Flawed Fighter: Bell P-39 Airacobra (2024)

  • Length: 30 ft. 2 in.
  • Wingspan: 34 ft.
  • Height: 12 ft. 5 in.
  • Wing Area: 213 sq. ft.
  • Empty Weight: 5,347 lbs.
  • Loaded Weight: 7,379 lbs.
  • Maximum Takeoff Weight: 8,400 lbs.
  • Crew: 1


  • Maximum Speed: 376 mph
  • Combat Radius: 525 miles
  • Rate of Climb: 3,750 ft./min.
  • Service Ceiling: 35,000 ft.
  • Power Plant: 1 × Allison V-1710-85 liquid-cooled V-12, 1,200 hp


  • 1 x 37 mm M4 cannon
  • 2 x .50 cal. machine guns
  • 4 x .30 cal machine guns
  • up to 500 lbs. of bombs

Design & Development

In early 1937, Lieutenant Benjamin S. Kelsey, the US Army Air Corps' Project Officer for Fighters, began to express his frustration over the service's armament limitations for pursuit aircraft. Joining with Captain Gordon Saville, a fighter tactics instructor at the Air Corps Tactical School, the two men wrote two circular proposals for a pair of new "interceptors" which would possess a heavier armament that would allow American aircraft to dominate aerial battles. The first, X-608, called for a twin-engine fighter and would ultimately lead to the development of the Lockheed P-38 Lightning. The second, X-609, requested designs for a single-engine fighter capable of dealing with enemy aircraft at high altitude. Also included in X-609 was a requirement for a turbo-supercharged, liquid-cooled Allison engine as well as a level speed of 360 mph and an ability to reach 20,000 feet within six minutes.

Responding to X-609, Bell Aircraft began work on a new fighter that was designed around the Oldsmobile T9 37mm cannon. To accommodate this weapon system, which was intended to fire through the propeller hub, Bell employed the unorthodox approach of mounting the aircraft's engine in the fuselage behind the pilot. This turned a shaft beneath the pilot's feet which in turn powered the propeller. Due to this arrangement, the co*ckpit sat higher which gave the pilot an excellent field of view. It also allowed for a more streamlined design which Bell hoped would aid in achieving the required speed. In another difference from its contemporaries, pilots entered the new aircraft through side doors that were similar to those employed on automobiles rather than sliding canopy. To supplement the T9 cannon, Bell mounted twin .50 cal. machine guns in the aircraft's nose. Later models would also incorporate two to four .30 cal. machine guns mounted in the wings.

A Fateful Choice

First flying on April 6, 1939, with test pilot James Taylor at the controls, the XP-39 proved disappointing as its performance at altitude failed to meet the specifications set forth in Bell's proposal. Attached to the design, Kelsey had hoped to guide the XP-39 through the development process but was thwarted when he received orders that sent him abroad. In June, Major General Henry "Hap" Arnold directed that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics conduct wind tunnel tests on the design in an effort to improve performance. Following this testing, NACA recommended that the turbo-supercharger, which was cooled with the scoop on the left side of the fuselage, be enclosed within the aircraft. Such a change would improve the XP-39's speed by 16 percent.

Examining the design, Bell's team was unable to find space within the XP-39's small fuselage for the turbo-supercharger. In August 1939, Larry Bell met with the USAAC and NACA to discuss the issue. At the meeting, Bell argued in favor of eliminating the turbo-supercharger altogether. This approach, much to Kelsey's later dismay, was adopted and subsequent prototypes of the aircraft moved forward utilizing only a single-stage, single-speed supercharger. While this alteration provided the desired performance improvements at low altitudes, the elimination of the turbo effectively made the type useless as a front-line fighter at heights above 12,000 feet. Unfortunately, the drop-off in performance at medium and high altitudes was not immediately noticed and the USAAC ordered 80 P-39s in August 1939.

