircraft supplied to China and other American aircraft arriving in China during the early days of World War Two.

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Chiang Kai-Shek summarized the air war between China and Japan from 1937 to 1940 in these words:

"In the air the Chinese army in the beginning relied on American machines [aircraft], and in the second and third years of the war on Russian planes. These were well handled and with the manifest advantages of interior lines, despite overwhelming superiority of the Japanese air force in numbers some resistance had been maintained.

"Russia has stopped sending planes and since September of this year [1940] Japanese planes are much superior in quality as well as absolute numbers, so that today no existing Chinese planes could take to the air."

When officials of the Chinese purchasing commission passed along Chiang's words to officials in Washington in November 1940 it was not literally true that the Russians had stopped supplying aircraft to China. The last shipment of Russian aircraft was then en route to China but the aircraft the Russians were supplying were unlikely to challenge Japanese superiority and that source was clearly drying up. The Chinese needed a new source of aircraft. The Chinese plea for aircraft was received sympathetically in diplomatic circles in Washington. America's ability to respond in the short term, from a military and industrial point of view, was extremely limited. The U.S. military and naval air arms were expanding and an even higher priority was supplying combat airplanes to Great Britain.

China had an effective lobby in Washington, however, and significant financing and British cooperation made possible the delivery of one hundred P-40s to the Far East during the spring and summer of 1941. With the passage of the Lend-Lease Act in March 1941 an additional source of financing became available and the problem was narrowed to identifying sources to supply the 350 fighters and 150 bombers the Chinese sought. In addition to the 100 P-40s, orders for 125 Republic P-43s and 144 Vultee model 48s were funded. Thus, 369 fighters were earmarked for China. By the summer of 1941 thirty-three Lockheed Hudson light bombers and a similar number of Douglas DB-7 attack bombers, originally ordered for Britain, had been released for delivery to China.

The Lockheed bombers were to be delivered before the end of 1941 but various delays caused their delivery to slide well into 1942. The DB-7 order was cancelled and the order diverted to the Netherlands East Indies. However, a substitute Chinese request for similar A-20 aircraft was approved and the number of aircraft was raised to fifty although delivery was not projected until late 1942. The Chinese request for 500 aircraft while not fully met, was granted (at least on paper) to the extent of some 450 aircraft by the summer of 1941.

I. Gains and Losses: American Aircraft for China 1940-1941

During late 1940 and early 1941 the Chinese purchasing commission to the United States obtained the allocation of more than 350 fighters (P-40s, P-43s and P-66s) and nearly one hundred bombers for China. The Chinese also made requests for ammunition, spares, fuel and other material. In addition they requested 190 training aircraft including 120 primary trainers, fifty North American advanced trainers and twenty Beechcraft AT-11 bomber trainers. Finally, ten transport planes were requested.

From January to November 1940 the following exports to China had been made (all based on orders placed before January 1940): 30 NA 16-4 advanced trainers; 11 Ryan STC-4 primary trainers; 3 Curtiss model 21 interceptors; 3 Vultee V-1A transports; and single examples of the Curtiss Hawk 72A fighter, Curtiss model 22 Falcon combat trainer, Stinson model 105 sports monoplane, and, a reconditioned Curtiss Condor transport.

Prior to the arrival of the purchasing commission in November 1940 the Chinese had placed only one order for American aircraft during 1940. That was for 6 Beechcraft model A18R advanced trainers. As of November 1940 these had not been shipped. There were also several additional aircraft, mainly trainers, previously approved for export but still pending shipment.

About the time members of China's purchasing commission were leaving China for Washington, on October 26, 1940, Japanese bombers wrecked the aircraft manufacturing and assembly plant run by CAMCO at Loiwing, China. Components for over thirty Curtiss CW-21 fighters being assembled there under license were destroyed. Also destroyed were a quantity of Vultee attack bombers and training planes.

In January 1941 British authorities in Burma authorized the assembly of 36 North American and 30 Ryan trainers at Rangoon airport. Ninety workers from the CAMCO factory at Loiwing accomplished this task in the early months of 1941. These trainers were part of an order for one hundred trainers of which thirty-four had been or were at Loiwing for assembly when the Japanese attacked. Many were destroyed in the October attack.

Permission to assemble trainers at Rangoon was considered very significant by the Chinese. Such permission had previously been denied. The Chinese had lost their transit route through Indo-China in 1940 and the Burma Road was badly overtaxed and periodically closed due to diplomatic pressure and colonial bureaucracy. The Chinese hoped the assembly of trainers would set a precedent for combat aircraft. Indeed, with a few months the British granted permission to assemble P-40s in Burma.

Meanwhile, on December 12th, 1940, two of the new Ryan trainers that had escaped destruction at Loiwing were destroyed when seven long-range Japanese navy Zero fighters strafed the airfield at Yunnan-yi. Also destroyed were eighteen old Fleet trainers.

The success of long ranging Zero fighters on December 12th was the last of a string of damaging attack missions mounted from September to December 1940 during which Zeros shot down approximately fifty Chinese aircraft and destroyed an additional forty on the ground. Most of these were Russian built combat aircraft but also included were several Curtiss Hawk 75 fighters, American built training planes and other aircraft.

The last influx of Soviet-supplied aircraft reached C.A.F. units in early 1941, amounting to 150 fighters (I-153 and I-16) and 100 SB-2bis bombers. Thirty-one of the newly arrived I-153s clashed with twelve Zeros on 14 March 1941. The Japanese claimed twenty-four victories and eighteen Chinese fighters were destroyed or seriously damaged with eight pilots killed (the American military attach put Chinese losses at fifteen). Two old Chinese fighters were destroyed on the ground. Thereafter, the C.A.F. sought to avoid combat with Zeros but it proved impossible to avoid combat altogether and additional losses were suffered in the air and on the ground.

Flying Tigers: I-153s
Chinese Air force I-153s

By early November 1941 the C.A.F. had been reduced (combat aircraft in both tactical and training units) to 29 I-153s, 27 I-16s, 60 SB bombers and 42 various other aircraft. By the end of the year less than one hundred aircraft were in combat units and many of those were unserviceable. Foreign observers as well as Chiang Kai-Shek himself doubted the combat potential of the remaining force.

continued in part 2