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Bell P-39D Airacobra

Bell P-39D Airacobra

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Bell P-39D Airacobra

The P-39D was the first version of the Airacobra to be produced in large numbers, and the first to reach the Soviet Union, where the aircraft would achieve its main successes.

As a result of the lower than hoped speed of the P-39C the Army Air Corps began to see the Airacobra as more of a ground-support and attack aircraft and less as a high speed interceptor. As a result the P-39D received self sealing fuel tanks (although the fighting in Europe was beginning to show that these were essential on all combat aircraft). The number of guns was increased – the P-39D retained the 37mm cannon (with 30 rounds, double the amount carried in the P-39C) and the two .50in machine guns in the nose, while the .30in guns were moved from the nose and doubled in number from two to four. Finally the aircraft was given a centreline belly rack capable of carrying up to a 600lb bomb or a jettisonable fuel tank. The P-39D began to enter American service in April 1941, and a total of 429 were built.


The P-39D-1 was the designation given to 186 aircraft built for Great Britain as part of lend-lease, to replace the export model P-400 Airacobra I. It carried the same machine guns as the P-39D, replacing the .303in guns used in the P-400/ Airacobra I with standard American .30in guns. The main change was the replacement of the 37mm cannon with a 20mm Hispano-Suiza Mk 404 (M1) cannon in the nose. Most of these aircraft eventually reached the Soviet Union.


The P-39D-2 was a second lend-lease version of the Airacobra. It was very similar to the P-39D-1, with the same 20mm cannon and .30in wing guns. The main difference was the use of the Allison V-1710-63 engine, capable of producing 1,325hp, in place of the V-1710-35 used in earlier aircraft. 158 P-39D-2s were built.


The P-39D-3 designation was given to twenty-six P-39D converted to act as photographic reconnaissance aircraft. These aircraft had one K-24 and one K-25 camera in the rear fuselage. All twenty-six D-3s were produced by converting the basic P-39D.


The P-39D-4 designation was given to eleven P-39D-1s converted to act as photographic reconnaissance aircraft in the same way as the P-39D-3.

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In 1937, Captain Gordon P. Saville of the Air Corps Tactical School and Lieutenant Benjamin S. Kelsey of the U.S. Army Air Corps issued a request for a new fighter plane. The Circular Proposal X-609 asked for a single-engine, high-altitude interceptor able to conduct the “tactical mission of interception attack of hostile aircraft at high altitude.”

They wished for the plane to have numerous features, including a liquid-cooled Allison engine with a General Electric turbo-supercharger, tricycle landing gear, the ability to carry 1,000 pounds of armaments, and a cannon. It had to reach a top speed of at least 360 miles per hour and a height of 20,000 feet.

Photo Credit: Underwood Archives / Getty Images

Bell Aircraft, an aerospace manufacturer based in New York, presented its own design. Called the “XP-39,” the prototype reached 390 mph in only five minutes, but it was unable to reach its top stated altitude. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) evaluated the aircraft and listed recommendations to allow it to reach the necessary requirements.

However, the P-39 Airacobra never turned out to be the fighter plane Bell Aircraft made it out to be. After applying the NACA’s suggestions, there was no room within the craft to fit the turbo-supercharger. In its place was a single-stage, single-speed fighter plane with a top altitude of 12,000 feet. This meant it was easier to produce and maintain, but it took away the opportunity to serve as an effective high-altitude fighter.

Special Hobby 1/32 P-39D Airacobra Kit First Look

Bell designed an advanced fighter aircraft in 1938 that featured a 37mm cannon firing through the propeller spinner and different configurations of machine guns depending on the version. The engine was mounted behind the pilot, with the propeller shaft running under the pilot's seat and between his legs. The aircraft incorporated one of the first nosegear arrangements on an operational fighter.

The aircraft was initially destined for France, but after that country surrendered to Germany, deliveries were instead routed to the RAF. In operations, the RAF didn't care for the aircraft. It lacked performance above 12,000 feet and the Allison engine was not supercharged (a result of some pre-war politics in the US defense industry).

The Soviet Air Force employed the aircraft extensively as it was found to be a worthy fighter in both the air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. More information has started flowing out of the former Soviet Union's archives about the men and missions employing the Airacobra. Prior to the 'fall of the wall', historical publications tended to focus on the exploits of those patriotic crews that flew Soviet-built hardware, downplaying the contributions of lend-lease on the outcome of the Great Patriotic War by their then-current cold-war adversaries. In all, the Soviets receiving over half of the total Bell P-39 production run, which led into the P-63 Kingcobra, but that is another story.

Ultimately, the USAAF finally had good success with the P-39 when experienced pilots employed the P-39, like the F4F Wildcat, to draw on its tactical strengths and against the enemy's weaknesses. Tactics over performance.

When I first heard about someone planning on releasing the P-39 in 1/32 scale a number of years ago, I was really excited about the possibilities. The variety of color schemes and nose art for the aircraft were just as broad as the P-40. The company planning on that kit back then was AMtech, and that release, along with the company, have faded into history.

Special Hobby has taken up the challenge and released this P-39D in 1/32 scale and pushed to get this kit done in time for the 2007 IPMS/USA National Convention in California. I honestly don't know how AMtech might have approached this kit, but Special Hobby did a magnificent job of it!

The first thing I wondered was if this was scaled up from Eduard'a 1/48 kit since the two companies will sometimes collaborate on subjects. This can be quickly dismissed when you look at the parts layout and design of Eduard's kit here. In fact, if you are interested in the various P-39s released in the last few years in 1/48, you can read our comparisons here.

The kit is molded in light gray styrene and presented on six parts trees, plus a small fret of color photo-etched parts, and three resin-cast parts: the gunsight and a pair of engine exhaust stacks.

This is one of the first Special Hobby kits that I can recall where you could almost build to model completely with liquid cement. The resin exhausts and the gunsight are a must, but that is only three parts using cyano. Many folks don't use photo-etch and this kit doesn't use photo-etch for any critical assemblies, these are provided for the seatbelts/harnesses, bomb fins, and hinge details on the nosegear doors. I know I want those color photo-etched parts, but Hasegawa builders know that even in 1/32 scale, seatbelts and harnesses are left to the optional aftermarket world.

So how does this kit stack up against the recent 1/48 kits?

  • It is the first in styrene kit in 1/32 scale
  • It has separate ailerons, rudder, and elevators
  • It has the machine gun breeches over the top of the instrument panel
  • Separately molded radio and radio tray
  • Color photo-etch seatbelts/harnesses

The cockpit is not bad at all, the look of the instrument clusters is nicely captured in this scale that was just too subtle in smaller scales. This is where some Eduard color photo-etched instrument panel clusters would really set the model off. Color printed cockpit placards would also be really nice as well. Remember that this kit also features the same styled clear car doors that can be positioned open or closed as the 1/48 scale kits from Eduard and Hasegawa.

