Kiwi P-40C Takes Wing

By Stephan Wilkinson
7/11/2011 • Aviation History Briefing

Avspec's P-40C restoration, with functioning drop tanks, bears the markings of 2nd Lt. George Welch's Pearl Harbor defender. (Dave McDonald)
Avspec's P-40C restoration, with functioning drop tanks, bears the markings of 2nd Lt. George Welch's Pearl Harbor defender. (Dave McDonald)

Though there are numerous airworthy late P-40s, Avspecs’ restoration is only the second P-40C that is flying.

The C model of the evergreen Curtiss P-40 was a rare bird. Only 193 were built, a tiny percentage of the nearly 14,000 P-40s of all marks. Often derided as obsolete, the P-40 continued to be manufactured even while North American, Lockheed and Republic were churning out superior fighters, so the old Hawk obviously had some useful qualities. The P-40C, sometimes called “Tomahawk,” in fact had no such name; all USAAF
P-40s were known generically as Warhawks. The Tomahawk (a British dubbing) was the slightly different export equivalent of the C, of which 930 were built. That was the airplane that equipped the short-lived but iconic Flying Tigers. Many also went to the Soviet Union, handed over to Russian pilots in Alaska.

The airplane you see here, restored over 25,000 man-hours in Auckland, New Zealand, by renowned warbird and vintage specialist Avspecs and taken for its first flight in April, was recovered as a wreck from northern Russia. Though it was actually a Tomahawk IIb, it has been restored and painted as the 194th P-40C, complete with a functioning fuselage drop tank—the mark’s prime identifying feature—but thankfully free of the cliché shark’s teeth. Though there are numerous airworthy late P-40s, Avspecs’ restoration is only the second P-40C that is flying, plus one P-40B; the other C is at the Flying Heritage Collection in Everett, Wash., and the B is in Duxford, England, part of The Fighter Collection.

Notwithstanding the Kiwi restoration, the P-40 is owned by San Antonio oil-and-gas tycoon Rod Lewis, and was delivered to Texas in mid-2011 after its final proving flight in New Zealand. Lewis has shunned the high visibility of such mega-warbirders as Paul Allen and Kermit Weeks by keeping his collection private, but he currently owns—and often flies in airshows—19 warbirds that range from Bearcat-based Reno racer Rare Bear (plus three stock Bearcats) to the famous recovered Greenland P-38 Glacier Girl. He also owns the world’s only flying A-20 Havoc, an original Tuskegee Airmen AT-6 trainer and one each of the de rigueur P-39/P-40/ P-47/P-51/Corsair/Spitfire/Sea Fury gaggle. Lewis owns and flies nearly a dozen hard-working general aviation aircraft, including a Cessna Citation Sovereign bizjet, four helicopters and two utility turboprops—all of which help him drill for enough oil and gas to support his warbirds.

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