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Assembling and testing P-40s in Burma

continued from part 2

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.

layout of CAMCO assembly area

Flight Testing

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.

Question? Comment? Newsletter? Send me an email. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford