Australia is home to a very unique Curtiss P40 aircraft – the only flying genuine P40F Merlin engine derivative of the famous P40 Hawk series of fighters. Owned and operated by Judy Pay of Tyabb Victoria the aircraft is P-40F-1-CU “Pee Wee” Serial Number 41-14112 Nose 106, built by Curtiss in Buffalo, New York during 1941, as number 513 of the total production of 699 aircraft of the model. The aircraft was based like all P40F models on the P40E model with the shorter fuselage and a Packard V-1650 Merlin engine in place of the usual Allison V-1710-39 liquid-cooled V12 engine. The Rolls Royce power plant gave improved high altitude performance and was well liked by its pilots.
The P40 was delivered to the U. S. Army Air Corps and immediately disassembled and shipped aboard USS Nassau (CVE-16) to the New Hebrides in the South West Pacific theatre and reassembled where it was assigned to the 18th Fighter Group, 44th Fighter Squadron. The aircraft was the mount of Captain Sam Hitchcock who was a flight leader in the squadron and was also flown on occasion by Captain Elmer ‘Doc’ Wheadon. The aircraft had a fairly uneventful service life until 20 December 1942 when it was one of a section of 4 Squadron aircraft which took off from the island base of Bauerfield (an USAAAC base) at Efate in Vanuatu on a navigation & training exercise. The training exercise rapidly deteriorated into a debacle as the aircraft came into contact with a severe storm front and the decision had to be made to force land on the island of Erromango. The 4 P40s all made successful crash landings but were written off after the salvaging of all vital equipment.
Two of the aircraft were salvaged in 1989 by Australians Robert Greinert, Ian Whitney and Martin Mednis, this aircraft and P-40F “Bone Crasher” 41-14205 (along with parts from two others).
Judy Pay had been aware of the Merlin engine P40F wrecks and had thought of recovering them herself, however when they were brought back to Australia she acquired 41-14112 and set about its restoration at her Tyabb Victoria base. The other P40F “Bone Crasher” 41-14205 was later acquired by the RNZAF Museum and has been restored as a P40E aircraft with an Allison engine as operated by the RNZAF in the Pacific. Another P40E has been converted to P40F standard and flies in the UK.
The restoration work on 41-14112 proceeded well with the fuselage being rebuilt in New Zealand by Pioneer Aero Restoration who also restored the tail, engine and wings. The aircraft then returned to Australia and was completed at Tyabb in its original colors as “Pee Wee” Serial Number 41-14112 Nose 106.
Finally after a herculean effort by the team at Tyabb the P40, VH-HWK flew again on April 22, 2009 in the very capable hands of Australian Warbird pilot extraordinaire Stephen Death nearly 20 years after the commencement of the project. The huge effort required to restore such a rare aircraft had been long and hard however was finally worth the effort.
Warbirds Online has been very privileged to have seen this magnificent aircraft many times from when the wreck was first salvaged, in storage, in restoration and finally in flight and we are always amazed by the beautiful lines and sound of the Merlin Engined P40 in flight. A truly outstanding effort and one we are very privileged to see here in Australia as it tours various airshows and displays across the country.
© John Parker 2017