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Bell P-39 Airacobra

The Bell P-39 Airacobra was one of the best fighter planes the United States had at the start of World War II. It was used in all major theaters of the war, in particular in the Southwest Pacific and Mediterranean Theater of Operation (MTO). The P-39 was rugged enough for operations in Alaska, and also served with Soviet, British and other allied forces.

Bell P-39 Airacobra firing all guns
Bell P-39 Airacobra firing all guns.

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Bell P-39 Airacobra in World War II

The P-39 Airacobra was primarily a low-altitude fighter, especially effective in missions involving ground strafing. Its engine was behind the cockpit, a unique configuration among WWII fighters. This was not the hazard the pilots thought it might be, though the aircraft's spin characteristics were an issue for pilots who could not perform proper recovery techniques. The plane could dive fast, fire cannons or drop bombs, and strafe with .50 cal machine guns. But it turned slowly and had a low operational ceiling, limiting its value in dogfights or for bomber escort.

The P-39 was flown from September through November 1942 by pilots in the 57th Fighter Squadron based on Kuluk Bay on Adak Island in the Aleutians. These pilots, in P-39s and P-38s, attacked Japanese forces that attempted to invade there in 1942. The Tuskegee Airman in North Africa were given P-39s in February 1944, but the plane's limitations led to the adoption of the P-47 and P-51 in July 1944.

A total of 4,773 P-39s were sent to the Soviet Union through lend lease, and other P-39s served with British and Free French forces. The Soviets were particularly pleased with the P-39's performance as a short-range low-altitude fighter, calling it the "Little Cobra." Soviet pilots were especially fond of the cannon, which they used to fight off German aircraft and for ground assault.

Bell P-39 Airacobra Models and Production History

The P-39 was the response to a United States Army Air Corps specification for a new fighter in February 1937. The requested aircraft was to be able to fly faster, higher, and carry a heavier load than any previous pursuit or fighter plane. The design for the P-39 was innovative in that it was the first fighter ever to have the engine placed in the center fuselage and a tricycle undercarriage.

Bell developed a prototype known as the XP-39, which first flew in 6 April 1938 at Wright Field in Ohio. After further trials, modifications including the elimination of the engine supercharger and onboard radar resulted in the P-39. The original P-39 was designated the P-46, and lacked armor and self-sealing fuel tanks eventually added in later models.

The P-39 Airacobra was the first fighter to be developed as a "weapons system." Design and placement of the .50 machine guns in the nose, the 37mm cannon firing through the propeller hub, and the wing-based .50 machine guns were all a part of the intent to create an outstanding fighter. Other design elements included a strong central keel, fuselage beams for the basis of the plane structure, and an extension shaft upon which the cockpit sat, giving the pilot a better view than other contemporary fighters provided.

The P-39 could carry 500 lbs. of bombs or a fuel tank under the fuselage to increase range. But because fuel was otherwise carried exclusively in the wings, and not in fuselage tanks, the P-39 could only operate as a short-range fighter, and never served as an escort fighter like the P-47 Thunderbolt or the P-51 Mustang.

Almost 600 P-39s had been manufactured when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. A total of 9,584 Airacobras were manufactured in total, with production ending in August 1944. The first production model was the P-39C, with only a handful manufactured. The most important models of the P-39 were:

Model P-39D

The P-39D was an improved version of the basic concept of the Airacobra. Self-sealing fuel tanks were introduced to make the aircraft withstand enemy fire, and shackles for a 500 lb. bomb or drop tank were added to the fuselage starting with the P-39D-1. The P-39D-3 and P-39D-4 were conversions to a photo reconnaissance configuration from the earlier P-39D-1 and P-39D-2 respectively. A total of 944 P-39Ds were manufactured. The Royal Air Force ordered a total of 675 P-39Ds, most of which found homes with other services because of the limited range and ceiling.

Model P-39N

After ongoing upgrades to the P-39 in models such as the "K," "L," and "M," which saw a new engine, propeller, rocket rails under the wings, and gearing improvements for the propeller, the P-39 achieved its full form in the "N" designation. Propeller size was increased, armor was added to the belly, and armor plate replaced the bulletproof glass behind the pilot. A total of 2,095 P-39Ns were produced.

Model P-39Q

The P-39Q was the final production variant of the P-39 Airacobra. Improvements included increased fuel capacity, additional armor, and improved weapons systems. Some models were winterized, or customized to be two-seat trainers or photo reconnaissance aircraft. The U.S. Navy used the P-39Q under the designation XTDL-1 as a target drone. A total of 4,905 were manufactured.

The full list of P-39 models is contained in this production history table:

TypeNumber Built/ConvertedNotes
XP-391Prototype P-39
YP-3913Improved XP-39; service test aircraft
YP-39A1 (converted)YP-39 with new engine; high alt. test only
XP-39B1 (converted)XP-39 with new engine; no turbo-supercharger
P-39C80 P-45 redesignated60 became P-39D
P-39D60 (converted)Improved P-39C; 4x.30, 2x.50 mgs. and 37mm cn.
P-39D-1863Improved P-39D; self-sealing fuel tanks
P-39D-21 (converted)Improved P-39D-1; 158 ordered
XP-39E3P-39D-1 with new engine; XP-63 prototype
P-39E0Improved P-39D-1; 4,000 ordered
P-39F-1229P-39D with aero products propeller
P-39F-22 (converted)P-39F modified for photo reconnaissance
P-39G01,800 ordered, became K, L, M, N models
P-39H0Designation not assigned
P-39J25Modified P-39D-1; new engine and auto boost
P-39K210P-39F with new engine
P-39L250Modified P-39K; Curtiss prop. and rocket rails
P-39M240Modified P-39L; new engine and prop. gearing chg.
P-39N2,095Improved P-39M; new engine
P-39P0Designation not assigned
P-39Q4,905Improved P-39N; 37mm cn. and four .50-cal. mgs.

Bell P-39 Airacobra Characteristics

Armament37mm cannon firing through propeller hub; two .50 machine guns in nose; two .50 machine guns in packets under wing
Bomb load500 lbs. (external)
EngineAllison 1,200hp V-1710
Maximum speed376 mph
Cruising speed250 mph
Range650 mi.
Ceiling35,000 ft.
Span34 ft.
Length30 ft. 2 in.
Height12 ft. 5 in.
Weight7,560 lbs. loaded

Note: Characteristics vary slightly with the P-39 Airacobra variant, manufacturing site, and date.

Bell P-39 Airacobra center fuselage detail with maintenance panels open
Bell P-39 Airacobra center fuselage detail with maintenance panels open.

Bell P-39 Airacobra in flight with B.F. Goodrich de-icers
Bell P-39 Airacobra in flight with B.F. Goodrich de-icers.

Bell P-39 Airacobra fighter 'Ill Winds'
Bell P-39 Airacobra fighter "Ill Winds".

Bell P-39 Airacobra
Bell P-39 Airacobra.

Bell P-39 Airacobra parked in the snow, Air Transport Command, Nome, Alaska
Bell P-39 Airacobra parked in the snow, Air Transport Command, Nome, Alaska.

Recommended Books about the Bell P-39 Airacobra

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