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Design & Development
Circular Proposal X-609
In February 1937, Lieutenant Benjamin S. Kelsey, Project Officer for Fighters at the United States Army Air Corps (USAAC), and Captain Gordon P. Saville, fighter tactics instructor at the Air Corps Tactical School, issued a specification for a new fighter via Circular Proposal X-609. It was a request for a single-engine high-altitude "Interceptor" having "the tactical mission of interception and attack of hostile aircraft at high altitude". Despite being called an Interceptor, the proposed aircraft's role was simply an extension of the traditional pursuit (fighter) role, using a heavier and more powerful aircraft at higher altitude. Specifications called for at least 1,000 lb of heavy armament including a cannon, a liquid-cooled Allison engine with a General Electric turbo-supercharger, tricycle landing gear, a level airspeed of at least 360 mph (580 km/h) at altitude, and a climb to 20,000 ft (6,100 m) within 6 minutes; the toughest set of specifications USAAC had presented
to that date. Although Bell's limited fighter design work had previously resulted in the unusual Bell YFM-1 Airacuda, the Model 12 proposal adopted an equally original configuration with an Allison V-12 engine mounted in the middle of the fuselage, just behind the cockpit, and a propeller driven by a shaft passing beneath the pilot's feet under the cockpit floor.
Bell XP-39 showing the position of the supercharger air intake.
The main purpose of this configuration was to free up space for the heavy main armament, a 37 mm Oldsmobile T9 cannon firing through the center of the propeller hub for optimum accuracy and stability when firing. This happened because H.M. Poyer, designer for project leader Robert Woods, was impressed by the power of this weapon and pressed for its incorporation. This was unusual, because fighters had previously been designed around an engine, not a weapon system. Although devastating when it worked, the T9 had very limited ammunition, a low rate of fire, and was prone to jamming.
A secondary benefit of the mid-engine arrangement was to create a smooth and streamlined nose profile. Much was made of the fact that this resulted in a configuration “with as trim and clean a fuselage nose as the snout of a high velocity bullet”. Entry to the cockpit was through side doors (mounted on both sides of the cockpit) rather than a sliding canopy. Its unusual engine location and the long drive shaft caused some concern to pilots at first, but experience showed this was no more of a hazard in a crash landing than with an engine located forward of the cockpit. There were no problems with prop shaft failure.
The XP-39 made its maiden flight on 6 April 1938. at Wright Field, Ohio, achieving 390 mph (630 km/h) at 20,000 ft (6,100 m), reaching this altitude in only five minutes. However, the XP-39 was found to be short on performance at altitude. Flight testing had found its top speed at 20,000 feet to be lower than the 400 mph claimed in the original proposal.
As originally specified by Kelsey and Saville, the XP-39 had a turbo-supercharger to augment its high-altitude performance. Bell cooled the turbo with a scoop on the left side of the fuselage. Kelsey wished to shepherd the XP-39 through its early engineering teething troubles, but he was ordered to England. The XP-39 project was handed off to others, and in June 1939 the prototype was ordered by General Henry H. Arnold to be evaluated in NACA wind tunnels to find ways of increasing its speed, by reducing parasitic drag. Tests were carried out, and Bell engineers followed the recommendations of NACA and the Army to reduce drag such that the top speed was increased 16%. NACA wrote, "it is imperative to enclose the supercharger within the airplane with an efficient duct system for cooling the rotor and discharging the cooling air and exhaust gases." In the very tightly planned XP-39, though, there was no internal space left over for the turbo. Using a drag buildup scheme,
a number of potential areas of drag reduction were found. NACA concluded that a top speed of 429 mph could be realized with the aerodynamic improvements they had developed and an uprated V-1710 with only a single-stage, single-speed supercharger.
At a pivotal meeting with the USAAC and NACA in August 1939, Larry Bell proposed that the production P-39 aircraft be configured without the turbocharger. Some historians have questioned Bell’s true motivation in reconfiguring the aircraft. The strongest hypothesis is that Bell’s factory didn’t have an active production program and he was desperate for cash flow. Other historians mention that wind tunnel tests made the designers believe the turbocharger installation was so aerodynamically cluttered that it had more disadvantages than advantages.
The Army ordered 12 YP-39s (with only a single-stage, single-speed supercharger) for service evaluation and one YP-39A. After these trials were complete, which resulted in detail changes including deletion of the external radiator, and on advice from NACA, the prototype was modified as the XP-39B; after demonstrating a performance improvement, the 13 YP-39s were completed to this standard, adding two .30 in machine guns to the two existing .50 in guns. Lacking armor or self-sealing fuel tanks, the prototype was one ton (900 kg) lighter than the production fighters.
The production P-39 retained a single-stage, single-speed supercharger with a critical altitude (above which performance declined) of about 12,000 feet (3,660 m). As a result, the aircraft was simpler to produce and maintain. However, the deletion of the turbo destroyed any chance that the P-39 could serve as a medium-high altitude front-line fighter. When deficiencies were noticed in 1940 and 1941, the lack of a turbo made it nearly impossible to improve upon the Airacobra's performance. The cure for the drag problem was worse than the drag itself. In later years, Kelsey expressed regret at not being present to override the decision to eliminate the turbo.
