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The Airacobra saw combat throughout the world, particularly in the Southwest Pacific, Mediterranean and Russian theaters. Because its engine was only equipped with a single-stage, single-speed supercharger, the P-39 performed best below 17,000 feet (5,200 m) altitude. In both western Europe and the Pacific, the Airacobra found itself outclassed as an Interceptor, its earliest proposed role, and the type was gradually relegated to other duties. It often was used at lower altitudes for such missions as ground strafing.
In 1940, the British Direct Purchase Commission in the U.S. was looking for combat aircraft; they ordered 675 of the export version Bell Model 14 as the "Caribou" on the strength of the company's representations on 13 April 1940. The British armament was two nose mounted 0.50 in (12.7 mm) machine guns, and four 0.303 in (7.7 mm) Browning machine guns in the wings; the 37 mm gun was replaced by a 20 mm (.79 in) Hispano-Suiza.
British expectations had been set by performance figures established by the unarmed and unarmored XP-39 prototype. The British production contract stated that a maximum speed of 394 mph (+/- 4%) was required at rated altitude. In acceptance testing, actual production aircraft were found to be capable of only 371 mph at 14,090 ft. To enable the aircraft to make the guarantee speed, a variety of drag reduction modifications were developed by Bell. The areas of the elevator and rudder were reduced by 14.2% and 25.2%, respectively. Modified fillets were installed in the tail area. The canopy glass was faired to its frame with putty. The gun access doors on the wing had been seen to bulge in flight, so they were replaced with thicker aluminum sheet. Similarly, the landing gear doors deflected open by as much as two inches at maximum speed, so a stronger linkage was installed to hold them flush. The cooling air exit from the oil and coolant radiators was reduced in area to match the exi
t velocity to the local flow. New engine exhaust stacks, deflected to match the local flow and with nozzles to increase thrust augmentation, were installed. The machine gun ports were faired over, the antenna mast was removed, a single piece engine cowling was installed and an exhaust stack fairing was added.
The airframe was painted with 20 coats of primer, with extensive sanding between coats. Standard camouflage was applied and sanded to remove the edges between the colors. Additionally, about 200 pounds of weight was removed, making it lighter than normal (7,466 lbs gross). After these modifications, the second production aircraft (serial AH 571) reached a speed of 391 mph at 14,400 ft, in flight test. As this speed was within 1% of the guarantee, the aircraft was declared to have satisfied contractual obligations. Despite the success of these modifications, none were applied to other production P-39s. Later testing of a standard production P-400 by the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE) revealed a top speed of only 359 mph.
The British export models were renamed "Airacobra" in 1941. A further 150 were specified for delivery under Lend-lease in 1941 but these were not supplied. The Royal Air Force (RAF) took delivery in mid 1941 and found that performance of the non-turbo-supercharged production aircraft differed markedly from what they were expecting. In some areas, the Airacobra was inferior to existing aircraft such as the Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire and its performance at altitude suffered drastically. Tests by the R.A.E at Boscombe Down showed the Airacobra reached 355 mph (571 km/h) at 13,000 ft (3,962 m). The cockpit layout was criticized, and it was noted that the pilot would have difficulty in bailing out in an emergency because the cockpit roof could not be jettisoned. The lack of a clear vision panel on the windscreen assembly meant that in the event of heavy rain the pilot's forward view would be completely obliterated; the pilot's notes advised that in this case the door
windows would have to be lowered and the speed reduced to 150 mph (241 km/h) On the other hand it was considered effective for low level fighter and ground attack work. Problems with gun and exhaust flash suppression and the compass could be fixed.
No. 601 Squadron RAF was the only British unit to use the Airacobra operationally, receiving their first two examples on 6 August 1941. On 9 October, four Airacobras attacked enemy barges near Dunkirk, in the type's only operational action with the RAF. The squadron continued to train with the Airacobra during the winter, but a combination of poor serviceability and deep distrust of this unfamiliar fighter resulted in the RAF rejecting the type after one combat mission. In March 1942, the unit re-equipped with Spitfires.
The Airacobras already in the UK, along with the remainder of the first batch being built in the US, were sent to the Soviet Air force, the sole exception being AH574, which was passed to the Royal Navy and used for experimental work, including the first carrier landing by a tricycle undercarriage aircraft on 4 April 1945 on HMS PrETOria Castle, until it was scrapped on the recommendation of a visiting Bell test pilot in March 1946.
