Conceived by Lawrence Dale Bell and made practicable by his gifted chief engineer, Robert J. Woods, the P-39 emerged from two ideas for fighters that sought to improve maneuverability by locating the engine near the center of gravity, using a ten-foot shaft to connect it to the propeller. The Bell Model 3, with the cockpit placed far aft behind the engine, afforded poor visibility for the pilot, so the Model 4, with the pilot sitting just ahead of the engine, was selected for development, using an Allison V-1710-E4 engine with a B5 turbosupercharger. Never a man to stop at one novel approach when a second or third would be even better, Bell also proposed installing a 25mm cannon, which would fire through the propeller shaft, and a tricycle landing gear arrangement. His proposal was approved on October 7, 1939, and the first XP-39 was completed in March 1939, with the cannon’s bore increased to 37mm at the Army Air Corps’ request, along with two synchronized .50-caliber machine guns placed in the nose.
The prototype was flown under a veil of secrecy on April 6, with James Taylor at the controls, and achieved a speed of 390 miles per hour at twenty thousand feet. Severe cooling problems were encountered, so the oil-cooler scoops on the fuselage sides were enlarged. As the promising design made the transition from testing to acceptance, the Army abandoned the supercharger, a measure that facilitated production and maintenance, but which sacrificed a critical amount of performance. The oil-cooler intakes were relocated from the fuselage sides to the wing roots, a carburetor intake was installed behind the canopy, and covers were added over the main wheels. Two additional .30-caliber machine guns were also installed in the fuselage.
While the turbosupercharger had been removed, the extensive modifications that the Army Air Corps had had done to the P-39 raised its empty weight from about 4,000 pounds to over 5,600 pounds. Its maximum speed was reduced to 375 miles per hour at 15,000 feet, but the Army Air Corps was satisfied and ordered 80 P-45s, as the revised fighters were initially called, although that designation was later changed back to P-39C. After 20 P-39Cs were built, a small dorsal fillet was added to the vertical stabilizer, and the gun arrangement was changed to one 37mm cannon and two .50-caliber machine guns in the nose, and four .30-caliber machine guns in the wings. In that form, the remaining 60 planes—followed by 369 in a follow-up order—were designated P-39D. In addition to the American order, on May 8, 1940, the British Purchasing Commission ordered 675 of the fighters under the name of Caribou, later changed to Airacobra Mark I. Export Airacobras were to use a 20mm cannon in place of the 37mm, and 175 of them were repossessed by the US Army Air Forces in December 1941 and given the designation P-400.
The only operational British unit equipped with Airacobras was No. 601 “County of London” Squadron of the Auxiliary Air Force, which received its new planes in August 1941. The squadron flew its first desultory low-level strafing mission, or “Rhubarb,” on October 9, when two planes left Marston airfield, crossed the Channel and attacked a German trawler, although its ultimate fate went unrecorded. Two more Airacobras flew over the same area the next day, but found nothing and returned without firing a shot. On October 11, two Airacobras attacked German barges near Gravelines and Calais, while three planes scouted the area around Ostende.
Those four missions in three days constituted the entirety of the Airacobra’s fighting career in the RAF. Problems with the plane’s compass was the official reason for grounding 601 Squadron’s fighters. But in spite of the superior maneuverability displayed by the Airacobra when pitted against a captured Messerschmitt Me 109E, its rate of climb was inferior to those of both the Me 109E and the Supermarine Spitfire Mark VB, and it was clearly no match for the new Me 109Fs and Focke-Wulf Fw 190As that it would be more likely to encounter. “Iron Dog” became the third British term for the P-400, courtesy of its disgusted pilots, as 601 Squadron stood down until it was reequipped with Spitfire VBs in March 1942.
While the Channel Front had stabilized enough for Britain to afford to hold off using its Airacobras in earnest, the situation in the South Pacific in early 1942 offered no such luxury. In March, the American 8th Pursuit Group was shipped to Australia. From there, in early April it moved to Port Moresby, New Guinea, which had been under increasing pressure from units of the Japanese Navy Air Force, operating from bases at Lae and Salamaua, since February 3.
