Vultee P-66 Vanguard: The US's Forgotten WWII Fighter | International Aviation HQ (2024)

Vultee P-66 Vanguard: The US's Forgotten WWII Fighter | International Aviation HQ (1)

When you think of WWII aircraft, you often think of aircraft like the P-51, Mitsubishi Zero, Bf 109, Hurricane and Spitfire. The Vultee P-66 Vanguard? Not so much…

For pretty much everyone, even seasoned aviation historians, the Vultee P-66 Vanguard is forgotten. Although it was originally designed as a fighter, the Vanguard served mainly as a trainer, and partly as a fighter during WWII.


Vultee had been established during the interwar period, by Gerard Vultee, a former Lockheed engineer. Initially, Vultee had made its money producing highly successful airliners, as had most other aircraft manufacturers.

As with many other aircraft manufacturers, Vultee saw the growing market for general aviation aircraft. This saw them develop a number of relatively small aircraft that could be used for personal use.

In turn, this inspired Vultee to turn to military aviation. In particular, Vultee turned to trainer aircraft, many of which were just military variants of their earlier general aviation aircraft.

Perhaps the most famous of these trainers was the Vultee BT-13/BT-15. The BT-13/BT-15 would be used by the US Army Air Forces, US Navy, US Coast Guard and US Marine Corps alike, becoming one of their main trainers.

In 1935, Vultee chose to develop one of its airliners into a large ground attack aircraft, the Vultee V-11. This aircraft would also serve in WWII, but mostly in a reduced role and more as a relatively fast, armored transport aircraft.

For the most part, the US military was uninterested in it. Vultee saw the tensions rising in Europe, in the waning years of the 1930’s and attempted to cash in on it.

Here, Vultee decided to try to make a newer fighter aircraft that would not only entice the US military but also the RAF or maybe even the French Air Force!


The P-66 can trace its heritage back to Richard W. Palmer, Vultee’s chief engineer in the 1930’s and 1940’s. In 1938, he began working on a fighter that would be so easy to use, training would require only a few flight hours before combat.

Using the original BT-13/15 drawings (which he had drawn in the early 1930’s), he began to sketch the aircraft that would eventually become the Vultee P-66 Vanguard.

Over the course of the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, all-metal aircraft had become quite popular. By 1938, all fighters and trainers were full-metal, meaning that the P-66 laso had to be fully metal.

During the time, dogfights were won by combining a number of high g moves, combined with actually shooting your opponent out of the sky. As such, Palmer designed the P-66, then known as the Model 61, with this in mind.

By 1939, two prototypes had been produced. The first Model 61 flew on September 8 1939, whilst the second first flew on February 11 1940. Here, both were piloted by famed test pilot, Vance Breese.

During one its test flights, the first prototype crashed into a Lockheed Cirrus in May 1940. This precipitated the construction of a second prototype, as the first was badly damaged, and needed to be rebuilt extensively.

Service History

The aircraft that would eventually become the Vultee P-66 Vanguard first took flight on September 8 1939, as the Vultee Model 61. From here, the design would be refined before being combat-ready in 1941.

Here, the Swedish Air Force would predesignate them as the Vultee Vanguard.


Vultee P-66 Vanguard: The US's Forgotten WWII Fighter | International Aviation HQ (2)

In December 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, bringing the US into WWII. Here, Congress immediately passed a law that banned the export of military goods to non-Allied countries.

This impacted the Vanguard as the first 144 had already been built, earmarked for the Swedish Air Force. Here, all of the Swedish Vanguards became property of the US Army Air Forces.

The USAAF designated them as the Vultee P-66 Vanguard. Here USAAF test pilots tested the P-66, but found it to be inferior to fighters then in service with the USAAF, such as the Spitfire, P-47 and P-51.

However, the USAAF test pilots noticed that the P-66 was extremely easy to handle. As such, USAAS test pilots recommended that the P-66 be entered into service as an advanced trainer, the next aircraft after the Vultee BT-13/15.

Throughout the war, the USAAF would operate 44 Vanguards as advanced trainers. For the most part, the Vanguard would train pilots who would eventually go on to fly fighters like the P-51 or Spitfire.

