Republic of China (1942)
Prototype Fighter – 2 Built
The XP-1 can be considered one of the most obscure planes in World War 2. It is relatively unknown in the Western world, and the fact that it utilized a very unique design by a nation that was relatively inexperienced at designing and building planes. The XP-1 was a Chinese-designed plane that was first conceived in late 1940, and was finalized in 1944. The purpose of it would be to specifically counter the Japanese A6M Zero, and also try to regain aerial superiority in the Chinese skies. Two models were built, one of which would crash on its maiden flight, and the second model would meet an unknown fate.
The initial design of the XP-1 came from a man named Constantine L. Zakhartchenko. He was a Russian emigre in America who studied at MIT and received a master’s degree in aeronautics. In 1935, the Republic of China’s 1st AFAMF (Air Force Aircraft Manufacturing Factory) hired Zakhartchenko as a designer to work for them.
In the summer of 1940, the Republic of China Air Force faced the Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero for the first time, and it proved to be vastly superior over the Polikarpov I-16 and I-153 (which were supplied by the Soviet Union) the ROCAF currently had in service. This caused mass panic amongst the Chinese Air Force, and prompted the Chinese Air Force industry to make a plane that would be able to face the A6M2 on even (or better) terms. The project was officially approved in 1942 and Zakhartchenko was put in charge. The new project would start out designated as “D-2”, and later on be changed to “研驱-1” (meaning Experimental Machine) or “XP-1”. The XP stood for (Experimental Pursuit) as the Chinese was following the structure of the USAAF in an attempt to improve their own air force.
On January 9th of 1943, Zakhartchenko’s contract with the 1st AFAMF expired, but he voluntarily stayed until June (he would later return to the United States and join the McDonnell Douglas company). Due to this, the director of the 1st AFAMF Lei Zhao Hong (雷兆鸿) took over the responsibility of design. As the XP-1 was being finalized, there came the need to find a good engine to power it. Hong made a request to the Committee of Aviation for two fighter engines (although he did not specify which model), but was initially denied due to the lack of spare engines. However, the Committee of Aviation did commence a search for spare engines, and eventually found a single Wright SGR-1820 salvaged from a crashed USAAF C-47. The 1st AFAMF gladly took it in, but saw that the propeller would need to be replaced. An order was then placed to the 2nd AFAMF to produce a propeller. Once the propeller was fitted, the XP-1 prototype was almost ready. However, progress was hindered even further when the Japanese launched Operation Ichi-Go on April 14th of 1944, which forced the airfield to be relocated to Guiyang, in the Guizhou Province in Southwest China.
On January 18th 1945, the XP-1 would finally have its maiden flight. The pilot chosen for the flight was Tan Shou (谭寿), an experienced Chinese-American pilot who joined the Chinese Air Force in 1927. Before the test flight, observes noted that Tan Shou was in his most flashy flying gear, which included a leather jacket, a pair of aviator sunglasses, a leather flying cap, a polished pair of dress shoes and an American-made parachute. Usually when a prototype aircraft is about to have its maiden flight, there would be a massive celebration which would include a ribbon cutting ceremony and a tea party. As the Chinese wanted to keep the XP-1’s test flight a relative secret, only a small number of military officials were invited to observe. Tan Shou taxied the plane to the Southern end of the airstrip, and turned 180 degrees to face the North. Once the plane accelerated about 500m, it took off and was met by cheers and applause from the spectators. The plane climbed steadily until reaching 500m, where Tan Shou then began maneuver trials. He initially turned left of the airfield, which went fine. On the second turn, the plane experienced instability and went into a tail spin. This would ultimately end in with the plane crashing into a tree, then a house. The initial impact instantly killed Tan Shou, and completely destroyed the plane. Tan Shou was the only casualty of this incident.
Results and Aftermath
Shortly after the crash, the Lei Zhao Hong gave the blueprints to the Chongqing Aeronautics University and the Chengdu Aeronautics Research Facility to get their opinion on why the XP-1 failed. Chongqing University concluded that the design was not stable, and was thus the cause for the crash. Chengdu Aeronautics Research Facility did not give an answer. However, the local factory workers believed that the American engine they salvaged from the crashed C-47 was the reason why the plane crashed. As a result of the crash, the very obscure XP-2, still in the design stage, was cancelled.
