Story and photos by Corey J. Beitler
The American Heritage Museum in Stow, Massachusetts, is a must-stop visit for any military enthusiast. The museum operated by the Collings Foundation has an incredible display of military vehicles and equipment. The vehicles and equipment are displayed in 20 exhibits chronicling pivotal military conflicts throughout history, including the Revolutionary War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the recent War on Terror. Some of the unique artifacts in the collection include a piece of steel from the Twin Towers that was salvaged after the September 11 Terrorist Attacks, a Messerschmitt Bf-109G fighter aircraft from World War II, and a Humvee light utility vehicle from the 1991 Gulf War. Throughout the year, the museum also hosts special events for visitors such as guest speakers, living history reenactments, and author book signings.
The museum also features the incredible collection of tanks and armored vehicles from Jacques M. Littlefield. This extensive collection of 85 tanks and armored vehicles is displayed in dioramas and exhibits throughout the 65,000 sq ft museum. These dioramas and exhibits are designed to engage museum visitors and help them remember America’s turbulent history and past. The museum also features an elevated walkway that allows visitors to see the artifacts on display from multiple angles. Some of the tanks and armored vehicles on display within this incredible collection, such as the M1A1 Abrams, T-34 tank, and the SCUD Missile and Launcher, are the only examples of their kind on public display in North America.
Of all these incredible pieces of history within the American Heritage Museum, one aircraft currently tucked into the back of the museum deserves special attention. The Curtiss P-40B Warhawk on display is not only a rare airworthy example of an early variant of the World War II fighter, but also rare because of its prominence in history. The aircraft on display was present during the December 7th, 1941, Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor, and is one of the few aircraft still in existence that was present on that fateful day. How this aircraft survived that devastating day and its history makes its story even more special.
The Curtiss P-40 was the third most-produced American fighter aircraft of World War II. At the start of the war, it was one of the most modern aircraft available in quantity that could be fielded by the U.S. and its Allies. Featuring an enclosed cockpit, all-metal construction, retractable landing gear, and a powerful engine, a prototype of the P-40 was one of the first American fighter aircraft to reach a speed of 300 miles per hour. The P-40, a redesign by Curtiss of its earlier P-36 Hawk fighter, first flew in 1938.
Unfortunately, the P-40 did have some noticeable shortcomings. The aircraft was overweight, and the engine lacked a two-stage supercharger. As a result, the P-40’s performance suffered at higher altitudes. Early models of the P-40 also suffered from poor ground handling characteristics and poor engine cooling. The P-40 did have some good characteristics. At low and medium altitudes, the aircraft possessed outstanding agility and turning radius. Its rugged construction allowed it to tolerate being operated in a variety of climates and survive combat damage and even mid-air collisions.
Early variants of the P-40 (B & C) models were called “Tomahawks” by the British, British Commonwealth, and Soviet air forces, and the later (D, E, K, L & N) variants were called “Kittyhawks”. The U.S. Army Air Corps adopted the name “Warhawk” for all variants of the P-40. Curtiss revised the P-40 design considerably throughout the war, improving the engine performance and armament to keep the aircraft competitive against Axis fighter aircraft. Throughout the war, the airframe of the P-40 was also changed in both shape and structure. These design changes made the P-40 cheaper and easier to build at the factory without overly compromising aircraft performance or safety. The P-40 saw service with most Allied air forces as a fighter and ground-attack aircraft throughout World War II and served in all theatres of operation. Curtiss produced the P-40 from 1939 to 1944. When the last airframe rolled off the Curtiss assembly line, more than 13,700 P-40’s had been produced.
With the potential for a war looming on the horizon, the U.S. Army Air Corps began ordering large numbers of P-40’s in the early 1940s to bolster its aircraft inventory and to replace obsolete aircraft in service. The American Heritage Museum’s P-40B was one of 131 built at the Curtiss factory in Buffalo, New York during 1940-1941 and was allocated serial number 41-13297. It was delivered by Curtiss to the U.S. Army Air Corps in March 1941 and soon after sent to Wheeler Field on Oahu in Hawaii. At Wheeler Field, the aircraft was assigned to the 19th Pursuit Squadron of the 18th Pursuit Group.
