P-40 Kittyhawk in WW II

The P-40 Curtiss Kittyhawk

The P-40 Kittyhawk – goes well, downhill.

p-40The aircraft type flown by Nicky Barr in RAAF 3 Squadron had a long and colourful history that commenced with its original contract. Worth $12.9 million in 1939, it was the largest American aircraft manufacturing order since 1918. Competitors cried foul, citing better aircraft and bigger production facilities, all to no avail.

This Curtiss Model 87A, was known variously as the P-40, Hawk-75/81, Warhawk, Tomahawk and Kittyhawk. Others called it the Kittybomber, Gosshawk and even Mohawk. In the RAAF it was the A-29.

Cost $55,000 (US)

The P-40 had an average selling price of only $55,000 (US) and served throughout WW II in every major theatre. Curtiss exported the P-40 in large numbers to 28 nations. It fought notably in the Western Desert, New Guinea, Russia and with the “Flying Tigers” American Volunteer Group in China and Burma.

Minor production modifications and export orders resulted in at least ten version suffixes and more than four nicknames. It was designed as a land-based fighter but employed extensively as a fighter-bomber. Some say there was no P-40A. Others claim the P-40A was either an early version destined for France or a photo-reconnaissance version shipped mainly to Russia. The P-40J version was proposed but never built. A P-40H version seems never to have been either proposed or built. All this was compounded by the very large number of P-40s built between 1939 and 1944 (Angellucci p. 226 says 13,753; Jackson p 99 and the Curtiss Wright website say 13,738). Unfortunately, there are less than perfect records detailing exactly how many of what version were despatched and received where. For instance, it is fairly clear that about 2430 P-40s were built for the Soviet Union but maybe only 2097 arrived (Jackson p. 99).

Allison V12 engine

Curtiss’s Don Berlin developed this P-40 fighter from the mid-1930s vintage Curtiss P-36 Hawk. He simply replaced the Hawk’s radial 1200 hp Pratt and Whitney R-1830-17 Twin Wasp engine with an inline Allison V-1710-33 Vee 12. The new engine produced much the same power, but the P-40 was slightly faster because it had a reduced frontal area.

One perennial problem was that the Allison engine was never quite powerful enough for the heavy P-40 airframe. Curtiss claims this was because the engine had a poor supercharger, which severely restricted its performance, particularly at high altitude.

The late-1930s US practice was to employ an exhaust-driven turbo-supercharger, but these devices required tungsten, a metal that was in short supply. Although other manufacturers in the UK and Germany developed highly successful gear-driven centrifugal superchargers, the Allison version never quite matched their performance. On the other hand, when a turbo-supercharger was fitted to the Allison-engined P-38 Lightning it enabled that heavy fighter to perform brilliantly at high altitude.

The Curtiss-Wright website admits the Allison engine could be tricky:The engine could be a chore to start. The pilot primed the engine using a hand pump on the instrument panel, then depressed a floor pedal with his heel to energize an electric motor, spinning up the inertial starter’s flywheel. After thirty seconds the same pedal, pushed forward, coupled the flywheel to the engine. This procedure rotated the big Allison through one or two turns. If everything was just right, the engine started. Too little or too much prime and the engine would stop; too much prime might start an exhaust manifold fire as well. At any rate the procedure would have to be repeated until the engine started. With the engine running, takeoff had to be expeditious or the cooling system would soon boil over, cancelling the flight.

(Ed. note: the Hurricane and Spitfire also had coolant boiling problems. Pilots learned to cope with these idiosyncrasies.)

The first 140 P-40s, designated Hawk 81-A1 by the manufacturer, were earmarked for the French Armee de l’Air but were diverted to the RAF in September 1940 following France’s capitulation. Called the Tomahawk I by the RAF, these aircraft had French instrumentation, cockpit labelling and even “French-fashion” throttles that operated in a reverse manner. They retained the two 0.5-inch machine guns in the nose, but these were supplemented by four wing-mounted 0.303-inch Browning machine guns in place of the 7.5 mm FN-Brownings originally specified by the French.

The P-40 “Mack truck” could absorb an amazing amount of damage.

Lacking armour protection and self-sealing tanks, the RAF reserved these early Tomahawks mainly for training roles in the UK. Tomahawk IIs (P-40B, C and D), with better armour and other self protection, were active in the Middle East from October 1941 onward.

Curtiss say they optimised the P-40 for low and medium levels. This led to claims that it was marginally better than the Hurricane and even contemporary German Me 109s at low level. As a fighter it could never match the Spitfire at any altitude or the Me109 above 14,000 feet.

Indeed, one German ace in North Africa, Hans-Joachim Marseille (in a Bf109F-4/Trop), claimed no less than 15 P-40s (and two Spitfires) shot down in three sorties on one busy day, 1 September 1941 (The Luftwaffe p. 125).

The Kittyhawk was no match for this Bf109F-4/Trop flown by a capable pilot.

The P-40N of 1943 was the final Kittyhawk version to be constructed in large numbers (Angelucci p 226 says the total was 5219; others claim 5520). This version had a 1360 hp Allison V1710-81 engine and incorporated a number of weight-saving and other modifications. All the later P-40Ns had six 0.5-inch wing-mounted guns, three bomb racks and an optional 52-gallon external centreline fuel tank.