After completing service trials, and originally designated P-45, a first order for 80 aircraft was placed 10 August 1939; the designation reverted to P-39C before deliveries began. After assessing aerial combat conditions in Europe, it was evident that without armor or self-sealing tanks, the 20 production P-39Cs were not suitable for operational use. The remaining 60 machines in the order were built as P-39Ds with armor, self-sealing tanks and enhanced armament. These P-39Ds were the first Airacobras to enter into service with the Army Air Corps units and would be the first ones to see action.
The P-39 was an all-metal, low-wing, single-engine fighter, with a tricycle undercarriage and an Allison V-1710 liquid-cooled V-12 engine mounted in the central fuselage, directly behind the cockpit.
The Airacobra was one of the first production fighters to be conceived as a "weapons system"; in this case the aircraft (known originally as the Bell Model 4) was designed around the 37mm T9 cannon. This weapon, which was designed in 1934 by the American Armament Corporation, a division of Oldsmobile, fired a 1.3 lb (610 g) projectile capable of piercing .8 in (2 cm) of armor at 500 yd (450 m) with armor-piercing rounds. The 200 lb, 90 inch long weapon had to be rigidly mounted and fire parallel to and close to the centerline of the new fighter. It would be impossible to mount the weapon in the fuselage, firing through the propeller shaft as could be done with smaller 20mm cannon. Weight, balance and visibility problems meant that the cockpit could not be placed farther back in the fuselage, behind the engine and cannon. The solution adopted was to mount the cannon in the forward fuselage and the engine in the center fuselage, directly behind the pilot's seat. The tractor prop
eller was driven via a 10-foot-long (3.0 m) drive shaft which was made in two sections, incorporating a self-aligning bearing to accommodate fuselage deflection during violent maneuvers. This shaft ran through a tunnel in the cockpit floor and was connected to a gearbox in the nose of the fuselage which, in turn, drove the three- or (later) four-bladed propeller via a short central shaft. The gearbox was provided with its own lubrication system, separate from the engine; in later versions of the Airacobra the gearbox was provided with some armor protection. The glycol-cooled radiator was fitted in the wing center section, immediately beneath the engine; this was flanked on either side by a single drum shaped oil cooler. Air for the radiator and oil coolers was drawn in through intakes in both wing-root leading edges and was directed via four ducts to the radiator faces. The air was then exhausted through three controllable hinged flaps near the trailing edge of the center section.
Air for the carburETOr was drawn in via a raised oval intake immediately aft of the rear canopy.
The fuselage structure was unusual and innovative, being based on a strong central keel which incorporated the armament, cockpit and engine. Two strong fuselage beams to port and starboard formed the basis of the structure. These angled upwards fore and aft to create mounting points for the T9 cannon and propeller reduction gearbox and for the engine and accessories respectively. A strong arched bulkhead provided the main structural point to which the main spar of the wing was attached. This arch incorporated a fireproof panel and an armor plate separating the engine from the cockpit. It also incorporated a turnover pylon and a pane of bullet-resistant glass behind the pilot's head. The arch also formed the basis of the cockpit housing; the pilot's seat was attached to the forward face as was the cockpit floor. Forward of the cockpit the fuselage nose was formed from large removable covers. A long nose wheel well was incorporated in the lower nose section. The engine and accessories w
ere attached to the rear of the arch and the main structural beams; these too were covered using large removable panels. A conventional semi-monocoque rear fuselage was attached aft of the main structure.
Because the pilot was above the extension shaft, he was placed higher in the fuselage than in most contemporary fighters, which, in turn gave the pilot a good field of view. Access to the cockpit was via sideways opening "car doors", one on either side. Both had wind-down windows; because only the right hand door had a handle both inside and outside this was used as the normal means of access. The left hand door could only be opened from the outside and was for emergency use, although both doors could be jettisoned. In service the cockpit was difficult to escape from in an emergency because the roof was fixed.
The complete armament fit consisted of the T9 with a pair of Browning M2 .50 caliber machine guns mounted in the nose. This would change to two .50 in and two .30 in guns in the XP-39B (P-39C, Model 13, the first 20 delivered) and two 0.50 inand four 0.30 in (all four in the wings) in the P-39D (Model 15), which also introduced self-sealing tanks and shackles (and piping) for a 500 lb (227 kg) bomb or drop tank.
Because of the unconventional layout, there was no space in the fuselage to place a fuel tank. Although drop tanks were implemented to extend its range, the standard fuel load was carried in the wings, with the result that the P-39 was limited to short range tactical strikes.