Given the design and molding technologies used to create the molds for this kit, you won't see many parts left over after completion of this project. Using more conventional tooling, a mold designer would create as many parts as possible on the trees to minimize the investment. That's why you can see more variant possibilities on Hasegawa tooling as they reuse as many parts trees as possible with different variants and leave more spare parts behind as a result. These Czech molds have some significant advantages and they are perfect for limited quantity releases. That also means that if you want a 1/32 P-39, don't wait too long as the chances of many re-releases are very slim.

  • Positionable flight control surfaces
  • Optional bomb or external fuel tank on the centerline
  • Positionable cockpit car doors
  • Very nicely detailed landing gear and wells
  • Optional radio installation depending on which aircraft you're rendering
  • Nice cockpit!
  • Vast majority of the kit is styrene
  • P-39D-1-BE, 41-38350, 35 FS/8 FG, P, as flown by Lt. I.A. Erickson, Milne Bay, New Guinea, 1942
  • P-39D-1-BE, 41-38357, 35 FS/8 FG, D, as flown by Lt. Leder, Milne Bay, New Guinea, 1942
  • P-39D-1-BE, 41-38338, 36 FS/8 FG, Q, 'Nips Nemesis II', as flown by Lt. Donald C. McGee, Port Moresby, New Guinea, 1942

The decal sheet provides the markings for any of the three aircraft, plus a complete set of maintenance stenciling which also will be more visible in this scale.

I love this kit! I'm sure that we'll be seeing some aftermarket decals and details following this kit as well as future variants from Special Hobby. I do hope that this kit will be as popular with a large number of builders as it is with me since I really want to see (and acquire) the later versions of the Airacobra for both the USAAF and VVS color scheme opportunities!

Bell P-39D Airacobra - History

The Bell P-39 was referred to as the "Iron Dog" by its pilots because it was a tricky to fly with many quirks but was the only fighter aircraft available to most U.S. Army Air Force (USAAF) Pursuit Squadrons in the early months of World War II.

The P-39 was armed with a 37mm cannon with 30 rounds of ammunition. But is muzzle velocity was low, and was prone to jamming after one or several shots making it ineffective and inaccurate. Rumors about uncontrolled tumbling of the aircraft also made pilots wary. The Airacobra lacked a supercharger on its engine, and was therefore most often used for ground attack and operations below 15,000'. Armed with a cannon through the propeller hub, and machine guns in the nose and wings.

In the South West Pacific Area (SWPA) and South Pacific (SOPA) the Airacobra was a front line fighter during 1942 until late 1944. The later model P-39Q was used in the tactical reconnaissance role and for photographic reconnaissance.

P-39D-1 Airacobra
The P-39D-1 Airacobra were cancelled Royal Air Force (RAF) orders (FY41-28***-38***) armed with a 20mm cannon. Most P-39D-1 Airacobra 41-28*** were sent to North Africa or remained in the United States or were shipped to the Territory of Hawaii. During August 1942, some FY41-38***s were shipped across the Pacific to Australia.

P-39F Airacobra
The P-39F Airacobra.

P-39K Airacobra
The P-39K Airacobra.

P-39N Airacobra
The P-39F Airacobra.

P-39Q Airacobra
The P-39Q had the wing .30 caliber machine guns removed. Instead, a single .50 caliber machine gun in a external fared pod mounted below each wing.

P-39Q-6 Airacobra
A total of 148 P-39Q-5 Airacobras modified for photographic reconnaissance with K-24 and K-25 cameras in the rear fuselage.

Airacobra Photographic Reconnaissance Versions
Several models of the P-39 Airacobra were modified into photographic reconnaissance configuration. The P-39D-4 photographic reconnaissance version of the P-39D Airacobra.

P-400 Airacobra (British Export Version)
The P-400 Airacobra was the British export and was virtually identical to the American P-39D Airacobra with two main differences. The first was the replacement of the 37mm cannon replaced with the faster-firing and more reliable Hispano 20mm cannon with a 60 round magazine. Plus the normal two .50 caliber machine guns in the nose cowling and four .303 inch machine guns in the wings. The second major difference was the Model 14 was the 1150 hp Allison V-1710-E4 (-35).

Royal Air Force Force (RAAF)
The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) also a small number of P-39D Airacobras designated the Airacobra A53.

P-39 Airacobras of the 35th Fighter Squadron

D uring 1943, the 35th Fighter Squadron (part of of 8th Fighter Group, Fifth Air Force) was based in New Guinea, flying Bell P-39D Airacobras. Due to its lack of a turbosupercharger, the P-39 was not a great performer at high altitudes, but lower in sky, it was a more-than-credible adversary for the Japanese airplanes. It was an unusual aircraft: a 37mm cannon fired through the propeller hub in the nose the engine was located behind the cockpit and it featured tricycle landing gear (not widespread at the time). The central location of the heavy Alison V-1710 powerplant helped to stabilize the plane.

The photographs posed a bit of a puzzle, as they were unlabeled. They certainly represent P-39Ds of the 35th FS, and possibly its sister squadrons, the 36th and 80th, which comprised the 8th Fighter Group. By their overall appearance, any WW2 aviation enthusiast could identify them as P-39s. But which model? And what else do the photos tell us?

Serial Numbers

The first photograph shows a P-39 with a clearly marked tail number "138343."

The full serial number (s/n) for that particular airplane was therefore 41-38343. The first digit (4) was generally omitted from the tail markings as redundant, allowing the unique numbers to be a little bigger and more legible in flight. From the partially deployed landing gear it is clear that the plane was taking off. An airplane about to land would have its wheels fully extended. Joe Baugher's USAAF aircraft serial number website identifies serials 41-38220 through 41-38404 as Bell P-39D-1-BE Airacobra, and notes that "several dozen were taken on charge by USAAC squadrons." His detailed page on 1941 USAAF serials further confirms that these aircraft served in the Southwest Pacific. All the legible numbers in these photos fall within that range, so they are all P-39Ds, Block 1.

The next photo shows s/n 41-38356, nicknamed "Sun Setter," also taking off, with its tail number easily readable.

This picture also shows the squadron code, a large letter "C," on the starboard ("right") side of the fuselage, forward of the cockpit. This is the most common location for the squadron code, usually one or two very large letters that identified the plane within its squadron. (Squadron codes were arbitrarily assigned, not related to serial numbers.)

Another image of "Sun Setter" shows two names neatly stenciled on the side.

The name in larger letters, "Capt. Rasmussen," is the pilot beneath it is the name of the crew chief, "A. R. Trotta." Many of the photos show a pilot (an officer, fully dressed, usually with a Mae West, sometimes with a holstered pistol, and occasionally headphones), and crew chief (a sergeant, either stripped to the waist or in overalls).

The following photograph shows the stenciled USAAF serial number on the nose.

In the enhanced area, the darker letters read "U.S. ARMY AIR FORCES P-39D-1 SERIAL NO.**41-38359." The larger white letters show the pilot, "Capt. I.A. Erickson," and crew chief, "E.A. Matteo." The plane is nicknamed "Leura."

