Sunday 24 March 2013

Curtiss Hawk Monoplanes for China ~ Pt 1

Continuing the China theme, the story of Chinese use of the Curtiss Hawk monoplanes is apparently well known, but scratching the surface reveals a few myths and a few mysteries to explore. China had purchased quantities of the Curtiss Hawk biplanes prior to the arrival of Clair Chennault as air adviser to Chiang Kai-shek's Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang -中國國民黨) regime. The photo above shows the Curtiss 'Hawk Special' also known as the 'China Demonstrator', NR1276, (c/n 12327), photographed at the Curtiss factory on 16th April 1937. On this aircraft the rear vision "scallops" behind the cockpit canopy were of a smaller size than the P-36 series and were not glazed. Although NR1276 is often referred to as the first H75-H it actually appears to be the pattern aircraft for the H75-M, an export version specific to China. The "second" H75-H, NR 1277 (c/n 12328) had the larger, glazed scallops of the P-36 series and the Chinese H75-M models are usually described as identical to that model. Photographs of the H75-M in Chinese service are not definitive in confirming whether the scallops were glazed and followed the pattern of NR1277 but one photograph here clearly shows an aircraft with the glazed scallops and the tail number '45'. Although the 'Demonstrator' photograph above appears to show only wing armament another Curtiss photograph of the painted machine shows both wing and cowling armament. 

After its arrival in China on the 8th June 1937 the 'Hawk Special' was purchased by Madam Chiang for Chennault as his personal aircraft for a reported $55,000. It was painted in glossy dark green with the white fuselage number '75'. In his memoir 'Way of a Fighter' (1949) Chennault implies that he flew the 'Hawk Special' during combat sorties over Nanking, Nanchang and Hankow and made some claims in it, although no specific details are given. The aircraft was not apparently armed until mid-August when Pete Brewster, "CB" Smith (Chennault's regular mechanic) and Rolfe Watson, an armament instructor, fitted it with weapons, but  Chennault confirms that it was used most often for reconnaissance sorties, stripped of weight and where its speed, in the context of the time and theatre, made it a useful asset. Chennault asserted that it was his experience of flying the 'Hawk Special' that provided him with the insights to Japanese air doctrine and tactics that he later put to good use briefing the pilots of the American Volunteer Group (AVG - The Flying Tigers). William Labussière, a French pilot in the 14th (International) Volunteer Bombardment Squadron who also flew the Hawk maintained that it was never flown in combat but reports of repaired battle damage seem to refute that. The actual armament of both the 'Hawk Special' and H75-M is uncertain, although photographs of the latter in Chinese service reveal both cowling and wing guns. The standard provision was for one .50 and one .30 synchronised in the cowling with provision for each wing to be fitted internally and optionally with a .50 Colt, or 6.5mm, or 8mm mg, or for a 20mm Oerlikon or 23mm Madsen cannon to be underslung in a gondola.

The 'Hawk Special' lasted ten months and its fuselage paintwork suffered erosion from constant polishing or the climate - or both - as shown in the film still above and photograph below. The wings and Chinese insignia might have been re-painted during this time. Malcolm Rosholt reports that the 'Hawk Special' was mainly flown by Elwyn Gibbon, an American pilot from the 14th (International) Volunteer Bombardment Squadron whom Chennault rated as "an excellent pilot. A valuable man". Chennault mentions that the Hawk was also flown by W. 'Billy' MacDonald, Peter Mow (a Soviet trained pilot) and John Wong. The aircraft was finally written off in a ground loop in May 1938 during a flight test following repairs for combat damage. 

Gibbon checking the cowling armament of the Hawk Special

The 30 H75-M (c/n 12625 to 12654) ordered in the summer of 1937 for $30,889 each, were delivered via Canton from the 6th May to 5th August 1938 and allocated to three Chinese pursuit squadrons, the 16th, 18th and 25th. According to Chennault the new aircraft had not been test flown by Curtiss prior to delivery and he reported their speed to be 20mph slower than specified. The Wright Cyclone engine fitted in the H-75M was the GR-1820-G3 rated at 875 hp on take-off and 840 hp at 8,700 ft. Curtiss engineers were sent to China to make improvements and Chennault states that it was the winter of 1938 before the fighters could be flown and the working up period was plagued by accidents. This is not borne out by Chinese records which indicate that the 25th PS was in action against Japanese bombers over Hengyang on 18th August 1938 with 7 I-15bis and 3 Hawk H75-M one of which was flown by the squadron commander Tang Pu-Sheng (湯蔔生). All three Hawks were lost with the squadron commander being shot down and killed and the other two both crash landing on return. Billy MacDonald described a difficulty in landing the Hawk that Chennault had warned him about, that if a three-point landing was attempted air caught by the flaps would be spilled by the spatted undercarriage acting as fences, "causing a wing drop and sometimes a ground loop". A wheel landing was advised as the best technique for getting down safely in the H75-M. Another problem, also experienced by Ki-27 pilots in China, was mud clogging the wheel spats and locking one or both wheels causing the aircraft to ground loop or flip over on landing.  

