Custodian and enthusiastic pilot Peter Teichman paints the picture of acquiring, operating and restoring Hangar 11’s Curtiss P-40, now with a new owner in the USA
Peter Teichman opens our story: “Let’s talk about the reasons I wanted to buy a P-40. My ambition was to own what I considered to be the four most important allied fighters of WWII. Obviously it was a no-brainer with the Spitfire and Hurricane for the RAF pairing, but where the USA was concerned it had to be first the P-51 Mustang and secondly the P-40 because it was produced in such big numbers and served in so many theatres of war.”
Peter has owned and operated a range of GA types and vintage aircraft for many years, and keeps his Hangar 11 Collection at North Weald. The fleet currently includes a Beech A36 Bonanza, Mk XI Spitfire, P-51 Mustang and MK IIB Hurricane, and he has another Mk IX Spitfire being rebuilt. He described what it is like to display his Mk XI Spitfire in Pilot, April 2016.
“If you look at the key historical events such as Pearl Harbor, there were only P-40s in that theatre in the early 1940s. Also, when speaking to legends such as Ray Hanna, who operated and flew the P-40, they all said it was a ‘sweet aeroplane’ and an ‘absolute pleasure to fly’. I had noted that in the Breitling Fighters (a quartet of warbirds that flew on the UK airshow scene led by Ray Hanna), Ray would always lead the team in the P-40, his aircraft of choice. Bearing in mind he also had a Mustang, Spitfire and Corsair at his disposal, that told me a great deal.
“In 2004/5 when I was looking to buy a P-40 there were very few around, but there was a very lovely example owned by The Fighter Collection (Stephen Grey) at Duxford. It had been in the UK since the mid-1980s and was one of TFC’s first serious warbirds. It was summer 2005 when things really crystallised for me. I displayed my Spitfire at the Isle of Wight airshow and Stephen brought in the P-40. As soon as it landed at Sandown I was captivated. I thought, ‘Yep, that’s something that I’d really like to own.’
“As these things go, when you think about buying an aeroplane, we started chatting. The seller always goes into a scenario of ‘oh no, I couldn’t possibly sell that…’ but the reality was that he would sell at the right price.
“I flew over to Duxford in August 2005 in my then beloved Beech Staggerwing with Darren Harbar (who was sworn to secrecy at the time), then jumped in the back of the P-40 and Stephen took me for a whiz round the block. It was quite interesting as Stephen rolled the aeroplane?eye watering, actually! The roll rate was so much quicker than the Spitfire, Mustang and any of the other fighters in fact.
“A fantastic roll rate closer to an Extra than a warbird?marvellous ailerons. Negotiations continued and in December 2005 I had done a deal where I traded in my Staggerwing as part-payment. By late December their chief pilot had flown the P-40 to my hangar at North Weald and I had flown the Staggerwing the other way?and that’s how the deal was done.
“I was pretty excited to solo her. Obviously I had a lot of experience in the Mustang and Spitfire but I’d never flown a P-40. As always with these things, you read the pilot’s notes, and you suck up as much information as you can. I spoke to pilots like Lee Proudfoot and Stu Goldspink?who’d flown the aeroplane extensively?to get as much information as I could. Clearly, like all aircraft, there are a few potential ‘gotchas’.
“For a start, the undercarriage system is pretty unique in the way it operates. You have a lever that retracts and deploys the gear but you have to also turn on a motor which actually lifts it up and down, by way of a small trigger on the control stick. You could end up with an embarrassing situation when you have selected the gear up or down but not energised the hydraulic pump, and thus the undercarriage doesn’t move.
“The view out of the P-40 is not that great, especially on the ground?probably the worst of any of the fighters I’ve flown. You get to see absolutely nothing unless you fly an arcing approach when landing, and you certainly need to taxi in a weaving pattern.
