Talking Proud Archives --- Military

Bell XP-39 Airacobra: US pilots had issues, Soviets loved her

By Ed Marek, editor

December 11, 2017
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Once again, Bell found itself enveloped in a fascinating aircraft evolution.

In February 1937 Lt. Gordon Phillip Saville and Lt. Benjamin Scovill Kelsey, both US Army Air Corps (USAAC), issued a specification for a new fighter by means of Circular Proposal X-609. The proposal called for a single-engine high-altitude "interceptor." The mission was to intercept and attack hostile aircraft at high altitude.

The mission requirement is an interesting one. Use of the word "interceptor" was new, and for many, ambiguous. Traditionally one would have used "pursuit." Rules governing fighters and pursuit aircraft were disregarded, Saville and Kelsey contending the new term "interceptor" had no rules.

The idea was to create a fighter that possessed greater maneuverability and more powerful nose-mounted armament than other fighters. They were after a high performance aircraft. They were also after a high altitude aircraft that could take on and defeat hostile fighters. All these requirements demanded a turbo-supercharger.


The specifications were demanding. They called for at least 1,000 lb of heavy armament including a cannon, an Allison V-1710 liquid-cooled engine such as shown here, with a General Electric turbo-supercharger, tricycle landing gear, a level airspeed of at least 360 mph (580 km/h) at altitude, and a climb to 20,000 ft (6,100 m) within 6 minutes. Keep the supercharger in mind.


The XP-39 prototype was serial 38-326 which is shown here. It did have a turbo-supercharger. This prototype had no weapons, though space was left for them.

Saville helped specify that the P-39 be designed around a large T-9 37 mm auto cannon, which came to be known as the M4. It was a heckuva cannon, but had limited ammunition, a low rate of fire, and was prone to jamming. Bob Woods and H.M. Poyer of Bell Aircraft began designing a new fighter built around the 37 mm cannon, rather than the more normal design that builds the aircraft around the engine.

Let's take a look at the cannon that was so important to the aircraft's design.


This T-9 37 mm auto cannon was designed by Browning Arms Corp. Pilots did not like it because its trajectory tended downward. It could carry a 5-round clip, 15-round link-belt, or a 30-round belt magazine. The latter 30-round magazine was used in the production model.



The 35 mm cannon fired through the hollow propeller. It had armor piercing and high explosive projectiles. The pilot fired the guns from a trigger button on the control stick. The cannon was heavy. It weighed 306.4 lbs. when loaded with the 30-round magazine.


A good deal of room was needed to fit in the canon. That required the designers develop a unique design. They pushed the engine back, on the aircraft’s center of gravity. In turn, that required they put the cockpit in front of the engine, over the wing’s leading edge. Such a move did give the pilot excellent visibility.

Placing the engine behind the pilot required a two-piece 10 ft. propeller drive shaft to connect the gear box to the propeller. The 10 ft. shaft passed directly under the pilot's seat and between the rudder pedals which is where the pilot put his feet. That in turn resulted in the pilot sitting higher in the fuselage than normal, improving his visibility even more.

American pilots did not like the setup. As far as I can tell, they felt uneasy about the 10 ft. propeller shaft passing directly under their seat and between the rudder pedals. I have also found that some pilots were concerned about how the engine and shaft might react if they had a crash landing. To my knowledge this design feature did not cause significant problems however.


The XP-39 prototype was built in Buffalo but flew her maiden flight from Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio on April 6, 1938, piloted by James Taylor. Taylor found the XP-39’s performance to be impressive, reaching 390 mph, climbing to 20,000 ft. in five minutes.
Note the air intake on the side of the fuselage. It served the supercharger. Bell cooled the turbo-supercharger with a scoop on the left side of the fuselage. Speed was of paramount importance, hence the supercharger.

