P-39Q-20 44-3028 QUANTO COSTA
of 1Lt Samuel
Curtis, 100th FS, Capodichino, Italy, May 1944
Development of the
In February of 1937 the USAAC issued a
specification for a new single-engine high altitude interceptor. The
specification included 1000 lbs. of heavy armament, forward firing
cannon, turbo-supercharger, tricycle landing gear, and a level
airspeed of 360 mph. It was thought that this aircraft should have a
time to altitude of 6 minutes to 20,000 ft. The Bell Aircraft
Company had limited experience in the development of fighter
aircraft of the type, but were nonetheless willing to create a design
to meet these requirements.
The innovative design
selected would place the Allison V-12 liquid cooled aircraft engine
amidships to accommodate a large 37mm Oldsmobile T9 Automatic cannon
in the nose of the aircraft. This presented the Bell engineers with
significant challenges in creating a propeller driveshaft design
that would meet the USAAC's specifications. Other than the
innovative thinking on engine placement the Airacobra incorporated
many ideas that were uncommon on fighter aircraft seen around the
For instance, the tricycle landing gear gave the pilot great
visibility during taxi, takeoff, and landing. The cockpit could be
accessed from either side through automotive style doors which could
be easily jettisoned for egress by pulling a release lever.
Also, due to the engine
being centered in the middle of the aircraft, the design would offer
better center of gravity and balance; making the Airacobra a stable
gun platform for the 37 mm cannon. The propeller shaft was
engineered to run under the pilot seat through a gear reduction
housing. This made servicing the Airacobra difficult to say the
least. One of the other major issues with the Airacobra was feeding
outside air to the engine compartment for cooling. Most radial and
inline aircraft engines of the time were installed in the front of
the aircraft. This made air induction for cooling a relative non-issue.
The Bell engineers tried
many designs. The final configuration in which we recognize the
Airacobra today has a dorsal air scoop affixed just behind the
The many innovations gave way to as many manufacturing issues as
well. The landing gear of the Airacobra was notoriously weak. Many a
USAAF pilot collapsed the nose gear of a Airacobra and skidded into
a crash landing. Another issue with the Airacobra was the seepage of
carbon monoxide fumes into the cockpit. This became such a problem
that pilots would need to where their oxygen mask from start up to
shut down. The one most distinct problem with Airacobra was self
imposed by the USAAC. As time went on with the development of the
Airacobra the Air Corp changed the mission of the fighter from
single-engine high altitude bomber interceptor to low altitude
ground attack and support aircraft, hence no need for the
turbo-supercharger. This single change turned the Airacobra into an
Now, without the turbo supercharger the aircraft could not meet the
minimum specifications that were issued by the Army Air Corp.
Although the aircraft retained a certain degree of maneuverability
at low altitudes, it could no long be the effective fighter as it
was initially intended. The Airacobra would see frontline service in
most theaters of the war. Only to be withdrawn because of its woeful
lack of performance against Axis aircraft.
The highlight of the Airacobra's service
during world war II was the Lend Lease program. At the outset of the
war the British needed aircraft and pilots to man them. The Germans
were moving rapidly to seize the whole of Europe with "Blitzkrieg"
or Lightning attacks. Although many countries ordering the Airacobra
were dismayed by its final performance figures, they needed fighting
aircraft and they needed them quickly. So the Airacobra went into
service. The Airacobra was so outclassed by the Me109s, FW190s,
Macchis and Zeros that it was relegated to service as a trainer and
ground attack aircraft by most foreign nations that continued to use
it; except for the
Russians. After the British refused to take delivery of anymore of these aircraft.
The British P-39 acquisition was wholly turned over to
the VVS. The Soviet Air Forces, which took delivery of more than
half of all the P-39s manufactured, would use the P-39s effectively
against the Luftwaffe. The German campaign "Barbarossa" in
its initial stages routed the Soviet Army and Air Forces. Destroying
countless pieces of equipment as it moved closer to its objective.