Pilots and Crew

As shown in the previous pictures, the airplanes were identified with a specific pilot and crew chief. Most likely, the men posing by the aircraft were those assigned to the craft. But the following two pictures suggest that sometimes different pilots posed by the same P-39.

The two pilots are visibly different men also note that the pilot in the upper photo wore his holster strap around his neck the other guy just looped it over one shoulder.

A pilot and ground crewman stand by the tail of this airplane, squadron code "Z." Both men wear heavy combat boots. The enlisted man is holding a cigarette the pilot is wearing a Mae West and a shoulder holster. Note the Marston mat (pierced steel planking), which the engineers laid down to make serviceable runways quickly.

The next image is a P-39D nicknamed "Dud."

A crewman helps a pilot into the cockpit door. The pilot probably is LT C.H. Troxell, whose name is on the plane, but it's not certain.

Another picture of a 35th FS P-39D, identified with a pilot and crew chief:

P-39 of Carpenter and Trotta. Note that this is the second plane assigned to Trotta. Ground crews were responsible for more than one plane.

A photograph below of s/n 41-38349:

Assigned to LT J.E. Watson and SGT Moran, probably the men posing on the wing. Not all of the tail number is visible, but the airplane should be in the 41-38300 sequence.

Throughout these pictures, it is always easy to tell the pilots (officers) from the enlisted ground crew. In part, it's a functional difference: pilots needed their Mae Wests and pistols, while the dirty work of the ground crew called for overalls or (due to the heat) just shorts. But it was also part of the military hierarchical culture that officers and enlisted men were easily distinguished.

Aircraft Decoration and Nose Art

In addition to the functional elements (serial numbers, squadron codes, and assigned crew names), many Airacobras of the 35th sported purely decorative markings (nose art and nicknames).

Below is one of the simplest decorations:

On this aircraft, s/n 41-38366, assigned to LT E.P. Marks, the squadron letter "K" has been embellished to spell out "Kay," maybe the pilot's girlfriend, wife, or mother.

The next picture shows a P-39 with a little more artwork.

On this airplane, s/n 41-38367, the squadron code "L" has been extended to "Lil Elsie" and the door features a painting of a Blyth's Hornbill (a distinctive New Guinean bird with a huge curved beak). Again, a readily identifiable enlisted crewman and pilot pose by it. Note the pilot's headphones.

Following are two photographs of s/n 41-38350(?), featuring imaginative nose art.

A skeleton rides a bomb, or rather flies a bomb, which seems to be equipped with a flight stick. The serial number is barely legible behind the pilot in the lower picture it may not actually be . 350.

Three more pics of P-39s with interesting nose art:

P-39 with helmeted skull on door, assigned to LT Leder.

Papuan Panic (The word "Papuan" cannot be seen even on the large image, but is barely visible on the original photograph.) Note the single small airplane silhouette below the windscreen, most likely a victory marking, for LT J.W. Selzer.

Victory Markings

Lt. Egan apparently shot down two Japanese planes. There were no aces (five victories or more) in the 35th.


These photographs, unlabeled as they are, still provide a lot of insight into the men and machines of the 35th Fighter Squadron, and, by extension, into other American forces in WW2. Of course, the details of the aircraft and the names of the individuals may be of interest to aviation enthusiasts and genealogical researchers.

But there are more general inferences as well. By looking into their serial numbers, one begins to sense the vast number of airplanes that the United States produced during the war. The poses and attire of the pilots and the groundcrew suggest both the camaraderie and the social/hierarchical distinctions that prevailed in those years. The widespread pierced-steel planking laid over the New Guinea jungle suggests the speed and "can-do" attitude of the American military forces.


P-39Q-5-BE warbirdXP-39 first prototype, unarmed YP-39 service test version, V-1710-37 (E5) 1,090 hp engine, 12 built YP-39A intended to have a high-altitude V-1710-31 engine (1,150 hp) but delivered as a regular YP-39, one built. XP-39B streamlined XP-39 based on NACA wind tunnel testing resulting in revised canopy and wheel door shape, oil and radiator intakes moved from right fuselage to wing roots, increased length (by 1 ft 1 in to 29 ft 9 in) and decreased wingspan (by 1 ft 10 in to 34 ft). Turbosupercharger replaced with single-stage geared supercharger, Allison V-1710-37 (E5) engine rated to 13,300 ft (4,050 m). P-39C first production version, identical to YP-39 except for V-1710-35 1,150 hp engine. Armed with 1x 37 mm cannon, 2x .50 cal and 2x .30 cal machine guns. First aircraft lacked armor and self-sealing fuel tanks. P-39D 245 lb of additional armor, self-sealing fuel tanks. Armament increased to 1x 37 mm cannon (30 rounds), 2x .50 cal (200 rounds/gun) and 4x .30 cal (1,000 rounds/gun) machine guns. Provisions for a single 250-lb, 325-lb, or 500-lb bomb under the fuselage. P-39D-1 Lend-Lease version, Hispano 20 mm cannon instead of the 37 mm cannon P-39D-2 Lend-Lease version, upgraded V-1710-63 (E6) engine with 1,325 hp restored the 37 mm cannon provisions for a single 145 US gallon drop tank under the fuselage. Bell Model 14 export version, ordered by France but not delivered. P-400 Airacobra I P-39D for Royal Air Force, briefly called :Caribou: Hispano 20 mm cannon (60 rounds) instead of the 37 mm cannon. A total of 200 were requisitioned by USAAF after Pearl Harbor most were used for training, but some saw service in the Southwest Pacific. XP-39E intended for Continental I-1430-1 engine with 2,100 hp see Bell XP-76 P-39F-1 Aeroproducts constant speed propeller P-39F-2 field conversion of P-39F-1 with additional belly armor and cameras in rear fuselage TP-39F Two-seat training version, built in small numbers. P-39G intended to be a P-39D-2 with an Aeroproducts propeller. Due to modifications during production no P-39G were actually delivered. Instead, these aircraft were designated P-39K, L, M and N. P-39J P-39F with V-1710-59 1,100 hp engine with automatic boost control P-39K P-39D-2 with Aeroproducts propeller and V-1710-63 (E6) 1,325 hp engine one aircraft designated P-39K-5 and fitted with a V-1710-85 (E19) engine to serve as a P-39N prototype P-39L P-39K with Curtiss Electric propeller, revised nose gear for reduced drag, provision for underwing rockets. P-39M 11 ft 1 in Aeroproducts propeller, V-1710-67 (E8) 1,200 hp engine with improved high-altitude performance at the expense of low-altitude performance, 10 mph faster than P-39L at 15,000 ft (4,600 m). P-39N V-1710-85 (E19) 1,200 hp engine Aeroproducts propeller enlarged from 10 ft 4 in to 11 ft 7 in starting with 167th aircraft. The P-39N-5 had reduced armor. P-39Q wing-mounted 0.30 cal machine guns replaced with a single 0.50 cal with 300 rounds of ammunition in a pod under each wing. These wing guns were often removed on Soviet aircraft. P-39Q-21 had a four-bladed Aeroproducts propeller. The P-39Q-30 reverted to a three-bladed propeller because the four-bladed unit worsened directional stability. RP-39Q Two-seat training version, built in small numbers. P-45 The P-45 was the initial designation of the P-39C or Model 13. XFL-1 Airabonita One prototype for the U.S. Navy. F2L Seven P-39s were supplied to the U.S. Navy to be used as target drones. A-7 Proposed radio-controlled target drone, never built. TDL Radio-controlled target drone for the U.S. Navy

American Pilots Hated the P-39 Airacobra - But Russia Loved It

The designers at Bell created a fighter that poorly fit the operational needs of the U.S. military, but that worked just fine for the low-level tactical air war waged by the Soviet Union.