The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) put the XP-39 through wind tunnel tests and, according to
Warbirds Resource Group, concluded, "It is imperative to enclose the supercharger within the airplane with an efficient duct system for cooling the rotor and discharging the cooling air and exhaust gases." NACA assessed there was not enough room in the aircraft for all that. So it had to be removed. However, NACA determined the aircraft could still reach 429 mph with some aerodynamic improvements with only a single-stage, single-speed supercharger. Larry Bell in August 1939 recommended the Army allow him to remove turbocharger.

Warbirds Resource Group said the Army therefore went ahead and ordered 12 YP-39s with only a single-stage, single speed supercharger for surface evaluation and one YP-39A with no turbocharger. After some tests and changes the 13 YP-39s were completed with a single-stage, single-speed supercharger with a critical altitude of 12,000 ft. The problem became obvious: 12,000 ft. is not high altitude; at best it is medium altitude.

Nonetheless, the Army decided on the YP-39 with no turbo-supercharger. Kelsey was angry the turbocharger was removed, but there was little he could do. There was no fix.

The Army ordered 80 in August 1939, delivered as 20 P-39Cs. After being involved in operational combat in Europe, the Army determined the 20 P-39Cs were not suitable for operational use. So 60 P-39D aircraft were produced with heavier armament and self-sealing tanks.

As a reminder, the US entered WWII after the Japanese attack on the Hawaiian Islands on December 7, 1941. The US declared war against Japan on December 8 and against Germany on December 11, 1941. Strategic air bombing and air supremacy were the top two priorities. As a result the British were the ones who took the lead in tactical air superiority. Close air support of troops engaged on the ground was the number three AAF priority. While the intent behind the P-39 was to help obtain air superiority at high altitude, its strength turned out to be close air support, thought he Soviets used it successfully in medium and low altitude air-to-air combat, which I'll talk about more in a moment.


Bell went into production in early 1939. The production aircraft retained the single-stage, single speed supercharger. Ultimately, Bell had six productions building the P-39 with 25,000 people working on them. At that level they produced one about every 90 minutes, about 25 airplanes a day. Tony Kaiser, a Bell worker at the time, said on October 1, 1940, Bell's Wheatfield plant was producing one airplane per month. By war's end, its was producing 759 per month. He said, "We were running three shifts a day, including Sundays and holidays." He noted about two-thirds of the work force was women.

To start, the French ordered 165 in early 1940. It was called the Bell "Model 400." However, in May 1940 the Germans were in France so the British agreed to take the French order and increased it to 675.


The British needed fighter aircraft. The British 601 squadron received the first batch of aircraft and renamed it the Caribou, but later reverted back to Airacobra. But the P-39 did not meet the British need to fight air-to-air combat against the Germans at high altitudes, so the British did not take the remainder of the order. The British sent most or all of their operational P-39s to the Soviets.

Patrick Massell, writing
"Airacobra or Iron Dog?", said this about the RAF experience:

"RAF pilots hated the P-39. Their main gripes were the drop in performance above 20,000 feet, a tendency to spin, and the difficulty to recover from a spin. Also on the list was the short range of 430 miles on internal reserves and 690 miles with drop tanks. They also reported that fumes would fill the cockpit after firing the guns. These flaws were often exaggerated to the point that it seemed impossible for the P-39 to effectively serve as a fighter. However, they did concede that it was the equal of the vaunted Bf-109 below 20,000 feet. Still, the British needed a high-altitude fighter and dumped their P-39s on the USAAC; the rest of the order was cancelled."

As history would have it, the Japanese attacked the US and the US declared war against both Japan and Germany in 1941. So the AAF took the remainder of the British order (200 aircraft) renaming them the P-400 and delivered them to US forces in the South and Southwest Pacific region. The P-40 and P-39 were the only American-built fighters available in large numbers in early 1942. They were badly needed in the Pacific.

That said, the 81st Fighter Group was equipped with P-39s and former RAF P-400s, and deployed to North Africa. The Tuskegee Airmen trained with the P-39s in the US and flew them in combat in North Africa and the Mediterranean.

