Bell Aircraft was formed in 1935 in
Buffalo. In 1936 a revolutionary design started to take place for a
high altitude fighter, what made it so different was that the engine
was mounted behind the pilot and on the centre of gravity. Equally
unusual was the tricycle landing gear. This improved visibility, and it
certainly improved handling while taking off and landing. It also
allowed for the installation of a large cannon to be mounted in the
propeller hub. The type of firepower designated for this fighter was
the T-9 cannon of 37-mm calibre designed by the American Armament
Corporation and two fuselage mounted 7.62-mm machine guns. The U.S.
Army Air Corps first ordered a prototype the XP-39 on 7 October 1937,
which first flew on 6 April 1938.
Subsequent test aircraft the YP-39As were ordered in 1939. Over 60
modifications were recommended by the NACA of which the most
significant was the deletion of the supercharger. The first fighter the
P-45 of which 80 were ordered into production 10 August 1939, 20 were
built as the P-39C (model 13) the remaining 60 were built as the P-39D
(model 14) variant. The changes were the installation of self sealing
fuel tanks, two more 7.62 mm machine guns now to be relocated to the
wings and a rack designed to carry a 500 lb. Bomb or a 75 gal fuel drop
The first large order for this fighter being placed by the British
Purchasing Commission September 1940 for 369Ds, initial deliveries
began approximately seven months later. The total order was for 675
(model 14) aircraft which was very similar to the D model with a few
changes in the armament, it now carried a 20 mm cannon in place of the
37 mm cannon, and the six 7.62 mm machine guns were now replaced by six
7.7 mm guns. The first Airacobra to fly in England was on 6 July 1941.
Approximately two months later 601 Squadron replaced its Hawker
Hurricanes with 80 Airacobras. It was determined that this aircraft was
unsuitable for the European theatre, it had a poor high altitude
performance and rate of climb. The RAF finally exchanged these aircraft
in March 1942 for the Supermarine Spitfire.
The second largest order but the first major order was for the P-39Ns a
total of 2,095 were built of which most went to the Soviet Union, the
Russians found it to be an excellent Ground Attack aircraft and
performed well in air to air combat. It was welcomed into service,
compared to what the Russian pilots were flying at the time this was
considered to be a very sophisticated a fighter.
The largest order was for 4,905 of the P-39Q. This model as well as
other Variants served with distinction with some of Russians elite
Guard units and served on all of the sectors of the Eastern Front up to
the final battle of Berlin. In total 4,924 Airacobra Variants were
dispatched to Russia, approximately 54 were lost at sea in transit.
The P-39 Airacobra served with the RAF, the Free French air force
serving in Italy, the Co-Belligerent Air Force in Northern Italy and
the Balkans, nine served with the Portuguese Air Force. The USAAF
deployed this aircraft in many different theatres of war from the
Aleutians in Alaska to Europe, New Guinea in the Pacific to North
Africa. The last Airacobra was delivered in August 1944. A total of
9,558 were built.
The most successful Russian Fighter ace flying P-39s while flying with
the 16th Guards Fighter Air Regiment was without question Colonel
Aleksandr I Pokryshkin. He managed to destroy 48 of his total of 59
victories in the Airacobra in 600 sorties. He was Russia’s second
highest scoring Fighter Pilot.
Caribou (RAF), Britchik (i.e. "Little Shaver")
(Russian nickname). "Shaving" was slang for "low-level strafing."
Engine: 1200hp Allison
V-1710-83 inline piston engine
Weight: Empty 5,610 lbs.,
Max Takeoff 8,400 lbs.
Wing Span: 34ft. 0 in.
Length: 30ft. 2 in.
Height: 11ft. 10 in.
Maximum Speed at 9500ft: 386
Cruising Speed: 200 mph
Ceiling: 36,000 ft
Range: 650 miles
One 37mm T9 cannon
Two 12.7mm (0.5 inch) machine guns
Four 7.62mm (0.3 inch) machine guns
One 500 lb bomb