Hawk H-75M of 25th PS 

Chennault relates that during the working up period two of the H75-M squadrons were "crippled by flying accidents" and as a result a furious Chiang Kai-shek ordered the Hawk squadrons to Kunming to be trained under Chennault's personal supervision. Chennault recorded that on an unspecified day in January 1939 no less than six of 13 H75-Ms arriving at the field crashed on landing. On 11 January 1939 the 25th PS under the command of Liu Yi-Jun (劉依鈞) flew their five remaining H75-Ms to Chunking where they were handed over to the 18th PS. The five 25th PS pilots were then reported to have been killed when the transport aircraft flying them back from Chunking crashed accidentally and as a result the squadron was formally disbanded. Little appears to be known about the operations of the 16th PS, formed from a re-designated bomber squadron, other than that it was one of the squadrons sent to Kunming for training in January 1939 and was disbanded in August 1939. Bob Fausel mentions seeing a report that there were three Hawk 75s still in commission at Kunming in May 1939 and that two of these were used by American pilots in April 1942 to survey potential landing fields for Doolittle's Tokyo raiders.

Major Yang Yibai of 18th PS and Hawk H75-M

Hawk H75-M pilots of 18th PS

In November 1938 the 18th PS had been re-organised from the 18th Reconnaissance and Bombardment Squadron with nine H75-M aircraft and began working up at Yibin in Sichuan Province under the command of Major Yang Yibai (楊一白). The squadron photograph above suggests that the unit had 12 pilots on strength. In January 1939 the 18th PS was also moved to Kunming for air defence duties whilst continuing to train on type.  During February 1939 the squadron flew air defence missions from Kunming against Japanese bombers attempting to destroy the Siulungtam bridge. By May when they returned to Chunking their aircraft strength was reportedly so depleted that they were temporarily allocated nine Curtiss Hawk III biplanes from the 22nd PS. The provision of additional H75-M aircraft allowed the 18th PS to continue operating the type until their disbandment in January 1941 when the last surviving Hawk was transferred to the newly formed 11th PG at Chengdu. This unit, comprising the 41st, 42nd, 43rd and 44th PS operated a mixture of Soviet I-15, I-153 and I-16 fighters but are recorded as also having five H75-Ms on strength. 

Note rectangular intake on cowling - a modification?

One of the many odd and unexplained aspects of the H75-M story are the conflicting Curtiss-Wright records as to how many airframes were actually sold to China. The billing book records only 32 deliveries, including the 'Hawk Special' but a designation list compiled in 1946 notes the delivery of 112 H75-M aircraft to China. Richard Bueschel put the number of aircraft delivered at around 80 but in the 1970s records were found which revealed that "tools and materials" for the H75-M were sold to Central Aircraft Manufacturing Corporation (CAMCO) at a cost of $557,540 with another $153,132 for "spare parts". Those are extraordinary amounts and suggest perhaps that additional H75-M were being assembled in China or perhaps re-built from damaged aircraft. Another puzzling detail is the rectangular intake between the gun fairings on top of the cowling seen on some Chinese H75-M but not on all of them.

