The Bell P-39 Airacobra: Under-Rated Fighter of Lend-Lease

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A Brief History

On March 11, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Lend-Lease Act that allowed him to let American factories become “The Arsenal of Democracy” and equip the country’s Allies with American-built war materials.

Digging Deeper

This could be done on an enormous scale since U.S. wartime production was unhindered by fighting within its own borders and because all raw materials could be easily obtained (unlike in Germany and Japan).

Among the major weapon systems provided to the Allies, mainly the Soviet Union, was one of the most under-appreciated fighter aircraft of World War II, the Bell P-39 Airacobra.  Sleek and lethal looking, this plane certainly followed the aviator’s axiom that if it looks like it would fly well, it probably will.

Though it was originally designed as a high-altitude, high-performance fighter/interceptor, the U.S. Army (this was before the creation of the Air Force) interfered with the Airacobra’s development and insisted on increased low-altitude/ground-attack capability at the expense of higher-altitude performance.  The turbo-supercharger that would have enabled the Allison engine to power the fighter to high speeds and high altitudes was axed to save weight, and even the Allison engine would be swapped out for a lesser model for that very reason.

The Airacobra had some interesting features such as carlike side doors and roll down windows, and it was a low-wing, all-metal monoplane with a pointy nose due to the engine being mounted behind the pilot, allowing for the best visibility of any fighter at the time.  The Airacobra was also well armed with a 37mm cannon firing through the middle of the propeller hub, 2 x .50 caliber machine guns in the nose and 2 x .30 caliber machine guns in each wing.  (Soviets usually removed the wing guns for better flight performance.)  Some models featured a smaller, more rapid firing 20mm cannon (for British export), and some models exchanged the .30 caliber machine guns for another pair of .50 cals.

The USSR was the main recipient of the almost 9,600 copies of this fighter and made better use of them than the British or Americans.  Contrary to false information frequently told, the Soviets did not use the P-39 Airacobra as an anti-tank attack airplane, although it was indeed capable enough as a dive bomber and ground-target strafing platform.  For some reason, the U.S. never provided the Soviets with the armor-piercing rounds for the 37mm but instead only provided high-explosive rounds that were effective against unarmored targets such as airplanes, trucks and the like. (This 37mm cannon did not fire longer high velocity/2598-3000 fps rounds such as those fired by 37mm anti-tank guns or 37mm anti-aircraft guns.  The rounds it fired had a velocity of 2000 fps and could penetrate 1 inch of armor.)

Capable of reaching a respectable speed of 386 mph, when piloted by skilled aviators, the P-39 Airacobra could keep up with the best.  Russian aces certainly loved the airplane, and one of them shot down 60 German aircraft while at the controls of a P-39!  (This is the most planes shot down by one pilot of any American-built aircraft of WWII.)  Of the top 10 Soviet aces, 5 flew P-39s.  In the Aleutian Islands Campaign, P-39s shot down 20 Japanese planes at the loss of only 1 Airacobra.  That, as they say, is not bad.  Despite all this success, however, this good and reliable plane seldom gets the credit it deserves.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Dorr, Robert F. and Jerry Scutts. Bell P-39 Airacobra (Crowood Aviation Series). The Crowood Press, 2000.

Peczkowski, Robert. Bell P-39 Airacobra (Orange Series). Casemate Publishers, 2011.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.