Other Commonwealth nations to fly the P-40 included Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. Allison engines powered most P-40s, but a Packard-built 1300 hp Rolls Royce Merlin engine was installed in some machines, most of which seem to have been exported either to Russia or Britain. The Packard-Merlin engine was in short supply because most of that production line was earmarked for the highly successful private venture North American P-51 Mustang. The USN had better fighters, like the Grumman F6F Hellcat and the Vought F4U Corsair, so the P-40 was never fitted with an arrestor hook for carrier work. However, it was not unusual for USAAC P-40s to be ferried to an operational area and flown ashore from an aircraft carrier.

The ability of the Tomahawk/Kittyhawk to absorb an incredible amount of punishment and repeated high G forces became almost legendary, but its carburettor air filter in the desert and its electrical system in the wet tropics presented some problems. Australia used the P-40 as its chief light ground attack aircraft in the Western Desert with Numbers 3 and 450 RAAF Squadrons operating the P-40E (Kittyhawk II A29-1 to A29-163) alongside RAF and South African Air Force P-40s.

RAAF additional purchases

The RAAF acquired another 838 P-40M and P-40N Kittyhawks for the Pacific Theatre, but it was chiefly the P-40E fighter-bombers in RAAF 75 and 76 Squadrons that, for the first time in history, contributed to defeating a 2000-strong Japanese invasion in August-September 1942 at Milne Bay. Flying in atrocious conditions that included low ceilings, heavy rain, mountainous terrain and boggy airfields under direct enemy fire, the rugged RAAF P-40Es performed brilliantly. Sometimes their pilots opened fire on Japanese targets before fully retracting their wheels after takeoff.

RAAF 75 Squadron Kittyhawk pilots B. Watson (left) C. Norman, R. Ridell, B. Hall and Nat Gould return from a Milne Bay sortie.

The P-40 had its limitations as a fighter in the Pacific, particularly against the Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero. LCDR Kofukuda, Flight Commander of the Japanese 6th Air Corps at Guadalcanal, accurately recorded at the time that the manoeuvrability of the American P-40 was markedly inferior to the Zero:

While the Tomahawk (sic) possessed the same maximum speed as the (Zero), it lacked the rate of climb of our fighter and could not hope to match it in close combat. The Tomahawk pilots therefore took advantage of their superior diving speed, and almost invariably resorted to ‘shoot and retreat’ tactics. Thus, they usually refused combat unless they possessed the advantage of altitude, which enabled them to dive into the (Zero) formations with blazing guns and race away at a diving speed beyond that possible with a (Zero). (Okumiya and Horikoshi pp 181-82).

Bruce Brown, an ex-75 Squadron pilot, whose beautifully restored P-40 “Polly” sits in the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, agrees:

Well, it was not as manoeuvrable as a Zero or any of the Japanese aircraft. It was not as manoeuvrable as a Spitfire either. It was a much heavier aircraft than a Spitfire (and) a Zero. It was really slightly underpowered in my opinion for its weight! But its one attribute was being so heavy and being so strongly constructed that provided you had height and, say, as an example, 15,000 feet and enemy Zeros got onto your tail, if you pushed everything onto one corner as we used to say, rudder and control column, and headed straight for the deck, you would get away from them because being heavier than they were and going down hill, you’d pick up speed much quicker and consequently you could get away. So, the other attribute was its firepower. It was a beautiful firepower both from the point of view of combat “aerial combat” and also ground support work where you were operating against the enemy with the army (www.ww2australia.gov.au).

Another seven RAAF squadrons, including 120 Squadron, an RAAF unit recruited from Dutch pilots, flew the P-40. RAAF Kittyhawks were employed right to the last day of the war, in the Borneo campaign.

Nat Gould

Naval Officers Club member Nat Gould flew both RAF Hurricanes in Russia and RAAF Kittyhawks in Milne Bay. After his first Kittyhawk flight, he wrote, “Don’t like them: too heavy, no climb, no manoeuvrability.” He changed his mind after Milne Bay when he found this “bulldozer with wings” took and delivered more punishment than even his rugged Hurricane. “One Kittyhawk returned to Milne Bay with a hole just forward of the tail big enough to put your head through. That would have destroyed a Hurricane,” Nat said.

Milne Bay
RAAF Kittyhawks at Milne Bay (William Dargie painting, 1969).

His log book records Milne Bay sorties ranging from 2¼ hours to 10 minutes. He might fly standing CAP patrols up to 28,000 feet, Anti-shipping Strikes or Army Close Support. Typically, his Kittyhawk carried two 500 lb bombs on Anti-shipping and some Army Support sorties.

The Coastwatchers were the “radar” for 75 and 76 Squadrons. Alerted early enough, the Kittyhawks clawed for a height advantage over the Zeros, Val (Aichi D3A) dive bombers and twin-engined Bettys (Mitsubishi GM4) that routinely raided Milne Bay.

