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Curtiss Hawk 75 demonstrator Curtiss Hawk 75 demonstrator in Chinese Air Force warpaint

Uncertain Wings (continued)

     Soon after the Patterson contract was signed Chinese government officials influenced by Pawley’s information began to have doubts that the contract could be fulfilled. Meanwhile two Curtiss demonstrator fighters had made their way to China. One was an entirely new design from the Curtiss branch in St. Louis – the CW-21. The other was the demonstration version of the Hawk 75A – the P-36 finally made available for export.

     The two fighters made an impression in their various appearances in western China and by March were in Chungking for official trials. The CW-21 with an extreme climb rate (reputedly 5,000 feet per minute and actually only somewhat less) was light and rakish in appearance. The other demonstrator, although referred to as a P-36, was the Hawk 75Q which differed somewhat from the standard U.S. fighter version. It mounted two 23mm Madsen cannon in under wing pods in addition to its nose mounted .50 and .30 caliber machine guns. No other fighter in China came near matching that fire power. Despite its external gun pods the P-36 demonstrated in China attained a maximum speed of 305 m.p.h. according to a report of the U.S. military attaché in Chungking (the French rated their original P-36 version at 304 m.p.h.).

     As stated earlier the export P-36 gave a good account of itself in French service in Europe in 1939-40. A maximum speed of 305 m.p.h. as demonstrated in China may not sound impressive but needs to be put in perspective along with other performance data. The average maximum speed of several R.A.F. Hurricanes tested at the time of the Battle of Britain (mid/late-1940) was, according to Air Marshall Dowding head of Fighter Command, 305 m.p.h. as contrasted to their official maximum speed of 335 m.p.h. Later the U.S. National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics tested the P-36, Spitfire and Hurricane fitted with special test instruments to determine roll rate and found the P-36 equal or superior to the two supposedly superior British fighters. The British also tested the fighter against the Spitfire and found it had superior combat maneuvering capabilities but could not match the Spitfire in speed.

     Here it might be worth recounting some of the tall tales related to the CW-21 and Hawk 75Q. According to one story Robert Fausel in the CW-21 and Arch McEwen in the Hawk 75Q stood alert duty at Chungking in late March 1939. After an initial abortive scramble by both pilots, Fausel in the CW-21 took off on another attempt four days later and engaged Japanese army BR-20 bombers shooting one down (there were no Japanese raids on Chungking in March or April 1939). In another version George Weigel, described as a member of the Chinese Air Force International Squadron, took off in a “modified Hawk 75M with a heavy cannon fitted beneath each wing.” Martin Caiden, the author of this version, has Weigel as the lone intercepting fighter and engaging in “impossible maneuvers” as he flashes through a formation of Japanese bombers shooting down four of them. After the combat Weigel, according to Caiden, returned in his bullet-riddled fighter. Weigel was actually employed by CAMCO to fly the demonstrator. According to Caiden, Weigel died the next day in an accident caused by mechanical failure. The U.S. military attaché reported a raid by 45 Japanese bombers on 3 May intercepted by seventeen Chinese fighters in which two Chinese fighters and two Japanese bombers were shot down (both number of attackers and losses confirmed by Japanese sources) and a raid on 4 May by 27 Japanese bombers that was not intercepted. Given the tense commercial competition at the time one can speculate where these stories came from. It would be interesting to know if they were made up from whole cloth or whether there might be a grain of truth in them somewhere.

     On May 5th in a flight at Chungking the P-36 pulled up sharply into a climb and stalled at about 3,000 feet. Pilot Weigel was unable to recover and died in the crash. Despite the tragic loss of the P-36 and its pilot the two Curtiss demonstrators had given Pawley a new opportunity. His aircraft production plant which had been twice relocated was at Loiwing, China nearly ready for operation. He was wheeling and dealing for a new contract. At the same time he continued to cast aspersions on the Patterson deal, a deal made vulnerable as it became less likely that the Seversky fighters could be delivered in a timely fashion. Pawley also opened another front pointing out that Russian supplied I-15 fighters were, due to their slow speed, ineffective in attacking Japanese bombers which re-appeared over Chungking in May 1939.

     The upshot of all these events was that the Patterson contract was cancelled and that Pawley gained a contract for the Hawk 75A, CW-21 and other aircraft. For the most part the Hawk 75A and CW-21 were to be shipped to China as materials and components. Construction and assembly of most of the fighters (55 P-36’s and 33 CW-21’s) would take place at the CAMCO factory at Loiwing. International events soon conspired to assure that no Hawk 75A’s would ever fly for China.

     Ports of entry to China via Hong Kong and Hanoi were soon effectively closed as transit points to China. Only Rangoon (port of Rangoon, river or rail to upper Burma, transshipment to China via the Burma Road) remained as a major supply route to China. Even this route was closed for several months in the summer of 1940 due to Japanese diplomatic pressure on the British. A huge backlog of goods for China accumulated at Rangoon including components and machine tools for manufacture of the P-36’s ordered for China. Once the Burma Road was reopened supplies began to move again but the road’s capacity was limited. In October 1940 before Loiwing had turned out a single P-36 or CW-21 the Japanese bombed the factory.

     The damage to the Loiwing factory was not severe but it brought production activity to a virtual halt. The hand writing was on the wall for Pawley. By spring 1941 he worked out a deal to transfer machine tools and aircraft components to India. In India CAMCO assets, some from the Loiwing factory, including P-36 components became the basis for the formation of the Hindustani Aircraft Company at Bangalore. Having established the first aircraft factory in China Pawley gained the additional distinction of establishing the first aircraft factory in India. The Hindustani factory actually got into production and beginning in July 1942 turned out four P-36’s (designated Mohawk IV and provided to R.A.F. squadrons) before Allied authorities determined it would be more useful as a repair and overhaul facility. None of the Hawk 75A’s ever got to the Chinese Air Force.

     Some production facilities and components from Loiwing were later sent to a Chinese aircraft factory established at Kunming. The Chinese produced a number of prototype aircraft with this material – certainly two and as many as nine according to some reports. Possibly some P-36 components were included in these aircraft.

     At the time they were demonstrated in China both the fixed landing gear Hawk and later the P-36 export version were competitive with, if not superior to, the Japanese fighters that were their potential opposition. In that sense the decision to acquire these fighters for China was a correct one. As this article shows, however, in the end the Curtiss Hawk 75M contributed little to the Chinese war effort and the P-36 (Hawk 75A) nothing at all.