Despite having easy handling, and generally being considered to be more advanced than any other trainer, the P-66 was not without fault. Of the 44 the USAAF had during the war, a total of 15 crashed due to faulty landing gear.


In 1941, through the British Purchasing Commission, the British Government acquired a total of 100 P-66s. However, the limited range of the P-66, coupled with German U-boats in the North Atlantic, caused logistic issues.

As such, the RAF chose to use them for advanced trainer trials at their RAF bases in Canada. With this, the British Government painted two of the P-66s, with the serial numbers BW208 and BW209, in RAF colors.

From March 1941, until the start of 1942, the RAF performed a number of tests with the P-66 in Canada. Here, the RAF designated the P-66 as the Vultee Vanguard I.

Once the RAF had concluded its tests, they had decided that the Vanguard I was simply not an adequate trainer. As such, they chose to sell it to the Chinese.


In late 1942, as a part of Lend-Lease, the British transported the Vanguards to the port of Karachi, then in British India (modern-day Pakistan). From here, the Vanguards were flown to the Karachi Airfield.

Whilst at Karachi, the British inspected the Vanguards one final time, performing a number of test flights on them. This latter fact caused a lot of trouble, as many had been damaged during transport, leading to a series of crashes.

At the same time, the Chinese had also contacted the USAAF, which had just reformed into the US Army Air Corps. Here, the Chinese had ordered several of their P-66s as well, with many of them suffering the same fate as the British ones.

In total, around thirty Vanguards, a mixture of British and American, were deemed airworthy enough to be flown to China. Those Vanguards that weren’t deemed airworthy were abandoned at Karachi.

Due to Japanese forces occupying nearby countries, the British-Indian officials chose to transport the P-66s at night. Here many of them crashed into one another, or crashed when they landed for refueling.

In total, only 12 of the 104 Vanguards ordered by the Chinese were delivered to Kunming in 1942. Here, Chinese Vanguards were no match for the superior Ki-43s and Ki-44s, with many not getting a single kill before being shot down.


The Chinese Nationalist Air Force (Kuomintang Air Force) realized that they were useless, and replaced them with Curtiss P-40 Warhawks in 1943. Here, they stored them in the caves outside Chongqing.

Following the war, the alliance between the Kuomintang and the Communists deteriorated, leading to the Chinese Civil War being restarted. Here, the remaining P-66s would be used against Communist forces.

Today, it is unknown how many P-66s are still around. Rumors have it that many P-66s are still in crates in the caves around Chongqing, but many of these caves have since been cordoned off by the Chinese military.

By most accounts, any of those P-66s that do remain would be considered unairworthy. As of the time of writing, there are no P-66s on display in any major air museums, and none acting as warbirds.


Vultee P-66 Vanguard: The US's Forgotten WWII Fighter | International Aviation HQ (3)

In total, Vultee only produced 146 P-66s. As such, they never developed any variants, leading to there only being one variant of the P-66.

For the most part, this latter fact was down to the fact that the P-66 was underpowered compared to almost every one of its competitors. Even older, pre-war aircraft like the P-37 had better specs than the P-66!

Height9 ft 5 in (2.87 m)
Wingspan35ft 10in (10.92m)
Length28ft 5in (8.66m)
Max Speed300kn (340mph, 550km/h)
Cruise Speed250kn (290mph, 470km/h)
Range740nmi (850mi, 1,370km)
Service Ceiling28,200ft (8,600m)
MTOW7,384lb (3,349kg)
Armament4 x .30 in (7.62 mm) machine guns; 2 x .50 in (12.7 mm) machine guns

What Was it Like to Fly The P-66?

Sadly, each week, the number of former P-66 pilots who are still alive gets less and less. Today, there are only a handful, with these pilots being scattered all across the world.

Thankfully, I was able to interview an elderly American WWII veteran. He flew the aircraft briefly in 1942, before being trained to fly the more famous Supermarine Spitfire. This is what he had to say:

The P-66 was a far simpler trainer than many of the basic trainers I’d used before. You pulled up, the aircraft went up almost instantly. If you pushed down, the same happened, just going down.

