My ride in a P-40N
by Chad Hawthorne

2 hours on a commercial jet liner, a 1 hour walk through Vegas, a 3 hour Greyhound bus ride and another 1 hour walk to the airport in 98 degree weather. Why, to get the chance to fly in the most beautiful and one of the rarest aircraft flying today. That is none other than the P-40N Warhawk. This amazing opportunity came about via the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino CA. Because of a volunteer relationship that I have built with the organization, their VP invited me to take advantage of a chance to ride in the makeshift back seat of their P-40 N on its way back from an air show in Kingman AZ to its home in Chino CA. I jumped at the chance. And while the trip out from Seattle to Kingman was an adventure in itself, I would do it all over again.

One of the stipulations that I had to agree to was the possibility that I would get to Kingman and the P-40 may not. Or perhaps the P-40 could experience some mechanical difficulties which could delay or hinder our flight back home. Keep in mind this is a 60+ year old aircraft and while Planes of Fame does a remarkable job in keeping them air worthy, things still can happen. I confidently accepted the risk of being disappointed.

Upon arrival in Kingman, I got off the bus and began my long walk toward the airport where the annual air show was being held. I was so excited that I think I even ran the first half of the 6 miles. My instructions were to locate the P-40 and make contact with the pilot who would be flying us home. I frantically ran through the air show ramp area where the aircraft were being displayed. At first I got very nervous because for some time I could not find a P-40 anywhere. I began to worry that what they had warned me about may have come true and that I may have to accept the possibility that I now needed alternative transportation back home.

Standing in front of a Hawker Sea Fury I began to give up. I decided to go up an ask the pilot of the Sea Fury who was in a lawn chair under the wing trying to get some refuge from the brutal AZ sun and ask him if he know of a P-40 on the field and where I might find the pilot. He said nothing. He looked at me for a couple of seconds then smiled and pointed behind him. Confused, I walked around the nose of the Sea Fury and there she was. Dwarfed by the size of the Sea Fury which completely blocked the P-40 from view she sat there in the sun as a man in a green flight suit was checking the oil level. As the day wore on, I hung out with the pilot, Art Vance (An amazing pilot and an even more amazing guy, who owns his own P51) and anxiously awaited our departure. But first the P-40 was to perform in the air show. When the time came Art climbed into the cockpit and began the start up procedure.

As the fly wheel began to spin I felt myself shaking in excitement. I was standing about 20 yards away with video camera in hand waiting for him to pop the clutch which engages the flywheel which then turns the prop. Then, the most beautiful sound you have ever heard. The sound of that Allison firing up. Even more amazing was the sound and smell of the exhaust as the engine roars to life from the cockpit. Sitting directly behind the exhaust pipes as soon as the engine fires you get a face full of that sweet smelling bi product of pure power.

After the P-40 performed in the show (and flew in formation with the Sea Fury) it was time to leave. The take off was the most amazing part. From my position sitting directly behind the pilot I had surprisingly good visibility. The pilots who flew her in combat I am sure appreciated that. As we centered on the runway, Art advanced the throttle. You could feel the tremendous torque from the engine pull us to the left and Art quickly countered with the proper application of right rudder. As we built speed the tail quickly came off the ground and we were barreling down the runway. I was so excited that I think I shouted YEEEHAAA. But I remember that I could not even hear my shout over the tremendous roar of the engine.

Then, we gently lifted away from the runway. It was amazing. As a private pilot myself, flying single engine Cessnas and Pipers, Art just redefined for me the definition of flying. As we lifted off the runway, Art put the air craft into a climbing right bank of almost 45 degrees. This may have been a farewell to those spectators lined up on the runway to catch a last glimpse of all the performing aircraft heading home or to their next air show.

The 1.5 hour flight in the P-40 was completely out of this world. As opposed to a commercial jet liner or small Cessna, being in this plane really is a spiritual experience. Everything you see on the History Channel about the old pilots claiming that it literally makes you feel like a part of the plane is absolutely true. I am a die hard P-40 man and while I am a fan of the Mustang and all other warbirds, if I got the opportunity again to take a choice of any warbird to fly in, keep your Mustang, I want the P-40 again!

It really was an amazing experience and if any of you ever get a chance to fly in any WWII aircraft don’t hesitate as it will change your life. Keep in mind though that every time you see one of these amazing aircraft at an airshow, there is an organization like Planes of Fame spending thousands of dollars just to get it there and to keep it in a flyable condition. I can tell you from my experience in talking with air show pilots and officers of the Planes of Fame museum, these people are not in this to turn a profit. All proceeds go directly to the maintenance of these airplanes. If not for public support there would be no more P-40’s flying today. Anyway if you would like to check out the planes of fame web site here it is: www.planesoffame.org

This was not supposed to turn out this long, but I hope you enjoy it anyway.

© Chad Hawthorne 2004