Profile Photo
Tom Cleaver
922 articles

Well, turns out I do have one last P-40…

July 11, 2014 · in Aviation · · 14 · 1.5K

This is the P-40B, done as Erik Shilling's recon bird he flew on the first Allied offensive mission of the Pacific War, the recon flight to Bangkok on December 10, 1941.

I first met Erik in the summer of 1977, when airshow pilot and cropduster Gerry Massey invited me down to his place at Delano to do some photography of the Los Angeles Aerobatic Club which was up for a weekend practice. I parked my old Bonanza next to this yellow Starduster-Too with the AVG Flying Tiger painted on it, thinking to myself “That guy better be for real if he's painted that on his airplane,” and Gerry then introduced to Erik - who was indeed “for real” That night, sitting around a campfire on the airport downing some beer, Erik asked me if I knew how to roll my Bonanza (it was a 1947 "straight" Model 35, originally licensed in Utility). I replied I didn't. He told me there would be a day I'd be landing behind some airliner and get hit with the tip vortices and find myself upside down at 500 feet. "You need to know how to roll her," he told me. So the next morning he took me out and taught me to fly a Bonanza upside down, without pulling more than a constant 1G. After I moved down to southern California a few years later, I renewed the contact out at Planes of Fame, where he was a constant presence. Erik was the kind of guy you had to run to keep up with, right up to the week he died of cancer in March 2002.

Erik invented the AVG tiger mouth, which was originally an idea that came to him from seeing a photo of a ZG 76 "Haifische Gruppe" Bf-110 (not a 112 Squadron , as some tales tell it), and he proposed it as squadron insignia for the 3rd Squadron. Chennault looked at his drawing and decided it was the group marking. Erik chalked it on all the airplanes "which is why no two of them are the same, since I'm not that good an artist." Later, after surviving the crash of a Curtiss CW-21 he was ferrying in Southern China, he was captured by indigenous mountain people who had never seen a European and were convinced he was a Japanese; he was thrown in a hole and finally rescued after a week by a Chinese patrol that happened by the night before he was to be executed at dawn. Returning to Chungking, he invented the "Blood Chit" the Tigers wore on the back of their jackets.

Erik was considered by the others to be the best pure pilot in the organization. He was the one who taught the Chinese kid to say "P**s on Bissell!" to all visiting Americans as they deplaned, after the General came and made such a wonderful impression on the guys that they all refused to ship over into the USAAF. Erik went to work for China Air Transport and and over the next three years flew the Hump 100 times in C-47s, once outflying an attacking Oscar with one engine aflame, literally in the shadow of Mt. Everest. He once took off from an airfield in China with 88 people aboard, and arrived back at Chungking with 89, a baby being born on the way.

He stayed in China after the war, and flew through the Chinese civil war, eventually going to work for Continental Air Services (the forerunner of Air America) where he flew recon missions over Red China in 1950-52. He once flew a C-54 from Clark AFB in the Philippines to Kadena AFB on Okinawa, by way of the mountains south of Chungking, flying at 500 feet AGL all the way, in daylight, to drop arms to anti-Communist guerrillas.

In 1954, he was flying C-82 Packets to air drop supplies to the French at Dien Bien Phu. "We'd arrive overhead at 10,000 feet, dive the airplane through the flak to 3,500 feet, make a full stall pullout and drop the supplies, then hopscotch just above the canopy over the mountains and back to Hanoi." He was one of the founders of Air America, and flew in South Vietnam in the late 50s and early 60s, then in Laos (in contravention of the neutrality agreement). By the time he came home for good in 1967, he'd flown in six Asian wars and was the last Flying Tiger getting shot at. He was the senior check pilot at Flying Tiger Airlines when he finally retired in the 80s. His last missions in SE Asia were the orphan lifts in March and April 1975.

I used him as the "model" for the lead character in a movie my writing partner and I did about Air America, "The Magic Bus," which got aced out by the awful Sean Connery-Mel Gibson "Air America." Most of the characters were based on guys I knew in flying, and the English roadies who hung out at the Cat 'n' Fiddle Pub in Hollywood. (Think "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" meet "The Wild Bunch" as far as the story was.)