U.S. Army Air Forces
Bell-9-39 from the United States requisitioned 200 aircraft of the order destined for the UK, adopting them as P-400s (named for advertised top speed of 400 mph (644 km/h)). After Pearl Harbor, the P-400 was deployed to training units, but some saw combat in the Southwest Pacific including with the Cactus Air Force in the Battle of Guadalcanal. Though outclassed by Japanese fighter aircraft, it performed well in strafing and bombing runs, often proving deadly in ground attacks on Japanese forces trying to retake Henderson Field. Guns salvaged from P-39s were sometimes fitted to Navy PT boats to increase firepower. Pacific pilots often complained about problems of performance and unreliable armament, but by the end of 1942, the P-39 units of the Fifth Air Force had claimed about 80 Japanese aircraft, with a similar number of P-39s lost. By any standard the Airacobra and its pilots held their ground against the Japanese. Fifth and Thirteenth Air Force P-39s did not score more aerial
victories in the Solomons due to the aircraft's limited range and poor high altitude performance.
Airacobras first fought Japanese Zeros on 30 April 1942 in a low level action near Lae, New Guinea. From May to August 1942 combat between Airacobras and Zeros took place on a regular basis over New Guinea. Compilation of combat reports indicates the Zero was either equal to or close to the P-39 in speed at the altitudes of the various low level encounters.
From September to November 1942 pilots of the 57th Fighter Squadron flew P-39s and P-38s from an airfield built on land bulldozed into Kuluk Bay on the barren island of Adak in Alaska's Aleutian Islands. They attacked the Japanese forces which had invaded Attu and Kiska islands in the Aleutians in June 1942. The factor that claimed the most lives was not the Japanese but the weather. The low clouds, heavy mist and fog, driving rain, snow, and high winds made flying dangerous and lives miserable. The 57th remained in Alaska until November 1942, then returned to the United States.
Lt. Bill Fiedler, became an ace in a P-39, while many U.S. aces scored one or two of their victories in the type. The Airacobra's low-altitude performance was good and its firepower was impressive, and with air battles in the Pacific fought at intermediate altitudes, the P-39 did well against light and agile Japanese A6Ms and Ki-43s (considering American numerical inferiority and Japanese veteran pilots). It soon became the joke in the Pacific Theatre that a P-400 was a P-39 with a Zero on its tail. Only with its two .50 and four .30 caliber machine guns could a P-39 face a Japanese fighter.
In North Africa, the 99th Fighter Squadron (also known as the Tuskegee Airmen) transitioned quickly from the P-40 and were assigned P-39s in February 1944, but only flew the type for a few weeks. The 99th carried out their duties including supporting Operation Shingle over Anzio as well as missions over the Gulf of Naples in the Airacobra but achieved few aerial victories.
The major MTO P-39 operators included the 81st and 350th Fighter Groups, both flying the maritime patrol mission from North Africa and on through Italy. The 81st transferred to the China Burma India Theater by March 1944 and the 350th began transition to the P-47D in August 1944, remaining in Italy with the 12th Air Force.
The most successful and numerous use of the P-39 was by the Red Air Force. They received the considerably improved N and Q models via the Alaska-Siberia ferry route. The tactical environment of the Eastern Front did not demand the high-altitude performance RAF and AAF did. The comparatively low-speed, low-altitude nature of most air combat on the Russian Front suited the P-39's strengths: sturdy construction, reliable radio gear, and adequate firepower.
Soviet pilots appreciated the cannon-armed P-39 primarily for its air-to-air capability. A common Western misconception is that the Bell fighters were used as ground attack aircraft.
The Soviets developed successful group aerial fighting tactics for the Bell fighters and scored a surprising number of aerial victories over a variety of German aircraft. Soviet P-39s had no trouble dispatching Junkers Ju 87 Stukas or German twin-engine bombers and matched, and in some areas surpassed, early and mid-war Messerschmitt Bf 109s. The usual nickname for the Airacobra in the VVS was Kobrushka ("little cobra") or Kobrastochka, a portmanteau of Kobra and Lastochka (swallow), "dear little cobra".