Here's What You Need To Remember: The anecdote shows that fighter planes must be relevant to the purpose they are employed for. In the case of the P-39, a plane that didn't work for the United States turned out to be just what the Red Army needed.

The P-39 Airacobra may be the least loved American fighter plane of World War II, deemed inadequate by military planners at the outset of hostilities and written off as nearly useless by many historians. Certainly, the P-39 could not match the high-altitude performance of classic American warbirds such as the dapper and agile P-51 Mustang, nor the hard-charging, hard-hitting P-47 Thunderbolt.

And yet it was pilots of the Airacobra, not the Thunderbolt or Mustang, that achieved the highest scores of any aviators flying an American war plane during World War II. That this fact is not better known maybe because those Airacobra pilots flew with red Soviet stars on their wings.

Founded in 1935, the Bell Aircraft Corporation was known for unconventional designs such as the Airacuda bomber-destroyer which would have been at home on the cover of a science fiction magazine. In 1939, Bell approached the designs of its prototype XP-39 single-engine interceptor from a revolutionary perspective: instead of designing guns to fit the airplane, Bell designed a plane to fit around its gun — an enormous Oldsmobile T9 37-millimeter automatic cannon shooting throw the propeller hub.

This had a caliber commonly found on early World War II tank guns. It would only take a single direct hit to down an enemy airplane, and the P-39 also carried two additional .50-caliber machine guns in the nose and four .30-caliber weapons in the wings for a good measure.

To make room for the nose-mounted cannon and 30 rounds of ammunition, the P-39’s Allison 12-cylinder V-1710 inline engine was mounted behind the cockpit — you can even see the exhaust just below the rear canopy — with the propeller shaft passing between the pilot’s legs.

The design was also the first single-seat fighter to boast a third extending landing gear under the nose in addition to one on each side of the fuselage in a more stable “tricycle” configuration which is now standard. A raised bubble canopy that opened from a side door offered the pilot excellent visibility, and self-sealing fuel tanks and around 200 pounds of armor plating added to initial P-39D production models improved the Airacobra’s survivability.

The XP-39 prototype exhibited a very decent top speed of 380 miles per hour in 1938. However, the Army Air Corps demanded that Bell increase speed even further by trimming away drag-producing elements. Ultimately, the designers settled on eliminating the Airacobra’s turbo-charger air scoop under the fuselage to deal with the drag problem.

This decision proved fatal to the Airacobra’s prospects as a frontline fighter, as aircraft without the turbochargers handled like a brick above altitudes over 15,000 feet. In a few years, the U.S. bombers would sally forth on raids against Nazi Germany conducted at altitudes of 25,000 feet, and German fighters would climb even higher to ambush them.

Furthermore, the Airacobra’s slow climb rate made it terrible at its original role of intercepting high flying enemy bombers. The P-39 centrally-mounted engine also pushed the center of gravity to the rear, making it prone to vicious spins once cannon ammunition was expended from the nose.

Though the P-39 was not generally disliked by its pilots, it would also never have its own pilot’s association, unlike the four other major fighter types of the Army Air Corps.

Prior to the U.S. entry in World War II, the United Kingdom received more than 200 export-model Airacobras known as P-400s, which were downgraded to a 20-millimeter cannon in the propeller hub. But Royal Air Force pilots had fought many high-altitude battles with the Luftwaffe, and hated the Airacobra.

Only 601 Squadron operated the Airacobra, flying the American fighters on a single combat mission before the type was withdrawn from British service. When the first two U.S. Army Air Force fighter groups arrived in England in the summer of 1942, the RAF persuaded the Americans to leave their P-39s behind and use British Spitfires Mark Vs instead.

A few P-39 Army Air Force squadrons did eventually see action in North Africa and Italy. There, they rendered decent service largely in a ground attack role capitalizing on their hefty firepower and good low-altitude handling providing air support for the Allied force in North Africa and Italy, and amphibious landing at Anzio and Southern France.

However, the Airacobra’s initial entry into action proved inauspicious as nearly a score of fighters of the 350th and 81st Fighter Group went off course while transiting from England to Morocco and made forced landings in Portugal. The Portuguese duly confiscated the planes for their own air force, though they were so courteous as to pay the U.S. government $20,000 for each airplane.

The P-39 played a briefer but more prominent role in the Pacific theater. In 1942, Airacobras and older P-40 Warhawks were the only modern Army Air Corps fighters available to hold the line against the initial Japanese onslaught into the South West Pacific. Airacobras engaged in intense air battles supporting marine and army troops on the islands of Guadalcanal and Papua New Guinea.

The poorly regarded fighters traded off a 1:1 kill ratio against more maneuverable Japanese aircraft with more experienced pilots, including the dreaded A6M Zero. However, P-39s repeatedly struggled to climb fast enough to intercept Japanese bombers above 20,000 feet, and its short range of 500 miles limited its effectiveness across the far-flung Pacific Islands.

Nonetheless, Airacobras played a vital role in intercepting Japanese bombers diving down to low altitude to pound Allied shipping. Lt. Bill Fiedler became the only American P-39 ace when he scored five kills over New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, including three Zeros in a row, before tragically perishing in a runway collision.

Airacobras also saw combat in the long-forgotten campaign to take back the Alaskan Islands of Attu and Kiska from Japanese forces, though cold, wet weather would prove a deadlier foe than Japanese cannon shells.

Spare P-39s were passed on to beef up the Australian Air Force (they never saw combat) the Free French (involved in close air support over Italy and Southern France) and the 4th Stormoof the Italian Co-Belligerent Air Force (hitting targets in the Balkans). Unfortunately, these P-39s suffered numerous accidents, leading to the deaths of the Italian ace Teresio Martinoli and the French ace Pierre Le Gloan.

The Soviet Union’s top American fighter

Remember those P-400s the British couldn’t wait to get rid of? Well, the Brits packed off 212 of the fighters via risky Arctic convoys to Murmansk as hand-me-down military aid to a desperate Soviet Union in the winter of 1941–42. Wearily, Soviet pilots spent several months testing these fighters of ill-repute, doing their best to figure out the aircraft’s nasty spin problems.