A heavy structure, and around 265 lb (120 kg) of armor were characteristic of this aircraft as well. The production P-39's heavier weight combined with the Allison engine having only a single-stage, single-speed supercharger, limited the high-altitude capabilities of the fighter. The P-39's altitude performance was markedly inferior to the contemporary European fighters and, as a result, the first USAAF fighter units in the European Theater were equipped with the Spitfire V. However, the P-39D's roll rate was 75°/s at 235 mph (378 km/h)– better than the A6M2, F4F, F6F, or P-38 up to 265 mph (426 km/h).
Above the supercharger's critical altitude of about 12,000 ft (3,658 m), an early P-39's performance dropped off rapidly. This limited its usefulness in traditional fighter missions in Europe as well as in the Pacific, where it was not uncommon for Japanese bombers to attack at altitudes above the P-39's operational ceiling (which in the tropical hot air was lower than in moderate climates). The late production N and Q models, making up 75% of all Airacobras, could maintain a top speed of approximately 375 mph (604 km/h) up to 20,000 ft (6,100 m).
The weight distribution of the P-39 was supposedly the reason for its tendency to enter a dangerous flat spin, a characteristic Soviet test pilots were able to demonstrate to the sceptical manufacturer who had been unable to reproduce the effect. After extensive tests, it was determined the spin could only be induced if the aircraft was improperly loaded, with no ammunition in the front compartment. The flight manual noted a need to ballast the front ammunition compartment with the appropriate weight of shell casings to achieve a reasonable center of gravity. High speed controls were light, consequently, high speed turns and pull-outs were possible. The P-39 had to be held in a dive since it tended to level out, reminiscent of the Spitfire. Recommended dive speed limit (Vne) was 475 mph (764 km/h) for the P-39.
Soon after entering service, pilots began to report that “during flights of the P-39 in certain maneuvers, it tumbled end over end.” Most of these events happened after the aircraft was stalled in a nose high attitude with considerable power applied. Concerned, Bell initiated a test program. Bell pilots made 86 separate efforts to reproduce the reported tumbling characteristics. In no case were they able to tumble the aircraft. In his autobiography veteran test and airshow pilot R.A. “Bob” Hoover provides an account of tumbling a P-39. He goes on to say that in hindsight, he was actually performing a Lomcevak, a now common airshow maneuver, which he was also able to do in a Curtiss P-40. An informal study of the P-39’s spinning characteristics was conducted in the NASA Langley Research Center 20-foot Free-Spinning Tunnel during the 1970s. A study of old reports showed that during earlier spin testing in the facility, the aircraft had never tumbled. However, it was noted that
all testing had been done with a simulated full ammunition load, which drew the aircraft’s center of gravity forward. After finding the original spin test model of the P-39 in storage, the new study first replicated the earlier testing, with consistent results. Then, the model was re-ballasted to simulate a condition of no ammunition load, which moved the aircraft’s center of gravity aft. Under these conditions, the model was found to often tumble when thrown into the tunnel.
The rear-mounted engine made the aircraft ideal for ground attack since fire would be coming from the front-bottom quarter and was less likely to hit the engine and its cooling systems. The arrangement proved to be very vulnerable to attacks from above and behind and nearly any hit on the fuselage from an attacking enemy fighter was virtually guaranteed to disable the cooling system and lead to the prompt demise of the engine and thus the aircraft. Flying at its upper altitude limits, the Airacobra was extremely vulnerable to any enemy fighter with decent high altitude performance.
In September 1940, Britain ordered 386 P-39Ds (Model 14), with a 20 mm Hispano-Suiza HS.404 and six .303 in , instead of a 37 mm cannon and six 0.30 in guns. The RAF eventually ordered a total of 675 P-39s. However, after the first Airacobras arrived at 601 Squadron RAF in September 1941, they were promptly recognized as having an inadequate rate of climb and performance at altitude for Western European conditions. Only 80 were adopted, all of them with 601 Squadron. Britain transferred about 200 P-39s to the Soviet Union.
Another 200 examples intended for the RAF were taken up by the USAAF after the attack on Pearl Harbor as the P-400, and were sent to the Fifth Air Force in Australia, for service in the South West Pacific Theatre.
By the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, nearly 600 P-39s had been built. When P-39 production ended in August 1944, Bell had built 9,558 Airacobras, of which 4,773 (mostly -39N and -39Q) were sent to the Soviet Union through the Lend-Lease program. There were numerous minor variations in engine, propeller, and armament, but no major structural changes in production types, excepting a few two-seat TP-39F and RP-39Q trainers. In addition, seven went to the U.S. Navy as radio-controlled drones.
Trials of a laminar flow wing (in the XP-39E) and Continental IV-1430 engine (the P-76) were unsuccessful. The mid-engine, gun-through-hub concept was developed further in the Bell P-63 Kingcobra.
A naval version with tail-dragger landing gear, the XFL-1 Airabonita, was ordered as a competitor to the Vought F4U Corsair and Grumman XF5F Skyrocket. It first flew 13 May 1940, but after a troublesome and protracted development and testing period, it was rejected.
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