9th PRS:Duncan's Hot Rod

Duncan's Hot Rod

Originaly published in the May 2001
issue of Air Classics Magazine by Wayne Eleazer

Reprinted with permission from
Challenge Publications Inc


Ward Duncan with the newly rebuilt F-4 at Barrackpore, India in early 1944. This photograph was taken before the installation of camers, including the experimental installation of a front facing downward angled 40-inch focal length stand-off camera



IN 1944, A TEAM AT THE 9TH PHOTO RECONNAISSANCE SQUADRON CREATED ONE Of THE MOST UNIQUE P-38s EVER BUILT IT WAS QUITE POSSIBLY THE HIGHEST PERFORMING LIGHTNING THAT FLEW DURING WORLD WAR TWO AND FURTHERMORE IT WAS AN AIRPLANE THAT OFFICIALLY DID NOT EVEN EXIST.

The Allies had many worries in 1942, but one of their real nightmares was the possibility of an Axis link-up through India. The year before, in the Middle East, Rommel's Afrika Korps had nearly run the British out of town - specifically, Cairo. German airborne forces had captured Crete, and the British had faced major uprisings in Syria. In Southeast Asia, within a few months after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had occupied Indochina, co-opted Thailand, neutralized British seapower in the area, closed the Burma Road access route to China, and seized Rangoon. The highly experienced Japanese jungle fighters penetrated deep into Burma. Flying from newly captured Burmese bases, Japanese airpower threatened India itself.

A Japanese occupation of lightly defended India would not only give encouragement to the Germans in the Middle East, it offered the real possibility of knocking China right out of the war, freeing up a million Japanese troops for mischief elsewhere. Even a limited Japanese invasion of eastern India could seal off the last Allied access to China and the flights over the Hump. The threat presented by Japanese fighters operating out of Burma had already stopped the use of the otherwise less hazardous low attitude southern route to China, thereby limiting Hump flights to transports with high altitude capabilities, most notably the Curtiss C-46 and Consolidated C-87.

At worst case, an Axis link-up in India could enable Germany access to the vast mineral resources of occupied Asia and facilitate Japanese access to advanced Nazi weapons technology. In this regard, the situation was fraught with more danger than anyone in the Allied camp realized. In 1941, the Germans began test flying a revolutionary new aircraft, the Me 262 jet fighter. The only thing that kept the jet from being a major threat to the Allies, rather than a curious footnote to the war, was the German lack of high temperature resistant nickel-based alloys needed for the turbine engines. A secure land route to Asia would have given the Germans access to the minerals required to dominate the air war, not only supplied by the Japanese but from nominally neutral Turkey.

It was obvious in 1942 that the Lockheed P-38 Lightning was best fighter the US had available. The P-38 had range, speed, and firepower beyond anything anyone possessed - Allies or Axis. And for that reason there was a crying need for the big fighter everywhere - the Pacific, the Aleutians, England, the Mediterranean, even Iceland; you name it, they wanted some P-38s. But what was also obvious was that no other airplane could touch the Lightning when it came to reconnaissance. Knowing what the enemy was doing was even more important than hitting back at him; without the first, the second was impossible.

So, eventually a total of 99 of the first precious 210 combat ready Lightnings - the P-38E - were converted into photo reconnaissance aircraft. The guns were yanked and patches placed over the ports for the Browning .50 calibers and 20mm cannon. Windows for cameras were placed in the bottom of what had been the gun compartment and in the compartment access doors. They called the airplane the F-4; so early were these first recon Lightnings that they had no letter suffixes to the designation.

A few of that first batch of recon Lightnings went to the 8th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron, which took their F-4s to the Pacific where they became the first operators of the Lockheed fighters to engage the Japanese in combat. Another thirteen of the first recon Lightning were assigned to the 9th Photographic Squadron (Recon), later known as the 9th Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron.

The 9th was formed up at Mitchel Field, New York, in early 1942 and then was sent to Felts Field, near Spokane, Washington, where it collected most of its men and its aircraft. The unit was soon ordered overseas; its new maintenance chief, former Air Corps aircraft mechanic, the newly commissioned Lieutenant Ward E. Duncan, met the 9th at the train station only an hour before they departed Spokane. The ground crews rode the train to Charleston, South Carolina, where they boarded the USS Mariposa and departed for India on 28 May 1942. The 13 pilots first flew their FAs to Dallas where a modification was performed on the aircraft's horizontal stabilizers as part of Lockheed's early attempts to correct the Lightning's compressibility-induced diving problems. Then they flew to Newark, New Jersey, where the aircraft were dismantled and loaded aboard ship for transportation to India. The pilots then boarded transport planes and headed for India via Miami, the South Atlantic air route and North Africa.