And funnily enough, the Soviets loved them. Stalin even wrote a personal letter to Roosevelt asking for more! This fondness was not true of all Lend Lease equipment.

The hulking M-3 Grant medium tank was nicknamed the “Coffin for Seven Brothers,” and the Spitfire was deemed too sensitive to the cold. But the P-39 perfectly met Soviet requirements. In the Cobra’s first two months in Soviet service, the 20 Airacobras of the elite 153rd Guards Fighter Regiment operating out of Voronezh shot down 18 bombers and 45 fighters — mostly Junker 88s and Messerschmitt 109s — while only losing eight planes.

Unlike the high-altitude air battles of the strategic bombing campaigns in Western Europe, the majority of air operations over the Eastern Front occurred at low-altitude in support of troops on the ground — a domain in which the P-39’s deficiencies barely mattered.

Furthermore, Soviet airfields were generally close to the frontlines, rendering the Airacobra’s short range irrelevant. Each P-39 also came with its own radio, a rarity amongst World War II Soviet fighters. Combined with more comfortable pilot’s seats and more generous armor plating compared to Soviet designs, the American fighter plane soon earned the affectionate nickname Kobrukshka or “Little Cobra.”

Around 5,000 P-39s were delivered into Soviet service, of which 1,000 were lost to all circumstances. 2,500 of the single-engine fighters were ferried by American and Russian pilots—many of them women—from Buffalo, New York to Alaska, from there across the Bering strait into Russia, and then completed a dangerous run across a chain of Siberian airfields to frontline units in Europe. Another 2,000 were shipped in crates via Allied-occupied Iran.

After the initial batch of P-400s, the Soviets primarily operated the P-39N variant with a more powerful V1070-85 engine that increased maximum speed to 390 miles per hour, and the P-39Q, which swapped the “paint scratching” underwing .30-caliber machine guns for two heftier .50 caliber weapons. However, Soviet mechanics often removed the wing-mounted machine guns entirely to improve performance, as VVS pilots preferred to fly with a smaller number of more accurate fuselage-mounted weapons.

Bell P-39D Airacobra - History

List by USAAF Serial Number
D Model
P-39D 41-6802 pilot Wilde crashed May 12, 1942
P-39D 41-6825 pilot Hooker MIA May 4, 1942
P-39D 41-6909 pilot Lovett crashed May 3, 1942
P-39D 41-6930 pilot Andres force landed April 30, 1942
P-39D 41-6945 pilot Carpenter crashed May 13, 1942
P-39D 41-6951 pilot Faletta force landed May 1, 1942 recovered 1972 Beck Museum
P-39D 41-6956 pilot Schwimmer May 3, 1942
P-39D 41-6970 pilot Ward force landed May 28, 1942, salvaged in 1973 to Port Moresby
P-39D 41-6971 pilot Armstrong MIA May 4, 1942
P-39D 41-6982 pilot Brown crash April 30, 1942
P-39D 41-6783 pilot Angier July 20, 1942
P-39D 41-6800 pilot McGee force landed May 9, 1942
P-39D 41-7043 pilot Kennamer MIA October 12, 1942
P-39D 41-7104 pilot Blose MIA April 22, 1942
P-39D 41-7112 pilot Frush crashed July 27, 1943
P-39D 41-38295 pilot Orick MIA December 23, 1942, 1 missing
P-39D 41-38338 ultimate fate unknown
P-39D 41-38339 pilot Brown MIA September 25, 1943, 1 missing
P-39D 41-38340 pilot Mac Donald MIA July 9, 1943
P-39D 41-38351 pilot Culton Shot down April 12, 1944
P-39D "Papuan Panic" 41-38353 ultimate fate unknown
P-39D 41-38379 assigned Head ultimate fate unknown
P-39D 41-38385 salvaged PNG
P-39D 41-38402 pilot Kimball shot down April 12, 1944
P-39D 41-38485 abandoned at Narewa Airfield
P-39D 41-38499 destroyed on the ground January 17, 1943
P-39D 41-38500 ultimate fate unknown
P-39D 41-38511 destroyed on the ground at Wau Airfield
P-39D 41-38515 ultimate fate unknown
F Model
P-39F 41-7116 pilot Gholson crashed May 29, 1942 survived
P-39F 41-7194 pilot Plunkett crashed June 1, 1942 survived
P-39F 41-7200 pilot Hosford crashed June 1, 1942, remains recovered
P-39F 41-7122 pilot Bland ditched May 17, 1942
P-39F 41-7128 pilot Bland MIA April 30, 1942
P-39F 41-7136 pilot Rice crashed June 16, 1942
P-39F 41-7145 pilot Talbot MIA May 4, 1942
P-39F 41-7148 pilot Foster crashed July 4, 1942
P-39F 41-7153 pilot Hawkins MIA May 27, 1942
P-39F 41-7162 pilot Hornsby force landing May 27, 1942
P-39D 41-7165 pilot Berry MIA August 4, 1942
P-39F 41-7171 force landed and abandoned 7 Mile Drome
P-39F 41-7186 pilot Bevlock force landed April 30, 1942
P-39F 41-7188 pilot Bevlock force landed May 8, 1942
P-39F 41-7191 pilot Chapman MIA May 18, 1942
P-39F 41-7204 pilot Rehrer crashed June 16, 1942
P-39F 41-7207 pilot Chivers MIA May 4, 1942
P-39F 41-7210 pilot McGovern force landed April 26, 1942
P-39F 41-7213 ultimate fate unknown
P-39F 41-7215 pilot Harvey force landed May 1, 1942 salvaged 1971 under restoration
P-39F 41-7216 pilot Yundt force landed May 1, 1942
P-39F 41-7221 piot Shultz MIA May 26, 1942
P-39F 41-7222 pilot Hutcheson crashed June 16, 1942
P-39F 41-7271 pilot Rose crashed June 6, 1942
K Model
P-39K 42-4274 pilot Williams MIA April 7, 1943
P-39K 42-4275 damaged Narewa Airfield on Woodlark Island
P-39K 42-4285 pilot Cook March 23, 1943
P-39K 42-4287 pilot Farron MIA October 15, 1942
P-39K 42-4312 abandoned at Narewa Airfield, salvage 1982 displayed at Classic Jets Museum
P-39K 42-4346 pilot Currie MIA December 16, 1942
P-39K 42-4351 abandoned Tsili-Tsili, parts recovered
P-39K 42-4358 ultimate fate unknown, scrapped
P-39K 42-4362 pilot Tucker MIA December 16, 1942
P-39K 42-4368 parts used in the restoration of P-39K 42-4312
P-39K 42-4393 pilot Dunning crashed January 12, 1943
L Model
P-39L 42-4637 pilot Henderson January 12, 1943
N Model
P-39N piloted by Gilpatrick crashed February 6, 1944
P-39N piloted by McAlarney MIA January 23, 1944
P-39N piloted by Hilbert crashed August 15, 1943 survived
P-39N piloted by Bomar crashed August 15, 1943 survived
P-39N piloted by Mikiska crashed August 15, 1943 survived
P-39N piloted by Topolcany crashed August 15, 1943 KIA
P-39N 42-8740 abandoned at Tadji Airfield recovered 1974 and displayed at Yanks Air Museum
P-39N 42-18403 abandoned at Tsili-Tsili, salvaged 1973, stored at Chino Airport
P-39N 42-18798 pilot Payne MIA September 6, 1943
P-39N 42-18802 ultimate fate unknown, likely scrapped
P-39N 42-18807 landing accident August 25, 1943 near Tadji Airfield
P-39N 42-18811 abandoned Tadji Airfield, salvage 1973 stored at Chino Airport
P-39N 42-18813 pilot Eggud shot down July 6, 1944
P-39N 42-18814 abandoned Tadji salvaged 1974, stored at Chino Airport
P-39N "Rockfort Rocket" 42-18988 ultimate fate unknown
P-39N 42-190?? pilot Eddy MIA August 18, 1943, 1 missing
P-39N 42-19022 pilot Capa MIA September 6, 1943
P-39N "Little Sir Echo / Small Fry" 42-19027 abandoned Tadji Airfield, salvaged 1973 displayed Planes of Fame
P-39N "San Antonio Rose" 42-19039 abandoned Tadji Airfield, salvaged 1973 displayed J. K. McCarthy Museum
P-39N 42-19050 crashed Myola Lake
Q Model
P-39Q 42-19469 pilot Empey MIA January 16, 1944
P-39Q 42-19587 pilot Barrington MIA March 5, 1944
P-39Q 42-19933 pilot Starkey MIA August 13, 1944
P-39Q "Little Rebel" 42-19474 ultimate fate unknown
P-39Q 42-19484 force landed Makin Airfield ultimate fate unknown
P-39Q 42-19939 pilot Zaleski crashed March 6, 1944
P-39Q 42-19949 pilot Roberts MIA January 12, 1944 found post war & remains buried, case unresolved
P-39Q 42-19959 pilot Melville MIA October 28, 1943 near Bulldog, 1 missing, resolved
P-39Q 42-19971 pilot Rosenbloom crashed
P-39Q 42-19987 pilot Pitonyak crashed October 28, 1943, wreckage located, remains recovered and identified 2016, case resolved
P-39Q 42-19991 abandoned Tadji Airifeld, salvaged 1974
P-39Q "Brooklyn Bum 2nd" 42-19993 abandoned at Tadji, salvaged 1974 restored to flying condition
P-39Q "Snooks 2nd" 42-19995 abandoned Tadji Airfield, salvaged 1974, static restoration 1981
P-39Q 42-19999 pilot Sparks MIA July 3, 1944
P-39Q 42-20031 pilot Fenn MIA October 28, 1943 near Bulldog
P-39Q 42-20107 pilot Brown MIA February 22, 1944 wreckage found, remains recovered, case resolved
P-39Q 42-20339 abandoned Tadji Airfield salvaged 1974
P-39Q "Snooks" 42-20351 pilot Harrison MIA May 21, 1944
P-39Q 42-20353 pilot Rice MIA September 2, 1944
P-39Q 42-20355 pilot Diffenderffer crashed April 9, 1944
P-39Q 42-20357 pilot Ronning MIA September 2, 1944
P-39Q "Maxine" 42-20393 ultimate fate unknown
P-39Q-6-BE Photographic Reconassiance Version (P-39Q-5-BE conversion)
P-39Q 42-19991 assigned to the 5th Air Force abandoned Tadji salvaged 1974
P-39Q "Snooks 2nd / Betty Lou 3rd" 42-19995 assigned to the 5th Air Force abandoned Tadji salvaged 1974
P-39Q 42-20013 assigned to the 5th Air Force ultimate fate unknown
P-39Q 44-2451 pilot Bodge MIA over Rabaul March 12, 1944
P-39Q 44-2485 pilot Carpenter force landed December 6, 1943
P-39Q 44-2911 (aka "Miss Lend Lease") recovered 2004, displayed Niagra Aerospace Museum
P-39Q 44-3103 claimed to have flown in Solomons salvaged to Australia
P-39Q 44-3569 pilot Bailey MIA September 2, 1944
P-39Q 44-3887 displayed at USAF museum