There is debate as to why the XP-1 crashed amongst the history community. When Tan Shou turned left the first time after reaching 500m, the people spectating the plane were obstructed by trees, and thus could not get an accurate look at the incident leading up to the crash, meaning that eyewitnesses had little to contribute to the debate. The first theory speculates that once he reached 500m and turned successfully, he then tried to pull up but couldn’t due to the weight of the engine. He tried to pull up a second time, but to no avail. Tan Shou then tried to turn back to the airfield to land but the plane dove too fast, thus destroying both him and the plane. The second theory is that on the second turn, Tan Shou tried to pull up but the controls stiffened, thus not allowing Tan Shou to maneuver. Due to this, the XP-1 stalled and went into a flat spin and caused him to crash.
The crash of the XP-1 didn’t particularly affect the Chinese Air Force, as they were already receiving superior Lend-Lease planes from the USA (such as the P-51D, or the P-40) at the time which could fight the A6M Zero on equal terms.
Interestingly enough, the second XP-1 would be met with an unknown fate. There are some theories as to what possibly happened to it.(***) The first theory would be that during Operation Ichi-Go, the XP-1 was destroyed by Japanese bombing either in the factory or during transport. The second theory was that after the first XP-1 crashed, the second one was either scrapped or sent to either the Chongqing Aeronautics University or the Chengdu Aeronautics Research facility for evaluation, where it was eventually scrapped too. The third theory is the second XP-1 was hidden somewhere to prevent capture by the Communists during the Civil War. The fourth theory is that the Communists could have destroyed the XP-1 during the Civil War during a firefight.
(***) Please note that these are all theories and speculations, with no solid evidence to back it up.
The XP-1 took inspiration from many foreign aircrafts, but also had unique features to it as well. Its engine cowling resembled that of the P-43 or the P-47. Its canopy was designed after the P-40’s canopy. Also, the tail structure was strongly influenced by the CW-21. Its wings were designed in a gull style, similar to the Ju 87 or F4U (but not inspired by them). The landing gears however, were a unique design. It was also fitted with American cockpit instruments (altimeter, speed gauge, fuel gauge, etc.). It was however, not fitted with a radio which would have made it more difficult to communicate, and is one of the reasons why the circumstances around the XP-1’s crash is unclear – the ground observers didn’t know what Tan Shou was trying to do.
For armaments, there are no credible sources which mention what weapons the XP-1 would have received. However, the most popular and agreed upon armament would be four Hispano Suiza 404 cannons. This is unlikely as the XP-1’s design would not have allowed such armaments if space and weight was considered. The M2 Browning or M1919 would have been more likely candidates. Ultimately, it is unknown precisely what the armament would have been as both XP-1 prototypes were solely to test the aerodynamic properties of the design.
- XP-1 – Original model powered by a Wright R-1820F-3 Cyclone. Two models were made in 1944, none of which were armed. One crashed during its maiden test flight, and the second one met an unknown fate.
- XP-2 – Nearly nothing is known about this design other than the fact that it was to be powered by an Pratt & Whitney R-1690 Hornet engine and was partly based on the XP-1. The XP-2 remained a paper project only and was cancelled after the crash of the XP-1.
- Republic of China – The ROCAF was the only operator of the XP-1.
1st AFAMF XP-1
|Engine||1x Wright R-1820F-3 Cyclone (710 hp)|
|Maximum Speed||580 km/h|
Ling, Z. (n.d.). 曇花一現 中國早期 XP-1 研驅一式機的故事., Li, S. (n.d.). XP-1 研驱一式机的故事., Gang, W., Ming, C. Y., & Wei, Z. (2011). 中国飞机全书. Bei jing: Hang kong gong ye chu ban she., Andersson, L. (2008). A history of Chinese aviation: encyclopedia of aircraft and aviation in China until 1949. Taibei: ; AHS of ROC., Images: Side Profile Views by Ed Jackson – Artbyedo.com