Plane of the Week #9: The Bell P-39 Airacobra

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Plane of the Week #9: The Bell P-39 Airacobra

Postby wifesaysno » Sat Sep 15, 2012 8:41 pm

This plane of the week is a unique fighter from WW2. Besides its successor, the P-63 Kingcobra, it was one of the only piston fighters with a nose wheel. Well, there were some pushers that were not successful...one or two of them will be a topic of a future Plane of the Week.

At any rate, I love introducing people to the P-39 at my local air museum (the Kalamazoo Air Zoo). 1st time viewers always have to give it a second glance. After all, how many WW2 fighters had a nose wheel, engine BEHIND the pilot, and a car-door style entrance!

As usual here is the wiki on this bird....wiki articles may have inaccuracies, but they cover a lot and are thus a worthy starting point:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P-39_Airacobra

National Museum of the USAF info on it:
http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/factsh ... sp?id=2207

At first, the P-39 was to be a fast high altitude interceptor made to devastate enemy bombers with a 37mm cannon. Thus the plane was designed around the GUN rather than the usual process of the day: design around the engine. Thus the P-39 has been stated as the first "weapon system design". Those that follow modern defense systems should be familiar with the phrase 'weapon system'. However, designing around such a large caliber gun in pre-WW2 times creates a lot of issues. For one, the gun MUST be on the center line as firing it off centered would be dangerously de-stabilizing due to recoil. Then the question becomes....how exactly does one put a 37 mil gun on the centerline of a single seat single engine prop fighter?! Making the gun shoot through the engine like on the Bf-109, D.520, and some Russian designs, is an idea...but with a 37mm barrel that could be a problem. Then there is the weight, breech, and ammo storage taking up a lot of internal space...then some crazy idea popped in the heads of Bell engineers: who says the engine has to be up front?! Why not put it behind the pilot?
Thus the engine ended up in the back. With the now vacant nose section, except the drive shaft, there was room for the 37mm gun. Conveniently there was also room for another crazy idea: putting a retracting nose wheel in it! On top of the 37mil the P-39 was to be equipped with a range of machine guns which varied heavily through out its brief service life. These almost always included 2 upper nose mounted mgs. In order to have good high-altitude performance a piston engine must have a turbo or super charger as such the XP-39 would gain the necessary equipment. During trials, the extremely clean lines of the XP-39 did good. It was an extremely fast aeroplane, heavily impressing the Army Air Corps and even the RAF. Thus word came down to develop it into an actual fighter...2 BIG problems developed: 1 for some dumb reason the supercharger was removed even though it was slated for high altitude interception and 2, weight. The prototypes were fast because they lacked armor and weapons...with these added and without a supercharger, the P-39 became totally ineffective in the high altitude roles. Worse yet, the 37 became notorious for jamming. Still worse, P-39s were dropping into spins during turns with little notice and crashing!

Although this was early in the war and the RAF needed all the fighters they could get, they wisely said no to the early Airacobras. The USAAC also was not happy with the turkey...I mean fighter..so they resigned it to support units, training units, and basically sending it to places were they could not do any better. However, the Reds were desperate for help, so under the Lend-Lease act, the Red Air Force would become the biggest operator of the 4,000-5,000 Airacobras built.

As I mentioned above, the P-39 entered service with the USAAC despite its shortcomings because of the times. Keep in mind this was at the start of the war. The US was very weak in the Pacific in terms of effective fighters. In fact over all the USAAC was far below effective war fighting numbers. Thus it was bought because it was the lesser of 2 evils.

So the P-39 held the line primarily in the fighter-bomber role although it could only carry either 1 bomb OR 1 drop tank under the fuselage. That and the 37 was still jamming like Bob Marley, so in that role it had problems against the Japanese fighters. But again, it was there and held the line.

Now on to the P-39s glory: on the Eastern front the principal fighting was at low altitude, in fact frequently below 10,000ft. That and the Russians liked to remove the wing guns, thus the P-39 was operating in favorable conditions. The spin tendency would eventually be cured somewhat but the Reds had plenty of fighters that had horrid flight characteristics at the time...so why would they care? In fact they quickly fell in love with the P-39. They loved the Allison V1710 engine, got the 37 to work and loved it, and learned to maneuver it properly. In fact, the P-39 gained a reputation as an ace-maker in the Soviet Union! Many of the top aces were successful in their P-39s even if they did fly other fighters.
The allied Italian units and free-french would also fly P-39s, but again, the P-39s life was short. It barely hung on to the end of the war.

Before I go on to other versions of the P-39, the P-39 gained a very special role in the USAAC..that of a flying pin-ball! No, I don't mean the cute little game with the little ball and paddles...The P-39 pin balls were painted in vibrant schemes, sometimes bright orange, yellow, or zebra stripped. They had specially modified intakes and thicker skins with bullet resistant glass and no guns. They also featured special lights usually with one in the prop hub where the 37 barrel normally was. Then, bomber gunner crews in training would be given special "fragile bullets" and they would then fire at the pin-ball P-39s for training. A hit on the P-39 would activate the lights on the P-39. Hence the pin-ball  name. I imagine it was jolly good fun for the gunner trainiees but probably not so much fun for the pin ball pilots!  ;D
Today, there is one of these pin-ball fighters at the USAF museum in Dayton, Ohio.