List by RAAF Serial Number
D Model
P-39D A53-1 pilot Tutt crashed February 19, 1943
P-39D A53-5 pilot Nette crashed October 26, 1942
P-39D A53-12 pilot Barlow force landed July 1, 1943
P-39D A53-22 transfered to the 5th Air Force September 28, 1943

Soviet Air Force / Lend Lease Aircraft
Q Model
P-39Q 44-2485 pilot Carpenter force landed December 6, 1943
P-39Q 44-2911 (aka "Miss Lend Lease") recovered 2004, displayed Niagra Aerospace Museum

Other Known Aircraft
P-39 pilot Dannacher force landed July 14, 1943 at Wau Airfield
P-39 "Air-A-Cutie" Nose Q ultimate fate unknown
P-39 pilot Glazier MIA December 14, 1942, 1 missing
P-39 pilot Lynch crashed June 16, 1942
P-39 pilot Magre crashed June 16, 1942
P-39 pilot Rose crashed June 25, 1942
P-39 pilot Felker crashed December 3, 1942
P-39 "Sweet Talk" 351 force landed Torokina Airfield
P-39 destroyed Gurney Airfield crashed June 25, 1942
P-39 ditched Fiji ditched into "Spitfire Lagoon"
P-39 crashed Biak crashed circa 1944
P-39 crashed Banak crashed circa 1944
P-39 abandoned 30 Mile Drome removed to PNG Museum, exported 2001 to Australia
P-39 abandoned 30 Mile Drome No 2 removed to PNG Museum, exported 2001 to Australia
P-39 pilot Cohen crashed April 11, 1943
P-39 pilot Keating crashed April 12, 1943
P-39 pilot Ferguson crashed April 12, 1943
P-39 pilot Andres shot down May 28, 1942, pilot survived
P-39 pilot Burley crashed October 11, 1943, pilot killed
P-39 "Nanette" Nose 74 assigned to Park
P-39 pilot Voorhis missing January 16, 1943
P-39 pilot Boyles missing August 12, 1943
P-39 pilot Collins missing March 21, 1944
P-39D displayed Classic Jets includes parts from A53-1
P-39Q piloted by Graham crashed March 1, 1944
P-39 pilot Gillen crashed July 28, 1944
P-39 pilot Plain crashed May 18, 1942
P-39 pilot Kramer ditched September 1943
P-39 Tail 51 operated from 7-Mile Drome June 1942
P-39 Rendova ditched into Rendova Harbor

Bell P-39/P-63 Airacobra & Kingcobra - Warbird Tech Volume 17

Bell P-39/P-63 Airacobra & Kingcobra
Warbird Tech Volume 17
© 1998 Specialty Press
By Frederick A. Johnsen
Reviewed by Ned Barnett
(review copy provided by review author)

Hasegawa just came out with a 1/48th scale P-400 – the export version of the P-39D Airacobra – that is by all accounts (including my own) the best-of-breed. There are other good-to-great kits of the P-39 series by Eduard, Accurate Miniatures (re-released as a post-war air racer) and even the venerable Revell/Monogram kit, which isn’t too bad. And that’s just in 1/48th scale.