Erik always said the AVG were not mercenaries. "We were an official undercover operation of the American government. We were not mercenaries, though that cover story was so good everyone has believed it for the past sixty years." He buttressed his statement by pointing out that when the AVG traveled to China aboard the Dutch passenger ship S.S. Jagersfontein, "we were escorted by two U.S. Navy heavy cruisers - the USS Salt Lake City and the USS Northampton - because there was a real fear that the Japanese had heard about the operation and would attempt to intercept us." The cruisers stayed with them all the way across the Pacific, until the Jagersfontein entered the Java Sea and headed for Singapore. He pointed to the fact he was finally awarded the Silver Star for the Bangkok Recon Mission in 1984 as final proof of that status.

Erik was definitely the most interesting World War 2 flyer I ever knew.

This model was the first review kit Trumpeter released, and you can read my review excoriating it for its failures over at Modeling Madness. ( ) I used Cutting Edge decals for Erik's airplane. It's out at Planes of Fame, a memorial to the guy everybody out there looked up to. I've included a photo of him sitting in the P-40C that came out of Russia, when it was restored in his markings by Fighter Rebuilders for its first post-restoration flight back in 1998.

Reader reactions:
4  Awesome

11 additional images. Click to enlarge.

14 responses

  1. There's increasing risk of P40 infection around here. So what's a good kit today? Hasegawa, Trumpeter?

  2. Don't know about the kit, but certainly s well deserved 'last word' in all other respects.

  3. Great history behind your model as usual Tom. What a fantastic guy. I was starting to think you were making it all up as we do not seem to produce guys like that anymore. Too bad your movie did not get made, maybe you should try to get it done as a TV movie which are quite good these days.

  4. Erik Shilling had to be one interesting individual. Has there ever been a biography written on him?
    Good work on the P-40.
    P.S.: Off the subject, but his range of experiences remind me of a book I read, "Age of Heroes", a bio of Henri Keyzer-Andre. This man's exploits are a little hard to accept. If you are familiar with him what do you think?

  5. Very interesting piece, and model, Tom. There are quite a few "larger than life" characters, whose exploits are only now surfacing. Unbelieveable that one man can cram so much into one lifetime.

  6. said on July 11, 2014

    I really enjoy the background provided for this aircraft! Well done, and thanks.

  7. Didn't several of the AVG pilots that went to work for China Air Transport have "interesting" post war flying careers with various and sundry front companies of the cloak and dagger crowd, U.S. and others?.

    Really nice looking P-40 Tom. I never did get the trashing of this kit, yeah the cockpit's to shallow and some raised panels should be flush, but all were fixable with some work. I thought it was a little fiddley to build but had great fit and it certainly looks the part. Oh yeah, please don't report me to the Warhawk police on that other website...;-)

    • Erik was the only one who had any "career" with Spook Air. A couple of the guys flew on in the Chinese civil war, then went home and founded Flying Tiger Airlines, the first all-cargo airline. FTA did a lot of contract work for the military in Korea, Indochina and later South Vietnam/SE Asia, but not of the spook variety.

      As far as the model is concerned, the big thing to me is the horizontal stab/elevator is for the P-36. See the photo comparison of it with the correct Monogram tail feathers in my M2 review.

      • I knew there was something else on the kit thanks. I used to work an FTA 747 out of Columbus Ohio going to Anchorage at about 3am every mid shift. Must have been loaded to the max cause it would be 50-60 miles out of CMH and still below FL200 climbing to FL350. It climbed so slow that the computers always sent hand off data to the wrong sectors, which can make for interesting ATC situations, but that's another story.

  8. TC,

    "A" for effort on the model and the story is another classic...the Trumpeter P-40 has the look of a middle aged man whose carrying 50-60 pounds and is a little thick in the neck and cheeks. Ergo, the cowling looks a little heavy in the area of the radiators when compared to the Monogram kit of old. If only someone would do a new tool P-40B with the sleek lines of the Monogram kit and with some of fineness of the Hasegawa kits in 1/32nd they'd sell em like hot cakes.

    Two thumbs on some fine writing of a interesting a colorful pilot.

  9. Again a great and interesting story...and a well done P-40, a few days ago
    i have sold my Trumpy P-40, it is one of the kits, that did not inspire me to do.


  10. Tom,
    Nice work. Looks good to me. I remember as a kid that Flying Tiger had a facility at Mills Field. The first ones I remember seeing were C-46's.

Leave a Reply