Short Final: Numbers Game


During the early days of World War II in the Pacific, the Curtiss P-40 served heroically well, despite its shortcomings against the Japanese Mitsubishi Zero, which was more maneuverable in a dogfight. As the story goes: After one harrowing mission, a P-40 pilot returned to base. After stowing his flight gear, he ran into a war correspondent in the bar. Seeing his wings, the correspondent asked him what model aircraft he flew. He told him it was “a P-400.” “I’ve never heard of that model,” the correspondent said, “What’s a P-400?”

“It’s a P-40 with a Zero on its tail.”

Mark Phelps
Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.


  1. The P-400 was the export version of the P-39. The P-40 and P-400 were powered by Allison engines that had virtually no altitude capability.

    The late M. F. Kirby who flew P-400s against the Japanese in Australia referred to them as worthless because they could not climb above about 22,000 feet. He later shot down five Japanese aircraft while flying P-38s.

    • Yup, Rick. The P-400 designation did actually exist. As you pointed out, single-engine Allison-powered fighters pretty much were what this pilot described them as. (The P-38’s Allisons were turbo-supercharged)

  2. Hey, good morning from northern Idaho, Rick!

    I’m just checking in to this story on AVweb for a comedic pick-me-up before getting to work down here in Sandpoint – and you added a bit aviation history as a bonus. Thanks!

  3. I recently reread “God is my copilot” by Robert Scott. My dad gave me a paperback copy to read when I was a kid and I remember vividly the section where Scott flew over Mount Everest. It was inspiring to me. On the second reading I was inspired by the incredible courage of the pilots and ground crews in the American Volunteer Group (AVG) which later became the 23rd Fighter Group commanded by Scott under the leadership of Claire Lee Chennault.

    Even though the Zero climbed faster and turned tighter than the P-40, the P-40 had heavier guns and could out dive the Zeros. The American pilots took advantage of this and used a “Dive and Zoom” tactic that helped them to achieve a kill ratio of 12 to 1 over the Japanese. Scott’s account of the 23rd’s actions in this predominately defensive action is well worth the read.

  4. Hi. Read keith Mulligan’s ” Kittyhawks and Coconuts” for the RNZAF (Kiwi) experience of the P40s in the Pacific. He relates his experiences with RNZAF 14 Squadron. P40s could out dive the Zekes…and used to good effect as a fighter-bomber as well in the island hopping advance and attacks on Rabaul and New Britain.

  5. Parallel theme: After flying with the RAAF during WWII, Keith Miller continued his cricket-playing career. During an interview, he was asked about the pressures of the game. He responded with, “Pressure? There’s no pressure in Test cricket. Real pressure is when you are flying a Mosquito with a Messerschmitt up your arse!”