Learning from the failure of the Spitfires over Darwin, they typically avoided dogfighting with Zeros, but on 22 August there was “a dogfight between 22 Kittyhawks and seven Zeros all over the bloody place above the airfield,” Nat recalls. RAAF Log p. 29 says two Zeros were destroyed and three others probably destroyed in this action, with two each Kittyhawks lost from both 75 and 76 Squadrons.

On 25 August, the day before the Japanese landed at Milne Bay, Nat’s 75 Squadron attacked a convoy of two transports escorted by two cruisers and other warships. The cruisers made life hard by firing salvoes deliberately short. Attacking aircraft not only had to contend with torrential rain and low cloud but also the geysers thrown up by the shells. They failed to stop the transports, but Nat and another pilot sank one of the escorting flak ships.

type 95 ha-go
Japanese Type 95 Ha-Go light tank.

Two Japanese Type 95 Ha-Go light tanks landed in support of the 2000 Japanese Marines who invaded Milne Bay. RAAF Kittyhawks isolated another 300+ marines by destroying their barges on Goodenough Island.

Nat agrees that it was essential to learn the “downhill” evasion tactic when sparring with Zeros. He eventually learned an interesting modification, to put the Kittyhawk into a screaming dive and take his hands and feet off the controls. “The aircraft would roll one way and yaw the other, making it a very difficult target.”

Electrics and the Tropics

As may be expected, the mainly electrical-driven ancillary equipment did not take lightly to the humid tropical climate. “It was a great aircraft but one problem was that all the ancillaries, like aileron trim, were electric and in the wet tropics this all-electric machine could produce surprises,” Nat recalled. “Bluey Truscott’s guns fired once when he turned on his nav lights.”

After the dirt, filth, mud, malaria and dysentery of Milne Bay, it is perhaps little wonder that Nat opted to finish the war with the RN, and then join the RAN.

The P-40Q model Kittyhawk had a bigger engine, a four-bladed propeller and a tear-drop canopy. It was never put into production.

The P-40 was a unique aircraft. It could never match the F6F Hellcat, Spitfire, Me 109 or Zero, especially above 15,000 feet as a fighter, but it was rugged, honest and it performed brilliantly as a fighter-bomber. It operated, sometimes with difficulty, in temperate climes, the tropics, the jungle, the desert and in Arctic conditions. Given an altitude advantage, it could take on any contemporary bomber or fighter. Like all aircraft, it had its idiosyncrasies, but these were mastered and readily forgiven by most of the pilots who flew it in war.


Angelucci, E. Rand McNally encyclopedia of military aircraft. Crescent Books: New York. 1990.
Bowers, P.M. Curtiss aircraft. Naval Institute Press: Annapolis. 1979.
Guttman, R. Hawk with shark’s teeth. Aviation History Magazine. Nov. 2000.
Jackson R. The encyclopedia of military aircraft. Paragon Books: Bath. 2002.
Okumiya, M. and J. Horikoshi. Zero: The story of the Japanese Navy Air Force. Cassell and Company: London. 1957.
RAAF Log. Australian War Memorial: Canberra. 1943.
The Luftwaffe. Time-Life Books: Alexandria 1982.


Bonne, F. http://www.xs4all.nl/~fbonne/warbirds/ww2htmls/curtp40.html.
http://www.ww2australia.gov. au/asfaras/polly.html.


Udvar Hazy Museum

National Air and Space, Dulles

udvar2Out near Dulles Airport, Virginia, about 40 minutes by car from Washington, DC, is an important new Smithsonian aerospace facility, the huge Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center (left).

A shuttle bus ($5 to $7 per person) runs between the National Air and Space Museum in Washington and the Udvar-Hazy.

One of its more interesting exhibits is the specially modified B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay, perhaps the world’s most famous aircraft (and most infamous for some). Enola Gay, named after pilot Col. Paul W. Tibbets Jr’s mother, was the aircraft that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. Three days later, another atomic bomb was dropped by Maj. Charles W. Sweeney from the B-29 Bockscar on Nagasaki.

The Japanese surrendered on 14 August 1945, ending a long and bloody war that had cost hundreds of thousands of lives and untold suffering. It may be strongly argued that it had the potential to cost many hundreds of thousands more, Japanese and American, if the slated invasion of the Japanese home islands had ever been executed.

Enola GayBockscar USAF Museum
Enola Gay at the Udvar-Hazy (left). Bockscar (right) rests in the USAF Museum, Wright Patterson AFB.

The US government donated Enola Gay to the Smithsonian in July 1949 but it was by far the largest exhibit in the museum’s inventory at the time and when they came to display it, no room could be found in the downtown Washington building. There was also considerable controversy whether the aircraft should ever be exhibited or preserved at all. The historic B-29 languished in the open at Air Force bases in Texas and Maryland until 1960 when museum staff, noting considerable airframe deterioration, disassembled the aircraft for preservation and storage in the Smithsonian’s nearby Garber Center in Suitland, Maryland.

Massive restoration task

The hard restoration work on the B-29 did not begin until December 1984 when it was found to require 300,000 hours of highly skilled effort. The task evolved into the largest single restoration project ever undertaken by the Smithsonian. Museum staff, volunteers and interns removed decades of corrosion then inhibited the bare metal and polished the aluminium skin to its original brilliance.

