In the mid-1930s, the world’s major air forces recognised that the rapid advances made in aerodynamics and engines in the first half of that decade meant that they needed to update their fighter fleets as a matter of urgency. This led to some of the most famous fighters in history being developed, aircraft such as the Messerschmitt Bf109, the Hawker Hurricane, the Supermarine Spitfire, and the Seversky P-35.
OK, not the P-35, but this American fighter was the contemporary of these other aircraft and was selected by the United States Army Air Corps to become their primary fighter in 1936. The fact that the P-35 will have to get its own “Forgotten Aircraft” article one day gives a good indication that it wasn’t exactly a particular good design. In fact, in 1937 it lost a follow up competition against the Curtiss P-36 Hawk and only 76 P-35s would initially enter service with the USAAC, where they would rapidly be replaced and shunted off the Philippines.
Despite this, Seversky still thought the aircraft had potential, especially with many countries at the time desperately looking for new fighters as war loomed in Europe, and so they built several one-off experimental and testbed types to improve on the P-35 and hopefully acquire more orders. And of these the AP-4 model seemed to offer the most promise.
This replaced the P-35’s semi-retracting undercarriage with one that was both fully retractable and wide-based, plus fitted a Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp engine that now had a turbo-supercharger fitted and produced 1,200hp.
This aircraft would be lost to an accident in early 1939, but the aircraft’s performance, especially at high altitude, led to the USAAC ordering thirteen aircraft for evaluation in May of that year, with the designation of YP-43.
In truth, the American government’s reasons for this seem twofold. Firstly, the USAAC had placed a huge – for the time – order in April for the P-40 Warhawk, and so it seems likely that they wanted to have a backup if that aircraft proved disappointing. Secondly, the same month Seversky was forced out of the company that bore his name, and the Seversky Aircraft Company (SAC) looked like it might go bankrupt and dissolve.
Early 1939 was no time for manufacturers in critical military industries to go the wall and it seems that the USAAC, recognising that factor, placed the order as well to stabilise the company and allow it to keep its design teams and production workforce intact.
The YP-43 differed from the AP-4 by having a razorback fuselage and the turbocharger moved to under the engine. Armament was composed of two nose mounted .50-calibre Browning heavy machine guns and two .30-calibre guns in the wings.
The intention was to place a follow-on order for eighty improved aircraft designated as the P-44, which would use a more powerful R-2180 engine producing 1,400hp.
SAC would go on to be renamed as Republic Aviation in September 1939 and a year later the first of the YP-43s would be delivered.
By which point they were considered basically obsolescent.
The outbreak of war in Europe the year before had allowed plenty of observations and lessons to be drawn on what was required in modern fighters. And while the YP-43 certainly had reasonable high-altitude performance, its lack of armour and self-sealing tanks, mediocre manoeuvrability and limited armament meant that the USAAC recognised it as not being suitable for war.
Indeed, Republic had also recognised this and in June 1940 had offered a fresh design that while having some family resemblance was to be an absolute beast compared to its little brother.
But this was a way off in the future, and the need to keep Republic in production with something, as well as the cancellation of the P-44 as pointless in the wake of the P-47 development plan, led to an order for 54 P-43 fighters, named the “Lancer”, being placed. These were essentially the same as the preproduction models and were all delivered in 1941 between May and the end of August.
Though they served with pursuit squadrons in the United States, the Lancer’s were very much recognised as being not up to European combat and no further orders were envisaged.
But the P-47, as a largely clean sheet design using a brand-new engine model, was hitting delays and so a further order for eighty more Lancers, the P-43A, was placed to once again tied Republic over. These were essentially the same as the previous aircraft but had the light wing guns swapped for .50 calibre heavies and the R-1830-49 Twin Wasp that could produce 1,200hp at 25,000 feet and provided a top speed of 349mph (562kp/h).
