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Bell P-39 Airacobra Fighter

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Mid-Engine Increased Maneuverability of P-39


P-39 Airacobra - WWII American fighter plane.

P-39 firing weapons at night. USAF photo.

The P-39 fighter was the only mass produced mid-engine fighter (the engine was located behind the cockpit) accepted by the Army for combat in World War II. This engine placement increased maneuverability, and allowed for greater armament in the nose.


P-39 Armament

Armament included one 37 mm nose cannon, two .50 cal. fuselage machine guns and up to four .30 cal. wing machine guns. Although the prototype with a super turbo-charged engine performed well in tests, Bell Company could not secure super turbo-charged engines in production due to wartime priorities and the resulting mass produced plane performed poorly at high altitudes.



P-39 Airacobra exposed for maintenance

Allison V-1710 liquid-cooled engine. USAF photo.

Unique Car Door for the Aircobra


Airacobras in Service

The British received the P-39 in 1941, but without the turbocharger, they were inadequate for the European Theater. After the Pearl Harbor attack by the Japanese, Airacobras designated as P-400s, intended for the RAF, were used in the Pacific War by the US Army Air Corps.



Airacobras of the 67th Fighter Squadron with shark mouth

Airacobras of the 67th Fighter Squadron painted with the shark-nose. USAF photo.

In the South Pacific, the U.S. Marines reportedly felt that the F4F Wildcat outperformed the P-39s, however, Airacobras were used in the Pacific with success in a ground attack roll, and as dive bombers against Japanese ships.


Of 9,584 planes built about 5,000 were sent to the Soviet Union under lend lease. The Soviets used them for ground attack aircraft with more success than the Americans (the small aircraft nose gave the pilot an excellent forward view), and as a mid-altitude fighter. According to Paul Eden in the Encyclopedia of Aircraft of WWII,   (p43), “Lieutenant Colonel Alexandr I. Pokrychkin became the second-ranking Soviet ace of the war with 59 victories, 48 of them in the Airacobras.” On the Eastern Front there was very little high altitude combat because neither side employed high altitude bombers. The air battle was dominated by the ground support roles.


Kingcobra Version

A subsequent version of the P-39, the P-63 Kingcobra was notable for use by the Army in aerial gunnery training.


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* P-39 Airacobra facts

Category Fighter plane
Manufacturer Bell Aircraft - US
Introduced 1941
Used in
WWII by
US Army Air Force
Royal Air Force
Soviet Air Force
Produced 1940-1944
Number built 9,584
Cruising speed 250 mph
Max. speed 376 mph
Altitude 35,000 feet service ceiling
Range 650 miles
* Numbers are approximate