"I liked the Cobra, especially the Q-5 version. It was the lightest version of all Cobras and was the best fighter I ever flew. The cockpit was very comfortable, and visibility was outstanding. The instrument panel was very ergonomic, with the entire complement of instruments right up to an artificial horizon and radio compass. It even had a relief tube in the shape of a funnel. The armored glass was very strong, extremely thick. The armor on the back was also thick. The oxygen equipment was reliable, although the mask was quite small, only covering the nose and mouth. We wore that mask only at high altitude. The HF radio set was powerful, reliable and clear."
Soviet pilot Nikolai G. Golodnikov, recalling his experiences of the P-39
The first Soviet Cobras had a 20 mm Hispano-Suiza cannon and two heavy Browning machine guns, synchronized and mounted in the nose. Later, Cobras arrived with the M-4 37 mm cannon and four machine guns, two synchronized and two wing-mounted. "We immediately removed the wing machine guns, leaving one cannon and two machine guns," Golodnikov recalled later. That modification improved roll rate by reducing rotational inertia. Soviet airmen appreciated the M-4 cannon with its powerful rounds and the reliable action but complained about the low rate of fire (three rounds per second) and inadequate ammunition storage (only 30 rounds).
The Soviets used the Airacobra primarily for air-to-air combat against a variety of German aircraft, including Bf 109s, Focke-Wulf Fw 190s, Ju 87s, and Ju 88s. During the battle of Kuban River, VVS relied on P-39s much more than Spitfires and P-40s. Aleksandr Pokryshkin, from 16.Gv.IAP, (16th Guards Fighter Aviation Regiment) claimed 20 air victories in that campaign. Pokryshkin, the second-highest scoring Allied ace (59 air victories plus six shared) flew the P-39 from late 1942 until the end of the war (though rumors exist that he changed in late 1944 to a P-63 Kingcobra).
Five out of the 10 highest scoring Soviets aces logged the majority of their kills in P-39s. Grigoriy Rechkalov, the third-highest scoring Soviet ace (56 individual air victories plus five shared), occasionally Pokryshkin's wingman in 16.Gv.IAP, scored 44 victories flying Airacobras. The majority of his kills were achieved on P-39N-0 number 42-8747 and P-39Q-15 number 44-2547. During the war, he was awarded the Order of Lenin, the Order of the Red Banner (four times), the Order of Alexandr Nievskii, the Order of Patriotic War 1st Class and the Order of the Red Star (twice). This is the highest score ever attained by any pilot with any American-made aircraft.
The United States did not supply M80 armor-piercing rounds for the autocannons of Soviet P-39s—instead, the Soviets received 1,232,991 M54 high-explosive rounds which the Soviets used primarily for air-to-air combat and also against soft ground targets. The VVS did not use the P-39 for tank-busting duties.
A total of 4,719 P-39s were sent to the Soviet Union, accounting for more than one-third of all U.S. and UK-supplied fighter aircraft in the VVS, and nearly half of all P-39 production. Soviet Airacobra losses in 1941–45 were 1,030 aircraft (49 in 1942, 305 in 1943, 486 in 1944 and 190 in 1945).
Airacobras served with the Soviet Air Forces as late as 1949, when two regiments were operating as part of the 16th Guards Fighter Aviation Division in the Belomorsky Military District.
In early 1942, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), experiencing Japanese air raids on towns in northern Australia, found itself unable to obtain British-designed Interceptors or sufficient numbers of P-40s. U.S. Fifth Air Force squadrons in Australia were already receiving the brand new P-39D-1. Consequently, in July 1942, older USAAF P-39s, which had been repaired at Australian workshops, were adopted by the RAAF as a stop-gap Interceptor.
Seven P-39Ds were sent to No. 23 Squadron RAAF at Lowood, Queensland. Later, seven P-39Fs were operated by No. 24 Squadron RAAF at Townsville. In the absence of adequate supplies of P-39s, both squadrons also operated Wirraway armed trainers. However, neither squadron received a full complement of Airacobras, or saw combat with them. The home air defence role was filled first by P-40s, followed by Spitfires. Plans to equip two more squadrons with P-39s were also abandoned. 23 and 24 Squadrons converted to the Vultee Vengeance in 1943.
