Unconventional Airacobra

Pilot notes on the P-39

The three ‘trusted’ US pursuits – P-39, P-38 and P-40. War in Europe quickly revealed their shortcomings. (IWM CC BY-NC 3.0 | FRE 10374)

Despite rising indications to the contrary, the US Army Air Forces went into the 1940s convinced that the country’s air forces would be well-served by their trio of new pursuits – the P-83, P-39 and P-40.

The twin, turbo-supercharged performance and concentrated fire-power of the P-38 would make it an outstanding weapon in all theatres of the spreading conflict. The other two: not so much.

The Republic XP-47A (this is a wind tunnel model) had more in common with the P-39 and P-40, until reports from Europe spurred Republic to a complete rethink and the more familiar P-47B ‘Thunderbolt’. (NASA | NACA 25005)

Republic would address the lessons from Europe by ditching their P-47A for the P-47B. But thank goodness Dutch Kindelberger and North American Aviation took the bold step of not just building more P-40s.

Five years and several aeronautical leaps later, here’s what Flight magazine’s ‘Indicator’ thought of the least conventional of those early, single-Allison fighters.

‘Indicator’ insights

The British-trained pilot must necessarily “live” for several weeks in American fighters if he is to learn to appreciate them, and if one of them happens to be unconventional in the extreme sense, the recovery action is even more delayed. 

Of course, the layout is all very neat and tidy in every American type, and makes the average British cockpit look like a blacksmith’s shop; but we have grown up with all the bits and pieces and have learnt to like it that way.  

A wonderful portrait of AH577 over the English countryside. This was apparently the personal mount of 601 Squadron C/O, Sqn Ldr EJ Jones, who took over in December 1941. (IWM CC BY-NC 3.0 | CH 3711)

Obviously, it would be unfair to judge the modern American fighter by the yardstick of some very early attempts. The Airacobra, the Tomahawk and the Kittyhawk were slow and had very poor altitude performance when compared to British fighters of the same period. 

American designers have gone a long way since then, with or without the help of British power-units and early European fighting experience, but these machines helped to fill the gaps and the Curtiss fighters, at least, did good work in Africa and the Far East. 

From my own non-operational point of view, all three handled nicely and offered no difficulties. 

Something quite different

Bell Airacobra I of 601 Sqn, RAF, sometime in 1941. (wikipedia)

The Bell Airacobra, of course, was something quite different with its Allison engine sitting in the small of one’s back, a propeller-shaft between one’s legs and with a tricycle undercarriage. 

Nevertheless, it must be confessed that there was still so much cowling in front of the screen that one was inclined to forget the disposition of the major items except while taxying—when the shaft, under varying loads, whipped about in a frenzy from time to time.

One learnt to taxi with lots of throttle and with the treadle brakes hard on in order to reduce the grindings down below. Which reminds me of the perfectly true story of a fitter, new to the type, who poured glycol into the Airacobra’s reduction gear, thinking it was the coolant header tank! 

Bailing out

In the air the Airacobra had one peculiarity caused by its relative C of G position. While recovering from a dive the aircraft tended to organise its own pull-out to no mean degree if the speed happened to climb above a certain figure, and things had to be handled firmly if the structure was to be saved from excessive loadings. 

I’m not quite sure how one was expected to abandon ship if something did come off, although I daresay it was easy enough, as entry and exit were made through a miniature saloon car door. Presumably one just rolled out onto the wing and hoped to avoid the tail-plane. 

No.601 Squadron ground crew push Airacobra AH601 over the grass. I’m not sure what’s going on, or who’s sitting on the nose, but the civilians at right are possibly press covering the new type’s arrival. (via Paul Wieloszynski | Brain.Trust flickr.com)

Best leg forward

The tricycle undercarriage was electrically retracted, and I can vouch for its strength. On one occasion I was forced by weather to a very immediate landing. I put down in a tiny airfield which was in the process of being extended and ‘runwayed’. 

In the prevailing drizzle and tree-high cloud my arrival direction was a trifle out as far as the selection of the longest of the short runs was concerned, and I finished up travelling at very high speed amongst a typical Works and Bricks display of ditches, stones, concrete-mixers and mud. 

They dug me out, and when the weather cleared I took off and absent-mindedly raised the undercarriage, which I had intended to leave down until it could be given a retraction test. All was well; it went both up and down. 

In all likelihood a staged photo of groundcrew swarming over AH601, I guess after pushing it into position in the photo above. (via Paul Wieloszynski | Brain.Trust flickr.com)

Out of gear 

The undercarriage, incidentally, had a manual emergency gear, with a two-position selector to suit. 

A friend of mine once took off with this selector in ‘manual’ and then selected ‘up’. Nothing happened, of course, except a loud scream from the warning horn when the throttle was eventually brought back.

It was landed in this condition, with the legs unlocked but held by the manual gear. 

When we had guessed what was wrong, we just wound the handle until the horn stopped blowing— probably the first time an undercarriage has ever been locked and unlocked successfully while not safely on jacks. 

This is an extract from an article that first appeared in Flight magazine on November 29th, 1945. You can find it here.


A mixed bag

Broadly speaking, the P-39 received a mixed bag of reviews. Many US pilots who flew Airacobras while their squadrons were ‘working up’ stateside loved the finely coupled fighter. A certain Charles E Yeager was one of them.

P-39C-BE assigned to the 40th PS / 31st PG at Selfridge Field, MI. P-39s would be assigned to many US fighter squadrons before their overseas deployment. (USAAF)

The British toyed with the name ‘Caribou’ (and they were usually so good at aircraft names!) for their sight-unseen order of Bell ‘P-400’s but eventually stuck with the American ‘Airacobra’. 

