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4. The Curtiss interceptors in action

Pawley informed Hiss that he intended to return to Bangalore in about May 1941. It is clear that Pawley's interests thereafter were primarily absorbed by his work in India [23]. He may have had little interest in pursuing completion of the CW-21 production contract. Pawley's final connection with the CW-21 was his sale of the three crated CW-21s at Rangoon to the Chinese for use by the A.V.G. in the autumn of 1941 [24].

From Chinese sources comes word that two CW-21s were built by the Chinese. This is partially confirmed by a photograph taken at Kunming in the summer of 1942 showing a P-40 of the U.S. 16th Fighter Squadron under maintenance. In the background can be seen P-66s of the Chinese Air Force and two aircraft identifiable as CW-21s [25].

A report of the U.S. Consul in Kunming concerning his visit to First Aircraft Factory of the Commission on Aeronautical Affairs in May of 1942 reveals something about work there on an otherwise unidentified "plane" [26]. The factory itself was originally a project of the government of Canton but was moved to Kunming in 1938. Though well equipped it had been little utilized and its skilled Cantonese work force had gradually been reduced.

Early in 1942 its chief work was "making the frame, fuselage, and wing and fin sections of the plane, although other smaller appendages are also manufactured. Engines (Wright Cyclone, 9-cylinder, 840-h.p.), propellers (Hamilton), instruments, landing wheels and tires, as well as other parts of intricacy or precision have been imported from the United States." Principal materials for production also came from the United States. "Tubing, sheet metal, and armor-plate are principal materials by bulk, and these have been imported."

The report indicated materials were available for the production of a few dozen aircraft. Aircraft engines were the limiting factor in production. Managers of the plant feared that engines already in China might not be made available to the First Factory in quantities the factory's production capability would require. Production at the plant was "limited by the issuance to it of engines." There seems little doubt that the report described work on the CW-21s.

What use the Chinese made of the two CW-21s photographed on the airfield at Kunming has not been discovered by the author. Another unanswered question is vexing. In 1942 the Chinese were in need of, and, seeking both fighters and training aircraft. The CW-21 was capable of performing in at least one, if not both, of those roles. The First Aircraft Factory apparently could have produced CW-21s in quantity but did not do so. Instead, Cyclone engines imported for CW-21 production were apparently hoarded.


The first CW-21 to reach the Orient was the original prototype sent to China as a demonstrator. This reached Rangoon by ship on January 24th, 1939, was barged up the Irrawaddy River and trucked to Loiwing, arriving February 28th [27]. By March it was being demonstrated at Chungking. It flew in mock combats against the Dewoitine 510 and Russian I-15 and I-16 fighters. In its final official demonstration on March 16th with Chennault and other officials present, the CW-21 engaged in a dogfight with an I-15 and was able to get on the tail of the maneuverable Russian fighter repeatedly by a steep climb followed by a wing-over. Curtiss pilot Robert Fausel wrote to the company stating, "the demonstration was very definite proof of the superiority of the Interceptor for dog fighting over any other airplane in the world. It impressed everyone, including myself."

There is a very interesting story in The St. Louis Lightweight written by Gerard Casius. According to Casius after the official demonstrations both Fausel with the CW-21 and pilot Arch McEwen and the Curtiss Hawk 75Q stood alert at Chungking with their aircraft fueled and armed. Casius relates that Fausel flew an uneventful patrol with I-15s on March 29th. Four days later, according to Casius, Chungking was bombed by the Japanese and Fausel took off to the sound of exploding bombs. Racing to 10,000 feet in two minutes he encountered a large formation of Japanese Fiat BR-20 bombers 75 miles east of Chungking. Fausel attacked and on his third burst his guns ran away exhausting his ammunition but not before he damaged a BR-20 that was later reported to have belly-landed and its crew captured in Chinese territory. This is a wonderful story that adds color to the history of the CW-21. The only problem is that no attack on or in the vicinity of Chungking took place during March or April 1939 [28]. If there is any substance to this report the incident probably occurred on May 3rd when Japanese navy bombers attacked Chungking. The demonstrator was turned over to the Chinese, reportedly suffered a crash in June 1939 and apparently was written off.