B-29 Specifications and early historyThe Boeing B-29 Superfortress had an interesting gestation period, all under the pressures and immediacy of war. The (then) US Army Air Corps issued a specification in February 1940 for a bomber that could carry a 909 kg bombload at a speed of 348 knots a distance of 4,350 nautical miles. (Interestingly, RAN Skyhawks, with buddy-tanker aerial refuelling, could do better than that.)

Boeing, Consolidated, Douglas and Lockheed all responded to the bid, but Boeing won the contract to produce two prototypes and a second contract followed in April 1941 for 250 aircraft. In contrast to contemporary designs, including the British Lancaster that also carried bigger bombloads further and faster, the B-29 crew were housed in three pressurised compartments. However, the B-29 also carried advanced navigation and bomb-aiming radar, together with a fire control system for coupled .5 inch machine guns and 20 mm cannon carried for self defence.

In April 1944, the first B-29 operational squadron landed in India. The results of its first high altitude missions were mediocre but by December 1944, using lower altitude night delivery tactics from the newly-captured Marianas, the B-29s’ incendiary bombs soon destroyed much of Japan’s industrial might.

Late in 1944, a batch of B-29s, codenamed “Silverplate”, were modified to carry either of the two planned operational atomic bombs, “Fat Boy” or “Little Man”. They discarded most of the armour and armament, installed optimised propellers and modified the bomb bay doors. B-29-45-MO, serial number 44-86292, delivered by the Glenn L Martin Aircraft Company on 15 June 1944, was one of these, becoming “Enola Gay”.

NASM exhibited parts of the aircraft, including the forward fuselage, two engines and vertical stabiliser, between 1995 and 1998 in its main Washington display hall. This exhibition attracted no less than four million visitors but it sparked off a heated, highly polarised and ongoing debate. One group claims the Enola Gay glorifies nuclear war and should never be displayed. They said the shameful aircraft should be either left to rot or placed alongside the equally politically insensitive B-29 Bockscar in a remote Air Force Museum. Others insist that, nuclear politics notwithstanding, this aircraft is an important piece of history. It must be preserved at all costs, they assert. They register horror at the museum’s attempts at compromise by watering down text that accompanies the Enola Gay display.

An F4-U Corsair in full deck landing mode greets visitors on arrival.

The Udvar-Hazy Center is handy to Dulles Airport and passengers passing through that airport might consider putting aside at least half a day to examine its contents. The building is a large hangar-like structure, 300 yards (274 meters) long and the equivalent of 10 stories high. In addition to Enola Gay, it houses a host of other important and invaluable aircraft, like a British Hawker Hurricane, a German Focke-Wolfe FW 190A-8, a Japanese submarine-borne Aichi Seiran and a rare American Lockheed P-38J Lightning. A total of 200 aircraft, some 80 per cent of NASM’s collection, are destined for the Center, and 80 had been installed when the facility opened last December.

Aiichi M6A-1German giuded bombs
Exhibits from WW II include the very rare Japanese Aichi M6A-1 Seiran, a submarine-borne bomber (left),
and an interesting selection of German anti-shipping and anti-aircraft missiles (right).

Also on display at the Udvar-Hazy are aircraft such as a French Concorde and even an F-35, well before the latter aircraft even entered squadron service. In a specially dedicated area is the Space Shuttle Enterprise.

Boeing Factory Tour

Boeing aircraft factory and museum

Psst! Wanna see the biggest American airliners being constructed in the biggest shed in the world? Go North, young man, from San Francisco to Seattle, the traditional home of the Boeing Aircraft Company.

Boeing web site

Visitor information is on http://www.futureofflight.org/visitUs/planVisit.html#tourInfo. Boeing charges US$10 for a booked tour or US$5 on a “space available” basis for one of the six regular tours each day. The Boeing factory welcomes about 140,000 visitors a year so it is wise to prebook for the one-hour guided factory tour before leaving Australia. There is a minimum height consideration, 127 cm (four feet two inches) and a flight of stairs to negotiate. There are also Seattle-based commercial groups that run combined three and a half-hour hotel-to-hotel transport and factory tours for US$40 or so.

A brand new-looking Qantas Boeing 747 on the Seattle flight line.

 Drive or fly?

One option for most Australian visitors is to fly the 600 nautical miles directly from San Francisco to Seattle, but that means missing the breathtaking redwood giants on the way up and maybe beautiful Crater Lake on the way back. Instead, pick a snow-free season and consider hiring a car, setting off from San Francisco early one morning and finding the 101 North. The American Automobile Association (AAA, affiliated with NRMA) says it takes 16-odd hours to travel by road between the two cities, so it’s probably best to break the journey with an overnight stop somewhere. Once on the 101, put the pedal to the metal, set the cruise control to 70 and lock in 89 decimal 3 on the radio (or bring your own CDs).

Then, all you have to do is to weave through the ever-present lines of recreation vehicles (RVs) and feed, water and refuel regularly. In no time at all you will be turning off towards the US-1, say from Cloverdale, along Highway 128 past Boonville, through very winding roads and uniquely beautiful giant redwoods.