In 1940, France ordered P-39s from Bell, but because of the armistice with Germany they were not delivered. After Operation Torch, French forces in North Africa sided with the Allies, and were re-equipped with Allied equipment including P-39Ns. From mid-1943 on, three fighter squadrons, the GC 3/6 Roussillon, GC 1/4 Navarre and GC 1/5 Champagne, flew these P-39s in combat over the Mediterranean, Italy and Southern France. A batch of P-39Qs was delivered later, but Airacobras, which were never popular with French pilots, had been replaced by P-47s in front line units by late 1944.
In June 1944, the Italian Co-Belligerent Air Force (ICAF) received 170 P-39s, most of them -Qs, and a few -Ns (15th USAAF surplus aircraft stored in Napoli-Capodichino airfield) and also at least one -L and five -Ms. The P-39 N (without the underwing fairing for 12.7 machine guns) had engines with about 200 hours; a little newer than the P-39Q engines with 30–150 hours. A total of 149 P-39s would be used: the P-39N for training, while newer Qs were used in the front line.
In June–July 1944, Gruppi 12°, 9° and 10° of 4° Stormo, moved to Campo Vesuvio airstrip to re-equip with the P-39s. The site was not suitable and, in three months of training, 11 accidents occurred, due to engine failures and poor maintenance of the base. Three pilots died and two were seriously injured. One of the victims, on 25 August 1944, was the "ace of aces", Sergente Maggiore Teresio Martinoli.
The three groups of 4° Stormo were first sent to Leverano (Lecce) airstrip, then in mid-October, to Galatina airfield. At the end of the training, eight more accidents occurred. Almost 70 aircraft were operational, and on 18 September 1944, 12° Group's P-39s flew their first mission over Albania. Concentrating on ground attack, the Italian P-39s proved to be suitable in this role, losing 10 aircraft to German flak in over 3,000 hours of combat.
By the end of the war, 89 P-39s were still at the Canne airport and 13 at the Scuola Addestramento Bombardamento e Caccia (Training School for Bombers and Fighters) at Frosinone airfield. In 10 months of operational service, the 4° Stormo had been awarded three Medaglia d'Oro al Valore Militare "alla memoria".
Between December 1942 and February 1943, the Aeronáutica Militar (Army Military Aviation) obtained aircraft operated by the 81st and the 350th Fighter Groups originally dispatched to North Africa as part of Operation Torch. Due to several problems en route, some of the aircraft were forced to land in Portugal and Spain. Of the 19 fighter aircraft that landed in Portugal, all were interned and entered service that year with the Portuguese Army Military Aviation.
Though unnecessary, the Portuguese Government paid the United States US$20,000 for each of these interned aircraft as well as for one interned Lockheed P-38 Lightning. The U.S. accepted the payment, and gave as a gift four additional crates of aircraft, two of which were not badly damaged, without supplying spares, flight manuals or service manuals. Without proper training, incorporation of the aircraft into service was plagued with problems, and the last six Portuguese Airacobras that remained in 1950 were sold for scrap.
In 1945, Italy purchased the 46 surviving P-39s at 1% of their cost but in summer 1946 many accidents occurred, including fatal ones. By 1947, 4° Stormo re-equipped with P-38s, with P-39s sent to training units until the type's retirement in 1951. Only a T9 cannon survives today at Vigna di Valle Museum.
The Airacobra was raced at the National Air Races in the United States after World War II. Famous versions used for racing included the twin aircraft known as "Cobra I" and "Cobra II," owned jointly between three Bell Aircraft test pilots, Chalmers "Slick" Goodlin, Alvin M. "Tex" Johnston, and Jack Woolams. These aircraft were extensively modified to use the more powerful P-63 engine and had prototype propeller blades from the Bell factory. "Cobra I" with its pilot, Jack Woolams, was lost in 1946, over the Great Lakes while he was flying from the National Air Races in Cleveland, Ohio back to the factory to get a fresh engine.
The "Cobra II" (Race #84) flown by test pilot "Tex" Johnston, beat racing-modified P-51s, as well as other P-39 racers (which were the favorites), to win the 1946 Thompson Trophy race. Cobra II competed again in the 1947 Thompson Trophy, finishing 3rd. In the 1948 Thompson trophy, she was unable to finish due to engine difficulties. Cobra II did not race again and was destroyed on 10 August 1968 during a test flight prior to an attempt at the world piston-engine air speed record, when owner-pilot Mike Carroll lost control and crashed. Carroll died and the highly-modified P-39 was destroyed.
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