Even before these began to be delivered it was decided that the P-43 could be of use as a readily available fighter for the Chinese. Though not officially at war at the time, the US government had passed the Lend Lease Act in March, 1941, and with industry building up as fast as it could to meet American and British requirements for weapons, the possibility of sending aircraft to the Republic of China from an effectively untapped and available source in the shape of Republic prior to the P-47 entering production seemed logical.
So, at the end of June 1941, an order was placed for an additional 125 to be supplied to the Chinese Air Force and for use with the American Volunteer Group flying with them. These models, the P-43A-1, have some discrepancy surrounding their design, with some sources stating that the aircraft were redesigned to have all four machine guns fitted in the wing, as well as armour for the pilot and self-sealing tanks fitted.
This is disputed by other sources, and I am inclined to agree with them. While it seems likely that some armour was added, that appears to have been a rather ad hoc affair, probably carried out on an individual basis.
As for changing the armament layout and fitting self-sealing tanks, that seems extremely unlikely. I have not seen a single photograph of a P-43 that doesn’t appear to have nose mounted guns and single ones in the wings.
Additionally, the wings on the P-43 were “wet” in that they essentially made up the fuel tank with their construction. This would have complicated changing the design in manufacture considerably, especially considering that Republic’s designer were all working on getting the P-47 ready for production. Diverting efforts for a major design change on what was, effectively, a minor order that was placed practically as “busy work” seems highly unlikely.
And we know the wings on P-43s stayed “wet” because once they reached Asia, they displayed an tendency to burn. The Japanese found that compared to most American aircraft the P-43 would generally burst into flames if they scored a hit on the aircraft’s wings.
On top of this, P-43s displayed an alarming tendency to begin leaking fuel during flight from the wings and this led to several aircraft being lost while attempting to transit between British India and Chinese territory, leading to the deaths of several experienced pilots. In fact, it seems that elements of the American air command in India and China began to consider them as something of a liability, with many apparently having their engines stripped out for use in C-47 transports which were flat out flying supplies across the Himalayas.
Despite these issues, P-43s did get into action with the Chinese Air Force and with some American units by August 1942. Despite the aircraft’s obvious failings, it did have the benefit of good high-altitude performance, with the P43A-1 capable of a top speed of 356mph. which enabled interceptions of Japanese reconnaissance aircraft that were not possible with the more common P-40 Warhawk. In fact, one American pilot took a photo of Mount Everest from an altitude of 44,000ft (13,000 metres).
But despite this, in American service the aircraft was very much considered unusable for combat, and the now-United States Army Air Force redesignated them as the RP-43 to indicate they should not be considered actual fighters in October 1942.
However, they continued to be used by the CAF against the Japanese in combat until December 1943, though probably as much from a need to get anything viable into the air and replace the old aircraft types that the Chinese had been using in the first stages of the war.
But even this didn’t spell the end of the aircraft’s service. Even as they were being dismissed for fighter duties by the Americans, the P-43’s high altitude performance offered another option as fast reconnaissance aircraft.
One hundred and fifty of the aircraft located in the United States in 1942 were converted to P-43B recon aircraft, with another two rebuilt as P-43C and another six as P-43Ds., the differences being in camera layout and equipment.
These largely served as training aircraft for reconnaissance squadrons before transitioning to the Lockheed F-4s that would be their service aircraft.
But several of these aircraft did get used in theatre, including eight that were transferred to the Royal Australian Air Force in 1942.
These, the only ones to serve outside of the US and Chinese Air Forces, flew missions from the Northern Territory before being returned to the USAAF in 1943.
By 1944 it appears that the P-43s were gone from service entirely, and today none remains. In total 272 of all types were built, and though that number is extremely modest compared to some of its contemporaries, the fact so many were built at all considering the aircraft’s very definite shortcomings and that no real initial production was planned makes this number somewhat surprising.
But perhaps the P-43s greatest contribution was in being the aircraft that allowed Republic to both come into existence with the failure of Seversky and stay in operation, being that company’s first production aircraft and the beginning of a legendary dynasty.