Note: In this area, when the warning signs say 10 mph is recommended for a curve, they mean it. An extra five mph over that speed is very likely to put a car off the road and either up a tree or down a cliff. Anyone other than Superman would agree that a car with power steering and automatic clutch is highly advisable. Finally, allow only an average 20 mph to cruise through redwood territory on the 128 and the northeast section of the US-1 beyond Rockport.

sugarbread house
There are some fascinating old homes on the North-West Pacific Coast, like this one in Eureka.

Habitation is pretty sparse after leaving the 101, but there are a number of towns with simple accommodation on the US-1 coast road. Think of spending the rest of the afternoon and overnight maybe somewhere between Fort Bragg and Rockport. Consider a Valley of the Giants side trip through one of the forests.

Look forward to another early start and an even tougher drive along US-1 as it cuts across country through even more redwoods to get back on 101 North. Once on the big multilane 101, it’s cruise control time again and all systems go for Eureka and Crescent City. Cut right there on the US-199 for Grants Pass and the even bigger I-5 North. You will soon be travelling through interesting cities like Portland that will tempt some DDG sailors to stay awhile. In good weather you will see the snow-covered Mount St Helens volcano and other mountain grandeur to the east.

The big Boeing airliner factory lies about 30 minutes north of Seattle, just west of the I-5 near Everett. From the I-5, take Exit 189 to State Highway 526 West and look for prominent Boeing Tour Center signs in little over three miles.

Highly organised

Boeing visits are highly organised. There is an introductory 12-minute film and a bus ride to and from the huge factory, a walk through a factory gallery and a final flight line bus tour. You will learn that Bill Boeing, a Seattle timberman, and Conrad Westerfield, a USN officer, formed the Pacific Aero Products Company in 1916. That partnership, of a serving USN officer and a local civilian, grew into the Boeing Aircraft Company of today.

The big Everett factory “shed” covers 40 hectares (98 acres) under the one roof and is claimed to be the largest by volume in the world. It is 35 metres (114 feet) tall. There are 26 overhead cranes that travel on 50 kilometres (31 miles) of track. The 747 cranes can lift 34 tons but those serving the 777 line can lift 40 tons. Work on the factory commenced in 1966 and the first 747 started building a year later.

Typically, there are four or five wide-bodied 747, 767 or 777 airliners on each production assembly line, with huge component assemblies shipped in from all over the world, by rail, road and air. A 747 might take nine months to assemble. Often, a brand new gleaming Qantas 747-400, destined for Australia, will be in the number one flight line spot.

Boeing Museum of Flight

While in the Seattle area, it probably does no harm to consider a visit to the excellent Boeing Museum of Flight, about six miles south of Seattle, again on the I-5. Take Exit 158 West to the first traffic light, then turn right on to East Marginal Way. Look for the museum on the right after about a half a mile. Alternatively, take the Metro bus 174 that travels between downtown Seattle and Sea-Tac Airport. Its route passes the museum.

Blackbird, F-18Main Hall
The museum has SR-3 Blackbird (left) and F-18 cockpit simulators inviting public participation. There are also
famous aircraft such as a Spitfire, Corsair, Sabre and Mig-21 on display (right photo).

The museum is open from 1000 until 1700 each day except Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day and admission is US$9.50 with discounts for seniors and children. It stays open until 2100 every first Thursday of the month. Wheelchairs are available for the disabled and lifts serve all floors. There is a museum shop and restaurant on the premises.

The Museum of Flight traces its roots back to a volunteer group called the Pacific Northwest Aviation Historical Foundation. This was formed to recover and restore a unique 1929 Boeing 80A-1 airliner, found in an Alaskan landfill. That project started in 1964 and took 16 years. That aircraft is now a centrepiece in the museum’s Great Gallery. The “Museum of Flight”, as such, opened in rented space in the Seattle Centre in 1968, but found a permanent home in 1983, incorporating the “Red Barn”, the original Boeing factory.

This building, now on the National Register of Historic Places as the oldest aircraft manufacturing plant in the country, was moved a couple of miles up river from its original site to create a home for the museum in a corner of the Boeing Field/King County International Airport.

A very rare Caproni Ca20, clearly in “original condition”.

In the Museum’s Great Gallery and other extensions to the Red Barn, there are more than 50 aircraft, many of them Boeing bombers or transports, but also distinguished fighters such as a Supermarine Spitfire Mk IX, a Goodyear Super Corsair F2G-1, a Douglas Skyhawk A-4F and a MiG-21. A very rare and delicate Caproni Ca20, arguably the world’s first purpose-built fighter, dating from 1914, stands proudly in the WW I Gallery on the second floor. By contrast, visitors of all ages climb in, out and all over a pair of F-18 Hornet and SR-71 Blackbird cockpit simulators on the floor below.

Modern simulators

There are also three sets of flying simulators open to the general public. One rare twin-seat model has 360-degree pitch and roll freedom. In the outer space Pete Conrad Gallery, three more simulators encourage visitors to try their hands docking a fuel-limited spacecraft on the Hubble Telescope.

