3rd Squadron Hell's Angels, Flying Tigers over China, photographed in 1942 by AVG pilot Robert T. Smith.

3rd Squadron Hell’s Angels, Flying Tigers over China, photographed in 1942 by AVG pilot Robert T. Smith.

The Flying Tigers are flying in close formation. Every pilot in that picture is looking at the airplane next to him and trying to maintain his position by maintaining the same view of his neighbor.

The pilot in front looking at the camera plane is doing the same thing. Planes were much slower and simpler back then. This kind of formation today would be the stuff of stunt fighters.

Flying that close was usually done in bad weather so they could maintain visual contact with the plane in front of them and so forth to the flight lead.

The Flying Tigers were a group of American fighter pilots that flew for China in the early part of 1942. Led by a controversial American, Colonel Claire Chennault, they were actually called the “American Volunteer Group” (AVG) and achieved good success in their aerial battles against the Japanese. They were a relatively small group, and never had more than 100 Curtis Warhawk P-40’s (decorated with the famous red shark mouth) available.

“Colonel” Claire Lee Chennault had been in China since the mid-thirties; he called himself “Colonel”, though his highest rank had been Major. An outspoken advocate of “pursuit” (as fighter planes were called then), in an Army Air Force dominated by strategic bomber theorists, he alienated many of his superiors.

But in China, equipped with P-40’s, he developed the basic fighter tactics that American pilots would use throughout the war. The Japanese planes used over China were much more maneuverable than his Warhawks, whose advantages were: speed in a dive, superior firepower, and better ability to absorb battle damage.

Chennault worked out and documented the appropriate tactics that capitalized on the relative strengths of the American fighters: intercept, make a diving pass, avoid dogfighting, and dive away when in trouble. This remained the fundamental US fighter doctrine throughout the Pacific War.

The planes are Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, single-engined, single-seat, all-metal fighter and ground-attack aircraft. The Warhawk was used by most Allied powers during World War II, and remained in frontline service until the end of the war. It was the third most-produced American fighter, in total 13,738 were built.

The P-40’s lack of a two-stage supercharger made it inferior to Luftwaffe fighters such as the Messerschmitt Bf 109 in high-altitude combat and it was rarely used in operations in Northwest Europe.

Between 1941 and 1944, the P-40 played a critical role with Allied air forces in three major theaters: North Africa, the Southwest Pacific and China. The P-40’s performance at high altitudes was not as important in those theaters, where it served as an air superiority fighter, bomber escort and fighter bomber.

(Photo credit: US Army Archives).