“The Alison V1710 / V12 engine is a different engine to those I was used to; all my other fighters were powered by Rolls-Royce or Packard produced Merlins, rather than the American powerplant in the P-40. The Allison is a very fine engine but it’s not quite as powerful as the Merlin. I understand?and I’m no expert?that it’s got half the moving parts and is therefore a more ‘agricultural’ engine, but it’s a good old thumper that just runs forever.
“The Allison has a different start-up procedure, with an inertial starter motor that you energise first. You basically get the starter rotating before it engages, and then operate a clutch which then pulls the prop round with less effort. Whatever?she always started first blade and sounded fabulous.
“I soloed her in January 2006 and I just remember my first reaction being ‘Wow!’ It is a beautifully harmonised aeroplane in terms of the controls. I said before the roll rate is just fabulous and, like all American fighters, it tends to be heavy in pitch but lighter in roll?the British fighters are the inverse.
“In the P-40, when you’re going into a loop while displaying the aeroplane it’s a heavy old bus in terms of pulling and pushing, but in roll it’s simply beautiful.
“If you compare it to a Spitfire it’s got a much roomier cockpit. I recall being fascinated by the electric aileron trim?such a luxury?whereas the Spitfire has no aileron trim at all and you have to physically bend the actual aileron trailing edges (there are no tabs) to achieve balance. It’s a comfortable aeroplane with everything built on a big scale?the proverbial brick outhouse, if you will.
“The gear on the P-40 looks like it’s been designed for a B-17?it’s just so strong. And in many ways a total contrast to a Spitfire or indeed Hurricane, which look brittle in comparison. It takes quite a long time for the gear to go up and down due to the way the wheels turn and wrap backwards into the wings, which is interesting and takes some getting used to. You have to look out to the wings at the little indicators (soldiers) that pop up to confirm the gear has gone up or down.
“It has manual controls for many things, such as the coolant door which is a hefty handle?a bit like a parking brake lever. You have to be careful how you handle it, as P-40s do tend to get reasonably hot and I have been known to open the radiator doors?which resemble radial engine gills?during a display to reduce coolant temperature.
“Operationally the aircraft has a good range and mine had tanks in the gun bays, so we could do four hours if your bladder would allow?plus it had a drop tank which gave it another hour. When we went to the Czech Republic I didn’t take the drop tank, but I still got terrific range with just the one stop en route.
“Like all the fighters of that era, the gauges are not the most accurate, so it’s not like my A36 Bonanza where I’ve got instant information about how much fuel I’m burning, my range and a wealth of other data. With these old aeroplanes, half the time the gauges don’t work or are pretty inefficient, so you work off the watch most of the time.
“You know, for example, that the wing tank gives you 58 minutes flying and at that point you are poised with your hand on the fuel tank selector. You’ll be looking for the warning light to indicate a drop in fuel pressure, and you then start to get a rumble from the engine telling you you’ve got about five seconds to change tanks.
“It will pick up readily once the new tank has been selected but that’s how you maximise your range when flying long distances. It’s not like a modern aeroplane; you have to be aware of how much fuel you have and how long each tank lasts.
“Operating a warbird is very different to operating a GA aircraft. I’m a Beechcraft lover. As well as the Bonanza I previously had a Baron for a long time. They’re great machines and, generally speaking, if you fly modern aeroplanes carefully they will go between their fifty-hour or six-monthly checks and annuals, just needing oil and fuel to be put in them and a general poke around under the bonnet before each flight. Unless you’re unlucky, the chances are that you’ll turn up and go flying.
“With a warbird it’s a totally different scenario. There’s constant supervision of the aeroplane; little things always need attention by a specialist?everything is specialised and cannot be done by Joe Bloggs at the local flying club. Every part you require, you generally need to get from the other side of the world. It’s a really challenging environment where everything is very expensive.
“For instance, if you were to have a mag drop, the magnetos are wartime units and there are only two specialist places you can send them to have them fixed. Then tyres are around £800 each, because small batches are made once in a while and the cost rises as stocks of those production runs decrease, and of course the weak pound does not help either.