Now on to other developments of the P-39.
The most well known is the P-63 KingCobra which was all around a far advancement of the P-39 with a bigger engine, bigger props, better armament, better range, better maneuverability, better stability, heck better everything! This still did not make the USAAC happy, except for pin-ball versions or trainers, it was not a success in American service. But considering this was at the tail end of the war, the French would acquire I think just under 70. These would see extensive service in Indochina before the French defeat there. Also the Russians used it and kept them around after the war.
http://www.p63kingcobra.com/index.html
A less well known version was the XFL-1 Airabonita carrier version.
http://microworks.net/pacific/aviation/ ... bonita.htm
Kinda cute isn't she? Well I think so  ::)

A quick note on P-39 models, the 4 models always talked about are the P-400, D, Q, and N. I will let you look into those as I am getting long winded  ;D

As mentioned before, entrance to the cockpit of the P-39 and P-63 was via a side door car style. Thus the cobras did not gain nose art, but rather 'door art'.

After the war, the Cobras quickly left service in most nations except France in IndoChina. Today, there are a handful or restored examples in museums on static displays and some are still flying:
http://www.warbirdregistry.org/
By the way, the above link is a MUST if you want to investigate what warbirds are still around. It is an immense database for those of us warbird fans.

After the war, air racing was active for a few years and this gave some purpose to several P-39s and P-63s
http://www.airrace.com/1946NAR.html
Charles Tucker being a big racer of the P-63. Today there is a P-39 and a P-63 that occasional registers for the National Championship Air Races in Reno in the Unlimited class. But they are very infrequent entries.
Here is a nice walk around and some flying footage of a restored P-39:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_tST2Jz7 ... re=related


By the way, there is a superb series of books out there from the Squadron Signal series. Each book covers a plane, tank, ship, etc in detail. One of these covers the P-39 in tremendous detail with a load of wonderful pictures. I have this book but thankfully found an online version:
http://www.scribd.com/doc/70789067/Squa ... -Airacobra
I highly recommend giving this a good read-through for some good info (unlike my basic and sometimes vague over view)

Now on to sim versions. I am un aware of a really good P-39, XFL-1, or P-63 available for the MS sims. There are combat flight sim ones converted for use in FS9 or FSX, but I do not use them. The way to best virtually use the Bell Airacobra/Kingcobra is through the wonderful combat flight sim IL-2 Sturmovik 1946.

So that is all for now, I got a few planes I want to cover for the next articles but I will always take suggestions.

Thats all for now,

I wish you clear skies and tailwinds on your travels,
Adam
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Re: Plane of the Week #9: The Bell P-39 Airacobra

Postby Flying Trucker » Sun Sep 16, 2012 12:50 pm

Very informative article Adam.

Again thanks for supplying the Links...very helpful... ;)
Cheers...Happy Landings...Doug
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Re: Plane of the Week #9: The Bell P-39 Airacobra

Postby wifesaysno » Wed Sep 19, 2012 8:31 pm

So how about some suggestions of TYPE of aircraft to cover? Like fighter, attack, transport, GA single or twin, or maybe an experimental/test bed?
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Re: Plane of the Week #9: The Bell P-39 Airacobra

Postby Flying Trucker » Wed Sep 19, 2012 11:33 pm

Hi Adam... ;)

Wow...you are a glutton for punishment... ;D

Have you considered some Rotary Wing Aircraft like the Bell 47 as an example?

Perhaps something along the line of the Gloster Gladiator or Fairey Swordfish.

Just a couple off the top of my head.... :)     ;D
Cheers...Happy Landings...Doug
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Re: Plane of the Week #9: The Bell P-39 Airacobra

Postby wifesaysno » Fri Oct 12, 2012 4:01 pm

[quote]Hi Adam... ;)

Wow...you are a glutton for punishment... ;D

Have you considered some Rotary Wing Aircraft like the Bell 47 as an example?

Perhaps something along the line of the Gloster Gladiator or Fairey Swordfish.

Just a couple off the top of my head.... :)
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Re: Plane of the Week #9: The Bell P-39 Airacobra

Postby DaveSims » Wed Nov 14, 2012 9:54 pm

I don't remember where I read it, but I saw somewhere that one of the downfalls of the P-39 was the car door.  Bloody difficult to get out of if you had to bail.
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Re: Plane of the Week #9: The Bell P-39 Airacobra

Postby wifesaysno » Wed Nov 14, 2012 10:26 pm

[quote]I don't remember where I read it, but I saw somewhere that one of the downfalls of the P-39 was the car door.
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Re: Plane of the Week #9: The Bell P-39 Airacobra

Postby Ivan » Sun Nov 25, 2012 6:57 pm

Anyone who flew on these had survived training in I-16's (basically an engine with wings).
After that anything is simple to fly
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Re: Plane of the Week #9: The Bell P-39 Airacobra

Postby wifesaysno » Sun Nov 25, 2012 7:44 pm

Anyone who flew on these had survived training in I-16's (basically an engine with wings).
After that anything is simple to fly


;D

Non the less, the I-16 was an extremely important aircraft and will be the subject of a future article  ;)

Currently I am doing a lot of detailed research on the U-2 for a project so that might be coming first  ;)
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