The USS Mariposa crossed the Atlantic with a small escorted convoy to Freetown, Sierra Leone, and awaited a larger convoy. After a week in Freetown, they linked up with the heavily escorted convoy and proceeded next to Capetown, South Africa. The urgency of their mission was emphasized by the news that Rommel's forces had captured the British outpost of Tobruk the day after the convoy arrived in Capetown. After a short stay, the convoy left Capetown and the Mariposa and three other ships broke away near Madagascar and headed across the Indian Ocean. The rest of the convoy proceeded on to Egypt and - as it turned out - provided supplies and forces that were instrumental in stopping Rommel. As the Mariposa sailed to Karachi to help stop the Japanese at the other end of the planned Axis land bridge to Asia, in Germany the Me 262 made its first flight under pure jet power.

The men of the 9th arrived in Karachi, India, on 24 July 1942, to find themselves without pilots or aircraft. Having nothing to do and needing to maintain proficiency, Lt. Duncan had his mechanics help to assemble and maintain the Vultee P-66 fighters and the few Republic P-43s being acquired by the Chinese. The P-66 wasn't a bad aircraft, but it was a bit more than the Chinese students could handle; the crash rate approached one a day! Ward and his men salvaged all they could from the wrecked Vultees. As it turned out, they would need all the spare parts they could get.

When the 9th's Lightnings arrived in early September 1942, they were off-loaded from the ships and towed to the Karachi Air Base on their landing gear with their outer wings still removed. At last receiving their aircraft, Ward and his men were at first elated, and then horrified. The sophisticated airplanes had been all but hacked apart in order to ship them by sea. Later in the war, specialized aircraft shipping companies would prepare thousands of aircraft for shipment, but in 1942 the longshoremen at Newark used whatever they had to cram the big airplanes into crates. Lacking the special wrenches required to remove the bolts that held the wings on, the dockworkers had employed cold chisels on the bolt heads. In some cases flap actuators had been roughly bent back to fit the wings into a crates. Fuel tanks had not been properly drained or preserved with the result that the rubber self-sealing bags were rotting in place. In short, the badly needed airplanes were a mess. Duncan and his crew had their work cut out for them, and lacked proper spares. They got the airplanes in flying condition, or at least good enough to fly the short distance to Agra, the depot where the self-sealing fuel tanks could be repaired.

Some of the parts from the wrecked P-66s came in handy in patching the Lightnings back together and by November the first three of the airplanes were operational. Fitted with radio direction finding gear from the wrecked P-66s , they were sent to Kunming, China, to work with Chennault's Flying Tigers. Along with a detachment of men from the 9th to support them, these airplanes eventually formed the basis for the 21st Photo Squadron. Gradually the other ten F-4s were made flightworthy, although the last Lightning assembled was such a collection of mismatched parts it was regarded as more a less a "hangar queen" rather than an operational airplane.

The squadron next moved to Chakulia Air Base and then only a month later on to Pandaveswar Air Base, home of the 7th Bomb Group. The idea was for the two units to work together, the recon airplanes spotting targets that would be attacked by the bombers.

India may have been a backwater but in 1942 it was on the front lines. Japanese air attacks were common along the border between India and Burma. The Japanese moved forward toward the border, surprising British units in Burma, in some cases despite the warning given by air reconnaissance, capturing British airfields such as Mytiyanga and fields along the seacoast, as well as building some new ones of their own. In response, P-- 40s, Hurricanes, and B-25s attacked the enemy airfields but caught few Japanese aircraft on the ground. There was a critical need for both long-range strategic and shorter distance tactical reconnaissance. The 9th was the best equipped unit to accomplish both jobs.