“With WWII fighters you need to be very industrious and have a good network of people you can engage with. Interestingly, on the Spitfire and the Mustang, there’s definitely a better availability of spares, but when you come to something as rare as the P-40 it’s a lot more difficult. Take the prop for example: it’s a one-off Curtiss unit with an electric motor that’s as rare as hen’s teeth.
“Most of these parts need to go back to the United States when they become unserviceable and there are few spares in the UK. There are more across America and in Australia, but quite often you have to have things made. It’s nothing at all like a GA aircraft; these aeroplanes are much more complicated and require specialist tools. It is a challenge financially and emotionally to operate these warbirds all the time, as we fly the aircraft all year round. We have our own hangar with specialist staff who have so much experience, and you can’t simply recruit these people off the street.
“With my P-40 I did some terrific stuff, many amazing trips and memories, including taking part in the George Lucas film Red Tails. We took the aeroplane and crew over to the Czech Republic where we spent a couple of weeks on set, which was amazing. Two P-40 aircraft took part in the flying scenes but in the finished film there were a lot more ? Mr Lucas has a massive team of CGI experts!
“For that reason, my aircraft was given what was intended to be a temporary CGI olive drab paint job, which allowed the film producers to mix the actual flying scenes in with CGI scenes. I actually kept the scheme on the P-40 until she was stripped for repainting in 2013, although as it was a water-based paint, at times it was a bit worrying in British weather. We flew quite a bit on the set which was really exciting, and it was interesting to see how a movie is made.
“I’ve taken the P-40 on all sorts of international trips over the years including southern Germany, Holland, Ireland, France and Belgium. She never really let me down as the aircraft was a terrific aeroplane with a reliable engine.
“Talking of the Alison V1710 engine, the aircraft was discovered pretty much as a ‘barn find’ in the late ’70s in Oregon, USA by a chap called Tommy Camp. From what he has said (he’s very much still alive and kicking) he did a minimal bit of work on the aeroplane and it was flown from where it was discovered to Troutdale airport in Oregon.
“At Troutdale, Tommy said, just one panel was replaced on the aeroplane and everything else was original. It’s thus a very original aeroplane in terms of the airframe but Tommy had also acquired, via the US Army, a stock of correctly inhibited brand new engines, with new props. With such a resource available, they fitted a new engine and prop to the aeroplane.
“By the time I bought the P-40, that engine had been in her for the best part of thirty years, and it operated right the way through to 2011 and never gave us a problem. The oil filter was always clean and it was always as good as gold. The reduction gear (which is another thing that you don’t think about) is a complex piece of engineering on the front of the engine, that reduces engine speed to an efficient prop speed, and that did need overhauling.
“We sent it back to California as nobody in the UK could service it. Feedback following inspection was that it was ‘a bit gungey inside and if the rest of the engine is like that, then maybe you should consider changing the whole engine’. So, with that warning in mind, we undertook a borescope inspection (it had only done 430 hours, which was certainly nowhere near its useful life) and, based upon what we discovered, we decided to change it.
“With such a decision made, you’re then involved in waiting for work to be done. The contractor in the USA finds a core and builds up the new engine (I kept the old one, as I didn’t want to lose that, with its originality) which was finally delivered, at the back end of 2013, with four hours’ bench test running, so fully bedded in. We fitted this completely new engine in early 2014 and, up to the day I sold it, it had only done about forty hours.
“Whilst the engine was being renovated, we took the opportunity to completely restore the area forward of the firewall – back to stock condition and complete with all decals and every detail as it left the factory. When our P-40 came to the UK from the USA in 1985, the Americans had fitted a host of modern equipment and wiring and one of the first things I did was to have that all stripped out.