The Soviets needed equipment and badly. They say that the mother of
necessity causes man to create new and innovative ways to succeed.
The Soviet Air Force used the low altitude performance and handling
characteristics along with the 37mm cannon of the P-39 to devastate
the Luftwaffe aircraft in eastern Europe. For one particular
Soviet pilot, the Airacobra was the mount of choice. Aleksandr
Pokryshkin the leading Soviet fighter ace of the war shot down a
total of 59 enemy aircraft of which 48 were completed in the Bell
P-39 Airacobra. In fact 9 of the top 10 Soviet aces of the war
had 27 or more kills in the Airacobra. The aircraft had been adapted
to new fighter tactics which served the Soviet VVS well. Pokryshkin a
master aircraft mechanic as well a fighter pilot was enamored with
the Airacobras firepower. He even rigged the fire button to fire all
forward firing guns simultaneously for maximum kill power; his
reengineering paid huge dividends.
Fighter Group goes to war!
The 332nd fighter Group had arrived in
Montecorvino Italy on 5 February 1944. The men had heard rumors that
they would be equipped with the Lockheed P-38 Lightning or maybe the
all new Bell P-63 Kingcobra. What they found on the field waiting for
them to mount up and fly off were a large number of older Bell P-39
Airacobras. These aircraft had been handed down by other squadrons,
most likely the 350th FG, after their transition to the P-47
Thunderbolt. The 100th Fighter Squadron flew their
first mission in the
P-39 the same day of
their arrival at Montecorvino. These P-39s were war weary and in
need of replacement. Yet they soldiered on in service to the 332nd FG.
As mentioned before these aircraft were prone to all types of failures
and unreliability; engines, undercarriages etc. These aircraft
battled their way across North Africa, Sicily, Southern Italy and
now at the end of what was considered a long service life the
Airacobras would return to the skies of Italy.
The 332nd FG was assigned coastal patrols
in the Cape Palermo, Gulf of Policastro, and Ponziane Island areas.
In true Airacobra fashion, being the seeming under achiever. The
332nd went aloft in their fighters to find the enemy. On one such
patrol near the mouth of the Naples harbor two pilots of the 302nd
FS spotted and pursued a JU88 that was flying a reconnaissance
mission in the area. The pilots were able to catch and fire upon the
JU88 damaging the aircraft. Showing its true lack of performance,
the bomber was able to evade destruction by climbing and
accelerating away from its pursuers. In the three to four months
that the 332nd Fighter Group flew the P-39 Airacobra there were no
enemy air to air kills claimed by the group.
Of course there was a feeling of anger amongst the pilots of the
group as they felt the Airacobras were issued to the group to ensure
that they were unsuccessful in the assigned missions. After a
time the Airacobras were replaced with the higher performance
Republic P-47D Thunderbolts. Throughout its service life in the MTO
from Tunisia to Rome the P-39 had a less than satisfactory record
with all groups that it served with. American fighter groups flying
the Airacobras from November of 1942 to April of 1944 lost 107
Airacobras in air to air and air to ground combat. These same groups
claimed a similar number of aircraft destroyed on the ground, but
only 20 aircraft shot down in air to air combat during the same
period. Shortly after April of 1944 the Airacobras were pulled from
front line service to be used as trainers for the remainder of its
service life. A very small handful of pilots throughout the USAAF
made ace in this aircraft. The 332nd Fighter Group would move on to
a great combat record in higher performance types never to see the
12 Cylinder Liquid Cooled
|Rate of Climb:
||5645 lbs. Empty
weight, 7,570 lbs. Normal weight, 8,100 lbs. Maximum Takeoff
||12 ft. 5 in.
||30 ft. 2 in.
||213 sq. ft.
||One 37mm Oldsmobile
cannon firing through the propeller hub. Two 50 cal.
browning machine guns mounted in the nose adjacent to the
cannon. Two more 50 cal. machine guns could be mounted in
hard points on each wing.