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The Vultee P-66 in Chinese service (part 3)

continued from part 2

One source describes the Group's experience with the P-66 as follows:

"The pilots of the 14th Pursuit Group actually liked their P-66s, and they described the P-66 as being a very good aerobatic aircraft. Test pilot Gil Clark thought it was the best aircraft he had ever flown, being much better than the Curtiss P-36. However, the cockpit layout was rather poor, and the aircraft was not sufficiently robust for a fighter. In addition the P-66 had a disconcerting tendency to ground loop, soon 15 examples being lost to this sort of accident." ("Vultee P-66" at Joe Baugher's website.)

Some pilots of the 14th Pursuit Group may have liked the P-66 but the comments "very good aerobatic aircraft" and "best aircraft...ever flown" are not consistent with the unsatisfactory report submitted by the 14th Pursuit Group to the 4th Air Service Command at the end of January 1942.

The report on the P-66 included a long list of faults, most of a minor nature, not atypical of such reports on new aircraft. However, among the deficiencies noted were: "correct slow maneuverability" and "correct high wing loading". Such comments implied a substantial redesign or reconfiguration of the aircraft was needed and not just minor engineering adjustments.

In light of the experience with the P-66, Wright Field (Chief of the Experimental Engineering Section) recommended that no modifications to the P-66 be undertaken, that they be removed from tactical operations and their future disposition be investigated. Less than a month later (March 6th, 1942) the first P-66s left Los Angeles aboard ship bound for China.

III. Equipping the C.A.F. - 1942

All the Curtiss P-40s shipped to China in 1941 went to the American Volunteer Group (A.V.G.). By the spring of 1942 the A.V.G. was being reinforced with additional P-40Es. The A.V.G. and its commander Col. Claire Chennault were only nominally part of the "Chinese Air Force". Chennault reported directly to Chiang Kai-Shek and was not subordinate to the C.A.F. chain of command.

American aid for the C.A.F. was arriving at a disappointing pace. The only aircraft that actually arrived in China as of April 1st, 1942, were two C-53s, a C-39 and forty PT-22s (Ryan ST-3 trainers). Eight P-40Es for the A.V.G. were then en route to China flying across India. At Karachi awaiting movement to China were 12 P-40s, 30 P-43s, a C-39, and, 30 additional PT-22s. Thirty-four P-66s were at sea in the Atlantic (first shipment from California via the Panama Canal; others from East Coast ports) and nine others were aboard ship and about to sail. Thirty-three Lockheed Hudson bombers were still allocated to China but had yet to leave the United States.

Despite this discouraging record the Chinese had not been deterred from requesting additional Lend-Lease aircraft. China Defense Supplies on behalf of the Chinese government made a series of both long and short-term requests for aircraft by the first half of 1942. Their requests totaled 2,586 aircraft including 1,489 pursuit planes, 462 bombers, 478 training planes and 157 transports.

By the end of May 1942 twenty P-66s had arrived at Karachi. Eventually 128 P-66s would be shipped from the U.S. and 104 would arrive at Karachi. The others were lost when the ship carrying them was torpedoed.

Hopes for the P-66s to get into the hands of the C.A.F. at an early date faded due to events thousands of miles away. At the end of May 1942 German General Erwin Rommel began an offensive in the Libyan Desert. Within weeks Axis forces were in Egypt mounting a threat to the Suez Canal. U.S. bombers in India were diverted to the Middle East. The limited maintenance facilities at Karachi were devoted to placing bombers in commission for that theater. During June work on uncrating and assembling P-66s came to a standstill even as additional P-66s arrived at the port of Karachi and were transported to Malir airfield.

By July 1942 the crisis in the Middle East had eased and work on assembling the P-66s resumed. By early August the first twenty had been assembled, tested and accepted by the Chinese. Fifty-one others were in India half of which were then being assembled or awaiting testing.