With this simplicity also came another issue: landing. When the P-66 was descending, the aircraft had a tendency to shake uncontrollably. Once you’d landing on the runway, the P-66 would begin to ground loop, which was hard to control.

Upon being introduced to the P-66, we were told by our instructors not to do many successive aerobatic maneuvers. As young men, we naturally didn’t listen, and did it anyway.

I was here where we learned just how flimsy the P-66 was. After a number of successive aerobatic maneuvers, the aircraft would shake uncontrollably and yaw to the left, often at, or near the P-66’s top speed.

Quite frankly, it doesn’t surprise me that the P-66 didn’t make for a very good fighter!

Why Was The P-66 Forgotten?

If you were to ask just about anyone familiar with WWII aircraft to name as many WWII aircraft as possible, chances are that most of them would miss out the P-66.

Unless you are an expert in China during WWII and/or the Chinese Civil War, you probably wouldn’t even have heard of the P-66. By almost all accounts, the Vultee P-66 Vanguard has been all but forgotten by history…

And this is for good reason.

The Vultee P-66 Vanguard arrived too late to really make a difference. When the US entered WWII in 1941, it brought a huge arsenal of aircraft with it. Throughout the war, older variants would be replaced by newer ones.

However, the Vanguard was new in 1941. As such, when it entered service, it was mostly the odd one out. On top of this, Vultee never produced more variants of the Vanguard to replace older ones.

And this was all because the Vanguard was outdated when it entered service. Vultee wasn’t particularly well-versed in producing military aircraft, having only made one before, which was a similarly a failure.

Due to this, the Vanguard was underpowered from the get-go. Even fighters from the 1930’s (which were obsolete by the time the war started) could easily out maneuver the Vanguard.

With this, when it entered service, it was annihilated every time. As such, militaries like to forget it ever operated the Vanguard, so don’t publish much about it. Ever. And that trickles down to regular people!


Despite generally being considered a failure, the P-66 Vanguard left a rather large impact on the aviation industry as a whole.


The relatively weak sales of the Vultee P-66 Vanguard was eye-opening for Vultee. The company realized that it wasn’t very good at producing fighters, as such it began to look for other types of aircraft to produce during the war.

Here, it found that producing the Vought-design Consolidated TBY Sea Wolf torpedo bomber for the US Navy would be quite lucrative. In total, Vultee produced 180 Sea Wolfs before their cancellation in 1945.

The P-66 was considered to be a failure financially-speaking for Vultee, costing them millions of dollars in today’s money. This caused financial instability within Vultee following the end of the war.

In turn, coupled with the financial stability of Consolidated Aircraft, caused Vultee and Consolidated to merge. This merger founded the Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation, more commonly known as Convair.

Vultee P-66 Vanguard

Vultee P-66 Vanguard: The US's Forgotten WWII Fighter | International Aviation HQ (4)

As of the time of writing, there are only three known surviving Vultee P-66 Vanguards. These are currently in the hands of private collectors and are not in airworthy condition.

For the most part, whenever these P-66s go to auction (which is quite rare owing to only three being known!) the history and rarity of the aircraft see them go for millions of dollars.

However, there may be more hidden in the caves of Chongqing, however, the chances of finding them anytime soon are slim to none. At least, not without the backing of the Chinese government.

Future Aircraft

During the war, Vultee was left behind, the reputation for poor quality work deriving from the P-66 was still there. Simply put, the US military didn’t want to give contracts to a company with a track record of producing outdated aircraft.

As such, due to the failure of the Vultee P-66 Vanguard, Vultee had to invest its own money in producing a number of new designs to entice the US and Allied militaries with.

The first was in 1941. Here, Vultee developed a dive bomber, which it called the V-72 Vengeance. This dive bomber was incredibly successful, with it often being used alongside other dive bombers like the Grumman TBF Avenger!

On top of this, Vultee developed a number of prototypes. In particular, Vultee developed the XA-41 dive bomber, which was cancelled due to the end of the war.

Vultee also tried to make a twin boom fighter, although this too was cancelled due to the end of the war.

What do you think of the Vultee P-66 Vanguard? Tell me in the comments!

Vultee P-66 Vanguard: The US's Forgotten WWII Fighter | International Aviation HQ (2024)
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