At the time, flight training was rudimentary and still being perfected. Dual-seat fighter-trainers, now common in many air forces throughout the world, were nonexistent. It wasn’t uncommon for new pilots to receive some ground instruction in the new airframes and then go out on a familiarization flight with the aircraft. As a result, accidents were very common, as the newer fighter aircraft coming into service, such as the P-40B, were much faster and more difficult to handle than the obsolete aircraft they were replacing. It wasn’t long before the museum’s P-40B was involved in an accident. In October 1941, seven months after the aircraft had been delivered, a pilot landed the aircraft wheels-up and ground-looped the P-40B, doing significant damage to the aircraft. The aircraft was placed into a hangar at Wheeler Field to undergo repairs.
On December 7th, 1941, the P-40B sat in the hangar when the Japanese attacked. Many of the American aircraft at Pearl Harbor were parked close together in rows at their airfields to guard against sabotage. Japanese fighters and bombers made quick work of these aircraft, destroying many of them. The museum’s P-40B, still undergoing repairs, couldn’t get into the fight that day. As the Japanese attacked Wheeler Field, they bombed the hangar the aircraft was in, causing the hangar to collapse around the airframe. The collapsed hangar protected the aircraft from any further damage. Once the Japanese attack ended, the P-40B was dug out of the hangar, repaired, and returned to airworthy status.
In 1942, fate would again intervene with the P-40B. On January 24 of that year, Lt. Kenneth Sparkle took the aircraft on a familiarization flight. During the flight, Lt. Sparkle got the aircraft into an unrecoverable spin. Before Lt. Sparkle could bail out of the plummeting aircraft, the P-40B crashed into a mountainside in a remote area of the island. Sadly, Lt. Markle was killed in the crash. When the recovery team reached the wreck site, given the inaccessibility of the area, they left the wreckage in place once Lt. Sparkle’s remains were removed.
The remote location of the wreckage meant that the site was quickly forgotten about. The inaccessibility of the location also meant that for years the wreck site was safe from souvenir hunters. The wreckage of the museum’s P-40B was rediscovered in 1985. After careful examination of the wreckage, it was determined the P-40B was not only salvageable but had the potential to be an airworthy example following restoration. Recovery efforts in 1985 and again in 1989 removed the wreckage from the island.
The Curtiss Wright Historical Foundation was formed in Torrance, California, in 1989 to begin the restoration of the P-40B. The name of the restoration was called “Project Tomahawk” and would turn out to be a multi-year process involving thousands of hours of work by restorers and volunteers. Additional organizations and personnel would become involved with the project as the restoration progressed.
During the restoration, parts original to the aircraft were used whenever possible, but exposure to the elements had taken its toll on the airframe components and some of the parts had been destroyed in the crash. Part of the P-40B would end up needing a total rebuild. At the time the restoration was being completed, this was the first early model P-40 being restored to an airworthy status. In some cases, parts such as the Browning machine guns and ammunition cans had to be fabricated from scratch, according to drawings. In other cases, owners of parts had to be persuaded to allow their parts to be borrowed to make copies needed for the project.
Eventually, two other P-40B’s salvaged from crash sites were used for parts for the “Project Tomahawk” restoration. One of the salvaged P-40B’s had crashed in Hawaii during 1941. The other had crashed in the Sierra Nevada Mountains on October 24, 1941, during a severe storm. Although California Aerofab in Chino, California completed most of the P-40B restoration work in-house, because of the challenging aspect of the project and to complete faster, some of the P-40B’s parts were sent to other aircraft restoration specialists around the world to complete. Precision Aerospace in Australia completed the wing, Cascade Engine Services completed the rebuild of the engine. Once these parts were completed, they were sent back and the P-40B was slowly reassembled.
The restoration team was also able to secure two ultra-rare Allison V-1710-33 engines for the project. One would be used in the airframe and the other would be used as a source of spare components. During the rebuild of the engines, it was discovered that one engine secured for the project had a unique history. As the engine was being rebuilt, it was discovered it had several design inconsistencies, parts modifications, and changes that did not match the factory blueprints and drawings for the Allison V-1710-33 engine.