Pandaveswar was safe from Japanese air attack, but there were serious problems for the 9th in operating at the field. The base was around 400 miles from the India-Burma border, where the real action started. Later model region Lightnings would be equipped with two 165-gallon and even two huge 310-gallon drop tanks as well as added internal fuel, but the early F-4s were equipped with only a couple of 150-gallon drop tanks. The long distance to the border meant that the F-4s had to refuel at Chittagong or one of the other fields near the border before flying the recon missions over Burma. Even worse, they had to land again at a forward base in India to refuel on the way back, then fly to Dum Dum, where the intelligence specialists could examine the photos. Finally, the pilots had to return to home base, frequently fighting the typical afternoon thunderstorms all the way.

It was the need to refuel at a forward base on return that led to the near destruction of one of the precious F-4s and ultimately the creation of what became known as Duncan's Hot Rod.

A major objective for the 9th was to photograph all enemy airfields within range every single day. Like the Allies, the Japanese were not permanently basing their fighters and bombers at vulnerable forward airfields but they infiltrated supplies slowly into the airfields, flew the attack aircraft up from the Rangoon area, refueled and armed them, and set out to attack Allied targets in India and intercept supply flights heading to China. Then the raiders would land at another forward field in Burma, refuel and rearm, make another attack, and head back to southern Burma before the Allies could react. Allied photo interpreters became adept at spotting telltale signs of such enemy activity, suspicious trails in the grass and the like. B-25s and P-40s would respond with attacks on seemingly innocuous clumps of bushes and on occasion were rewarded with secondary explosions and fires as they hit hidden supply caches.

It was on one of the recon missions over the Burma airfields in January 1943 that one FA s/n 41-2205, had to land at Agartala to refuel. The pilot, Lt. Phil Robertson, had the misfortune to arrive at the British airfield nearly simultaneously with a Japanese air attack. A force estimated at 26 Mitsubishi Betty bombers escorted by 40 Nakajima Oscar fighters was inbound. The RAF hastily scrambled its available Curtiss Mohawk IV fighters to intercept the attack but they proved to be too little and too late. The ground crew quickly directed Robertson to a distant spot on the airfield and pushed the airplane under a large tree in an attempt to conceal it, but a string of Japanese fragmentation bombs came down, sending everyone running for the trenches. The nearby fuel truck exploded and the Lightning was peppered with shrapnel. Between attacks they managed to push the Lightning away from the conflagration just before the next string of bombs rained down. Everyone escaped relatively unhurt, but the F-- 4 was rendered completely unflyable.

Robertson caught a hop on a Lockheed Hudson back to Dum Dum and reported on the condition of his airplane. As badly as '205 had been hit, the squadron was too short of airplanes to abandon the aircraft. The squadron's engineering officer headed for Agartala, along with a couple of mechanics and a detailed set of instructions from Ward Duncan. They found 92 shrapnel holes in the airplane, including not only much of the structure, but the fuel, hydraulic, and cooling systems. They replaced a holed coolant radiator and, using sheet metal and rubber sheet, made temporary repairs to the coolant tanks. The airplane made it into the air and limped, gear down, about 120 miles to a place where the damage could be repaired, the sub-depot Andal, about 30 miles up the Ganges River from Calcutta. There it would remain for the rest of the year.

Despite their reduced number of airplanes, the 9th continued to fly missions over Burma. They were not only called on to find out what the Japanese were doing far over in Rangoon and Thailand, but also to spot Japanese incursions into Burma and, on occasion, find British and American army units which had lost contact with their commanders in the dense jungle. The 9th had their work cut out for them; the need for aerial reconnaissance was becoming even more urgent. British-led Indian troops had fought the Japanese to a standstill by the beginning of 1943, but the Allies had been unable to dislodge the Japanese from any of their Burma holdings. A British general, Brigadier Wingate, hit upon the idea of fast moving Long Range Penetration forces that would hit the Japanese behind the front lines and cut their supply lines. Airpower was the key to the use of the lightly armed forces, which were dubbed Chindits; they would be supplied and supported solely by airplanes.

F-4 '205 was in the depot and might return to the squadron one day, but other Lightnings were not so lucky. The Lightning was not really a difficult airplane to fly but it was not very forgiving of pilot errors. Something as simple as selection of the wrong fuel tanks at the wrong time could down an airplane. Bad weather claimed others as did bad luck. In late 1943, one F-4 limped back into a base with a dead engine only to arrive as Spitfires were being scrambled to intercept Japanese raiders; gear down, committed to land, and unable to go around, the pilot had no choice but to crash in an adjacent field.