In August the first A-29s destined for China finally arrived in India. Some of the American crews that flew these aircraft would aid the C.A.F. in transition training on the new bombers. To add to the good news twenty-seven P-40s were allocated to the C.A.F. with delivery scheduled before the end of the year (these were P-40E-1s, serial numbers 41-36804 to 36831). These Kittykawks, as up to date as any flown by the U.S. in India or China, had been reallocated from the British at the end of June and the first batch shipped in August.

The C.A.F. 3rd Fighter Group began to send pilots to Karachi in July 1942 in order to ferry P-66s to China. Unlike the C.A.F. transition to the P-43 there were no A.V.G. pilots available to help the Chinese master the new P-66. The unit history of the 51st Fighter Group (then at Karachi) contains no indication that their pilots were involved in test flying the P-66s or checking out Chinese pilots. There are indications that some U.S.A.A.F. pilots flew the P-66s at Karachi but their exact role is unclear. Perhaps the U.S. pilots were used to test the newly assembled P-66s after Vultee test pilot Gibbons died when the P-66 he was flying crashed and burned.

By July 1942 General P.T. Mow had pronounced the P-43s then arriving in China as "not suitable for combat." As described in the author's article on the P-43 this pronouncement did not stand and the P-43 was used in combat both by the C.A.F. and the U.S.A.A.F. The P-43 flew combat missions with the U.S. 23rd Fighter Group as early as August 1942 and by October 1942 had claimed its first air victory with the C.A.F. However, in July 1942 it must have seemed urgent to get the P-66s to China so as to have a fighter force available to escort the A-29s that were about to arrive.

By mid-August the first six P-66s were ready to start the long journey across India. Fourteen other P-66s departed Karachi probably on the 26th or 27th of August. A message dated August 27th states the P-66 No. 42-6836 crashed at Bikaner killing the pilot.

The transition of the C.A.F. pilots to the P-66 and their transfer across India did not go smoothly. By the end of September Col. Loo, the C.A.F. representative at Karachi, requested the U.S. furnish pilots to lead each group of five P-66s to China. He also requested that the U.S. take charge of transition training at Karachi. The U.S. response to Loo's request is unclear.

A message dated November 8th, 1942, summarized the P-66 situation at Karachi. One hundred four P-66s arrived. One was too corroded to assemble, one was lost before acceptance by the Chinese (presumably in the Gibbons crash), and two were used for parts. Eighty-one had been accepted by the Chinese and sixty-one flown away. Ten others were ready to fly. The remaining nineteen had been completed and delivered to the flight section.

Of the eighty-one P-66s accepted by the Chinese as of early November 1942, ten had crashed at Karachi. Complete details of losses on the ferry route are not known but three P-66s crashed at Jodhpur (first leg of the ferry route) and were shipped back to Karachi by rail. On October 26th four P-66s proceeded to Dinjan contrary to American advice. They arrived after dark and despite recent Japanese attacks the field's lights were turned on for a night landing. One P-66 landed safely. Three others were washed out in crashes with one Chinese pilot killed and one injured.

As of December 11th there were still fifteen P-66s at Karachi that had been ready to fly away for a considerable period. Col. Loo made repeated requests for C.A.F. pilots to fly these aircraft out but as of that date no pilots had been sent. In addition to the fifteen P-66s at Karachi, eighteen P-40s awaited C.A.F. pilots to fly them to China. They were part of the consignment of 27 P-40Es allocated to China only nine of which had been delivered to China. The seeming indifference of the Chinese to these readily available combat aircraft is difficult to understand. It reinforces the impression that some Americans had that the Chinese had no real interest in using their aircraft against the Japanese.

Flying Tigers: P-66 in CAF warpaint
P-66 in Chinese markings - a publicity shot at Downey

As previously mentioned the Chinese had requested large very large numbers of Lend-Lease aircraft amounting to 2,500 planes. Their 1943 request alone amounted to over 1,000 aircraft. In Washington the Munitions Assignment Board was beginning to review Chinese requests in an ever more critical manner.

continued in part 4