Brief comments on the CW-21 contained in a report of the U.S. Military Attaché in Chungking provide interesting insights into the performance of the demonstrator [29]. The report states that the aircraft mounted only two machine guns. Maximum speed was stated to be 310 mph. This was slightly faster than the later production version and suggests the demonstrator may have been flown more lightly loaded than the production aircraft. An altitude of 10,000 feet was reportedly attained in two minutes and ten seconds. This yields a climb rate of about 4,615 feet per minute. Based on the discussion of climb rate earlier in this article, the suspicion remains that this performance, if accurately reported, was obtained in a zoom climb rather than at a steady rate of climb under normal full power. This result, while lower than "vertical mile in a minute" claims, is still impressive.

Claire Chennault, aviation advisor to Chaing Kai-Shek, was in Chungking at the time the CW-21 was demonstrated and was undoubtedly aware of its capabilities. In the autumn of 1941 Pawley proposed to erect the three CW-21s at Rangoon and provide them to the A.V.G. at 1939 prices if someone would pay for them. Chennault, in his new role as commander of the A.V.G., had the perfect use for them [30]. High-flying reconnaissance planes were snooping over the A.V.G. training base at Kyedaw, Burma. The A.V.G.'s slow climbing P-40s could not catch them. Eventually Lend-lease funds were made available to pay for the interceptors and they were assembled and made available to the A.V.G.

The first CW-21 was flown up to Kyedaw by A.V.G. pilot Kenneth Merritt just about the time the Flying Tigers learned that the United States and Japan were at war. The CW-21s did not have the opportunity to intercept any reconnaissance planes at Kyedaw. On or shortly after December 12th they were attached as a three-plane flight to the A.V.G.'s 3rd Squadron and based at Mingaladon Airfield north of Rangoon. Erik Shilling (from Washington, D.C.) led the flight that also included Merritt (Arlington, Texas) and Lacey Mangleberg (Athens, Georgia) [31].

The CW-21s saw no combat while at Rangoon and on December 22nd, just before a series of heavy Japanese raids, Chennault ordered the CW-21s to join the main body of the A.V.G. then at Kunming, China. The three planes flew to Kyedaw that day and stayed overnight, proceeding to Lashio on the 23rd. Ford in Flying Tigers records what occurred basing his account on primary sources and Shilling's taped memoir. The Cyclone engine of Shilling's CW-21 had problems with misfires during the flight to Lashio. At Lashio the trio met an A.V.G. ground crew chief (Glen Blaylock) who was en route to Kunming by truck. He recommended a change from the 100-octane fuel supplied at Kyedaw to 87-octane fuel, stating this would keep the engine from running too hot.

Mangleberg's CW-21 was fueled first and he took off for a brief test flight. His CW-21 encountered no problems but apparently caused a false raid alarm. In any event the flight made a hasty departure from Lashio without a standard weather or route briefing. Late in the afternoon just inside China Shilling's fighter again encountered difficulties and the engine failed completely. Shilling made a successful belly landing despite the mountainous terrain. The other two pilots had no radios and only a vague idea where they were. They continued to fly in the general area where Shilling landed until their fuel supply was low. Merritt walked away slightly injured from his crash landing but Mangleberg's landing attempt ended in a fiery crash [32]. This ended Lacey Mangleberg's life and the brief career of the CW-21 with the Flying Tigers.

Russell Whelan in The Flying Tigers, a book written in 1942, dealt briefly with the incident and ascribed the crashes to "faulty fuel" taken on at Lashio. Casius in The St.Louis Lightweight repeats this version saying all three fighters had engine trouble "the cause of which was undoubtedly dirty fuel taken on at Lashio." Perhaps this was a version of the events circulated at the time. It is interesting to note that Shell Oil used the CW-21's "vertical mile in a minute" claims in its own advertising for its 100-octane gasoline suggesting that operating with 100-octane fuel should not have been a problem.

In the East Indies the CW-21B was simply known as the "Interceptor" (the author has found no evidence that the name "Demon" was associated with the CW-21/21B in actual operational use). The Interceptors carried serial numbers preceded by "CW" an obvious reference to their factory designation.

continued in part 5