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Bell P-63 Kingcobra in World War II

The Bell P-63 Kingcobra was developed from the P-39 Airacobra in World War II. Although the U.S. Army Air Forces never used the P-63 in combat, some aircraft were used for fighter training. In particular, the "pinball" version of the Kingcobra helped train aerial gunnery students. Overseas, the Soviet Union and French Free forces used P-63s for low-level fighting and tank busting.

Despite being ordered in significant numbers, the Bell P-63 Kingcobra did poorly in the design and testing phase. Problems such as engine failure and landing gear deployment failure plagued designers. Even with these issues resolved, the Army Air Force deemed the P-63 inferior to the P-51 Mustang.

Delivery of the P-63 Kingcobra began in October 1943. The Soviets, already the predominant user of the P-39 Airacobra, needed more aircraft, so the Kingcobra was supplied under lend lease. Production of the Kingcobra continued, providing aircraft for the Soviet Union as well as Free French forces. The Soviets even contributed to the development of the Kingcobra. When test pilot Andrey G. Kochetkov and aviation engineer Fyodor P. Suprun visited the Bell factories in early 1944, they demonstrated that flat spin recovery was impossible in the P-63, and pilots should bail out. The Irving Parachute Company gave Kochetkov a commendation for his insight.

The P-63 saw action with the Soviets primarily in the Pacific Theater, where Kingcobras flew escort, provided close air support, and engaged in ground attack. Despite a 1943 agreement stating that the Soviets would not use the P-63 against Germany, unconfirmed reports by Soviets and Germans claim it was.

The U.S. used the P-63 for training. In particular, the RP-63A and RP-63C "pinball" versions, developed late in the war, served as target aircraft for aerial gunnery students. These manned aircraft were designed so that students could fire .30 cal. lead and plastic frangible machine gun bullets at the aircraft. The bullets disintegrated safely against the P-63's external skin of Duralumin armor plating. Onboard instruments activated red lights in the nose of the craft, creating blinking patterns reminiscent of a pinball machine.

Bell P-63 Kingcobra Models and Production History

Bell developed the P-63 Kingcobra in response to the deficiencies of the P-39 Airacobra. Based on the P-39D, Bell made two major changes: the addition of a laminar flow wing and the adoption of the Continental I-1430 engine, a strong engine design with an improved supercharger.

The prototype, the XP-39E, had disappointing performance. But the U.S. Army Air Force still wanted a large aircraft with the same basic layout, and so placed an order for two on 27 June 1941. The revised design was designated the XP-63, and included such improvements as a second supercharger, a hydraulic clutch, a larger four-bladed propeller, and larger cowling panels for access to the nose armaments for maintenance.

The prototype first flew on 7 December 1942, but was destroyed on 28 January 1943 when its landing gear failed to deploy. A second prototype flew on 5 February 1943, but was destroyed as a result of engine failure. Further revisions led to a stable version of the aircraft designated the P-63.

A total of 3,505 P-63s were manufactured. The Soviet Union received 2,456 aircraft, and the Free French forces obtained 300. Notable P-63 models are as follows:

Model P-63A

The first production model, 1,726 were manufactured starting in October 1943. The aircraft had bomb racks added to the basic P-63 design.

Model P-63C

The P-63C was the second production series. An improved Allison V-1710-117 engine with a war emergency rating of 1,500 hp replaced the older engine, and the wingspan was reduced by 10 inches. A total of 1,227 were manufactured.

The full list of P-63 models is contained in this production history table:

TypeNumber Built/ConvertedNotes
XP-632Improved XP-39E; laminar flow wing
XP-63A2Improved XP-63; bomb racks
P-63A1726Production aircraft; Blocks 1-10
RP-63A100Aerial target aircraft
XP-63B0Improved XP-63A (canceled)
P-63C1227Improved P-63A; engine change
R-63C200Improved RP-63A
P-63D1Improved design; engine change
P-63E13Improved P-63D; new prop
P-63F2Improved P-63E; modified tail
RP-63G32Aerial target aircraft; 420 canceled
XP-63H1 (converted)Modified P-63E; engine change

Bell P-63 Kingcobra Characteristics

ArmamentOne 37mm cannon and four .50 cal. machine guns
Bomb loadN/A
EngineOne 1,325 hp Allison V-1710
Maximum speed408 mph
Cruising speed280 mph
Range450 mi.
Ceiling43,000 ft.
Span38 ft. 4 in.
Length32 ft. 8 in.
Height12 ft. 7. in.
Weight9,350 lbs. max.

Note: Characteristics vary slightly with the P-63 Kingcobra variant, manufacturing site, and date.

Bell P-63 Kingcobra with V-tail modification
Bell P-63 Kingcobra with V-tail modification.

Bell P-63A on skis (S/N 42-68887)
Bell P-63A on skis (S/N 42-68887).

Inflight photo of Bell P-63 Kingcobra with underwing pods
Inflight photo of Bell P-63 Kingcobra with underwing pods.

Bell P-63A (S/N 42-68931)
Bell P-63A (S/N 42-68931).

Female maintenance crew services a Bell P-63 Kingcobra in the final processing hanger at Great Falls Army Air Base,  June 1945
Female maintenance crew services a Bell P-63 Kingcobra in the final processing hanger at Great Falls Army Air Base, June 1945.

Recommended Books about the Bell P-63 Kingcobra

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