Aircraft restoration is very much a niche market. One of the newest shops to open is also geared to one of the most beloved warbirds.
Warhawks Inc., in Granite Falls, Minn., is dedicated to the restoration of Curtiss P-40 Warhawks. The company made its debut on the warbird scene at EAA AirVenture this summer with the display of a P-40 Warhawk with a distinctly unique nose. Instead of the shark mouth that appears on so many P-40s, this aircraft sports the head of a tiger done in a northern Native American artistic style that is similar to art you see in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.
“It’s done up like one of the P-40s that were used in the Aleutians,” explained Ron Fagen, the proud pilot and aircraft owner.
The other thing that sets this particular P-40 apart from many of the warbirds on the AirVenture grounds is that this one was used in combat.
“It is a K-model, one of the short fuselage early models of P-40s made,” said Fagen. “This airplane was purchased by the Russians by the Lend-Lease Act. In 1942 four Messerschmidt 109s in Russia shot it down and the pilot belly-landed it in a dry lake bed near Murmansk, Russia.
“Ken Hake from Tipton, Kansas, recovered the wreckage in 1992,” he continued. “The crash and 60 some years in the outdoors pretty much deteriorated the airframe. Ken shipped it to his shop in Tipton and with the help of two employees spent the next 15 years rebuilding the airframe.”
P-40 aficionados will note the vertical fin on the K model is larger than on other models because the powerful Allison V-1710 engine, combined with the short length of the fuselage, gave the aircraft a tendency to swerve on the ground.
“That’s what sets the early models apart,” he said.
GET ‘ER DONE
Hake never intended to finish the project, noted Erik Hokuf, the chief mechanic and craftsman who works for Fagen and was responsible for finishing the rare warbird.
“Ken wanted to do the structural work and have someone else finish it,” he said. “He started working on all the structural components of the airplane, doing all the sheet metal and aluminum work. He worked on it until August of 2004 when Ron purchased the airplane and we took it to Granite Falls.”
Hokuf, who noted that 12 years is a long time to be working on one project, calls his involvement in the restoration a wonderful opportunity. “I was in junior high when he recovered the airplane from Russia. If someone had told me then that I would be finishing it, I never would have believed them!”
The acquisition of the P-40 and the creation of Warhawks Inc. is a dream come true for Fagen.
“I’ve always been in love with warbirds since I was a kid,” he explained.
The business was created to facilitate the rebuilding of P-40s, said Fagen. He plans to buy the wrecks and fully restore them and then find buyers for the airworthy airplanes. That business philosophy is unusual, he noted, since most of the time the projects are owned by individuals who need the time and expertise of a shop to finish the restorations.
According to Hokuf, Warhawks Inc. got a boost when it picked up most of Hake’s inventory, which included the parts and tooling to restore several P-40s.
The first flight of Fagen’s P-40K was June 5, 2006. According to Hokuf, the flight was the first time the warbird had been aloft since it crashed in November 1942.
Presentation is everything when you are trying to get noticed at AirVenture.
Fagen surrounded the aircraft with signs and props, such as a box of bullets. This was not so much an aircraft display as a diorama of the warbird in its heyday.
The curious surrounded the display in the warbird area, pausing to read the informational signs and admiring the workmanship. Fagen even thought to install a strategically placed mirror on the ground so visitors could see the details under the wing.
“People like it!” said Fagen, beaming like a proud parent. “They love it! It is a great airplane. It is original just the way it rolled off the line at the factory. It is the most authentic P40 in the world.”
That’s an accurate assessment, said Hokuf, who lists the details that went into finishing the aircraft.
“The airplane has flat paint that I matched from the original color tiles that were saved. It has the original camouflage job. For the paint we used the Aleutian Tiger paint scheme that was used by the 11th Air Force. They had P-40s and P-38s. The P-40s were commanded by Jack Chennault, the son of Claire Chennault, who commanded the Flying Tigers. So all of Jack’s airplanes had the tiger design as a means of honoring his father.”
With the exception of the nose art, the airplane is exactly as it was when it was used in combat, according to Hokuf.
“The airplane has the same 50-caliber machine guns,” he said. “We have given it dummy ammo and a drop tank. The tank is kind of unique. All the hardware is as it was in 1942. All the fabric was done as it as was then. We have all the drawings and the blueprints that we used for reference so if there was ever a question on how things were done, we went to the blueprints.”
The work did not go unnoticed. The Warhawk brought home the coveted Phoenix Award from AirVenture.
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