Inside the museum is a control tower display that encourages visitors to listen to actual air traffic control conversations. Separate booths broadcast activity at the museum’s busy home aerodrome and in a number of cities around the USA. A jargon decrypter is at hand for those not familiar with the verbal aerial shorthand and visitors are welcome to initiate and respond to simulated radio traffic.

The general public may elect to take no-charge docent-led tours throughout the day. The museum also houses an extensive aeronautical library and archival holdings, available by appointment. It has a comprehensive on-site and outreach educational program. There are also a large number of the museum’s aircraft and spacecraft either on display or undergoing restoration at a number of other sites, one as far away as Mesa, Arizona.

Outside the museum are a number of aircraft, including an F-18 (left) and an A-6 (right).

Outside the museum’s main building is another series of aircraft, ranging from the first presidential jet, Eisenhower’s 1959 Boeing VC-137B “Air Force One”, to a dummy-bomb-laden Grumman A-6 Intruder and rare types such as a piston-engined Boeing B-29 Superfortress and a Boeing WB-47E Stratojet.

Pike Place Market

No Seattle visit would be complete, of course, without a stroll through Pike Place Market and sampling the delicious waterfront restaurant salmon. There is also the Space Needle to climb, the monorail to travel on and dozens of other attractions for those not hooked on aircraft history.

Contrary to scuttlebutt, it does not rain all the time in Seattle. In mid-September 2002, during a 10-day holiday period, the weather was sunny and there was no significant daytime rain at all.

Crater Lake on return trip?

Options for the return journey to San Francisco include a straight run back on the I-5 or a slight diversion east to explore some of the wonderful National Parks, especially Crater Lake. If timing’s around early September, consider a visit to the annual Tailhook Reunion in Reno. Crater Lake is on the way from Seattle to Reno and then it’s only a half day’s easy drive from Reno to San Francisco. On the other hand, some Australian visitors might consider reversing the route, to do a Tailhook Reunion in Reno and visit nearby Lake Tahoe first, then drive to Crater Lake and Seattle.

Crater LakeThe Lodge
Crater Lake (left) is worth a visit. The Lodge (right) is redolent with atmo$phere.

There are many ways to get to Crater Lake by road and depending on the season there might be overnight bookings available in expensive places such as Crater Lake Lodge, or in more reasonably priced cabins at nearby Mazama Village. In any event, book accommodation before leaving Australia and plan to visit during a snow-free period, between early July and late September, to permit circumnavigation of the lake by car along Rim Drive. Take a camera. It is almost impossible to take a bad photograph of Crater Lake. The deep blue lake is especially beautiful on clear days around dawn and sunset.

Crater Lake was formed by the collapse of a volcanic caldera about 7700 years ago, leaving a deep basin more than six kilometres wide that gradually filled with water. No stream runs into or out of the lake, but snow and rain seepage and evaporation balance to form one of the world’s purest and deepest bodies of fresh water. The lake surface is about 1882 metres (6173 feet) above sea level. Its maximum depth is 593 metres (1843 feet); claimed to be the seventh deepest in the world. Around the lake are sheer grey cliffs that rise 240 to 600 metres (800 to 2000 feet) above the lake’s surface.

A boat takes passengers on a 1 hour 45 minutes tour of the lake, but that involves clambering down a steep 243 metres (800 feet) cliff via a zig-zag track to get to the boat. Going down is not so bad. It takes about 30 or 40 minutes. Climbing back is daunting. Even the youngest and fittest take more than an hour at that high altitude.

Visitor information centres and gift shops in the Crater Lake area are well-stocked with everything ranging from soft toys and postcards to substantial books about the lake, its myths and origins. The Lodge runs an excellent restaurant (it’s expensive and bookings are strongly suggested) but there are other options nearby such as a cafeteria and take-away food in Rim Village.

Yellowstone Park?

Locals enthuse about volcanic features such as “lava runs” some tens of kilometres from the lake, but only those very few with a dedicated interest in shallow caves should contemplate such a visit. On the other hand, there are plenty of side visits possible from Reno itself. These include Tailhook-sponsored visits to NAS Fallon and Lake Tahoe and private car drives to places such as Incline Village and historic Carson City. Braver souls might even gird up for another 700-odd miles journey east to take in famous Yellowstone Park.

The F-35 … and beyond

The F-35…and beyond

James Fallows, in an excellent article in the Atlantic Monthly (see Web page http://www. theatlantic.com.issues/2002/06/fallows.htm) described the political and commercial dogfights between lead companies Boeing and Lockheed Martin for contracts to build 6000-odd Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) aircraft, worth probably US$200 billion over 25 years. The Lockheed Martin team version (Lockheed Martin graphics below), was the F-35. It will be produced in three models: F-35A (Air Force), F-35B (STOVL, Marines and RN) and F-35C (Carrier version).


The last manned fighter?

It was a victory with profound implications, not only for both aircraft manufacturing companies but perhaps for the future of the fighter aircraft as we know it. Fallows warns that this decision might well sound the death knell for all future manned fighter aircraft designs, in the USA as well as everywhere else in the world.