The Lightning had performance far beyond the fighters the Japanese could send up against it, but the 9th did lose a few airplanes to enemy action. The two-stage supercharged Allison engines of the F-4 and F-5 had far more power at altitude than did the single-stage boosted engines in the Japanese fighters. A recon Lightning didn't have guns, but it didn't have to fight; the big twin-- boomed machine could outrun any interceptor the pilot spotted - but first he had to see them. One of the problems with photo recon - one that persists today, even with satellites - is that it is highly desirable to fly over the same target at the same time every day. With sun angles and shadows identical, changes in the photographs due to enemy actions can be more readily identified. The problem with this requirement is that the enemy doesn't have to be staffed exclusively with rocket scientists to figure out where and when to be for an interception. When the Japanese in Burma began to be equipped with the higher performing Ki 44 Tojo fighters, they had a better chance of intercepting the F-4s.

After a few losses to enemy fighters and still other mission failures due to equipment malfunctions, the 9th took to sending two recon Lightnings out to heavily defended targets, one to go in and take the photos and one to hang back and call a warning if enemy fighters were spotted and if required go in to get the pictures of the target in case the primary airplane had a malfunction. But of course, this also increased the need for more airplanes. P-38 fighters came into the theatre in late in 1943, transferred from the Middle East following the final routing of Rommel from North Africa, equipped with the faster H model. The fighter Lightnings tried to provide armed escort for the recon planes; a good idea; but it just didn't work. The enemy could not keep up with the 9th's Lightnings - but neither could the escorting fighters.

The 9th's maintenance people coped with limited spares and the design problems that service use always uncovers in a new airplane. The 150-gallon drop tanks not only limited the Lightning's range, but presented problems during normal flight and especially in combat. Mounted close to the wing on modified bomb racks, the tanks caused buffeting and, even more seriously, would not separate cleanly in the event they were dropped. Since the F-4s only dropped their tanks when attacked by enemy fighters this was more than simply an inconvenience. Ward Duncan devised a new longer tank mount to correct the problem and eventually managed to install some of the later tank mounts on the early F-4s.

By late April 1943, losses and maintenance requirements resulted in the 9th at times being down to just one or two operational F-4s. Short of airplanes to accomplish both long range and shorter recon missions, the 9th took anything it could get that could do the job. The Army Air Force had inherited a few B-25s originally purchased for the Dutch in the East Indies. The ex-Dutch B-25s had reduced internal fuel tankage, requiring fuel tanks to be fitted in the bomb bays to giving them useful range but virtually eliminating their offensive capability. The airplanes were of little use to the 7th Bomb Group, so the 9th took them on, installed cameras, and used them for recon in low-threat areas such as the upper regions of Burma where Japanese fighters were less likely to be encountered. The bombers also came in very handy for transporting men and supplies when the 9th had to deploy and support detachments at separate bases, an approach that became very popular as different Allied commands clamored for their piece of the recon pie.

Finally, in mid-1943, the 9th got a few more airplanes, F-5A models based on the P-- 38G, featuring more powerful engines -- 1325-hp as compared to the E model's 1150-- hp, and equipped with massive 310-gallon drop tanks that tripled the airplane's internal fuel capacity. They were welcome, but not without problems. Some of the new airplanes arrived with built-in deficiencies, in some cases borne of the wartime urgency that required material substitutions and new inexperienced manufacturers. On a few occasions, Ward aided troubleshooting by wedging himself into a P-38 cockpit along with the pilot and running in-flight test procedures which were a bit too complex for the typical throttle jockey.

With the arrival of the F-5s, the 9th could lend a Lightning for another purpose. In 1943, one of the other outstanding photo airplanes of the war, the Mitsubishi Ki-46 Dinah, began flying missions from Burma over northeastern India. The workhorses of the theater, P-40s, lacked the P-38's turbosuperchargers and were no great shakes at altitude; they failed repeatedly in their attempts to intercept the high flying Dinahs. The first P-38H fighter models had not arrived in theater and the Japanese knew it. All too aware of their virtual invulnerability, the Japanese Dinah pilots would even come up on American radio frequencies to taunt their enemies. In an attempt to stop their enemy counterparts, the 9th crews fitted the last FA the mismatched hangar queen of an airplane, with a pair of .50-caliber guns, fabricating the gun mounts from scratch, and sent the airplane off to Dinjan in India's Assam valley. As it turned out, the F-4 was undoubtedly superior to the Dinah at altitude, but lacking radar, inadequate warning prevented even the Lightning from engaging the Japanese snoopers. The P-40 squadron finally stripped everything but a reduced number of guns out of one Warhawk and, by sitting continuous alert, succeeded in downing the aggravating Dinah. The FA with the guns went back to the 9th to resume flying recon missions where its firepower was used to the amusement of its pilots as they strafed Japanese targets of opportunity on the way home from photo missions.

