The P-66 Vanguard looked right. It looked like exactly the kind of World War II fighter that might have won out in a dogfight with a Messerschmitt or a Mitsubishi. But while it was somewhat pleasing to the eye, it was ultimately a “might have been” – one of many warplanes that never quite made a mark. Perhaps it was simply a mistake, built and fielded long after better and more capable fighters were available.
“It was a hangar queen,” said former Sgt. Sam Timson, who maintained the P-66. “The design wasn’t so bad. They made it an orphan by never finding the right role for it.”
The P-66 was a product of the Downey, Calif., planemaking company founded by Gerard “Jerry” Vultee. The builder was better known for its BT-13 Valiant basic trainer, good-naturedly dubbed the “Vultee Vibrator,” that taught flying to thousands of military student pilot. Vultee was very big on trainers but had little fighter experience when its engineering chief Richard Palmer formed the team that conceived the company’s Model 48, later called the P-66.
The P-66 was a low-wing monoplane fighter with retractable landing gear and a 1,200-horsepower Pratt & Whitney R1830 Twin Wasp piston engine. Unfortunately, it was too late to be useful to the Army Air Forces.
The original version had a pointy nose with a huge prop spinner that was flush against the forward fuselage. In this configuration, and acting as a company demonstrator, it made its maiden flight on Nov. 8, 1939, piloted by Vance Breese. After design changes gave the P-66 a standard, round nose cowling for its radial engine, the first production-standard Vanguard made its initial flight on Feb. 11, 1940.
The U.S. military wasn’t interested, which is why the plane didn’t receive an Army designation until much later. Sweden ordered 144 aircraft. But that year, President Franklin D. Roosevelt embargoed exports of U.S. arms to Sweden, leaving the Vultee fighter without a home. Britain made plans to acquire 100 Vanguards, but received only three before concentrating its purchasing power on its own Spitfires and Hurricanes.
The first 15 AAF Vanguards were earmarked for training duty with the 14th Pursuit Group at Oakland, Calif. It was a pointless decision, forcing the group to operate the aircraft in uneconomical numbers. Officials decided to transfer the remaining 129 Vanguards – now AAF property – to China. The orphan was still in search of adoption.
The P-66 was a clean-looking fighter with typical characteristics for a pre-war design, including a maximum speed of 340 miles per hour, not bad for a pre-war design but about 100 mph slower than a Thunderbolt or Mustang. Armament included two Colt .50-caliber synchronized cowl-mounted machine guns and four .30-caliber machine guns in the wings.
The AAF shipped the P-66s intended for China to Karachi, India (today, part of Pakistan). Plans called for them to be reassembled and flown to Chengu, China. What happened instead was a debacle.
Some P-66s crashed during trial flights after reassembly. Chinese pilots trained in the tricycle-gear P-39 Airacobra found it difficult to land this unforgiving “tail dragger” and cracked up many of them during trial hops at Karachi. A mid-air collision watched by dozens at Karachi snuffed out the lives of two Chinese pilots in an instant. More of the planes were lost while being ferried to China and still more were simply stored in Karachi’s colossal dirigible hangar, short on parts or plagued with structural problems. Said Timson: “Some of them rotted there.”
Of 129 planes that reached Karachi, 79 made it to Chengdu. Alas, they resembled their adversaries: in a confusing Nov. 21, 1943 battle, Chinese pilots shot down a similar-looking Japanese Nakajima Ki-43 fighter but also downed two of their own P-66s! Years later, Communist Chinese forces took over a few P-66s.
It would be interesting to know if they secretly saved one somewhere. Today, there is no known example of a P-66 in the world.