Early on in the European war, Great Britain had two excellent fighter aircraft in service... the Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire. In capable hands, both were quite the match for their enemy counterparts but, as it was still early in the game, neither was available in great enough numbers to satisfy the needs of a Royal Air Force at war on multiple fronts. So the Brits turned to the U.S.A. for help, acquiring a number of American-built types for use by the RAF. Among the pursuit types chosen were the Bell P-39 and the Curtiss P-40. Of these two, the Brits found the P-40 to be far more desirable and were looking to order more than the Curtiss production lines could handle at the time. So a search was started for another firm that could manufacture the P-40 under license specifically for Great Britain. North American Aviation, which had been building their NA-16 'Harvard' trainer for the Brits, was approached with said proposition...
We'd like to imagine that the conversation went something like this:
NAA: "Oh hey, the Brits are calling. Maybe they wanna buy more trainers. Heck, maybe we can get 'em to buy B-25s, too."
Brits: "Hey dudes, can you build P-40s for us?"
Brits: "Well, can you?"
NAA: "You in the market for a medium bomber?"
Brits: "No. Well, maybe later, chaps. Right now we have a problem. Curtiss had to open a second factory just to keep up, so we want someone else to build more P-40s for us. Is that you?
NAA: "Well, we could do that, yeah... if you really want... but..."
NAA: "We can do better."
Brits: "Pray tell."
NAA: "We can make a better fighter than the P-40. Real quick-like."
Brits: "How quick is quick?"
NAA: "How quick you want it?"
Brits: "120 days."
NAA: "Geez... no pressure or anything."
Brits: "Can you do it or no?"
NAA: "Yeah, yeah... sure."
Okay, so maybe it didn't go exactly like that, but you get the gist.
Anyhoo, North American designed and built the airplane, known as the NA-73X, in 102 days... albeit without an engine. The NA-73X was to be powered by an Allison V-1710... the same basic engine used by the P-38, P-39, and P-40. As aircraft engines were 'government-supplied equipment' and the NA-73X was not a government project and classified as a 'private venture', production of the three pursuit types mentioned took priority and delivery of an Allison for the new airplane didn't take place for another month.
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In early October of 1940 the engine, a non-supercharged 1100HP V-1710-F3R, was finally delivered, with the first flight taking place on the 26th with veteran test pilot Vance Breese behind the stick. North American had not only delivered the prototype ahead of schedule... during this flight the NA-73X proved to be 25MPH faster than the latest model of the P-40, providing the first bit of evidence that the company was also going to deliver on its promise of producing something better than the P-40.
North American photo via Larry Davis (from: The P-51 Mustang in World War II Color by Ethell)
Disaster struck on November 20th, 1940 during the fifth test flight. NAA Chief Test Pilot Paul Balfour, who was flying the NA-73X for the first time, made an oopsie, forgetting to switch fuel tanks. The engine conked out and, about twelve minutes after takeoff from Mines Field, California, the ship came to rest on its back in a farmer's field. Balfour was undoubtedly shaken, but otherwise unhurt.
Though the NA-73X was out of action for several months, the program was not significantly delayed because the incident was caused by pilot error and not due to any fault in the aircraft itself.
More to come.
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