In January 1944, the 9th moved to a new airfield at Barrackpore, near an old British military base that had a few useful facilities, although many of the men had to continue to live in tents. It was a nearly ideal location. Much closer to the Burma border, it was also near to a new aircraft overhaul depot at Calcutta and only 20 miles from the sub-depot at Andal where FA '205 had been languishing since the pervious January. River access to both the depot and the 9th's airfield enabled new aircraft to be offloaded directly from supply ships onto barges and delivered by water. Aircraft maintenance facilities were limited but the 9th worked to improve them; Duncan and his men even constructed a hangar out of discarded crates that had held the Waco CG-4 gliders used to support the Chindits.

After arriving at Barrackpore a group of men from the 9th designed the unique squadron insignia. The squadron's number brought to mind the legendary nine lives of a cat, a concept that was very attractive for men about to go in harm's way. Given the fact that they were operating in the Indian state of Bengal, it was obvious that the cat should be a Bengal Tiger and, of course, like almost every other P-38 unit, the insignia had to feature a lightning bolt. The patch they created features a Bengal Tiger riding a lightning bolt and holding a camera while flak bursts harmlessly around.

It was just after their arrival at Barrackpore that they got a call from the sub-depot at Andal. The F-4 that had been damaged eleven months before was ready to be picked up. Ward Duncan and one of the more experienced 9th pilots both crammed into an F-4 and flew over to take a look.

The 9th maintenance chief was not pleased with what he found. The depot had indeed done a lot of work on the battered airplane but not all of it was of first quality. Holes had been patched, the outer wing panels and horizontal tail replaced with new P-38F spares, and new props and spinners installed. On the other hand, the original engines were still installed and neither had been preserved against corrosion nor even turned over periodically to keep them oiled during the eleven months the FA had sat in the depot. The metal work done on the aft booms was of poor quality, with putty applied in an attempt to cover over gaps around screw holes. The original laminated glass windshield had been removed to use as a replacement on a damaged P-38H fighter, its frame had been bent and the laminated windshield had been replaced with a simple sheet of plexiglass.

Ward told the depot personnel that given the condition of the Lightning he could not accept the craft. Their response was "Take it! Please! It's nothing but a hangar queen. We're tired of working on the thing. It's already been taken off the books. You won't even have to sign for it. Maybe you can tear it down for spares. Anyway, just get it out of here!"

Now, Ward was not one to ever throw anything useful away. Not only that, he knew the P-38E and F-4s were essentially prewar aircraft, built before wartime urgency forced compromises in Lockheed's production lines. The fit and finish of the earlier Lightnings was actually better than the later models, with tighter tolerances and more extensive use of flush fasteners. Besides that, with an airplane that was off the books, he could try out some ideas borne of the 9th's experiences.

It was a deal Ward could not pass up. The 9th pilot fired up the twin Allisons and headed for his home base. On the way he found more problems. The airspeed indicator was dead; it turned out that the pitot lines had not been hooked up. The shrapnel had torn a hole in the right engine turbosupercharger manifold; it had not been repaired. The wounded Lightning limped into Barrackpur and Ward and his men started to work. And so was born Duncan's Hot Rod.

The badly patched aft booms were replaced with new ones. A proper windshield was installed, along with the other features of a P-38G canopy. When it came to the powerplants and their accessories, Ward had a treasure trove of parts to use as a result of an accident that had occurred at Barrackpore. A C-- 46 had been taking off and lost power on one engine. The Curtiss Commando careened into two brand new, just assembled P-38J fighters. All three airplanes were virtually wiped out, but Ward was able to salvage some of the undamaged parts for his special project.

