For as long as I can remember, I’ve always enjoyed cheering for the underdog, the underappreciated, the sometimes misunderstood. Who doesn’t like a good underdog story after all? Recently I’ve been flying the IL-2: Battle of Moscow P-40E-1 after a long hiatus and it has brought some new insights on how to manage and fly this aircraft and a bit of an appreciation for both the aircraft and the tactics needed to succeed in what is most certainly an underdog of a fighter.
No illusions necessary
Curtiss-Wright’s P-40 has the dubious distinction of being one of World War II’s classic fighters while also being regarded as one that was insufficiently competitive versus the opposition. The Truman Committee, setup to investigate the National Defense Program of the United States in 1943, remarked at the focus on the P-40’s production was regrettable.
The later decision may have been necessary, but the committee regrets the earlier decisions which concentrated so large a portion of our production on a plane which, although usable, is regarded by the Russian, English, and American forces as at best a second choice.Truman Committee, pg 17
Indeed even in 1943 there were investigations into Curtiss-Wright with evidence that the company had interfered with Army and Navy inspectors on the P-40 and SB2C project as well as on engine production shipping units that weren’t up to standard and had serious problems such as fuel leaks right from the factory. As a side note, the difficulties with the modern defense industry with aircraft and systems that don’t work correctly seem to hardly be a modern phenomenon.
The P-40 never quite measured up to its nearest rivals lacking the speed and climb of the contemporary Spitfire or Bf109. However, it was available in numbers! Large quantities were procured for the North African and Russian fronts. There, it gave adequate service and frontline pilots were able to wring about as much performance as possible out of it.
There were attempts late in it’s production to improve performance. The P-40L had a Merlin engine in it, the P-40N had various improvements to lighten the aircraft, and the more radical XP-40Q had a bubble canopy, a redesigned nose and a top speed that was reportedly 422 mph. Not as good as the Mustang but closer. That one never saw service and the average speed of the P-40, remarkably, was almost entirely unchanged despite the meager attempts to better it.
So, in writing the next piece, I am under no impressions that the P-40 is a superior plane. It isn’t in all but a few categories. But you can even the score!
Fighting with the underdog
Being the best fighter pilot around while flying something at the top of its class such as the Bf109 is fine but doing an adequate job while flying one of the underdog fighters of WWII and having some fun doing it is even more satisfying.
Scoring a single kill in a P-40 is, in my opinion, often more challenging than going on a multi-plane ace-in-a-flight streak in a Bf109 or Spitfire. It nearly always requires superior positioning, spotting and frequently the use of teamwork.
In one of my recent sorties I was online on the Finnish Virtual Pilots server with a team of 3 and then 4 aircraft (nearly all P-40’s) and we ended up having an epic fight with about an equal number of Bf109’s. The furball nature of the fight involving several aircraft once changes the dynamics for both spotting and relative to the kind of advantages that fighters can use against each other. A 1v1 in a P-40 versus a Bf109 on equal footing is unlikely to turn out well. But a 4v4 changes the dynamics and it enables ambush tactics that enable you to even out the performance differences.
So while the Bf109F-2 that we were up against is an undeniably superior fighter, the fight was relatively even. We gave about as good as we got with each of us scoring a couple of kills before getting hit and either returning to base with damage or ultimately getting shot down. The exchange was nearly even.
A fun time and some flying tips
Ultimately, what I want out of a multiplayer or single player experience is entertainment or, put even more succinctly, fun. Fun for me doesn’t necessarily involve huge tallies of enemy aircraft shot down but instead an interesting and engaging experience. That, the P-40E-1 can offer.
It’s a very hands on aircraft requiring careful engine management and very strict tactics to succeed in. Although the P-40 is a handful it can be managed and flown reasonably well.
First, I learned that the cowling radiator shutter has seen some updates at some point in recent history (the last year or more) where the fighter no longer overheats and instead conforms to operational standards a bit more. The result is that you can fly with the radiator closed above 175 mph most of the time except in extreme climbs and even then you can open it just to 10-15 percent for good effect.
Second, it’s important to know your engine limits. Do not use Emergency (1-minute) full power on takeoff unless you have no other choice. If you do , then as soon as you have a positive rate of climb, start bringing the power back. In Combat you can use Combat power (5-minutes) relatively safely but use it sparingly. The rest of the time you need to be using cruise mode and that does limit your power with an already heavy aircraft but it will save you from busting up the engine.
When in doubt, run in cruise and just assume that’s your maximum power. The rest you use knowingly, deliberately, and sparingly.
I will at this point acknowledge that much has been said in the community about enhanced engine limits. I hope at some point there may be a modification made available that provides an optional enhancement as it might give the P-40 a little more of a competitive edge. Some have also hoped to see later models such as the Merlin-powered P-40F or L which probably wouldn’t have an overall performance advantage (given my reading on the subject) but would likely have a practical advantage because of more relaxed performance levels.
I didn’t set out to fly the best fighter, or score the most kills, but I do always want to have a varied experience and flying the P-40E-1 has recently given me that. While not my favourite of all time, I do love the classic lines of the P-40 and that has always kept me coming back to the fighter.
The recent .50cal enhancements seem to have suggested to a few more pilots that they should get back behind the stick of this fighter as well as the more successful trio of American fighters and I’m glad to see it back in regular action again. It’s been fun and I plan to fly it some more!