Boeing and its merged subsidiary, McDonnell Douglas, have scrapped work on their JSF version, the X-32, shelving expensive plans such as building a big new modern factory for JSF production and redeploying hundreds of JSF employees. Their attention is turning towards an even more revolutionary new family of unmanned aircraft designs, including the X-45 fighter aircraft. The Phantom Works within the Boeing group claims to lead the world in unmanned vehicles capable of performing as fighters, but then again the Skunk Works run by Lockheed Martin is not backward in this area.

Back in 1995, US$30 million was awarded to each of four American companies to design an “affordable” tactical strike fighter that would satisfy the requirements of the USAF, USN and USMC yet have 80 per cent commonality between the three variants. The same family of aircraft would be expected to be attractive to overseas buyers, including the RAF, RN and a number of other smaller potential purchasers, such as the RAAF. Inevitable high research and development costs, the bureaucrats reasoned, might be better absorbed by larger production runs.

The $30 million limit was imposed to stop big cashed-up firms such as Boeing pouring unlimited funds into the project. Less wealthy firms could not afford this profligacy and in the past those extra funds had been recouped through inflated prices for the final aircraft or other military equipment produced by the same company.

Joint concept problems

However, the “joint” concept has problems. As Fallows asserts:

The modern history of joint aircraft for the U.S. military is dominated by one outright disaster — the notorious TFX project (F-111) of the early 1960s, which led to an expensive fighter that neither the Navy nor the Air Force wanted to use — and one unsatisfying success. This was the F-4 Phantom — conceived and built as a Navy airplane, which civilian officials then obliged the Air Force to buy as well.

It might also be noted that the Australian Government and the RAAF embraced the F-111 as a bomber replacement. Nowadays it is the only service in the world still flying that type.

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F-111 from RAAF Number 2 Squadron (left) and an RAAF F-18C (RAAF photos).

Massive joint projects attract massive political influence. The USN’s F-18 Hornet was another “joint” project. It is probably something other than coincidence that nearly every State in the USA contributes some component or other to the aircraft’s final assembly. The F-18 replaced the long-serving A-6 Intruder as a bomber, even though its bomb-carrying capacity and range were inferior to the Intruder. The F-18 was also touted as an F-14 Tomcat replacement, even though it lacked that fighter’s performance on any measure that counts in the air.

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The RAAF’s first FA-18F Super Hornet makes its first flight 10 July 2009. Some 400 of this model have been delivered to the USN. Delivery of 24 of this model to RAAF Amberley, as a replacement for the F-111, is expected to start in 2010.

The projected JSF performs no better than the USAF’s F-22 Raptor, or even many Russian and European designs now flying. Lockheed Martin claims that the X-35 is better than the USAF’s F-16 Fighting Falcon, but that’s not much of a claim. Even the Raptor’s future is finite. The American Congress in late July 2009 voted to shut down the F-22 production line after 187 models had been built. Efforts to extend production and build an alternative engine by voting more money were opposed by President Obama and Defence Secretary Gates.

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Boeing-McDonnell Douglas F-22 Raptor. (Boeing photo)

It might also be noted that “joint” sounds nice and warm and fuzzy, especially for the bureaucrats who see more prestige heading one large project rather than three individual smaller ones, but the final outcome might not be the best for the people who have to wield the weapons. CAPT Terry Pierce, USN, says in a recent article, “Jointness is killing naval innovation,” (Pierce 2001). He shows how lots of new funding depends on a project’s ability to support documents such as “Joint Vision 2010” and “Joint Vision 2020”. He claims innovative USN and USMC leaders who generate brilliant but potentially “joint-disruptive” plans tend to be sidelined. He also describes a number of joint military failures and brilliant single-service strategies that support his argument.

Overseas input

Another political strategy and JSF-related initiative aims to have overseas countries commit to the aircraft by contributing money and resources to the design and manufacturing phases. Britain and Australia, together with Canada, Holland, Denmark, Italy, Turkey and Norway were all seen as likely contributors. Of course, this encourages sales of the aircraft to those countries and reduces the likelihood of them designing and building competing designs.

Target costs for a run of 6000 units in 1994 ranged from US$28 million per aircraft for the USAF version to US$38 million for the Marines’ Short Take Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) type. Each USAF F-22 Raptor, by contrast, might well cost US$100 million once its reduced production run, from a first-contracted 750 to 300, is taken into account.

Australian investment

The then Australian Minister for Defence, Senator Robert Hill, announced 27 June 2001 that Australia would invest $300 million over a ten year period to “become part of the (F-35) project”. He forecast that the F-35 would replace both the RAAF’s F-18 and F-111, but that a final decision to fund the full replacement project might not be made until 2006 for delivery of possibly 100 Australian X-35 – type aircraft from 2012 onwards. This decision has been overtaken by events in that another ministerial announcement disclosed the ordering of 24 F/A-18F Block II Super Hornets to be based at Amberley as F-111 replacements. The original price tag for these aircraft, $2.36 billion, expanded rapidly to $6.6 billion once ancillaries and support equipment were included. Similar price blow outs and even longer delays may be confidently expected with the Australian F-35A project.