That is reason enough to revisit the 1998-issued Warbird Tech book on the P-39 and P-63. This series of 100-page photo-and-text books are of uniformly high quality – interesting to historians and aircraft buffs and extremely welcome for modelers who appreciate seeing the details, as well as the overview. This one is a classic example of the breed.

This book begins with the development of the P-39, a radical and revolutionary aircraft that was largely robbed of its place in American military history by an “official” decision to build the plane without a turbo-supercharger. This lack of supercharging hamstrung the aircraft at any altitude above 15,000 feet – making it useful for ground attack and for aerial combat on the Eastern Front, where high-altitude combat was few and far between. However, for North African and Western European combat – and in air-to-air fighting against the Japanese – the plane was a pale shadow of what it could have been. American combat pilots – except for a relatively few ground-attack fighter units in the Southwest Pacific – were eager to transition out of the ‘Cobras and into something a bit more suited to all-altitude combat.

Fortunately, many P-39s and almost all P-63s – the upgraded redesign of the Airacobra – were Lend-Leased to the Soviets, who knew how to use it in both ground-attack and air-to-air combat. They appreciated the hard-hitting 37mm Oldsmobile-built aircraft cannon and the two .50 caliber Browning heavy machine guns – to enhance performance, the Soviets often stripped off the wing guns as unnecessary. Although this fact was almost a state secret until the fall of the Soviet Union, a significant number of the Soviet’s most successful aces ran up their scores in Bell-built aircraft.

An interesting side-issue covered by this book is the US Navy’s Airabonita – a tail-dragging fighter very similar to (but hardly identical to) the early-model P-39s. The book includes three rare photos and several pages of insightful narrative about the XFL-1 Airabonita, a fascinating “might have been” that never got beyond the prototype stage.

Except for the butt-ugly TP-39Q two-seat trainer, and a single one-off XP-39E (which was really a prototype for the later P-63) the P-39 seemed to stay the same from P-39D to P-39Q. However, the P-63 became the basis of a variety of interesting conversions. One P-63 was used by the Navy – post-war – to test both tricycle landing gear and swept wings on carriers. This paved the way for the FJ-2 Fury and other swept-wing carrier combat aircraft. Another was used to test a “butterfly” tail, such as later appeared on the Beechcraft Bonanza, and discovered that it offered no meaningful performance increase. I’ve built the Navy version – it was an interesting kit-bashed conversion – and have thought about the Butterfly Kingcobra as well.

However, for my money, perhaps the most fascinating conversion – and the only one that saw active service in the USAAF – was the “Pinball.” This was a heavily-armored, sensor-laden but unarmed aircraft that was used to train bomber gunners. These gunner-trainees would use a light .30-caliber machine gun firing frangible bullets – and shoot at the brightly-painted (high-visibility) Pinballs, which flew pursuit-curve attacks for the gunners’ benefit. Every time the target plane was hit, a light bulb in the nose flashed – hence the name. These aircraft saw extensive service in the Southwest US during 1944 and 1945 – and this book not only traces their operational career, but provides detailed drawings highlighting the areas of the Pinballs that were up-armored. If you want to build a Pinball, this book will be extremely helpful. It’s not the only source on the Pinball, but it’s got a lot of useful information – text, photos and line drawings.

Bottom line – you can’t go wrong with Warbird Tech titles. If you’ve got an interest in the P-39 Airacobra or the P-63 Kingcobra – or the prototype US Navy Airabonita – this book is for you. The last time I was at my local Hobbytown USA, I saw one on the shelf, so I presume this book is still in print.

About atcDave

12 Responses to Bell P-400 Airacobra

That is a great epitaph the Plane wanted to return to the ground as quickly as possible.

Yeah it sure made me laugh when I first read it!

Amazing how an aircraft can be so good looking and suffer so on performance — but it did find its niche!
George Welch wasn’t particularly fond of the P-39 and when asked about what he liked about it, he replied “Well, its got 12 hundred pounds of Allison armor plate.”
Your P-400 looks great in the RAF paint scheme. The undersides “Sky/Sky type S” color has always fascinated me. Depending on the lighting, its powder blue, light gray or a greenish grey.

That’s a funny quote, may say a lot about what he thought of the Allison engine too! I believe he had two kills in the type? He was definitely a significant American ace, with kills in the P-40 and P-38 as well so his cynicism is meaningful.
The few pilots I’ve seen who liked the type only flew it in training (like as their first high performance type) or rear areas (like The Canal Zone). Edwards Park’s autobiography is a great read, he not only hated the P-39, he was convinced his particular airplane (“Nanette”) was chicken. But he just loved the Thunderbolt.

British Sky is an interesting color. The Brits had very detailed and exacting rules for aircraft paint (the “S” part is the requirement for a very smooth, low drag texture) and finish. Probably the most exacting of any WW2 combatant. For me, as a modeler, it’s a mixed blessing. The good of it is it’s fairly easy to research colors and markings. The bad is, if I take any liberties I’m wrong with no excuses!
The Lend Lease aircraft can get a little tricky. American companies were allowed to use nearest equivalents on the paint colors, but the British still expected a precise and low drag finish. If memory serves, I think Bell was using a naval color (Gull Grey) as a substitute for Sky. But the funny thing is, the British often rejected the American paint schemes as too sloppy and stripped and repainted the aircraft. At least in the early war years this happened a lot, by 1943 or so they got a lot less picky.
It’s amazing how much time I’ve spent just reading about color!

For years I have argued with friends that Sky Type “S” was not a different color from Sky, but as you pointed out, a texture designation. Thank you!
I agree that the British had detailed and exacting rules, but the Luftwaffe seemed to have had an obsession for more and more complex camouflage schemes!
Researching colors and camouflage schemes can be a hobby onto itself!
I had my doubts that Lend Lease aircraft would be held to British paint specifications — especially interiors. Then I came across a color photo of a RAF Lockheed Hudson with the entry door open and it was not any US interior color, but the British Interior Grey-Green. Guess it depended on how far a manufacturer was willing to go.
You familar with the movie “Mr Blanding’s Builds His Dreamhouse”?i
There’s a scene where the wife is painstakenly describing the color matches for each room with the painter foreman contractor hanging on her ever word, reassuring her he understands exactly. When she leaves, he turns to his worker and they agree — white, green, blue and red. I’m sure thiis scene was first played out by an aircraft manufacturer representative!
As far as “taking liberties”, I feel if you are “in the ballpark”, its fine.
A model of a P-47 with any shade of dark green is acceptable. It’s nice to get as close as you can, but as long as it conveys the cockpit was a dark green, close enough is sufficient. It’s not like you painted the cockpit a totally wrong color like modern Russian Blue-Green.
What I find it hard to stomache is a fluorescent zinc-chromate green cockpit! That just won’t seem to go away!