Petty Officer First Class Saburo Sakai’s memoirs refer to victories over P-39s as early as April 11, 1942, but these have since turned out to be Curtiss Kittyhawks of the Royal Australian Air Force. The 35th and 36th Pursuit Squadrons of the 8th Pursuit Group settled in at Port Moresby much later, on April 26, and the first encounter between the group’s Airacobras and the vaunted Zeros actually occurred on April 30, when Lt. Col. Boyd D. Wagner, commander of V Fighter Command, led eleven drop-tank-equipped P-39Ds of the 35th and 36th Squadrons on their first major sweep. Crossing the Owen Stanley Mountains at twenty thousand feet and then descending to a hundred feet above Huon Gulf, they surprised the Japanese at Lae, with four Airacobras leading the pack to draw off any patrolling Japanese fighters they encountered; the rest of “Buzz” Wagner’s force achieved complete surprise, heavily damaging nine bombers and three fighters on Lae airfield.
As Wagner led his pilots to carry out a similar strafe of Salamaua, the Tainan Kokutai scrambled up after the departing Airacobras, catching up with and attacking the last four in the formation as it was departing Salamaua. Seven other P-39 pilots turned to assist their comrades, and the resulting dogfight ranged thirty miles up the coast and back. Although a number of Americans claimed to have scored hits on their opponents, only Wagner’s somewhat ambiguous claims were officially confirmed, adding three victories to the five already credited to him over the Philippines. The Tainan Kokutai’s only recorded loss in the action was Petty Officer 2nd Class Hideo Izumi, killed in action.
The Americans lost four planes, but only one pilot, 2nd Lt. Edwin D. Durand of the 35th Squadron, was killed; last seen going down twenty miles south of Salamaua, he was later reported to have been captured and executed by the Japanese. First Lieutenant Arthur E. Andres, his 35th Squadron P-39 hit by antiaircraft fire, force landed eighteen miles south of Buna, but with the help of local natives he made his way back to Port Moresby on May 27. In the 36th Squadron, 1st Lt. James J. Bevlock ran out of fuel and crash-landed on a beach, but natives helped him get back on May 2, while 1st Lt. Paul G. Brown went down due to coolant loss. He, too, returned after running into Australian soldiers, who sent him home with the added charge of a Japanese pilot they had captured.
All things considered, the P-39 had acquitted itself reasonably well in its first action, but the shoe was on the other foot on May 1, when Port Moresby’s Seven-Mile Drome came under a strafing attack by seven Tainan Kokutai Zeros. Five P-39s of the 36th Pursuit Squadron intercepted them, and in the low-level melee that followed, 2nd Lt. Donald McGee chased a Zero that was on another Airacobra’s tail, and after scoring hits in its fuselage, saw it veer off to the left and explode in the jungle. He, in turn, was attacked by Zeros that shattered his canopy and damaged his plane before they departed, probably short of fuel. First Lieutenant David Campbell of the 36th also claimed a Zero, and the Americans claimed three others damaged. The only Japanese loss, however, was McGee’s victim, Petty Officer 1st Class Yoshisuke Arita, whose body was later found about a mile from Seven-Mile Drome.
The Tainan Kokutai, including its most skilled ace, Petty Officer 1st Class Hiroyoshi Nishizawa, made the more extravagant claim of eight victories. The principal American losses were the P-39 of 1st Lt. John Mainwaring, who crash-landed, and McGee’s, which was badly shot up but was restored to flyability using parts cannibalized from Mainwaring’s wreck.
In the month that followed, the 8th Pursuit Group claimed forty Japanese planes destroyed, but at a cost of twenty-five of its own planes in combat, eight in forced landings, and three destroyed on the ground. The group was relieved by the 35th Pursuit Group shortly thereafter, but that outfit was to fare no better with its P-39Ds and P-400s, the latter of which was derisively referred to by its crews as “a P-39 with a Zero on its tail.”
By July 1942, the USAAF had issued orders that P-39 pilots were not to engage enemy aircraft in air-to-air combat over any front, unless circumstances compelled them to do so. In spite of the appalling losses they suffered, the Airacobra pilots did their best to hold the line in the Pacific until the arrival of better fighters made it possible for them to relegate their planes to the fighter-bomber and reconnaissance roles. The RAF had already abandoned the Airacobra, but Free French pilots flew P-39s over North Africa and the Mediterranean when there was nothing else available, and so did members of the Regia Aeronautica after Italy changed over to the Allied side in September 1943. There is only one American P-39 ace, William Fiedler at Guadalcanal, killed in an accident on June 30, 1943, hit by a P-38 while waiting for take-off. Francis Dubisher had 4 victories on the P-39. Don McGee had three victories, one of which was on the P-400.
