Here's What You Need to Know: And if considering overall capabilities instead of concentrating solely on certain features, the P-39 comes off as a capable fighter.
If there is an American combat airplane that has achieved an ill-deserved reputation, no doubt it would be the much-maligned Bell P-39 Airacobra, a tricycle landing gear single-engine fighter whose reputation was greatly overshadowed by the more famous, and of more recent design, Lockheed P-38 Lightning, Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk, Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, and North American P-51 Mustang.
In the minds of some, the P-39 was a practically worthless airplane, with few redeeming features.
They consider the nickname used by pilots of the P-39 Airacobra—Peashooter—a term of derision that implies the airplane’s effectiveness as a fighter. But the P-39’s many detractors ignore the reputation of the Airacobra with the Soviet Air Force, and the important role it played in the Southwest Pacific Area of Operations in 1942, when P-39s were the only fighters available, thanks at least in part to the decision not to use them in large numbers in the European Theater. And if considering overall capabilities instead of concentrating solely on certain features, the P-39 comes off as a capable fighter.
Making Up for Low Altitude Performance
While it is true that the P-39 lacked the high altitude performance needed to excel as an interceptor, it had other attributes that made it a successful combat airplane. When Bell Aircraft was designing the single-engine fighter, U.S. defense plans centered around the possibility of repelling naval attacks and possible landings on American shores. Little attention was paid to the high altitude performance needed to intercept formations of enemy bombers, because the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans provided the best possible defense from foreign attack. No country possessed the capabilities of mounting a transoceanic air attack in 1935, and the United States had yet to seriously consider the possibility of combat in Europe or around what would come to be known as the Pacific Rim.
Consequently, the U.S. Army wanted airplanes that were more suitable for attacking invading ground forces and/or naval landing parties than for intercepting enemy formations at high altitude. So, Bell designed its new interceptor around the Allison V-1710 engine without turbochargers—even though the engine in the prototype was turbocharged—and concentrated more on low altitude maneuverability and firepower than high altitude or climb performance.
Thus, the Airacobra featured short wings that allowed it to turn on a dime but greatly reduced its climb performance due to their overall area. Its best speed of 368 miles per hour was reached at 13,800 feet. At higher altitudes, performance began to degrade rapidly and the airplane had reached its maximum ceiling by the mid-20s range. Unfortunately, developing events in Europe were soon dictating air combat at altitudes over 30,000 feet.
An Effective Cannon With a Unique Configuration
The P-39 was also unique. Not only was it the first operational tricycle landing gear single-engine fighter, it was the only U.S. manufactured military airplane with the engine located in the center of the fuselage instead of in the nose. The P-39’s pilot actually sat in front of the engine, directly over a drive shaft that was modified so that a 37mm cannon fired through the propeller hub. It was this feature that led to the peashooter nickname, a term that was already in wide use in the Army Air Corps long before P-39s entered combat in the Southwest Pacific. The cannon was an effective weapon that could be deadly against bombers and ground targets, although the 37mm shell was a bit small to do much damage to heavier armored vehicles such as larger tanks.
Additional armament consisted of a pair each of .30-caliber machine guns mounted on top of the nose, synchronized to fire through the propeller blades. Two .50-caliber machine guns were added in the wings for combat. The Airacobra’s armament was eventually increased to six .50-caliber machine guns, two on the nose and two in each wing, and the 37mm cannon, a powerful package that made the P-39 an ideal ground attack airplane. Hard points were added to allow the Airacobra to carry bombs. But it was not in the ground attack role that P-39s initially saw service.
Enjoyed by Some Pilots, Not by Others
The Airacobra was one of the first American fighters to be exported; an export version designated as the P-400 was produced for delivery to British forces, who called it the Airacobra I. The first P-400s were produced to fill a French order, but none had been delivered before France fell. Britain picked up the French orders for American aircraft, including the P-400. Compared to the P-39, the P-400 was lightly armed, with only a 20mm cannon and two .30-caliber machine guns mounted in the wings instead of on the nose. Beginning in October 1941, Royal Air Force fighter squadrons operated P-400s for a short time, but they were soon withdrawn from combat due to their lack of high altitude performance.
After having become accustomed to high altitude combat during the Battle of Britain, the RAF pilots were not impressed with the Airacobra, and the airplane’s disparaging reputation began (or at least that is the point at which some historians have decided it was a worthless airplane. Actually, many of the pilots who flew the P-39 thought it a joy to fly.)
Recommissioned in Australia and North Africa
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the U.S. took over the British contract. A large number of reclaimed P-400s saw service with U.S. Army Air Corps squadrons that were sent to Australia, where they proved inadequate as interceptors, while others served in North Africa. The Airacobra’s problems were due to the combination of the design’s short wings and the lack of a supercharged engine, which kept it from attaining more than medium altitudes.
Instead of electing to correct the problems and trying to turn the Airacobra into a high altitude interceptor, the United States Army decided to forego the addition of superchargers since new, high performance fighters such as the P-47 and P-38 were entering production. Those who flew the P-39 and P-400 would have to take them into combat as they were.
Airacobras went into combat without modifications that might have made them more suitable as interceptors for another reason. Along with Curtis P-40s, they were the only American-built fighters available in large numbers in early 1942 that were not obsolete, and they were badly needed in the Pacific.
Setting Sail for Manila
Immediately after Pearl Harbor, the Army Air Corps began dispatching Airacobra-equipped squadrons to Australia. The 35th Pursuit Group had actually set sail for Manila two days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the men of two of its squadrons were already there flying P-40s, but no Airacobras had reached the Philippines before the December 8 attack (the “pursuit” designation was changed to “fighter” when the Army Air Forces reorganized in early 1942).
After the attack the group headquarters returned to the U.S. for a few weeks, but was in place in Australia shortly after the first of the year. Many of the pilots who had gone to the Philippines rejoined the group there. The 35th Group’s squadrons began equipping with P-400s that had been delivered from the United States by ship and went into training for combat. The 8th Pursuit Group also moved to Australia and its P-39s were soon operating from forward bases in New Guinea.
Those two groups, along with the P-40 equipped 49th Pursuit Group, would constitute the nucleus of the soon-to-be-famous V Fighter Command, which would ultimately gain air superiority in the Southwest Pacific. But with the Airacobras, the pilots of the two groups would be at a distinct disadvantage in their initial role as interceptors. Early on, the Army planned to send Airacobras to England with the Eighth Air Force, and two P-39 groups were assigned to it in early 1942 when the Eighth was organized. At the time, the planned mission of the Eighth Air Force was to support the Allied landings in North Africa that were scheduled for later in the year.
Training With P-39s
The Allied defeat in Java, followed by the threat to the United States as the Japanese fleet steamed toward Midway Island, led to a cancellation of the planned invasion, although a revised plan was reinstated after the U.S. victory at Midway. The new Eighth Air Force lost most of its combat groups to the Pacific, then was selected to reorganize and go to England as the British Isles Air Force.
Two groups, the 31st and 52nd, trained with P-39s, but the problem of flying the single-engine fighters across the North Atlantic led to a decision to send the pilots and ground personnel to England by ship and to leave their airplanes behind. When they got to England, the two groups re-equipped with British Supermarine Spitfires. The lightweight Spitfires cost considerably less than the more rugged Airacobras.
Another group, the 81st Fighter Group equipped with P-39s and former RAF P-400s in England, then deployed to North Africa, as did the 68th Observation Group. The 99th Fighter Squadron, the original Tuskegee Airmen, trained in the United States with P-39s before going overseas and flew them in combat in North Africa and the Mediterranean.