Unveiling the Story Behind the Flying Tigers’ Iconic Photograph

The Hells Angels over China. (Image via R.T.Smith)
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By Moreno Aguiari

The most famous photograph of the American Volunteer Group (AVG), commonly known as  ‘Flying Tigers’, was taken by R.T. Smith of the 3rd Squadron Hell’s Angels.. Born Feb. 23, 1918, in York, Neb., Smith–later known as “R. T.”–attended the University of Nebraska before joining the U.S. Army Air Corps. He later resigned to sign up with the American Volunteer Group, which was formed–technically, by American civilians–to fly for the Chinese government against Japanese invaders before the U.S. entry in World War II.

R.T. Smith Flying tigers pilot
Flight leader and fighter ace Robert “R.T.” Smith stands next to his P-40 fighter at Kunming, China. The “Flying Tiger” insignia was created by the Walt Disney Company.

The AVG became known as the ‘Flying Tigers’ because the noses of their P-40 Tomahawk fighter planes were painted with rows of gleaming teeth, a trademark part of the group’s glamorous image.

R.T. Smith seldom took his camera on combat missions, he explained, because “There was no place to stow it in the cramped space of a cockpit, which meant having to carry it on my lap secured only by a leather strap around my neck. Obviously the last thing a fighter pilot needs while frantically maneuvering in a combat situation is a camera flying around in the cockpit.

When asked about this photo during an interview in the mid 90s, R.T. Smith said “It was a beautiful spring day when those famous photos were taken. It was mid-morning on the 28th of May, 1942. A few months earlier I was lucky enough to buy a nearly new German Leica camera from a Missionary in Kunming China. He included some Kodachrome film which was next to impossible to find in China at that time. I was down to the last few exposures of color film by late May and was anxious to get some aerial photos of our Squadron’s planes. So while on a Combat Mission on that beautiful Spring morning with a layer of strata-cumulus just above the mountain tops at about ten thousand feet off to our right. We were headed northeast near the Salween River which marked the China-Burma border, and although the air was relatively smooth I soon learned that taking a picture of this type was no easy task. It required trying to fly my plane on a steady course by holding the control stick between my knees, twisting back to my right while holding the camera with both hands, and waiting impatiently for the guys to stop the inevitable ‘yo-yo’ing and get into proper echelon formation. There was the added requirement, most important of all, of scanning the surrounding sky every few seconds to make sure no Jap fighters were about to ambush us. The resulting exposure, as I recall, was made about f8 at a 200th of a second.

AVG Flying Tigers in Formation on May 28 1942 Photo taken by pilot R.T. Smith Copyright by R.T.Smith WM
The Hells Angels over China. (Image via R.T.Smith)

In 2015, in occasion of the Atlanta Warbird Weekend – AVG Flying Tigers 75th Anniversary, I had the opportunity to exchange emails with his son, Brad Smith, who described the photo this way: “The photograph was taken by Dad, probably from #47, on May 28, 1942 near the Salween River Gorge. The shot includes #68 flown by Arvid Olson, #46 flown by Bob Prescott, #49 flown by Tom Hayward, #24 flown by Ken Jernstedt, and #74 flown by Link Laughlin. Dad remembered Bill Reed flying #74, but Ken Jernstedt, the only pilot associated with the shot still living, said Bill Reed was not in the area at the time.

Shortly after being appointed commanding officer of the 329th Fighter Group in September 1943, he volunteered to return to the China-India-Burma Theater with the 1st Air Commando Group, flying occasional P-51 Mustang missions and commanding that group’s B-25 Mitchell squadron in support of British General Orde Wingate’s troops working out of India and moving behind Japanese lines in Burma (now Myanmar).

Robert T. Smith John Alison and Phil Cochran Hailkandi India March 1944
The photograph was taken in front of R.T. Smith’s B-25H Barbie III at Hailkandi, India. Bomber Section Commander R.T. Smith; Cocommander John Alison; and Cocommander Phil Cochran.

After the war, Smith returned to the United States, eventually settling in California. He worked as an airline pilot, a military sales representative for Lockheed and a radio and television writer for shows including “Hopalong Cassidy” and “Lum n’ Abner.” He then became an officer of the Flying Tiger Line, the airline founded by Robert Prescott, one of his fellow “Hell’s Angels”–members of the 3rd Squadron of the Flying Tigers.

Robert T. Smith flew west in 1995 at age 77.



  1. Great story and a splendid Innings by RT. Those P40’s sure were a wonderful tough Fighter for their time. They were in fact the backbone of our RAAF FIGHTER Force in WW2 We had circa 850 on charge.

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