The Bell Airacobra was despised by both the Americans and the RAF, the RAF so much so that they refused to accept it, even during a period of great need in the summer of 1941. Yet, it proved the most appreciated of all lend-lease aircraft provided to the Russians, and one of the most successful fighters in VVS service. The Russians actually preferred it to the P-47. Consequently, the Russians received over half of all Airacobras produced (212 Airacobra I, 108 P-39D, 40 P-39K, 347 P-39L, 157 P-39M, 1113 P-39N and 3291 P-39Q), and about three quarters of the later Kingcobra. Unfortunately, histories of these Bell fighters give only passing, and generally erroneous mention of the Eastern Front. Interesting though the South Pacific campaign is, the Cobra’s record really was written in Russia.
First let’s correct the popular myth that the Russians were so successful with the P-39 because they used it as a ground attack aircraft taking advantage of the tank-killing qualities of its heavy cannon. Please! First, the P-39’s cannon was not effective against anything but lightly armored vehicles. Remember the Hurricane IID’s 40mm proved ineffective against serious armor, as did the 30mm guns of the HS-129A. The Ju-87G used a special tungsten-core ammunition, and even then could breach the armor on Soviet tanks only at the thinnest points. Dr. Alfred Price recently published statistics calling into question the myth of the WW II aerial tank-buster. Even the Il-2 Shturmovik found its guns, with anti-armor ammunition, generally ineffective. For anti-tank work it used the RS-82 and RS-132 rockets, and more importantly the PTAB-100 anti-tank cluster bomb, with shaped-charge bomblets. As “tank-busters” all of these aircraft were “busts”. Thin-skin vehicles and other soft ground targets were a different matter entirely. But for those targets even light caliber machine guns would also be effective. An I-153 could be as effective a truck-buster as a shturmovik or P-39. Also, there is no instance of the VVS equipping any ground attack unit with the Cobra. In 1945 one such regiment was re-equipped with the P-63, but was redesignated as a fighter regiment. Since the Soviets produced over 36,000 Il-2 shturmoviks, they did not need to assign any P-39s. Part of the confusion is due to the fact that the Soviets used the term “ground support” to include not only ground attack in the western sense, but also air coverage of their own troops, interception of German recon and spotting missions, and any other air combat mission in immediate support of their ground forces, including escort of Il-2s. Of course, it is true that during the course of the war Soviet Cobra units did conduct many ground attack missions, but so did every other fighter used at the front. The same can be said for the American P-51s and P-47s of the 8th Fighter Command, which have never been considered “ground attackers”. The truth is simpler. During the war, capable fighters were what the Russians needed most, and they used and loved the P-39 as a fighter.
Three of the Russians’ top four aces, Aleksandr Pokryshkin (59 individual and 6 shared), Nikolai Gulaev (57 & 4), and Grigorii Rechkalov (56 & 5) used the Airacobra for the majority of their kills. Of the 14 Soviet aces who scored more than 40 individual victories, thus ranking as the “all-allied” leading aces, 6 were P-39 pilots, (Dmitrii Glinka with 50; Pavel Golovachev with 43; and Aleksei Aleliukhin with 40 & 17 victories). Of their top 43 aces scoring 25 or more kills, 16, better than a third were “Cobrsty”. It was flown during the war by at least 44 fighter regiments (IAP) of 441 that have been identified, and 8 of 36 naval fighter air regiments. There might have been even more, since I have been unable to identify the type of aircraft flown by 43 of the PVO interceptor fighter regiments located in quiet regions. Some of these may have had Airacobras as well.
The first Airacobras received were 212 of the British Airacobra Mk I rejects which were shipped to Arkhangel in December 1941. They wore the standard RAF camouflage and kept their RAF serials which were in the AH, AP, BW & BX blocks.. Some even kept the “Sky Type S” fuselage band. Stars were placed on both wing surfaces and the fuselage. Confusingly, on some machines, the standard RAF camouflage was the older dark green and dark earth, while others sported the newer dark green and ocean gray. They were soon joined by 108 ex-USAAC, P-39D-1 and P-39D-2 Airacobras wearing standard American olive drab camouflage. On the P-39Ds, the red star was painted in all six positions. Where there had been US insignia it was painted directly over the white star, appearing within the dark blue circle. On the P-39Ds, the white “bort number” was painted on the fuselage behind the star, but in the case of the ex-British aircraft, the number was painted on the tail fin where the RAF fin flash had been previously. Even though these aircraft arrived in winter, they were not given the winter whitewash since they were in a rear area, and when they finally entered combat, it was May 1942, but the next winter white camouflage was already going out of style. While there have been documented instances of Airacobras in winter camouflage, they seem to have been the exception.