601 County of London Squadron parade with their P-400s at Duxford. I believe the front aircraft, AH585, was written off after the undercarriage collapsed on take-off on February 7th, 1942. (via Paul Wieloszynski | Brain.Trust flickr.com)

Regardless, they soon found the new fighter promised much but delivered much less. Only No. 601 County of London Squadron, RAF (the famous “Millionaires’ Squadron”) ever used P-400s – just 13 of the 675 that were ordered. And they hated them. 

Stationed at Duxford, the pilots transitioned to Airacobras from Hurricanes in the autumn of 1941. Unhappy with the fighter’s handling, pilot comfort and lacklustre performance they only flew four operational missions at the start of October, sinking a few small ships across the Channel. 

The RAF was somewhat relieved of its contractual obligation by the USAAC’s urgent need for aircraft following Pearl Harbor, and the pilots of No.65 gladly swapped their American fighters for Spitfire Vs in March of 1942. The Brits eventually handballed 200 more of their original order to the hard-pressed Russians. Most never got out of the British docks, much less their shipping crates, before they were summarily reloaded onto the Northern convoys.

Fighters for Russia. By 1944 the uSSR was hardly still a ‘desperate cause’, but the AIracobra was hardly the P-39 either. These are P-63 Kingcobras outside the Bell plant in NY. (via Paul Wieloszynski | Brain.Trust flickr.com)

A fighter of desperate causes

Ultimately, Bell went on to produce almost 10,000 P-39s in numerous variations. They were deployed as a stopgap for US and RAAF squadrons in the Southwest Pacific in early 1942, but were soon replaced with P-40s or P-38s. 

By and large there was a tendency to use P-39s for just about anything but frontline combat, and they were given numerous second-string roles including ZOI pilot training; protecting the Panama Canal Zone; populating Italy’s Co-Belligerent Air Force from June 1944. 

Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa created another urgent demand that could have permanently marked the P-39 as a fighter of desperate causes – except that Russian pilots became highly enthusiastic and deadly users of the type. They gave the P-39 affectionate nick-names like ‘Little Cobra’ and ‘Dear Little Cobra’, and arguably ‘borrowed’ Bell’s wing for several of their own fighter designs.

Later variants made a brief foray into post-war air races, where they proved fast but inevitably outclassed by newer designs.

Unfairly judged

601 Commander, Sqn Ldr Edward John Gracie, steps out of his AH601 ‘Skylark XIII’. Gracie was a Battle of Britain ace, Malta veteran Mosquito intruder. He was shot down and killed near Hanover on the night of February 15th, 1944.

I suspect debate about whether the P-39 was poorly used and unfairly judged; simply under-appreciated; or genuinely bad will be with us for a long time. It would be nice to read some more pilots’ reports from the period. 

I’m sure the unconventional concentration of hardware around the C of G could have made the P-39 very agile in a skilled pair of hands (British trials found it could easily out-turn the Me.109 below 20,000 feet) if more than a little dangerous when badly handled. 

In fact, it managed the second-highest accident rate of all USAAF types during the war – 274 accidents per 100,000 flying hours. By comparison, the P-40’s figure was 188 and the twin-engined P-38’s was 139. But before we get too judgy, it’s worth noting that the ‘worst’ aircraft was the A-36 Invader with 274 accidents per 100,000 flying hours. 

Obviously the P-39’s concentration in the advanced training role would have skewed the data, but no-one ever called the A-36/P-51 lineage a bad design… 

In the meantime, we can always count on ‘Indicator’ to bring an aircraft’s unexpected quirks to light.

A nicely atypical view of AH585, showing it’s purposeful and very aerodynamic lines. (via Paul Wieloszynski | Brain.Trust flickr.com)


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9 thoughts on “Unconventional Airacobra

  1. Get your hands on the book “Attack of the Airacobras” originally in Russian by Dmitriy Loza and translated by James Gebhardt, found at Amazon here: http://tinyurl.com/y3ha6f42
    It is an astounding record of how the Russians took this plane that was rejected by others and used it effectively to defeat the Luftwaffe over Russian skies.

  2. I’d suggest that the dive bomber/ground attack role of the A-36 (Apache is the more usual name) had a lot to do with the accident rate. A good book of the Airacobra from a pilot is ANGELS TWENTY by Ted Park. It’s only a paperback so it will be cheap second-hand. He flew the type in PNG with the AAF, and if memory serves (it was published by UQP in 1994) he pulls no punches on the type.

  3. “Unconventional” is certainly a good description of the Airacobra! I’d always considered it a most unusual design for a fighter aircraft. The fact that we didn’t find it fit for purpose but the Russians evidently did means that it clearly worked for somebody! Perhaps we ought to have sent the Russians a boat-load of Defiants and Martin-Baker MB2 fighters, too!

    1. I’m sure if the government had had a warehouse full of Defiants and MB-2s, or even AW Whitleys, they would have put them on ships and sold them to Stalin. Whether this was out of reflection on their own desperate need for aircraft in 1940 or simply a way to ‘move on’ some less satisfactory inventory is probably an open question…

  4. The Airacobra is a great looking plane, but I’ve always thought the noise and vibration of having your seatback literally up against the engine must have been deafening, even by WW2 fighter standards.

    As with so many aircraft of that era, it’s sad that out of, what, ten thousand built, there are so few airworthy examples surviving that even those of use who spend a fair bit of time around warbirds have never seen one fly.

    1. I guess they figured an engine anywhere in the fuselage was going to be noisy… but right from the days of Farmans and Boxkites, it was known that an engine behind the pilot had its own special inertia in a crash landing.
      Still, I’m more intrigued by the concentration of CG. It must have seemed like a great idea on paper, from an agility perspective, but I bet it led to the aircraft being able to bite its own tail in the wrong hands. I’m looking forward to reading these other pilot accounts.

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