Aircraft Database Interwar Aviation Bell P-39 Airacobra

Bell P-39 Airacobra


Brief History

One of the first interceptors to have a tricycle undercarriage, the Bell P-39 Airacobra was unique in having its 1,150 hp Allison V-1710-E4 engine mounted behind the pilot, the propeller being driven via a long extension shaft.

Originating as the Bell Model 12, the Airacobra was designed by Robert J. Woods primarily as a vehicle for a heavy-calibre cannon. The XP-39 flew for the first time on 6 April 1938, a contract for thirteen YP-39 test aircraft being awarded in April 1939. These were based on the prototype, after its modification to XP-39B standard without the engine supercharger originally fitted. The first Bell P-39 Airacobra production version was the P-39C, but only twenty of these were completed. In the P-39D, the 37 mm cannon and twin 0.50 in guns in the nose were supplemented by 0.30 in wing-mounted machine-guns and provision was made for an external bomb or fuel tank to be carried. Four hundred and four P-39Ds were built for the US Army, delivery beginning in April 1941. A further four hundred and ninety-four P-39D-1 and D-2 Airacobras (Bell Model 14) were built for Lend-Lease allocations, these having a nose cannon of lighter (20 mm) calibre.

Airacrobras were initially ordered by France, but after the armistice the contract was taken over by Britain. Following Air Fighting Development Unit trials, one squadron, No 601, was re-equipped with the type. It was found that performance at altitude was very poor and mechanical unreliability led to serious serviceability problems. The Bell P-39 Airacobra was briefly used for ground strafing, but was withdrawn from operations after four months. The bulk of the 670 ordered were cancelled, and instead went to the US Army Air Corps, while many were supplied to Russia, where they proved suitable for low-level attacks.

Numerous Bell P-39 Airacobra variants appeared, the difference between which principally concerned the variant of V-1710 engine and type of propeller fitted; they included the P-39F, J, K, L, M, N and Q. The Last of these introduced a change of armament, replacing the four 0.30 in wing guns by two of 0.50 in calibre. The two most widely built models were the P-39N (two thousand and ninety-five) and the P-39Q (four thousand nine hundred and five).

Entire production of the Bell P-39 Airacobra, ending in 1944, was undertaken by Bell, who built a total, including experimental machines, of nine thousand five hundred and fifty-eight. Well over half this total, mostly P-39Ns and P-39Qs were allocated to the Soviet Union; nearly two hundred of these were lost en route, but four thousand seven hundred and fifty-eight arrived safely to render excellent service on the Eastern Front between 1942 and 1945.

Aircraft Type:
wingspan: 34 ft
length: 30 ft, 2 in
height: 12 ft, 5 in
empty: 5,462 lb
gross: 7,651 lb
Power plant:
1 × 1,200 hp Allison V-1710 liquid-cooled engine
maximum speed: 382 mph
ceiling: 35,000 ft
maximum range: 650 mi
2 × 0.50 in calibre nose guns
4 × 0.30 in mm wing guns
1 × 37 mm calibre cannon
Service dates:
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