One peculiarity was that the Soviets initially did not equip their regiments completely with Airacobras. Each regiment receiving Airacobras had to take a squadron of Kittyhawks as well, so that a regiment would have only its first two squadrons with Cobras. This was intended to stretch the supply of the preferred Cobra and to find a home for the less desired Kittyhawk. When the later models of the P-39 became available in large quantity, IAPs converted to a pure Cobra organization.
The 19 Guards IAP (145 IAP till 3/7/42) was the first Soviet unit to take the Airacobra into action, entering combat near Murmansk on May 15, 1942. The regiment had 16 Airacobras (AH618, 619, 660, 664, 679, 692, 697, 703, 707-709, 713, 724) and 10 Kittyhawks. On their second day in action the regiment lost AH660, flown by I. D. Gaidaenko, who was shot down by BF-109s and made a forced landing. Among the most famous pilots of the 19th Guards was Pavel Kutakhov who finished the war as a Major with 14 individual and 28 shared victories, and later in the 1970s was promoted to Marshal and C-in-C of the Russian Air Forces. By the end of 1943 the regiment had flown 7451 sorties and claimed 171 kills, for the loss of 46 pilots (35 in combat), and lost 86 aircraft (59 shot down). Of their losses, 20 were Airacobras (3 non-combat).
Even more famous were the units which received the P-39Ds and operated in the south, over the Caucasus, and the Kuban. The most famous units here were the16 GIAP,100 GIAP, and 104 GIAP which were formed into the 9 Guards Fighter Air Division (9 GIAD), the Soviet counterpart of the 56 Fighter Group or JG-52. During the war the 9 GIAD flew 33,654 sorties, claimed 1147 kills, and included 46 pilots with the HSU, 3 twice-HSU, and one three times HSU – Aleksandr Pokryshkin. The 16 GIAP, Pokryskhin’s regiment, alone accounted for 697 of the kills and had 15 of the HSUs, 2 of the 2xHSUs, and 1 3xHSU pilot. All three units had distinguished themselves from the first day of the war flying other aircraft. The first of its regiments to convert to the Cobra was the 45 IAP (100 G IAP from 7/43) which was withdrawn from combat in late October 1942 and returned in February 1943 with 10 P-39D-2, 11 P-39K-1, and 9 P-40E. Next was the 298 IAP (104 G IAP from 8/21/43) which re-equipped with the P-39D-2 and P-39K-1 and returned to the southern front in March 1943. The Regimental officers and squadron commanders and political officers received the K model, while the flight leaders and line pilots got the Ds. In April the famous 16 Guards IAP followed, receiving 14 P-39L-1, 7 P-39K-1, and 11 P-39D-2. They returned to the combat over the Kuban and Crimea which the Russians consider to have been the battles which broke the back of the Luftwaffe in Russia, and much of the credit is given to the 9 GIAD. Another equally famous regiment flying over the Kuban and Crimea was the 9 Guards Fighter Regiment, which began the war flying the I-16 over the Crimea and converted to the P-39 from the Yak-1. During the war the 9 GIAP scored 558 Kills and had 26 pilots with HSU, including Aleliukhin (40 & 17 kills), Lavrinenkov (35 & 11 kills), and Amet-Khan (30 & 19 kills) who each received the award twice.
One reason the P-39 prospered in Russia was that combat seldom took place above 10,000 feet, and usually lower. When strafing, flying FLAK suppression, or escorting Il-2s, they often flew at virtual ground level, called “shaving”. The Russians liked the P-39’s heavy armament, and considered it to be quite maneuverable, particularly in the vertical plane. When the later versions arrived with the underwing gondola machine guns, these were removed by the Russians. Also very notable to the Soviets were the P-39’s radio, far superior to native product and superior instrumentation and accommodations. Even though the cockpit may have been cramped by American standards, the physically smaller Russians considered it comfortable, and in winter warm, and throughout the war Western cockpit glass was better quality and more transparent than on Russian aircraft. Initially, they had some difficulty adjusting to its spinning characteristics and to the nosewheel gear, but soon mastered these. Another Russian insight was that you did not want to bail out of an Airacobra, since exiting the side door made hitting the tail much more likely. However, they considered it’s shape perfect for belly-landing .