Further research discovered that this engine could be traced to having been shipped to China, where it was used in a Curtiss P-40B fighter flown by a pilot with the American Volunteer Group (A.V.G.), more commonly known as the “Flying Tigers”, named John Petach, who flew combat missions against the Japanese. The engines used by the A.V.G. in their P-40B’s were custom-built at the factory, and as a result, were not assembled according to the factory blueprints and technical drawings. At some point, this engine made it back to the United States and survived. The discovery of the historical importance of this engine made it the one chosen to be installed in the restored P-40B. Not only did the airframe have historical prominence, but now the engine did as well.
After the long restoration that took nearly 25 years, the P-40B took to the skies for the first time in 2007, piloted by world-renowned warbird pilot Steve Hinton. Later that year, the airframe joined Stephen Grey’s “The Fighter Collection” as part of the Imperial War Museum in Duxford in the United Kingdom. It was flown in many airshows and special events at Duxford in the years that followed. In 2013, thanks to a generous donor, the Collings Foundation was able to purchase the P-40B and secure the clearance to return it to the United States in 2014. For the trip back to the United States, the P-40B was carefully disassembled and placed into shipping crates for the journey across the Atlantic. Unfortunately, shortly after its reassembly in the United States by American Aero Services in Florida, the P-40B suffered a landing accident on its very first test flight for the Collings Foundation. The aircraft ground-looped and suffered a gear collapse during its landing roll-out, resulting in substantial damage.
The damage required more than a year of repair work to the landing gear and the airframe. The opportunity was also taken during the repair work to repaint the aircraft with more accurate colors and markings. The P-40B still wears the scheme of the 18th Pursuit Group, the markings it wore when it was at Wheeler Field on Oahu on December 7, 1941.
Rob Collings debuted the P-40B at an airshow in the United States for the first time at the 2017 Thunder Over Michigan Airshow. Unfortunately, the P-40B had to be scratched from participating in the airshow because of issues with the cooling system. In 2020, the P-40B was placed on display in the Collings Foundation’s American Heritage Museum. The P-40B is the only artifact from Pearl Harbor in the museum’s collection. The aircraft is taken out of the museum periodically for engine runs and it is hoped that in future years the P-40B can make flying appearances at local airshows and the living history events held at the American Heritage Museum. Because of the aircraft’s rarity, it probably won’t be flown too far from the Collings Foundation’s Stow, Massachusetts headquarters.
The Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, was a dark and deadly day in U.S. history. The attack killed 2,335 American military personnel and 68 civilians. Over 1,400 more American military personnel were wounded. Six U.S. Navy ships were sunk and 13 damaged. U.S. aircraft losses were also high, with 188 destroyed and another 159 damaged. Only a few U.S. aircraft ever got off the ground that morning to face the Japanese fighters and bombers. To add insult to injury, several U.S. aircraft were shot down in the hours following the attack in friendly fire incidents.
Fortunately, the three aircraft carriers assigned to the U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet were not at Pearl Harbor at the time of the attack and escaped damage. These aircraft carriers would later prove to be critical in the victory at the 1942 Battle of Midway, the battle largely considered the turning point in the Pacific theatre. The Japanese also failed to destroy key ship repair facilities throughout Pearl Harbor that would be used to repair and return all but three of the most heavily damaged ships to service within a few years. The attack shocked and angered people throughout the nation and united public opinion behind the United States entering World War II with the Allies.
The Collings Foundation’s P-40B Warhawk is a small but important reminder of the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor. The aircraft is a rare flying survivor that was present on one of the worst days in American history. The aircraft is on floor display at the museum where people can walk up to it, read its history on the nearby placard, and take a photograph with it. If it does indeed fly in special events at the American Heritage Museum in the future, visitors to the museum will be able to hear its incredibly rare Allison V-1710-33 inline engine come to life, just as it did over 80 years ago when pilots flew it at Wheeler Field on Oahu. The Collings Foundation Curtiss P-40B Warhawk may be just another old airplane in a museum to some who see it, but to those who appreciate it and its unique story, it is a rare historical artifact that helps connect Americans to one of the most important events in U.S. history.