Curtiss P-40E Warhawk Restoration Complete in New Zealand

Claudio Coltri's P-40 idling on the ramp outside Pioneer Aero's facility in Ardmore, New Zealand. (image via Pioneer Aero)
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It has been just over a year since our last report on restoration progress with Claudio Coltri’s combat-veteran Curtiss P-40E Warhawk (41-13570), which has been under rebuild at Pioneer Aero Ltd. in Ardmore, New Zealand since 2015. A lot has happened in the interim, with the aircraft recently receiving its Certificate of Airworthiness.

Pioneer Aero Ltd.’s chief engineer, Martin Hedley, handing Frank Parker the Warhawk’s newly-minted Certificate of Airworthiness on October 20th. (image via Pioneer Aero)

Well-known and highly experienced P-40 pilot, Frank Parker will be conducting the first flight when the opportunity presents itself. A break in New Zealand’s spring-time drizzle allowed Parker to run the P-40’s engine and taxi the fighter around the perimeter track at Ardmore to get a feeling for how the newly-restored aircraft will handle once he can take her aloft. While the aircraft is ready to go right now, they are holding off on the first flight in the hopes that renowned photographer Gavin Conroy can be on site to record the moment – present pandemic-related regulations make inter-district travel somewhat complicated. Regardless, Frank Parker is a highly-seasoned pilot and an ideal choice for performing the initial flight; indeed Parker has performed a number of P-40 first-flights for Pioneer, including for the ex-Vintage Wings of Canada Kittyhawk Mk.IV (A29-414) now owned by our publisher, Tim Savage. Parker, of course, is perhaps more famous for operating his former Royal Australian Air Force Kittyhawk Mk.IV (A29-448) at air shows with a set of functional .50 cal machine guns with which he can fire blank cartridges to stunning effect!

Frank Parker taxiing Pioneer Aero’s latest P-40 restoration around the perimeter track a few days ago in Ardmore, New Zealand. (image via Pioneer Aero)

For a historical recap, some readers may recall that Claudio Coltri’s P-40E (41-13570) served with the Soviet military during WWII under Lend-Lease. It first flew in late 1941, with the U.S. Army Air Forces formally accepting her on January 23rd, 1942. She was soon on her way to the Soviet Union though, arriving in Russia, most likely at the port of Murmansk, during the spring of 1942. From here the P-40 moved to an airfield at Murmashi, just south of Murmansk, where she became a part of the Soviet 14th Army with the locally based 20 GvIAP (20th Guards Fighter Aviation Regiment) whose duties were to cover the Kola Peninsula and Murmansk. In the early hours of June 1st, 1942, Jr. Lt. A. V. Pshenev Kittyhawk was flying this Kittyhawk alongside P-39s and P-40s from the 19 GvIAP to escort Tupolev SB bombers on a mission to attack a German-held airfield at Petsamo. They encountered heavy opposition from the Luftwaffe, tangling with Messerschmitt Bf 109s of II/JG5 near Pja Ozero just west of Murmansk. During the melee, Pshenev’s P-40 received hits to its engine, which rapidly began to overheat. The pilot decided to ditch the aircraft in Lake Kod Ozero, rather than risk the uncertainty of putting her down in the obstacle-strewn tundra nearby. Pshenev survived the heavy impact as his P-40 down struck the lake surface (still semi-frozen in June!), and made it safely to shore, likely imagining that his now-sinking P-40, was gone forever.

A shot of the P-40 during the airlift from the lakeside recovery site. Her tail feathers, control surfaces, and armament had already been removed from the airframe prior to the heli-lift from a Kamov Ki-25. (photo credit unknown)

Amazingly, on August 31, 1997 a recovery team raised the P-40 from the lake, with the bedraggled though largely intact airframe initially going to a British collector. The project passed between a number of different owners and restoration shops over the intervening decades, but has been with Pioneer Aero since 2015. Once the aircraft flies again in the coming weeks, then successfully completes its required test plan, Pioneer’s technicians will disassemble her for shipment to Europe. Based upon earlier statements, the P-40’s first port of call will be in Germany, where the fighter will likely have to fulfill certain requirements for European certification. After that hurdle, the Warhawk will then be able to make its way to Claudio Coltri’s hangar in Italy, where the aircraft will likely be the first of its type based in the nation since the end of WWII!

Claudio Coltri’s P-40 idling on the ramp outside Pioneer Aero’s facility in Ardmore, New Zealand. (image via Pioneer Aero)

Once Claudio Coltri’s P-40 is finished, the team at Pioneer Aero will be able to focus on three other P-40s presently in their shop, including a sister-ship to Coltri’s example which apparently served with the same unit in the Soviet Union. The latter airframe is presently destined for a syndicate based in the Netherlands. The Military Aviation Museum’s Vought OS2U-3 Kingfisher (A48-2/BuNo.5985) is also at Pioneer, as is that museum’s Douglas SBD-5 Dauntless project which arrived earlier this year… so this world-class warbird restoration shop has plenty to be working on at present!


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