“In the cockpit, it was completely original, apart from the top part of the dash that had been replaced at some point and contained some modern gauges that I hated. Having a passion for originality I was pretty exercised about that, and I actually found a period top panel at a museum in New South Wales, Australia. I acquired the part and it’s now fitted in the P-40, once again restoring its originality. Anything that is now in the P-40 is the way it was during its wartime service.
“Over the life of my ownership (as with all my aeroplanes) the condition that the P-40 came to us was very different to the condition in which it left us. We are the guardians of history and I believe that we have beautifully restored and brought the aircraft back to stock factory condition during the twelve years that she resided at the Hangar 11 Collection.
“Having spent a few seasons in the ‘temporary’ Red Tails colours, I decided we would put the aircraft into a new scheme in 2013. Yet another complication of owning a warbird is that you need to ensure you paint it in a scheme that is historically accurate and get that approved by the CAA, to allow you not to carry a G registration.
“Once again, a warbird is not the same as a GA aircraft, where you apply paint stripper that washes off easily with no fear of damage. We completely stripped the aeroplane to bare metal as it hadn’t been stripped since the early ’80s, so there were five coats of paint to remove, which took my team about six months, working in small sections.
“When it was ready, I flew the bare metal P-40 to Biggin Hill where a specialist company applied the new base coat to the aircraft and then the camouflage, under our watchful eye. She emerged in February 2014 wearing the markings of an 80th Fighter Group aircraft based at Nagaghuli in India. The Lulu Belle artwork represented an aircraft flown by Lt Philip Adair from the 89th Fighter Squadron.
Time to move on
“All good things come to an end. I really enjoyed owning her and did some great trips in the P-40. If money were no object and I had the time, then of course I would have kept her. She was a beautiful aeroplane and incredibly original, but I’m getting older and one’s priorities clearly change.
“You don’t want to be spending every other weekend during the display season in some dull budget hotel (it’s not all glamour in the airshow world!) and the time has come to cut down on aircraft, airshows and time away from the family.
“My wife Karen has always been very supportive, and without her I could not have enjoyed this experience. It was a big decision when it came to selling the aeroplane, but it had to be made. When it comes to selling a warbird, you don’t just place a classified advert in a magazine: you have to go to one of the two or three specialist dealers around the world, who know these types of aeroplane and have the clientele who are interested in buying.
I went to Platinum Fighters who have offices in California and Australia. At the time I advertised her we had the whole Brexit drama, and we had the US presidential election?the timing is always wrong with these things. We had a lot of interest but I had a certain type of buyer in mind who would look after the aircraft.
“Interestingly, in a bit of karma, the eventual buyer was based in Troutdale, Oregon, which is exactly the place she was first restored all those years ago ? so she was heading home.
“How did we get her to the new owner, you may ask? Well, if you were a bit of a nutter, you might get in and fly her across the Atlantic, but that’s not me! Instead, I flew the aircraft to Sywell on 20 June 2017, which was a deeply emotional flight, being her last with me at the controls. At Sywell I handed her over to Richard Grace and his Air Leasing team for them to export her to the USA.
“The aircraft was dismantled at Sywell, put into a container, and shipped to Oregon. The engine stayed on but the prop came off, and the wings detached from the fuselage as a one-piece unit that could be stowed alongside in the forty foot container. The new owner was then able to unpack her and have her assembled for flight relatively easily.
“I hope this article illustrates some of the highs and lows of owning and operating a warbird. It is a very, very special and emotional experience to fly these aircraft. There’s a deep mystique about them; there’s something very special about flying and operating them and I’m very privileged.
“I’ve had more than my fair share of wonderful experiences, with over a couple of thousand hours during my seventeen display seasons, but I’m cutting down now. I still enjoy the big shows, but post-Shoreham it’s a very different world and, sadly, I feel that five years from now the number of airshows will be greatly diminished.
“When they finally nail the lid on my box, I can say that I did something very special, because owning and operating these warbirds is something very special that very few people are able to experience.
“Finally, I thank my wife Karen and my whole family for their continued support of the Hangar 11 Collection.”
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