In the same 2001 press conference Air Marshall Houston, Chief of the Air Force, said that interoperability “has to be a very, very important factor for us” If this is true, then this could be important for the RAN. “Interoperability” opens up possibilities for beefing up the RAN’s Fleet Defence and Strike roles, by RAN or RAAF F-35Bs operating from a USMC-like landing ship platform, or even a new RAN aircraft carrier. Then again, the RAAF might not be keen to explore this kind of “interoperability”.

RAAF website

The RAAF’s website suggests that “The JSF is the most likely aircraft to satisfy Australia’s needs under Defence’s $12 billion-plus Air 6000 Project to replace its current fleets of F/A-18 Hornet and F-111 aircraft from 2012.”

The USAF and RAAF would like a nimble and sleek fast fighter-bomber with all the modern anti-aircraft defensive and offensive weapons to maintain air superiority. The USN wants a similar aircraft, but built more ruggedly with corrosion-resistant properties and beefed up for catapult and deck-landing operations. The USN looks back fondly at the now-defunct old “Grumman Ironworks” that produced so many of these machines, like the world-beating A-6 Intruder and F-14 Tomcat.

The USMC wants the same kind of offensive load-carrying capability and performance in the air, but with a STOVL ability to allow the aircraft to operate from small remote landing pads and to follow the Marines into battle.

This F-35B STOVL version is slated for the USMC and RN (Lockheed Martin photo).

Back in 1995, when there were four companies competing for the JSF prize, McDonnell Douglas looked at installing a separate lift engine to handle STOVL. This idea was never successful and by the late 1990s one of the chief considerations was whether the Lockheed Martin lift-fan configuration could compete with Boeing’s vectored thrust.

The Boeing USMC variant used a vectored thrust layout, in much the same way the AV-8 Harrier handles take-offs and landings. However, Lockheed Martin rationalised that a 30,000 pound machine required more than 30,000 pounds of thrust to accomplish this and any downwards-facing jet exhaust of this calibre so close to the ground would burn grass, lift asphalt and blowtorch carrier decks.

Revolutionary lift fan

Lockheed Martin opted for a revolutionary mechanically-driven lift fan. Unfortunately, the first few months of tests with this design were characterised by exploding gearboxes, broken drive shafts and massive oil leaks. However, they persevered and after a management change produced a surprisingly efficient unit.

One important civilian overseeing all this competition was Darleen Druyun, a Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force. At the time she was in her mid-fifties and she set up computer networks from her Pentagon office to track and cost proposed design changes (Fallows 2002). By 1999 the competition had been narrowed to two companies, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, and each received more than a billion US dollars to build two flying demonstration models.

“No more funds”

Both companies, not unexpectedly, asked for funding for cost overruns, in the order of US$150 to US$200 million. “We sat down with them and said we have no more money to bring to the table, ‘kay? It’s yours to fix,” Druyun is reported to have responded.

Despite well-predicted attempts by the services to add one or more newly-invented gadgets, only one signifcant change was accepted beyond the “If-you-want-this-you-must-give-up-something-of-equal-cost” deal. That was a software upgrade that would add maybe 10 per cent to the aircraft’s cost.

The final selection process involved more than 200 civilian and military people evaluating more than 500 aspects of each company’s program.

Is “joint” the best way?

In another article, LCol Arthur Tomassetti, a USMC officer and test pilot, is enthusiastic about his flights in all three versions of the Lockheed Martin X-35. He acknowledges that compared with the carrier version, the USMC STOVL will have a range of only 450 versus 600 nautical miles. It will also carry less ordnance and will have to burn off more fuel or jettison more ordnance to land vertically. However, “Carrier aircraft are limited to carriers, but STOVL aircraft can operate from these ships as well as from amphibious ships,” he asserts (Tomassetti 2002). This greater flexibility, together with the ability to operate from forward landing strips in support of marines ashore is more than worth the ordnance-carrying and landing weight penalties, he says.

Boeing is exploring the 1000 kg bomb-capable unmanned X-45A (above) and a carrier version (Boeing graphics), the X-46 (below).


The way of the future?

The parameters limiting the way ahead become a little clearer. It is unlikely that the X-35 and its production derivative, the F-35 Lightning II, will match the modern F-22 Raptor, the old F-14 Tomcat or half a dozen other machines now flying, but it should be better than the present widely-touted American-built “international fighter”, the F-16 Fighting Falcon, and even some new European consortium-led designs.

Particularly attractive, from an RAN point of view, is the fact that there is one F-35 version with a STOVL capability. Whether the RAAF would ever support the purchase of such an aeroplane for the RAN or Army is another argument.

Then again, perhaps another option is to look well ahead, such as to the cheaper unmanned aircraft family advocated by Boeing. This, together with the way modern conflict is shaping and strong civilian preferences for “jointness”, has the potential to sound the death knell for Air Forces, including the RAAF, as a separate independent service.


Fallows, J. Uncle Sam buys an airplane. The Atlantic Monthly, 289/6, 2002.
Pierce, T.C. Jointness is killing naval innovation. USNI Proceedings, 127/10, 2001, pp. 68-71.
Tomassetti, A. The Leatherneck JSF is just right. USNI Proceedings, 128/9, 2002, pp. 32-33.