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Assembling and testing P-40s in Burma

[This article first appeared in Aviation magazine, December 1942, and the sub-heads are those appearing in the magazine. -- Dan Ford]
by Byron Glover

In April 1941, I was engaged as test pilot by an American company that had contracted to assemble, flight test, and deliver to the Chinese government 100 Curtiss P-40 (Tomahawk) fighter planes. These planes were later flown by the American Volunteer Group to defend the Burma Road, and assembly and delivery was performed in Rangoon, Burma. I left Los Angeles for Hong Kong by Pan American Clipper. Connections were made after a four-day layover with China National Airways. The flight from Hong Kong to Chungking was made without event although the first part of the trip was made over country held and patrolled by the Japanese, and takeoffs were made only at night or in "unflyable" weather. [Glover then flew to Kunming, Lashio, and Rangoon.]

Our Rangoon office was managed at this time by Mr. Dan F. Gourlie. His staff consisted of about a dozen people whose homes were in Rangoon. From Mr. Gourlie I learned that the company had already secured a small piece of land near the Rangoon airport and had let a contract for the construction of a small assembly building. The contract had been given to Clark & Gregg, a local contractor. It had originally been planned to use the roof trusses of the assembly building for hoisting the fuselages of the airplanes during assembly. Upon checking over the plans ... I discovered that the roof trusses as originally planned were not strong enough to carry the weight of the P-40 fuselage. Mr. Gourlie and I then had a conference with the contractor, who upon learning of our requirements agreed to replace two of the wooden truss members of the roof under each end of the building with two steel truss members that would be capable of carrying a load of over 3 tons each....

Since the P-40s were expected to arrive before the building would be completed it was decided at this time to rush construction of a number of small derricks that could be used both in assembly and in working on the landing gear.... I designed a simple hoist consisting of an inverted U-frame built out of steel I-beams used in conjunction with a 3½-ton chain hoist fastened in the center at the top.... These frames were tilted slightly forward so that they would clear the leading edge of the wing, and they were braced on either side by two steel cables which were anchored to the horizontal steel I-beams forming the feet of the frame. This type of construction was simple and cheap to build and could be salvaged almost 100 percent after the assembly operations were completed. These hoists were located in the assembly area just out the assembly building, and others were located at the airport proper, where the test operations were to be carried on. Another problem to be solved was to find some way to get the large and heavy airplane crates from the docks out to the assembly building 11 mi. north of Rangoon [in Mingaladon Cantonment]. The box containing the fuselage and motor was approximately 35 ft. long, 10 ft. high, and 6 ft. wide and weighed just under 8,000 lb. The box containing the wing was approximately 40 ft. long, 10 ft. high, 5 ft. wide, and weighed approximately 8,300 lb. Obviously, none of our standard trucks then available could handle the job of taking these crates out to the assembly building. There were in Rangoon at that time scores of truck assembly plants and truck body manufacturers who were busily engaged in assembling tucks that were to be used to transport supplies over the Burma Road to China. We needed at least two large truck trailers, and knowing the size they would have to be, we took our problems to one of the larger truck body manufacturers who worked up a satisfactory design and built them in a month....

Labor

Then came the problem of obtaining labor. Our company [CAMCO] had previously been operating an aircraft assembly plant in southwestern China so we arranged to borrow a skilled American aircraft foreman by the name of Andrew Sargeant and a group of 175 trained Chinese aircraft workers. These men had had previous experience on other types of airplanes, but had never seen the P-40 type of airplane before. To assist them in the operation I prepared and had printed a quantity of standard letter-size cards on which were printed each individual step in the assembly operation as it was to be carried out.... As each airplane was uncrated, a card was filled out and attached to the airplane, remaining with it until the airplane was finally delivered to the airport for flight test....

Assembly Procedure

When these boxes were loaded on our trailers at the docks and transported to the assembly area, all further unloading and handling operations had to be carried out with manual labor. For work of this nature we employed a large number of Indian coolies.... When the boxes arrived at the assembly area they were skidded off the trailers onto the ground, and scores of coolies held ropes tied to the top of the boxes to prevent them from toppling over as they were unloaded.... When an airplane was needed for assembly, the top and sides were removed from the crate containing the fuselage. The bottom or floor of the crate was left on, as it was attached to the fuselage with an angle iron framework. Sections of 4-in. pipe were used as rollers and the fuselage was then rolled and skidded into place under one of the hoisting frames.... The fuselage sling was then attached to the rear of the motor mount and the airplane hoisted into the air. With the fuselage a few inches off the ground, the bolts attaching it to the bottom section of the crate were removed and the bottom section of the crate taken away. The hoisting of the fuselage was then continued until it was high enough in the air to permit bringing the wing underneath it....

The wing case contained the wing proper in one piece, all of the tail surfaces, fairings, and the propeller. At this time the wing case was disassembled and the tail surfaces and the propeller removed. Then the wing was carefully lowered to a horizontal position by hand using as many coolies as could conveniently get a grip on the wing without getting in each other's way. The wing was then carried by hand over to the place where the fuselage was hoisted and waiting for the wing. As the wing panel alone weighed over 2,500 lb., this was no mean task, and it was always surprising to me to see how much weight these coolies could carry, both individually and as a group. The wing was brought into position beneath the fuselage and supported on two wooden horses which were heavily padded.... The fuselage was then lowered onto the wing and the bolts holding the wing to the fuselage were put in place and tightened. The entire hydraulic system was then connected up and put into operation. The airplane was then hoisted again into the air and the horses ... removed. At this time the hydraulic system was tested for leaks, and the landing gear was lowered and checked for proper operation. If everything was in proper working order, the airplane was then lowered to the ground and rolled away on its own wheels to make room for another airplane under the hoist.

Considerable assembly operations were carried on with these outside hoists before the assembly building was completed. When this was completed there were facilities for hoisting and assembling four airplanes: Two inside the assembly building, one outside the assembly building, and one at the airport. The assembly building had a lean-to on the west side which was divided into several rooms including the drafting room, a battery room, a stockroom, an instrument room, a first aid room or hospital, and the office.

continued in part 2