Early Problems

Initially introduced as the P-45 Airacobra, the type was soon re-designated P-39C. The initial twenty aircraft were built without armor or self-sealing fuel tanks. As World War II had begun in Europe, the USAAC began to assess combat conditions and realized that these were needed to ensure survivability. As a result, the remaining 60 aircraft of the order, designated P-39D, were built with armor, self-sealing tanks, and enhanced armament. This added weight further hampered the aircraft's performance. In September 1940, the British Direct Purchase Commission ordered 675 of the aircraft under the name Bell Model 14 Caribou. This order was placed based on the performance of the unarmored and unarmed XP-39 prototype. Receiving their first aircraft in September 1941, the Royal Air Force soon found the production P-39 to be inferior to variants of the Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire.

In the Pacific

As a result, the P-39 flew one combat mission with the British before the RAF shipped 200 aircraft to the Soviet Union for use with the Red Air Force. With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the US Army Air Forces purchased 200 P-39s from the British order for use in the Pacific. First engaging Japanese in April 1942 over New Guinea, the P-39 saw extensive use throughout the Southwest Pacific and flew with American and Australian forces. The Airacobra also served in the "Cactus Air Force" which operated from Henderson Field during the Battle of Guadalcanal. Engaging at lower altitudes, the P-39, with its heavy armament, frequently proved a tough opponent for the famed Mitsubishi A6M Zero. Also used in the Aleutians, pilots found that the P-39 had a variety of handling problems including a tendency to enter a flat spin. This often was the result of the aircraft's center of gravity shifting as ammunition was expended. As distances in the Pacific war increased, the short-range P-39 was withdrawn in favor of increasing numbers of P-38s.

In the Pacific

Though found unsuitable for use in Western Europe by the RAF, the P-39 saw service in North Africa and the Mediterranean with the USAAF in 1943 and early 1944. Among those to briefly fly the type was the famed 99th Fighter Squadron (Tuskegee Airmen) who had transitioned from the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk. Flying in support of Allied forces during the Battle of Anzio and maritime patrols, P-39 units found the type to be particularly effective at strafing. By early 1944, most American units transitioned to the newer Republic P-47 Thunderbolt or North American P-51 Mustang. The P-39 was also employed with the Free French and Italian Co-Belligerent Air Forces. While the former was less than pleased with the type, the latter effectively employed the P-39 as a ground-attack aircraft in Albania.

Soviet Union

Exiled by the RAF and disliked by the USAAF, the P-39 found its home flying for the Soviet Union. Employed by that nation's tactical air arm, the P-39 was able to play to its strengths as most of its combat occurred at lower altitudes. In that arena, it proved capable against German fighters such as the Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Focke-Wulf Fw 190. In addition, its heavy armament allowed it to make quick work of Junkers Ju 87 Stukas and other German bombers. A total of 4,719 P-39s were sent to the Soviet Union through the Lend-Lease Program. These were transported to the front via the Alaska-Siberia ferry route. During the course of the war, five of the top ten Soviet aces scored the majority of their kills in the P-39. Of those P-39s flown by the Soviets, 1,030 were lost in combat. The P-39 remained in use with the Soviets until 1949.

Selected Sources

Flawed Fighter: Bell P-39 Airacobra (2024)


Flawed Fighter: Bell P-39 Airacobra? ›

Because its engine was equipped with only a single-stage, single-speed supercharger, the P-39 performed poorly above 17,000 feet (5,200 m) altitude. In both western Europe and the Pacific, the Airacobra found itself outclassed as an interceptor and the type was gradually relegated to other duties.

Was the Airacobra a good plane? ›

The lack of an efficient turbo-supercharger meant that the airplane did not perform well at high altitude, but in the hands of Soviet pilots at low altitude over the Eastern Front, the P-39 made a massive contribution to the war effort.

How many P-39 are still flying? ›

Only two Bell P-39 Airacobra fighters remain airworthy in the world and one is at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2016. Bill Fier of the Central Texas Wing of the Commemorative Air Force (CAF) flew it here. The P-39 stands out instantly on the Warbird ramp as the only World War II fighter here on tricycle landing gear.

What is the maximum speed of a Bell P-39 Airacobra? ›

Bell P-39 Airacobra
Maximum Speed:390 mph (628 km/h) @ 20,000 ft (6,096 m)385 mph (620 km/h) @ 15,000 ft (4,572 m)
Service Ceiling:32,000 ft (9,574 m)35,000 ft (10,668 m)
Normal Range:390 miles (628 km)650 miles (1,046 km)
13 more rows

What weapons did the P-39 Airacobra have? ›

The Soviets received several models of the P-39, although most were Q-models with the Allison engine, the 37mm cannon, and four . 50-caliber machine guns—two located in the upper nose and two wing-mounted. At Soviet request, the wing-mounted machine guns were later deleted.