They yanked the old E-model engines and replaced them with new V-1710-89/91 models, the more powerful 1425-hp powerplants the new P-38Js were equipped with. The engine change caused other modifications. New late model turbosuperchargers were installed to match the engines. While the F-model wings the depot had put on the old bird came equipped with the improved wing leading edge intercoolers, the more powerful engines would need better cooling. The P-38Js had a new cooling system design that brought the radiators farther out into the air stream. Experiments with aircraft such as the P-51 had shown that by moving the air intake out away from the aircraft's surface, the fast moving and more useful air could be separated from the slower boundary layer and cooling effectiveness could be improved dramatically, even with the same size radiator. Ward Duncan put the salvaged P-38J airscoops and radiators on the F-4.

They didn't stop there. The crew yanked out the armor plate and most of the radio systems. The Hot Rod would need neither for how they planned to use it, and there were no radio navaids to speak of in Burma anyway. To replace the radios they installed only one of the new VHF radios. They stripped off the Olive Drab paint that had disguised the upper surfaces and the Neutral Gray paint that had covered the bottom, leaving the airplane in a bare aluminum finish. The way the 9th planned to use the airplane, it wouldn't matter if the airplane wasn't camouflaged; more than likely the Japanese would never see it coming and would be unable to touch it if they did.

The P-38 was almost the perfect photo plane. It had speed, altitude capability, long range in the later models, and room to install large cameras, but it had one flaw for the reconnaissance role. The pilot couldnit see the target. Viewing the ground had not been a requirement for Lockheed's original design for a high altitude interceptor. The broad wings, long nose, and twin engines blocked the downward view so effectively that recon pilots had to approach the target at a 90-degree angle, roll out on a heading that would hopefully take them over the objective, and trigger the cameras using guess by golly estimation. The nose landing gear installation made it impossible to even put a window in the belly to help the pilot get lined up on the target. Ward had even experimented with adding a downward looking periscope to one airplane, but that approach had proved to be a marginal solution at best.

For the Hot Rod they installed a 40-inch focal length camera angled forward, down at a slight angle and along the flight path, so that it could be aimed more or less like a gun. The camera could be used to take long distance photos at a flat angle, the pilot flying the airplane directly at the target that he could observe over the nose in slight dive. Using this stand-off approach, a recon plane could avoid the target area entirely, so no armor plate was required. This would be particularly useful for one tough target in particular: Mandalay, Burma, where the antiaircraft fire had proved to be unusually intense and accurate. A camera sight taken from a hand-operated aerial camera was mounted above the F-4's instrument panel, rather like a gunsight, so that the pilot could line up on the target. As it turned out Lockheed adopted much the same camera idea in the last recon model Lightning built, the F-5G, which had a redesigned nose with a somewhat similar forward looking downward angled camera.

The result of all of their efforts was one screamer of an airplane, much lighter, more streamlined, and at least as powerful than any other Lightning in the sky: Duncan's Hot Rod. The Hot Rod was probably the oldest P-38 flying combat missions at the time, but it outran everything else around. It cruised faster, flew higher, and climbed like the proverbial bat out of hell. Nothing else in the theater - Allied or Japanese could touch it, and on one mission a 9th pilot really proved it.

The RAF in India suffered through much of the war being supplied with leftovers and castoffs. They used whatever they could get hold of. Initially they were given Curtiss Mohawk IV fighters originally ordered by the French - export models of the P-36 that even the USAAF had considered obsolete before the war began. They were forced to make do with other old airplanes that found their way to the theater after being worn out in Mediterranean battles. Hawker Hurricanes were the RAPs mainstay in India and Burma for both air defense and ground attack long after they were no longer considered to be first line aircraft in Europe. In September 1943, the British sent Mark V Spitfires to India, a model that had been obsolete for two years in Europe; they were still a vast improvement over the older machines. Finally, in early 1944, the British units started getting some new late-model equipment and they were proud of it.

On the way back from Burma, 41-2205 stopped to refuel at a British base. There the 9th pilot was challenged to an aerial drag race. The RAF unit there was newly equipped with late model Spitfires, Mk. VIIs with better streamlining and two-stage supercharged Merlin engines. The RAF pilots were eager to show off their new equipment and knew they had an airplane that could beat anything else in the theater; they had proved that in their initial battles with the Japanese. The proud Spitfire pilot looked at the old Lightning and decided it was an easy mark.

"It'll be no contest," the 9th pilot replied. "That airplane is stripped, no guns, no armor, fewer cameras than normal and I'm not carrying any drop tanks on this mission."

