Vietnam veteran Chris Kirchner said that his P-40 Warhawk World War II era warbird is saying something which he wants everyone to hear. Standing next to the nearly completed reconstruction of a 1942 Curtiss Aeroplane Division pursuit fighter bomber, Kirchner said “It’s saying: Freedom isn’t free.”
Kirchner’s reconstruction is modeled on the crashed and salvaged aircraft Serial No. 42-10510. The plane with that number was flown by Capt. Ernest Hickox, who was lost on July 25, 1945, when the P-40 crashed during a rescue mission in the Aleutian Islands, Kirchner said.
One of the main engine mounting struts on Krichner’s reconstruction — which holds the 1,710-cubic-inch, 12-cylinder, 1,200 horsepower Allison engine, which will spin a three-blade 12-foot diameter prop — was salvaged from 42-10510.
He has worked for six years on the P-40, which is made up of salvaged, reproduction and new and old stock parts. Kirchner estimates the craft will be completed in about a year.
“These special fishtail-style exhaust pipes were found in New Zealand, which was a main supply depot in World War II,” Kirchner said. Due to their specialized nature, the 12 exhaust pipes can run as high as $2,000 each.
The plane is the type used by the Flying Tigers prior to American entry into WWII and by U.S. Army Air Corps pilots throughout the war. To Kirchner, the aircraft is a testimony to the sacrifice, determination and ingenuity of those who flew, serviced, ferried and built the sleek and powerful, yet beautifully simple, machines. He said that the P-40 is tribute to all veterans.
Kirchner served in the U.S. Navy from 1968 to 1974. “I was on a ‘brown water boat,’ which means I served on a river boat in Vietnam,” he said.
Kirchner had reasons to be drawn toward the P-40 aircraft. “My father, Chris ‘Bud’ Kirchner Sr., was in the 23rd Fighter Group of the Fourteenth Air Force in 1943, which was previously the American Volunteer Group and later the Flying Tigers outfit,” he said.
He has an autographed picture of Flying Tigers leader Gen. Claire Chennault, presented to his father by the general, which reads: “To Captain Kirchner with Best Wishes.” The photo is part of a wall plaque containing the Tigers in the Gorge painting, depicting a P-40 in action in China.
Kirchner and his wife, Gail, both from near Middletown, New York, have lived in Florida about nine years and at the Leeward Air Ranch in east Marion County about two years.
He earned degrees in aviation management and transportation, and served an internship with the National Transportation Safety Board as an aircraft crash investigator.
Following his military service, he pursued a career in construction and custom home building and became interested in flying and warbirds as a history buff.
Chris and Gail both are licensed pilots and she enjoys flying their North American AT-6G World War II trainer, along with a four-seat Piper and World War II trainer model BT-13, known as “the vibrator” due to its tendency to shake when the engine is “run up.”
“The Womens Airforce Service Pilots outfit were instructors, ferried the planes and towed targets for practice during the war,” Gail explained as she pointed out a drawing signed by several WASP pilots.
“These planes are a symbol of the work and training all American pilots went through. The steps were the primary trainer, for example the Stearman biplane and then the basic trainer BT-13 or single wing plane, and next the advanced trainer AT-6,” she said.
The P-40 exemplifies techniques and procedures used by the American “Arsenal for Democracy” during WWII. Equipment often was designed to “use existing parts and technology,” Chris Kirchner said as he pointed out a P-40 control handle used on farm equipment
“The plane was built in a top half and bottom half and sent down the production line,” he said. “It used basic things like a bicycle chain for trim control.”
The designers tried to protect the pilot, Kirchner said, as evidenced by armor plate on three sides of the pilot’s seat and critical engine parts, self sealing gas tanks and a parachute. Enemy planes lacked these protective features, he said.
World War II Army Air Corps veteran Carl Calvert, 89, of Ocala, remembers the P-40 as a “good plane; a rugged plane and a good dive bomber.”
Calvert entered service at age 21 and served from 1942 to 1945 at bases including New Guinea, Australia, the Philippines and Okinawa, re-arming P-40s.
“We loaded them with two, 500-pound bombs, and sometimes we would see them drop the bombs within sight of our base,” Calvert said. “And we saw dogfights overhead.”
Calvert said the planes, which often took off and landed on hastily installed steel planking runways, were important to the island campaign.
“They came back with holes in them,” said Calvert, who was within eyesight of surrender proceedings on Tokyo Bay.
Along with his rebuilding projects, Kirchner is involved in flying four-plane honorary formations with one member “pulling west to the sunset, symbolizing the missing [or lost] man.”
A card from a mother whose son was lost in Iraq and honored by one of the fly-overs, sent a heartfelt thanks to the group of fliers: “Keep Flying,” she wrote.