A summary list of the Soviet units flying the P-39 is 1 GIAD (54, 55 GIAP & 53, 56 GIAPS with Yak-9), 5 GIAD (28, 67, 68, 72 GIAP), 9 GIAD (16, 100, 104, and later 159 GIAP), 22 GIAD (129, 212, 213 GIAP & 116 GIAP with Yak-3), 23 GIAD (21, 69 GIAP), 329 IAD (57G, 101G, 66 IAP), 190 IAD (17 IAP & 2 unidentified), 9 GIAP (303 IAD), 19 GIAP, 20 GIAP, 30 GIAP, 102 G IAP, 103 G IAP, 9, 159, 185 (disbanded), 191, 196, 246, 255 (transferred to naval aviation), 295, 352, 416, 484, 494, 821 IAPs of Frontal Aviation, 28, 403, 631, 738, & 908 IAPs of PVO, and 2 G IAP (NF), 11 GIAP (BSF), 7 (NF), 20 (NF), 31 (POF), 43 (BSF), 78 (NF), and 255 (NF) IAPs of Naval aviation.
Since the Airacobra was such a success in Russia, naturally the Soviets would be a major recipient of its bigger brother, the P-63. They were sent 2456 Kingcobras, flown across the Al-Sib ferry route, of which 2421 actually arrived, including both major variants, the P-63A and P-63C. However, contrary to Dorr and other western authors, it did not prove to be a potent tank-buster. It never got a chance. Only in September 1944 did the first P-63 begin it’s long journey across two continents, from Buffalo, New York to Russia. By May 1945 there were only 51 P-63As in service, assigned to PVO air defense regiments, which by that stage of the war had little real chance of combat. Consequently, the P-63 never got to show its stuff against either a panzer or a “messer”. However, the P-63 did see brief combat in Russian service. Soviet units continued reequipping after the German surrender. Many P-63s went to Soviet units assigned to the Far East and Transbaikal Fronts preparing for war against Japan. The 12th Air Army of the Trasnbaikal Front equipped its 245 IAD, consisting of the 940 and 781 IAPS. This Air Army was reinforced after the German surrender by the transfer from the west of the 190 IAD which included the 17 IAP and 21 IAP, both of which replaced their P-39Q and La-5 fighters with the Kingcobra. One of the pilots of the 17 IAP was Captain Viacheslav Sirotin, HSU, a 21 victory ace. On August 15, he and his wingman, Junior Lieutenant Miroshnichenko caught 2 Japanese fighters (either Ki-27 or Ki-43, the records are unclear), and shot down one of them. This was the Kingcobra’s only aerial victory – ever.
In July 1945 the 128 SAD (mixed air division), with the 888 IAP and 410 ShAP (assault air regiment) based on Kamchatka converted to the P-63. The Shturmovik Regiment at this time was redesignated as Fighter. Interestingly, the 888 IAP was the very last regiment flying the old I-16; transition to the 410 mph, tricycle gear P-63A must have made an impression! Also, during the summer of 1945 the 7 IAD of the Pacific Ocean Fleet received several dozen aircraft in time to fly them during the brief hostilities.
After the war re-equipment with the Kingcobra continued at an accelerated pace, including several former P-39 air divisions, and other units as well. Notable were the 5 GIAD based in the Baltic district, the 269 IAD in Armenia, the 6 GIAD in the Ukraine, and the 1 GIAD based at Neuhausen, Germany. Other units based in Austria and China also flew the P-63. During this time 25 P-63s were converted to P-63U two seat conversion trainers. By the early 1950s the P-63 was replaced by the MiG-9 and MiG-15, but a few regiments continued to use them fairly late. The 307 and 308 IAPs continued flying the P-63 in the Kurile Islands through the end of 1951. There has been no report of the P-63 being passed along to the Koreans, Chinese or European satellite air arms.
One of the last incidents of the Kingcobra’s career happened in 1952 when two USAF jets mistakenly (?!) shot up Sukhaya Rechka airfield outside of Vladivostok. The Soviet losses consisted of 8 P-63s, which they maintain had already been decommssioned. A sad and ignominious end for a warbird’s career.
Sources: Wings of Fame 10 with its article on the P-39 by Robert Doerr; Roman, V., Aerokobry vstupaiut v boi: Bell P-400, P-39D-1, P-39D-2, Seriia istrebiteli 1, Aerokhobbi, Kiev 1993; Bakurskaia, Evgeniia, Chief Editor. Kryl’ia – daidzhezt vypusk 3, Seriia Samolety mira Istrebitel’ P-63, AviaKosm, Moscow 1997, and notes from a number of Soviet aces’ memoirs. FIGHTER AIRCRAFT COMBAT DEBUTS, 1915–1945. Innovation in Air Warfare Before the Jet Age, JON GUTTMAN.