The world gained another airworthy Curtiss Kittyhawk when P-40N 42-105120 took to the skies on the morning of Monday, January 11th following a ten year restoration with Chris and Gail Kirchner’s C&G Air at the Leeward Air Ranch in Ocala, Florida. The aircraft is a veteran of the Aleutians campaign, although the restoration bares the famous skull motif of the 80th Fighter Group’s Burma Banshees on the port side. Captain Ernest Hickox flew her along the Aleutian archipelago with the 343rd Fighter Group in Alaska. Hickox named his P-40 the Bonnie Kaye after his wife and daughter back home, repainting the starboard cowling in their honor. Sadly, both Hickox and Bonnie Kaye’s luck ran out on July 25th, 1945, when they crashed on Unalaska Island while escorting an amphibian on a search and rescue mission for another missing pilot. Hickox received a posthumous Soldier’s Medal for his bravery and sacrifice in a non-combat endeavor. The wrecked Kittyhawk remained in-situ for the next five decades, before Ken Hake salvaged her remains in the early 1990s.
Chris and Gail Kirchner acquired the wreck from Hake in 2004 and began the painstaking process of restoring the aircraft not too long after. It has been a labor of love for the couple and a small dedicated band of volunteers. Chris Kirchner has a powerful, personal connection to the P-40 Kittyhawk. His father served as a quartermaster under Claire Chennault in the famed Flying Tigers (post AVG) between 1942 and 1945. The memory of Ernest Hickox was also ever present for the restoration team, and became even stronger when the pilot’s daughter, Kaye Henning, contacted them after finding out about the rebuild of her late father’s lost Kittyhawk. She presented the Kirchners with a photograph of Hickox and his fighter, which was must have been incredibly moving for all involved, not to mention helpful in getting the markings repainted correctly. The Bonnie Kaye was finally ready to fly in recent weeks, and veteran warbird pilot, Mike Burke, came all the way from Texas to perform the test flights, which have gone well so far. Matt Abrams, who graciously provided the beautiful images in this article, described those initial forays as follows.
“…all went well. The first flight conducted by Mike Burke was brief with two hops around the pattern and then a landing; all without retracting the landing gear. About an hour later, it flew again. This time the landing gear was retracted on takeoff and the plane flew wide patterns around the airport for about four or five circuits before it lined up and came down the runway for a high speed low pass at about 50ft AGL, which was quite wonderful to see up close like that…The way the place is setup, we were on the parallel taxiway about 5′ away from the runway lights, so needless to say, we were very up close and it was quite the view. A few hours later, they went up and did a third flight which was very similar to the second one. The aircraft flew another two or three times today and all seems to still be going well…. The whole neighborhood was out there for the event, so when the plane would land, there were about a hundred people that immediately congregated around it, so the pilot would get out and he and the owner would immediately go inside the owner’s house, presumably to debrief as well as get prepared for the next flight. … I will definitely keep you posted along the way as things progress!”
Thank you very much to Matt Abrams for the photos and the report of the test flight. Visit Matt’s website for really great photography.
Thanks to Jack Cook for the historical information about the aircraft.
More photos of the test flight