The “Type S” name does generate controversy! Even in wartime sources there is some debate, which may indicate a number of wartime aircraft were actually painted “wrong”. Which of course is part of the fun in modeling figuring out what, if any, spec your subject is following.
But as near as I can tell, “S” for “smooth” is the most official definition.

You’re completely right about the American builders, there’s a huge range of how compliant they chose to be to British specs. It could even vary from factory to factory a Mustang III built in Burbank might have different colors from one built in Dallas (or is that “colours” if they’re following British specs!). And as I mentioned, a depot or forward unit might chose to redo the whole thing anyway.
German camo is particularly interesting. Although the colors were fairly standardized, patterns were almost always depot applied or modified. Its almost impossible to build any subject without good photos, and that may be part of why German subjects generate so much interest among modelers. The number of different camoflauge schemes is almost one to one with the number of planes built! (yeah, I’m exagerating a little!)
Some of their late war colors get harder to guess as their industrial standards slipped.
Japan is also fascinating. There’s a definite difference between manufacturers, and some types, like the Zero, were built by different manufacurers with no difference in designation. Like Germany, there was also a decrease in paint quality as the war went bad for them. Its amazing how useful a reference like “Japanese Aircraft Interiors” can be (do I expose myself as a nerd to admit I loved that book!).

When painting, I usually try to start as close to the factory specs as I can for any color. Obviously I improvise as needed for any number of reasons, and weather based on age and environmental issues.
The old “Chromate Green” thing is funny. I remember as a kid I put that color on every interior! It was probably the first interior color I ever knew. I think by High School I knew that other countries used different colors. But it wasn’t until I got into this as an adult I realized it was even more complex yet like how Chromate Yellow, Chromate Green, Interior Green and Black might all be on the interior of one aircraft. And that Bell and Republic had their own interior shades. And, just, oof. I try to follow specs, but keep an open mind on variations.

It makes me laugh how much I can write now about colors. But hey, you started it!

And yeah I’ve seen “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dreamhouse”. That’s a family favorite for us. My wife is an Interior Designer and she laughs so hard at that one! Great movie.

The Bell should have kept the B-5 turbo secretly, and when it was refined, do a demonstration mock dogfight.
The P-400 export version was denied even the standard supercharger, if I’m not mistaken.
The RAF should have converted these with a Mk II Hispano 20mm cannon in place of the US reject version and a Merlin in place of the Allison. They changed the US 0.30 Cal wing guns to their own 0.303 but stopped there. Why not tackle the bigger problems? Just the decent cannon and high altitude engine would’ve transformed this fighter into a winner and the RAF could school the USAAC with their competent interceptor.

The XP-39 prototype did 398 mph without guns and climbed to 20,000′ in 5 minutes or less.
The P-400 in the RAF did 355 mph with guns and climbed to 20,000′ in 15 minutes!
You can see why the RAF wanted to sue for false advertising. The added guns didn’t account for that much difference. It’s the turbo-supercharger. True, it was cutting edge and unrefined, but look at the alternative. These P-400s were originally destined for France which fell, so got diverted to the UK. At that point they were safe from the enemy. They should not have been without the standard P-39 superchargers (as if the Bf 109 might improve by capturing it). So the P-400 wasn’t as bad as the P-39, it was worse!

The what if? solution of the cannon and engine conversion could go a bit further too.
The P-400 had short combat radius like all P-39s. Another flaw was the extra long take-off run.
This complicated missions logistics. On top of that, gun reloading and maintenance took forever due to lack of access. These 3 problems could be easily solved:
1. Swap the wing guns for added fuel for better combat radius.
2. Swap the nose-wheel for a tail-wheel. The Bell Navy XFL-1 version of the Cobra was a tail dragger and was airborne from carriers! Take-off run was perhaps the best thing about it.
3. Enlarge the panels for quicker servicing.
Mission planning would not be limited to long airfields too close to the front, with only half the
P-400s ready to go.

This brings us to the accident rate. Poor directional stability was not helped by reducing the span of the XP-39 for speed and then adding a ton more weight. The added length made it tail heavy. This lends itself to swapping the nose-wheel for a tail-wheel as well. Any additional P-400s sent from Bell could have the 1′ bigger wings of the Bell XFL-1, but keeping the strong main-wheels unchanged, and the wing scoops intact for speed vs the under-wing scoops that slowed the Airabonita too much. The 232 S.F. wing would help handling stability, as well as allow even more fuel for range, which was about 1,000 miles clean for the XFL-1. This is assuming the RAF liked a P-400 with a RR Merlin and their own cannon and wanted more. If they really like their RAF cannons, they could put 2 more Mk II Hispanos in the wings and still have decent range. If that makes it too heavy, the cowl guns could go. These fifty Cals. had up to 60% reduction in RoF anyway.
The spin problem could be managed by adjusing the placement of the 3 cannons and their ammo.
The P-39 was notorious for turn-spin after the 30 rounds of 37mm ammo were spent, magnifying the tail-heavy bias beyond trim margins. The 20mm in the nose could be pushed forward to the limit and nose-ammo increased so as not to run out before the wing cannons. Then return to base with some ammo left. The wing ammo could be behind the ‘cg’ to offset the nose ammo spent. If They prefer to keep the wings gun-free and keep the 0.50 Cals, the same can be done with the cowl gun ammo, moving it behind the ‘cg’ straddling the pilot with long barrels. Muzzles could be in the chin position like the early Mustang. This would mean much less firepower but better roll-rate, agility, speed, climb, and safer turn-stall, I would do both depending on enemy fighters or bombers.

Some very interesting comments Ron! Like so many wartime projects there is always the possibility they were abandoned too soon in the rush to get things built. How the Airacobra would have performed with a Merlin is certainly intriguing “what if”.
And really, Bell did eventually get it right with the P-63. That really did deliver on the Airacobra’s promise. But at that point other types, especially Thunderbolt and Mustang offered equal or better performance. Which sort of begs the question, could a different improvement program have delivered a better package any sooner? I would guess not, but it is fun thinking on such fantasy projects. I’d love to see a scale model of your proposal!

Thanks for the feedback.
The RAF had the chops to do justice to the P-400.
I can’t excuse them for not trying their 20mm Hispano Mk II cannon in place of the US M1 version at the very least. Fail rate: 1 per 1,500 vs 1 per 40 rounds for the M1.

Yeah I’ve heard that gun was one of the least popular aspects of the plane.
It’s interesting too though that the Soviets had good success with various Airacobras models, even (depending on who we believe!) to say some writers consider it one of their more effective types. The Luftwaffe even showed some respect for Soviet Airacobras, well, as much respect as they ever showed for anything Soviet.

Watch the video: Piece of Junk? Why the P-39 Was So Hated (June 2022).


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