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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.

100 Hawks for China

Assembly Time Improved

There was sufficient ground space to store ten airplanes in their crates and also space for the assembly crew to work on five party assembled airplanes. As soon as the airplanes were rolled away on their own wheels, a supervisor and his crew were assigned to it to continue assembly operations. It was customary, after operations got into full swing, to have complete crews working on as many as six or seven airplanes at one time. There was also another crew assigned to the airport for the purpose of getting the airplanes ready for flight, warming up the engines, and making minor adjustments after the airplane had been flight tested. In the beginning, the first airplane required approximately three weeks from the time assembly was started until the airplane was ready for flight test. The time required for assembly steadily decreased as the crew gained experience. After approximately one-half of the airplanes had been assembled, the assembly crew had become so skilled in their work that they were turning out airplanes at the rate of two to three per day. This is quite a compliment to the Chinese crew, and shows that they are much better workmen and mechanics than we have been accustomed in the past to think. About 15 members of the assembly crews were supervisors and they were the only ones who spoke English. These supervisors studied the Curtiss-Wright assembly handbook constantly and were instructed and guided in their work by Mr. Sargeant, who had had wide experience in all types of airplane construction and assembly. The workmen themselves were intelligent, but they did require constant supervision. Although the supervisors spoke English, their vocabulary was not very large, and it was often difficult to make them understand just exactly what was desired. However, when they once understood what we wanted, the work was carried out quickly and efficiently. During the latter part of the assembly period we had available the services of a Mr. Coo, of Allison Motors, who spoke English and Chinese fluently, and was of great assistance to us, both as an instructor to the Chinese crew and as an interpreter whenever we got into a tight spot. [Teh Chang Koo, son of the Chinese diplomat Wellington Koo.]

Aided by Aircraft Design

The disassembly and crating of the airplanes at the Curtiss-Wright factory was designed with the idea of making the airplanes as easy to reassemble in the field as possible. The fuselage assembly contained the motor, the oil tank, the Prestone tank, the fuselage fuel tank, the battery, the oil tank, and the Prestone and oil radiators, all connected up so that the motor could be run as soon as the propeller was installed. The entire wing was in one piece with the exception of the wing tips and had only to be bolted to the bottom of the fuselage with approximately 44 bolts. Connections to be made between the wing and the fuselage after they had been joined together were fuel lines, hydraulic lines and electrical connections. The landing gear was completely installed in the wing panel at the factory and was ready for operation as soon as the hydraulic lines were connected. As soon as the wing was installed on the fuselage and the hydraulic system was put into operation, the airplane could be rolled about on its own wheels to a location where assembly could be continued. At this time the control surfaces, the propeller, and the fairings were installed. The only rigging necessary on the airplane was to see that the control surfaces moved through their proper range and that all controls were free. The planning of the whole of the above was such as to provide a maximum of ease and simplicity for assembling the airplanes in the field. Out of the 100 airplanes shipped, only one was damaged in shipment. The wing case on this airplane was dropped in the water in New York Harbor while loading it and when it arrived in Rangoon the wing was so badly corroded that I did not think it safe to assembly and fly this airplane. [Other sources say it was dropped in Rangoon, which seems more probable.] This was extremely fortunate in one way, since it gave us a source of extra instruments and other necessary spare parts. Most of the trouble experienced on the airplanes was due to the instruments going bad in transit, probably due to jarring and exposure to weather on board ship. Some of the instruments could be repaired, but some of them were beyond local repair. There was a shortage of all kinds of small hand tools, wrenches, vises and special engine tools. We experienced a great deal of spark plug trouble, probably due to the high humidity during which flight operations were carried on, and also due to the fact that we did not have the proper tools for overhauling and setting the gaps of the spark plugs. There was only one case of complete failure of a magneto.

Flight Testing

layout of CAMCO assembly area When the airplanes were completed, the engines were given a preliminary run up at the assembly plant, and then they were eight towed or taxied down the main highway for a distance of 1 mi. to the airport proper, across the airport to one corner where our flight test area was located. The flight test area was located off the main runways on the south edge of the airport. The ground was very soft off the runways, and we found it necessary to construct taxi strips of crushed stone from the flight test area out to the runways. All of the flight test operations were carried on during the rainy season.... When it is not raining the sun is shining brilliantly and the air is both very hot and very humid. The high humidity caused excessive condensation in the fuel tanks overnight and it was found necessary to strain the water from all fuel tanks and to drain the fuel strainers immediately prior to each flight. The sun shining on the unprotected airplanes caused the metal to get so hot that the workman could not touch them. This necessitated the construction of about eight mat sheds in the flight test area under which the airplanes could be placed when it was necessary to work on them.... A small hangar, accommodating two airplanes, was constructed in the flight test area and it was used for working on those airplanes where the cowling had to be removed and the airplane had to stand exposed for several days.... The airport was of ample size and was used by the Royal Air Force as a base for their operations, The north-south runway was 3,000 ft. long and the east-west and the northwest-southeast runways were each 2,500 ft. long. The runways had a crushed rock base with a rolled gravel surface. It was usable in all kinds of weather but the loose gravel was easily picked up by the propellers, and was a source of constant annoyance. The approaches to the runway were only fair as there were trees on all sides except to the south.

As soon as the airplanes were flight tested and all necessary adjustments were made, the headquarters of the American Volunteer Group located at Toungoo, Burma, were notified and they sent pilots down to take delivery and ferry them from Rangoon to Toungoo. The last airplane was delivered on Nov. 26, 1941, and the American Volunteer Group pilots got their first taste of action along the Burma Road on Dec. 20, 1941.

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