American pilots began flying the P-400 in Australia for training by mid-March 1942. The mission was to defend Australia However, General MacArthur, after being forced out of the Philippines, arrived in Australia, and decided to defend Australia by fighting in New Guinea. The 35th Fighter Group P-400s and 8th Fighter Group P-39s moved to Papua, New Guinea, to Port Moresby. The aircraft were then sent all over the Southwest Pacific, positioned in Fiji, Christmas Island, Canton, New Caledonia, Palmyra and Guadalcanal. They played a huge role in New Guinea and the Soloman Islands.

The P-400 used a 20 mm cannon instead of the 37 mm cannon used by the P-39. Initially, their value in New Guinea was to force Japanese bombers to higher altitudes where the Japanese bombers lost accuracy. But then they participated heavily in close air support of US forces fighting there, conducting strafing and low altitude bombing missions.

It is interesting to note that in New Guinea USAAF P-39 pilots racked up impressive scores against the Japanese Zero at lower altitudes. For multiple reasons, the Zeros were flying fairly low, either escorting ships or conducting dive bombing missions. In both cases they were vulnerable to the P-39.

The P-39 would also attack Japanese targets in the Aleutians and some in North Africa and Italy.

Nonetheless, the pilots called the P-39 the "Peashooter," claiming it was an ineffective fighter. The aircraft got a "bad rap" in the US.


Not so in the Soviet Union. Of all those produced, the US sent 4,773 P-39 "N" and "Q"models to the Soviets. The Soviets loved the aircraft, used them a lot, and achieved considerable success. The P-39 turned out to be sturdy, reliable with adequate firepower for their needs. They used them a great deal for air-to-air combat at these medium altitudes.

Massell wrote this about the Soviet experience:

"Aerial warfare over the Eastern Front was particularly suited to the Airacobra. There was no long-range, high-level, strategic bombing, only tactical bombing at intermediate and low altitudes. On this battlefield the P-39 matched, and in some areas surpassed, early and mid-war Bf-109s. And it had no trouble dispatching Ju-87 Stukas or twin-engine bombers. Five out of the ten highest scoring Soviets aces logged the majority of their kills in P-39s. In fact, P-39 jockeys filled the number two, three, and four spots: Aleksandr Pokryshkin (59), Aleksandr Gulaev (57), and Grigoriy Rechkalov (56)."

The Soviets also employed them in close air support, but their top priority was air-to-air combat.

I wish to highlight Larry Bell wanted to stay away from the fighter production business. He felt the fighter market was not a good one for Bell Aircraft. He once noted, "It's just an endless race to go ten miles an hour faster than somebody else." In retrospect, it appears he had his eyes on what he thought was going to be a dynamite business, helicopters. He launched a small effort to develop them in nearby Gardenville, New York in 1941.

P-39Q "Snooks 2


I’d like to pass on an interesting story about P-39Q-6, serial number 42-19995, named “Snooks 2” by its pilot, 1st Lt. William A. Shomo, USAAF, shown here. Shomo belonged to the 82nd Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron (TRS) of the 71st Tactical Reconnaissance Group (TRG). The squadron flew combat reconnaissance sorties in the Southwest and Western Pacific from November 27, 1943 through August 15, 1945. I counted the squadron losing at least 10 P-39Ns and Qs. I counted 116 lost overall during the Pacific War.


This particular aircraft was named “Betty Lou-3rd.” When Shomo took her over he renamed her “Snooks 2 and flew her from late March through August 1944. His squadron was then re-equipped with P-40Ns and Capt. Charles Weber took over Snooks 2. Snooks 1 was lost on a mission with another pilot. A total of six P-39s held the name “Snooks.”

Shomo commented that in those days. No one really knew what a TRS was. He said:

“They’d let us listen to briefings of bomber fighters. Then, we’d hear fighter escort instructions. Then they’d turn to us and say, ‘You pick your mission.’” So that’s what they did, sometimes flying bomber escort, other times picking out targets of opportunity, especially artillery sites.”