Camouflage and Markings

The 'Hawk Special' was at first painted overall in a 'glossy dark green' with a white asymmetrical fuselage number '75'. Later photographs reveal severe weathering of the fuselage paint at least and (probably) re-painted wings with (perhaps) very large Chinese insignia on the upper starboard wing and lower port wing only in US-style. The rudder stripes appear to follow the US pattern with a vertical stripe before the horizontal stripes but the colours are unknown - the Chinese stripes should have been blue. The H75-M appears to have been painted olive green on the upper surfaces only, with the under surfaces left in natural metal finish and gradually oxidising matt and greyish. One photograph purporting to be of a 25th PS machine (see above) shows the same strange rudder stripes of the 'Hawk Special' and a dark coloured fuselage number '2501' outlined in white or natural metal. The usual Chinese practice was to paint a large four-digit number in white on the fuselage, with the first two digits identifying the squadron number and the second two digits the aircraft number. A small Chinese Air Force serial number with 'P' prefix was usually painted on the fin. The application of wing roundels appears to have been inconsistent, with some roundels only painted on the wing under surfaces in Soviet style, some on both upper and lower wing surfaces and some copying the later US style of painting on one upper and one lower, opposite wing.

Modelling the Hawk Special and H75-M

The Curtiss P-36 is a popular and iconic modelling subject so it is a little surprising that there are no mainstream kits of the Cyclone powered, fixed undercarriage variants in 1/72nd scale. Some years ago RS Models released a charming resin and white metal kit of the 'Hawk Special' as the Hawk 75H but it is sadly no longer in production. 

In 2003 Special Hobby released a limited run kit of the H-75M/N/O with parts and markings for a Chinese H75-M of the 25th PS with somewhat dubious fuselage number '15' and the H75-H/P-36 type glazed scallops. A 1/32nd scale version was also released and both appear to be available. Bill Koppos provides a very fine build review of it here

In 1/48th scale Hobbycraft of Canada released a family of Curtiss P-36 and Hawk H75 types, including a kit of the Hawk 75M/N/O. Although the kits have been re-released from time to time the H-75M/N/O does not appear currently available or that easy to find. At the time of its release there was some criticism of shape and dimensions but as always such details are infinitely debatable and seldom resolved. The cowling is reported to be both under-sized and the wrong shape - oval instead of round. 

The Hobbycraft kit has alternate parts for both the glazed scallops and the earlier, smaller unglazed scallops of the 'Hawk Special', so bets can be hedged if building a H75-M. Chinese markings and fuselage code are included for '2501' shown above, together with 'Curtiss Hawk 75' logos in both black and white.

With very special thanks to Håkan Gustavsson for kindly allowing me to show the 18th PS photos from his excellent website and to Seweryn Fleischer of Wydawnictwo Militaria for kindly providing the Hawk H75-M colour profiles from # 103 in the Wydawnictwo Militaria series: 'Curtiss 75 Hawk'.

Image credits:- San Diego Air & Space Museum Archive via Internet; 18th PS photos Donald Young via Håkan Gustavsson; Albert Lee Wong; Hawk profiles courtesy of Seweryn Fleischer of Wydawnictwo Militaria © 2000; RS Models; Special Hobby: Hobbycraft


Anonymous said...

Hi Nick.

Excellent article on an interesting subject, I quite enjoyed it.

Regarding the 1/48 Hobbycraft kits, especially the Cyclone versions, the engines and cowlings are indeed too small, being oval instead of round. See the link for an corrected Hawk 75A-4 build by a French modeler.


Straggler 脱走兵 said...

Hi Vedran

Thanks very much - and for the link. The modeller has used the AJ Press plans. The question of whether the Cyclone cowling was perfectly circular or slightly oval is disputed and not helped by photos!


Ronnie Olsthoorn said...

Very interesting post, Nick! I love the Hawk 75, not in the last place as a defender of th NEIndies, but also for its huge variety in air forces and markings. Great but somewhat underexposed modelling subject .

Ronnie Olsthoorn said...

PS. Note the rudder on this photo... Could it have been in American colours? The front stripe is not the same as th camo...

Straggler 脱走兵 said...

Hi Ronnie

Yes, I do agree. Also note that '2501' appears to have the same arrangement and looks very similar to the Hawk Special rather than a H75-M. When green is painted over blue or red it does tend to produce a darker looking colour so I think it is possible that the vertical stripe had been overpainted and the horizontal rudder stripes re-painted blue. But also the colours might have been reversed when the aircraft was prepared in the USA, with a red vertical stripe.


Milo Burgh said...

Very good post. The history of us planes in China is very interesting.

Mark Smith said...

Excellent post! - one of the best yet on this blog, thanks. Was the Hawk / P-36 family the last cutting edge design Curtiss built? I think I like that spatted fellow the best of them...

Ken Glass said...

Your article is a great read, Nick.
Many thanks for the study and effort required to present the collected data here for us.

Ken Glass