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1. Genesis of the CW-21

Richard L. Dunn ©2005

William Douglas Pawley—any story of the CW-21 that does not start with his name misses the man who claimed to inspire its creation, was involved in financing its initial development, and obtained the first production order for it. By 1939 Pawley was the most successful salesman of American aircraft and aircraft equipment to the Chinese [footnote 1]. Pawley was both an entrepreneur and a visionary whose claims to fame include establishing the first aircraft manufacturing plant in China [2] as well as the first in India [3].

William Pawley as a U.S. government official As President of Intercontinent Corporation and its affiliate the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company (CAMCO) he was the executive responsible for recruiting and employing the pilots and ground personnel of the American Volunteer Group (A.V.G.) or Flying Tigers as recounted in Dan Ford's Flying Tigers. His aircraft plant in India was converted to the primary overhaul and repair depot for the U.S.A.A.F. 10th Air Force as well as other Allied air units in eastern India from 1942 to 1945 [4]. Post-war Pawley was appointed Ambassador to two South American nations and his staunch anti-communist views saw him involved in the successful over throw of the left leaning regime in Guatemala in 1954 and less successful attempts to oust Castro's regime in Cuba in the 1960s [5]. [Photo: William Pawley as a U.S. government official postwar]

Pawley represented the Curtiss-Wright Corp. in China and was instrumental in selling Curtiss Hawk fighters and establishing an aircraft manufacturing plant at Hangchow prior to the start of war in 1937. Pawley was in the United States when the war started but went to China and observed the first months of air operations. According to Pawley his observations "led me to conclude that China needed a fast interceptor with a high rate of climb and excellent maneuverability. I therefore returned to the United States and at great engineering and manufacturing expense to my companies we produced the Curtiss Model 21 Interceptor Fighter" [6].

The Model 21 or CW-21 had its first flight on 22 September 1938 [7]. In March 1939 Pawley sponsored demonstrations of both the CW-21 and a P-36 in Chungking and Chengtu. Before the summer was over he had obtained a contract for the sale of one completed CW-21 and components for 33 more in addition to one completed P-36 and components for another 55 [8]. The unassembled fighters were to be produced at Pawley's CAMCO plant, which after Japanese incursions was, in late 1939, relocated to Loiwing in the western province of Yunnan near the Burmese border and Burma Road.


Curtiss-Wright was a premier aircraft manufacturer in Depression era America. It also produced aircraft engines. Its main aircraft production facility was in Buffalo, New York, and engines were produced in New Jersey. A separate facility with its own heritage (and today a site of Boeing F-15 and F/A-18 production) was located in St. Louis (St. Louis Aeroplane Division of Curtiss-Wright Corp., Robertson, Mo.).

Curtiss-Wright in Buffalo designed the P-36 that was a contemporary of the Hawker Hurricane and Messerschmitt Bf-109. A low-wing monoplane of all metal construction, it was a leading example of what was then the forefront of modern aviation and far advanced over the P-12 and P-26 in American pursuit squadrons. St. Louis was also designing advanced aircraft in the late 1930s. The CW-19R a two-seat trainer and general-purpose military aircraft had been designed and built there. This was also a low wing monoplane of all metal construction and advanced design. Also on the drawing boards was the CW-20 an advanced transport aircraft that eventually performed its most notable service in the China-Burma-India (C.B.I.) Theater as the C-46.

Model 19
Model 19 precursor of the CW-21

The CW-19 was a sleek looking aircraft to whose design the CW-21 obviously owed much. The earlier aircraft had fixed landing gear housed in streamlined spats. The new interceptor (CW-21) was designed with retractable landing gear. The landing gear retracted into a bulged fairing under the wing. The Buffalo designed P-36 also used a bulged fairing but had a complicated mechanism involving a 90-degree rotation of the wheel before placement flush into the wing.

With the CW-21 designed and built, and, a contract in hand other designs related to the CW-19 and CW-21 soon sprang from the drawing boards at St. Louis. The CW-22 was essentially a CW-19 that incorporated the retractable landing gear of the CW-21. With less power and performance than the CW-21 it was suitable as a combat trainer, reconnaissance or general-purpose aircraft.

The CW-23 was a two-place fighter trainer with an advertised maximum speed of 325 m.p.h. It was clearly based on the CW-21 but featured a revised landing gear scheme in which the gear folded inward flush with the wing under surface.

The photograph and story of the CW-22 were featured in American Aviation of January 15, 1940. The CW-23 appeared in the March 1st edition of the same publication. The April 15th edition highlighted the completion of flight tests of the first production CW-21 (first flight was on March 20th). The text contained the claim of a climb rate "well over 5,000 feet in 60 seconds" a claim that was to be repeatedly made in Curtiss advertisements for the interceptor.

First production CW-21
First production CW-21 March/April 1940

The CW-21B appeared in the January 1st, 1941 edition of American Aviation where the claim of "greatest climbing plane in the world" and vertical mile in a minute performance were repeated. There seems to be little doubt the CW-21 had excellent climb performance but the claim for an initial climb rate over 5,000 feet per minute is not supported by the data in this article. The author has found no details to substantiate the claim though the prototype CW-21 may have attained a climb rate of 4,800 feet per minute.9

Profile study of CW-21
Profile study of the CW-21

The CW-21B was a development of the original aircraft incorporating the flush fitting, inward retracting landing gear used on the CW-23, and other refinements. Curtiss sold twenty-four CW-21Bs to the Netherlands East Indies (N.E.I.) Air Force and also made sales of the CW-22 to the N.E.I. and other customers.

continued in part 2