He also commented that he had to baby Snooks over a 14,000 ft. mountain in the Owen Stanley Range, shown here, in Papua New Guinea on one-third power. She made it.

At war’s end, Snooks 2 was left abandoned with many other aircraft, in her case in Tadji, New Guinea. The former pilot’s crew markings were on the aircraft: “ Sgt. M. Janthtan, Crew Chief” and Cpl. R. Turek, Armorer.”


David Tallichet had been an USAAF B-17 Flying Fortress co-pilot deployed to Europe in WWII. Tallichet formed Military Aircraft Restoration Corp., a subsidiary of the restaurant company, to manage his vintage aircraft collection.

Tallichet, shown here in later life, the head of Specialty Restaurants of Long Beach, California sent a crew of men to New Guinea to retrieve as many aircraft as they could.

He was one who financed expeditions to reclaim and restore vintage aircraft. They were able to bring back 50.

A Buffalo attorney, Anthony Mancinelli read about this in February 1980. Equally incredibly Specialty Restaurants planned to build a restaurant in Buffalo at the entrance of the Erie Basin Marina. He would name it “Crawdaddy’s.” Tallichet and Mancinelli worked together for a while and Tallichet agreed to donate Snooks 2 to the Naval and Servicemen’s Park in Buffalo. Then Truman A. Partridge, Sr., an art teacher at Lake Shore CentralMiddle School positively identified the aircraft using a partial serial number and a lot of research. He found “42-19995.”

As an aside, “Crawdaddy’s” is now known as Templeton Landing. David Tallichet’s wife, Carol, settled in Buffalo.

Then Lt. Colonel Shomo, USAF (Ret.) and MSgt. Ralph E. Winkel, USAF (Ret.), Shomo’s crew chief, confirmed this was Snooks 2. Partridge reconstructed her history and every detail of her markings. Louis Clabeaux, Richard Reed and the young men participating inn the Catholic Charities Youth Careers Program, Tom Shomo (Col. Shomo’s son), Craig Lyford and other industrial arts staff members and students from Lake Shore Central High School restored Snooks 2. Other workers on the restoration included Dick Smith, Bob Dromerhauser, Joe Kuty, Boy Hayes, John Branning and Dick Reading. Not only that, but Winkel dug in to help the restoration team detail out the aircraft accurately.

Partridge had worked for 10 years at Bell Aircraft as a technical illustrator. As an aside, I worked for a few months at Bell in the Technical Publications Dept. prior to being called up by the USAF. It was located right next to the illustrators. They did some fabulous work.

The restored aircraft was placed at Naval and Servicemen’s Park in Buffalo and unveiled on March 21, 1981.


In mid-2000, Snooks-2 was disassembled and restored once again and hung from the ceiling of a new exhibit building.

Joe Cannon of Lewiston, New York, was a test pilot for Bell. He joined Bell in 1942 after civilian flight training at Niagara University and service with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) as a flight instructor. Cannon took the aircraft off the production line and flew them for the first time, flying up to 12 Airacobras a day. He commented:

“The vehicle was, I think, a very innovative airplane. It was a delight to fly. I just loved to fly it. It had a tricycle landing gear which made it easy to land and take-off. It had a cockpit that was mounted high and clear so you could see all around like most fighters didn’t have in those days. The airplane was really a good low-level performing airplane.”

Patrick Massell made a similar comment:

“There's no doubt that the XP-39 evoked gasps and ahs when it was unveiled at Wright Field on April 6, 1939. The clean, exotic lines of the Airacobra prototype gave it a futuristic look. Just by looking at it one could see the innovations and peculiarities incorporated into Bell's new plane.”

Once again, Massell:

"Bell's P-39 Airacobra was a plane of contradictions. Loathed by the Western Allies, but loved by the Russians, it found a home in the skies above the Soviet Union. Outside of that home however, historians generally accept false information about its performance."