Rebuilt WW II fighter is one man’s tribute to veterans’ service

The aircraft is 95 percent finished and sits in the hangar adjacent to Kirchner’s Leeward Air Ranch home, seemingly awaiting its next mission.

Kirchner said he rebuilt the historic single-seat craft as a tribute to his father, Chris Kirchner Sr., who was with the Flying Tigers in World War II; his wife Gail’s father, Russell Nasholds, who served in the Ardennes, central Europe and Rhineland campaigns with the Army Corp of Engineers during World War II; Ernest Hickox, the pilot lost when the plane crashed on July 25, 1945; and to honor the service of all veterans.

The plane was named after Hickox’s wife, Bonnie, and their daughter Kaye. The names were painted on the nose during the war.

“My father, who passed away in 2002, served with the Flying Tigers outfit in the China, Burma and India theater in World War II, handling quartermaster duties from 1942 to 1945. He worked directly under Flying Tigers American Volunteer Group founder, Gen. Claire Chennault,” Chris Kirchner said.

The Kirchners have a letter signed by Chennault and a framed picture titled “Tigers in the Gorge,” signed by several members of the Flying Tigers AVG, displayed in their home.

The Chennault letter states: “To Captain Kirchner with Best Wishes.” The framed picture depicts a swooping P-40 defending the Salween River Gorge in the vicinity of Kunming, China. A message on the picture indicates that by 1942 during World War II, Japanese forces were advancing through Burma toward China.

“Nothing but a handful of daring (Flying Tigers) AVG pilots stood in the way of China’s probable demise,” the message states.

AVG members flew P-40s with fearsome looking sharks’ mouths and giant teeth painted on the front of the fuselage. The first group of AVG fliers left the United States for China on July 10, 1941, according to www.flyingtigers.com.

Krichner said many of the aircraft used in the Burma, China and India theater were shipped on the aircraft carrier USS Ranger to Alaska for duty there and in the Aleutian Islands.

Kirchner, a former custom home builder in New York, started restoring aircraft around 1990 when he and his wife, both of whom are pilots, moved to Florida. He has rebuilt a BT-13 and T-6 Texan, both World War II-era craft, and two civilian planes.

The P-40 project began when Kirchner, 65, learned that aircraft salvager Ken Hake in Tipton, Kansas, had the wreckage, which amounted to remnants of the steel parts of the aircraft. After obtaining the wreckage, Kirchner began the quest to find, buy and make specialized parts. Many of the handmade parts, like the hard-to-match contoured fairings, were meticulously hand duplicated from photographs. Some of the specialized parts, such as unique engine exhaust headers, were ordered from sources in Australia that still have “new old stock” American parts.

Specifications found in the book “P-40 Warhawk-In Detail” by Squadron/Signal Publication indicate that various models of the plane were equipped with either four or six .50-caliber, wing-mounted machine guns and were powered by engines including an Allison 1710 engine that produced about 1,200 horsepower and gave the plane a maximum speed of about 343 mph at 15,000 feet.

According to the National Museum of the Air Force website, about 14,000 of the “extremely rugged” P-40s were manufactured, including a model with a Rolls Royce engine. Some models are rated up to 378 mph. The plane is 33 feet long, has a wingspan of 37 feet and weighs 6,000 pounds empty.

Kirchner, a Vietnam War veteran who served in the U.S. Navy, said a number of veterans have stopped by to see the plane.

Several visitors to the hangar on a recent day shared their reaction to the aircraft.

“This plane is very impressive. It’s beautiful; it’s history,” said Bob Wall, 85, who is familiar with the P-40 from his own military service.

Rudy Sasina, a veteran aviator who served on the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier and flew prop driven F-85 Skyraiders from 1961-65, praised the workmanship and detail of the restoration.

The self-sealing fuel tank on the fighter and hardened steel plate behind the pilot’s seat point to the danger pilots expected in the air.

A.J. Vines, a commercial pilot flying turbo prop planes with U.S. Airways, remarked on the difficult and life-threatening conditions U.S. servicemen operated under in the planes “to defend our freedoms.”

Chris Krichner said the plane is for sale, but he hopes it will be purchased by a museum so the aircraft can continue to “honor those who served.”

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