Did the Soviets like the Airacobra? ›

The comparatively low-speed, low-altitude nature of most air combat on the Eastern Front suited the P-39's strengths: sturdy construction, reliable radio gear, and good firepower. Soviet pilots appreciated the cannon-armed P-39 primarily for its air-to-air capability.

What does the p stand for in P-51? ›

In 1948, the designation P-51 (P for pursuit) was changed to F-51 (F for fighter) and the existing F designator for photographic reconnaissance aircraft was dropped because of a new designation scheme throughout the USAF.

What is the hardest military jet to fly? ›

What Is the Most Difficult Plane to Fly?
  • B-2 Spirit. The stealth capabilities and unique flying wing design of the B-2 Spirit make it difficult to fly, requiring advanced training for its pilots. ...
  • F-16 Fighting Falcon. ...
  • Harrier Jump Jet. ...
  • SR-71 Blackbird. ...
  • F-104 Starfighter. ...
  • Antonov An-2. ...
  • U-2 Spy Plane. ...
  • Sukhoi Su-27.

Which WWII fighter had the most kills? ›

With such a huge number being active in the skies over Europe, Africa, and the Mediterranean, it is also the fighter plane with the most kills in history. Over 20,000 kills have been attributed to the Bf 109, including all 352 planes shot down by Erich Hartmann, one of the most prolific fighter aces of all time.

What was the fastest military plane ever? ›

The X-43, an experimental aircraft, holds the distinction of being not only the fastest fighter jet but the fastest aircraft ever built period, having achieved a top speed of Mach 9.6.

What was the fastest propeller plane in WWII? ›

The Dornier Do 335 was one of the fastest propeller-driven aircraft ever flown. The Germans claimed that a pilot flew a Do 335 at a speed of 846 km/h (474 mph) in level flight at a time when the official world speed record was 755 km/h (469 mph).

What was the toughest aircraft in ww2? ›

The P-47 was one of the toughest Allied planes during WWII and had the most firepower from its eight . 50 caliber guns in its wings (3,400 rounds.) It was even more effective as a ground attack aircraft; it was capable of carrying as much as 3,000 pounds of external ordnance.

How many aircraft did the P-39 shoot down? ›

Eight Soviet P-39 pilots shot down at least 30 German aircraft each, and the highest-scoring Soviet ace, G.A. Rechkalov, scored 48 of his 54 confirmed kills in a P-39. The Soviets called it Kobrushka—Little Cobra.

What was the best naval plane in ww2? ›

Slow but rugged, the SBD Dauntless dive bomber ravaged the Imperial Japanese Navy during the monumental first year of the Pacific contest, in the process earning a place in the hearts of its pilots.

What was the most feared plane in ww2? ›

Junkers Ju87 Widely known as the “Stuka”, the Ju87 was one of the most feared aircraft during World War Two. It had a fearsome siren which terrified those who heard it. Lockheed Hudson Useful aeroplane. The wooden lifeboat was designed to be dropped by Hudsons to rescue airmen who had ditched.

What is the most feared war plane? ›

From Rafale to F-22 and more, these are the top 6 deadliest fighter jets in the world
  • Evolution of Fighter Jets. In a world marked by potential conflicts, fighter jets serve as guardians in the sky. ...
  • F-22 Raptor - USA. ...
  • Su-57 - Russia. ...
  • Rafale - France. ...
  • F-35 Lightning II - USA. ...
  • Eurofighter Typhoon - Europe. ...
  • J-20 - China.
Jan 18, 2024

What was the toughest plane in ww2? ›

The P-47 was one of the toughest Allied planes during WWII and had the most firepower from its eight . 50 caliber guns in its wings (3,400 rounds.) It was even more effective as a ground attack aircraft; it was capable of carrying as much as 3,000 pounds of external ordnance.

What was the best biplane fighter? ›

There is no doubting that the Gloster Gladiator was one of the greatest biplane fighters ever built and arguably, it was the very best.

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