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The Vultee P-66 in Chinese service (part 4)

continued from part 3

In an action taken on August 31st, the Munitions Board cancelled the tentative assignment of 50 A-20Bs to the Chinese. The Board recognized that the Chinese attached great importance to the order and that it had originally been made at the behest of Lauchlin Currie (a confidant of President Roosevelt). Nonetheless, due to production slippages A-20 deliveries were not expected to meet U.S., U.K. and U.S.S.R. requirements. Another factor in the Board's decision: "No information is available from General Stillwell as to the requirements of the Chinese for A-20 type airplanes."

Two months later General Stillwell did weigh in on a munitions case. The Chinese requested an additional fifty P-40s at the rate of ten per month beginning in October 1942. The Board requested Stillwell's views: "General Stillwell replied on October 12, recommending that no additional combat aircraft be assigned to the Chinese until the Chinese Air Force has demonstrated that it can make use of the aircraft now in their possession." Stillwell pointed out that the Chinese had not used any of the aircraft purchased with Lend-Lease funds in combat. He suggested that if additional fighters were available they should go to the Tenth Air Force.

Perhaps it is mere coincidence that the day after Stillwell's radiogram to the Munitions Board, C.A.F. fighters put on an aerial demonstration over Chungking (where Stillwell had his headquarters) and two weeks later began a brief spurt of combat operations. The P-66s played a part in both events.

P-66s flew sixteen sorties from 25-27 October and four more sorties on November 10th. Their mission was to intercept Japanese reconnaissance aircraft but no interceptions were made. Unlike the P-43 with its turbo-supercharger and good high altitude performance the P-66 was not particularly well suited to intercept high altitude reconnaissance planes. In fact one is left with the impression that the P-66 had no single outstanding performance characteristic.

In November 1942 C.A.F. units contained 97 Lend-Lease aircraft: nine P-40s, 36 P-43s, 37 P-66s and 15 A-29s. These were supplemented by a small number of obsolescent Russian fighters and SB-2bis bombers. The only available reinforcements were P-40s and P-66s then at Karachi.

As 1942 came to a close the P-66 was numerically the most important aircraft in the Chinese Air Force. The C.A.F. flew no combat missions in December 1942. How active the Chinese Air Force would be in 1943 and what role the P-66 would play remained to be seen.

IV. P-66 Operations 1943

At the beginning of 1943 the C.A.F. fighters were all stationed at bases near Chungking and Chengtu with the mission of providing air defense to those cities and nearby airfields and military establishments. The P-66s had been distributed among three fighter groups some of which retained a few I-153s in addition to the Vanguards.

A Chinese fighter group had a nominal strength of forty aircraft (nine in each of four squadrons and four additional aircraft). Chinese information provided to Chennault's China Air Task Force in January and February 1943 gives a snap shot of P-66 status at that time.

The 3rd Fighter Group (7th, 8th, 32nd, and 38th squadrons) based at Peishiyi (near Chungking) had 15 P-66s and 94 pilots. Two squadrons were operational and two were in a training status due to lack of aircraft.

The 5th Fighter Group (17th, 26th, 27th, and 29th squadrons) had headquarters at Shangliu and an operational base at Lanchow. It had nine P-66s and 69 qualified pilots. Two squadrons were rated operationally ready.

The 11th Fighter Group (41st to 44th squadrons) was equipped with 15 P-66s and had 73 qualified pilots. It was based at Chunglai and two squadrons were operational. Pilots were non-commissioned officers (because of their lesser status some American observers thought selection of NCO pilots was less affected by graft and political influence than officer pilots and that they were less arrogant and more likely to accept constructive criticism during training).

More detailed insight into the operations of the C.A.F. is contained in a report by Kenneth M. Warder, a Vultee Aviation service representative, who spent three months with the C.A.F. (November 1942 to January 1943) and observed its operating and maintenance practices. Warder toured all the airfields and factories where the P-66 was operated and maintained.

When Warder first arrived he found all the aircraft on each airfield were actively engaged in flying - some in formation flying, some in gunnery and others practicing landings. He soon concluded this was a show for his benefit for as his stay lengthened he found the aircraft sitting inactive on the ground day after day. He had a difficult time checking flying time on aircraft. "However, I obtained one flight time record for 45 days on 10 airplanes which averaged 12 minutes per plane per day. At another airfield I obtained the time on 15 airplanes for two weeks. One airplane had flown for eight hours; the other airplanes had no time at all for two weeks."

Warder recounted a morale flight by three P-40s to a town a couple hundred miles from Chengtu (the citizens had raised money for C.A.F. aircraft and were receiving a demonstration of gratitude). Only one P-40 returned to Chengtu. The other two ran out of fuel on the return flight and crash-landed. One was a complete loss.

Warder also observed and heard reports of Chinese combat missions during November 1942. In one disastrous mission by twelve SB and Hudson bombers four failed to return despite the fact that no enemy opposition was encountered. On other missions bombers returned to base singly often strung out at intervals of an hour.

From conversations with C.A.F. pilots Warder concluded that most of them had very limited flying hours. He flew with one pilot who told him he had been a pilot for ten years - all during the early China war. When asked, the pilot said he had 1,000 flying hours. In flying Warder from one airport to another, a distance of about 50 miles, the pilot became lost for an hour.

Warder brought with him several dozen specialized tools of various kinds and turned them over to the Chinese Aeronautical Commission with the intention that they would be distributed to the tactical squadrons. He found that the tools were never distributed but retained as samples. Why so many "samples" were needed was never explained. Warder managed to personally deliver a few screwdrivers and cowling wrenches to two squadrons.

Warder found all the mechanics on each field shared a single small tool kit basically limiting maintenance to one aircraft at a time. If more than one aircraft had to be serviced at the same time, work had to be done with inefficient borrowing of tools among the mechanics involved.

Warder's report gives several specific examples of shoddy maintenance practices. He also discovered large quantities of tools, spares and materials kept in storage. In asking why the tools and materials could not be issued: "I was informed that they had to be kept in stock. That was my answer."

Warder's report concluded by saying concerning the Chinese war effort and flight operations, "a person can hardly see any." In three months in China he was aware of only three missions being flown. Warder estimated that when he left China in early February 1943 the Chinese had forty-five serviceable P-66s.

During January 1943 the P-40s and P-43s flew a few combat missions from Liangshan and Kweilin. This unaccustomed activity caused the Japanese to report that the Chungking air force had become "very active" at Kweilin. During this brief spate of activity two P-40s were lost to ground fire and P-43s claimed one victory in air combat. During February the 4th Fighter Group P-43s were in action again losing a fighter without claiming any victories. The P-66s remained at their bases near Chungking and Chengtu and saw no combat.

After a relative lull during the winter months, April brought intensified air operations. Fighters of the newly formed U.S.A.A.F. 14th Air Force clashed with Japanese aircraft several times during the month despite spotty weather. The fighters of the C.A.F. saw no action.

A Japanese ground offensive south of the Yangtze River and westward from Tungting Lake spurred the C.A.F. into action during May. Chinese A-29s and SB-2s flew some 80 sorties between May 19th and June 6th. Chinese fighters flew over 300 sorties during the same period. Most of the fighter missions were flown by P-40Es and P-43s of the 4th Fighter Group. The P-66s maintained their defensive posture until June when the P-66s of the 11th Fighter Group joined in escort missions flying from Peishiyi with Enshih as an operational airfield.

June 6th proved to be the high water mark of the P-66's combat career. First, here are the events of that day as recorded by the Japanese:

continued in part 5