The RAF pilot insisted. He knew what his new Spit could do. He just didn't know what Duncan's Hot Rod was capable of. He found out.

S/n 41-2205 had been built in 1941; by wartime standards it was positively ancient. More than simply old, '205 had experienced a particularly hard service life. It had been hacked apart by stevedores that knew nothing about airplanes, reassembled using parts that Lockheed never intended to fit in a Lightning, and had flown missions in some of the most rugged conditions to be found anywhere. It had been turned into a sieve by the Japanese, was stripped of parts to repair other fighters and absorbed countless depot man-hours in an attempt to get it flying again before the 9th finished the job on its own - and under field conditions, using parts from wrecks. True to the squadron insignia painted on its nose, Duncan's Hot Rod really did have nine lives, but in any other theater of war it would have long since been consigned to the scrap heap.

The Spitfire VIII was one hot airplane, fast, highly maneuverable, a brilliantly designed engine in a sleek beautiful airframe. Descended from the Mk. VII, a special high altitude model that was designed to intercept the German Ju 86P at altitudes well over 40,000 ft, the Mk. VIII could easily outclimb even the vaunted P-51D Mustang.

And that old F-4 ran away from the brand new Spitfire like the British airplane was standing still.

The Hot Rod was the highest performing airplane that the 9th ever flew, but unfortunately it was not the most successful of recon aircraft. The radical forward-looking camera required the replacement of the sleek, low drag original installation with a relatively blunt nose. That aerodynamic change set up buffeting that destroyed the airplane's effectiveness as a high speed photo plane, so the 9th and refitted a couple of conventional vertical cameras. But the situation in Burma was changing and so were the 9th's photo missions. Early in 1944, the USAAF's 5318 Air Force Unit, which became known as the Air Commandos, arrived in India. Led by Col. Philip Cochran, the Air Commandos began supporting deep incursions by the Chindits into Burma to disrupt enemy communications and supply lines. In addition to the Chindit hit and run raids, Chinese and US troops led by General Stilwell pushed into Burma. In response, the Japanese tried an invasion of India, but it failed. By May 1944, Allied forces had retaken enough of the country to enable new air supply routes to be opened to China, routes less hazardous and more efficient than the Hump. The 9th's reconnaissance efforts were needed to support all of the new action, and much of it was more tactical in nature, missions for which the Lightning was not particularly well suited, but carried out anyway.

Early in 1944, the 9th began to get more airplanes - F-5B models based on the new P-- 38J with revised chin-mounted intercoolers and more fuel capacity in the leading edges of the wings. The need for the Hot Rod was diminished, and eventually 705 was fitted with a second seat behind the cockpit to serve as a general purpose hack, trainer, and high speed transport, replacing one of the other more ragged old F-4s which had been used for that purpose. The 9th needed quick transportation, since they were about to spread their resources over multiple bases.

The 9th was directed to follow the victorious troops into Burma and in August 1944 sent a detachment to a crude airfield at Tingkhawk Sakan in northern Burma. They had problems operating the big, fast Lightning from the graveled runway in the jungle and in November 1944 the 9th detachment moved to the recaptured base at Myitkyina, Burma; it was hardly any better.

By the spring of 1945, things were obviously drawing to a close in Burma, with Allied troops closing in on Rangoon. In April, the 9th was withdrawn back into India, to a former B-29 base at Piardoba. Word was the unit would be transferred to the Pacific to fly recon over Japan for the coming invasion. Before that could happen the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki made the mission moot.

The men of the squadron were sent home and the airplanes - including Duncan's Hot Rod - were stripped of usable equipment and burned. Ward Duncan was spared seeing his pet project destroyed; he had returned to the US in October 1944.

Not even most of the official records of the 9th's exploits survived the hurried deactivation. It accomplished much during its not quite four years of existence, but is one of the least known units of the war. And for a while it built and flew the hottest Lightning anyone ever saw - a little known unit that operated a very hot airplane that wasn't even supposed to exist. Ironically, while old '205 proved to be less than the perfect recon tool, the rebuilt Lightning became the 9th's ultimate legacy.

The author would like to thank Lt. Col. Ward Duncan, USAF (Ret.) for his assistance in the writing of this article and for the use of the photos supplied.

Copyright Challenge Publications Inc. May 2001

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