It’s safe to say that World War II was a battle of the skies. A good amount of the encounters and combat during its time didn’t happen on land but in the skies due to different nations’ conquest of aerospace technology and the development of effective fighter planes that could rule the skies of the Second World War. The United States was one of those countries. While there were lots of impressive and successful planes that were made, like the B-17 Flying Fortress, there were also some that were considered a flop, and one of them was the Bell P-39 Airacobra, which was deemed as the least loved American fighter plane of WWII.

A New Plane Was Born

In 1937, a request for a new fighter plane was sent by Captain Gordon P. Saville of the Air Corps Tactical School and Lieutenant Benjamin S. Kelsey of the U.S. Army Air Corps. They needed a high-altitude interceptor with a single engine that could conduct a “tactical mission of interception attack of hostile aircraft at high altitude.” Not only that, but the plane should also have a number of specific features: tricycle landing gear, a liquid-cooled Allison engine with a General Electric turbo-supercharger, and the ability to carry 1,000 pounds of armaments, and a cannon. It also had to reach a top speed of at least 360 mph and a height of 20,000 feet.

New York-based aerospace manufacturer Bell Aircraft answered with its own design called the “XP-39,” with a prototype that could reach 390 mph in a span of five minutes. XP-39, however, could not reach the top altitude that they claimed it could, so the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) did their evaluations and came up with recommendations that would enable the aircraft to reach the requirements.

Skipping to the Good Part

It would only be fair to talk about the good things about the Bell P-39 despite its failings, one of which was its never-before-seen sleek design. It featured an all-metal design with tricycle landing gear, and its engine sat in the center of the fuselage, versus the usual location to the nose. The reason behind this was so that it could fit its 37mm T9 cannon through the propeller hub. As a result of this design, the pilot was positioned in front of the engine and higher in the fuselage, giving them a better view of the surroundings. The rear position of the engine meant that it was safe from ground attacks, although not to those in the air.

Bell P-39 Airacobra center fuselage detail with maintenance panels open. (U.S. Air Force photo).

The P-39’s wings size was also different from other fighter planes with its smaller size that allowed it to turn swiftly. The negative side of that was it compromised its ability to reach higher altitudes. Its smaller size also meant that it could only hold a smaller amount of fuel, so it could not conduct long-range flights either.

Bell P-39’s armament was impressive with its cannon and a pair of .30-caliber machine guns on top of the nose. These two were synchronized to fire between the propellor blades. Later on, six .50-caliber machine guns would also be added, two on each wing and then two on the nose. It also had the capability to carry bombs onboard with its added hardpoints.

Bad Reputation

Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) ordered the P-39 Airacobra planes to help build up their fleet when the war in Europe had begun to escalate. What they got was a special export version called the P-400, originally meant to be sent to France, but since Germany had already invaded France at that time, Bell Aircraft could no longer deliver the planes.

What was different with P-400 were the modifications made to reduce its drag through the installation of new exhaust stacks, as well as tail modifications. It was also lightly armored and had fewer weapon implements. The cannon was made smaller at only 20 mm, while the .30-caliber machine guns were placed in the wings instead of the nose.

The No. 601 Squadron was the only unit allowed to operate the P-39. Four fighter planes landed in Dunkirk in October 1941, and it was not long until the pilots found issues with the Airacobra’s lack of altitude, especially when it was clear that most of the air combats would occur at 30,000 feet, which was over the fighter plane’s maximum altitude.

Radio mechanics testing the VHF transmitter-receiver in a Hawker Hurricane Mk I of No. 601 Squadron RAF at Exeter, Devon, November 1940. (Devon S A (Mr), Royal Air Force official photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The airmen also discovered that the Airacobra had the tendency to enter a flat spin when they experienced tumbling “end over end” during specific maneuvers, most especially when they were at the maximum altitude with a considerable amount of power. The engine being located in the fuselage made the aircrafts center of gravity all screwy and it was hard to recover from these stalls by trying to push the nose down.  The Royal Air Force, regardless of the issues, still decided to train with the P-39 until the winter of 1941 before they had it replaced with the Supermarine Spitfire with higher-altitude capabilities.

All these things made the bad reputation of the Bell P-39 Airacobra.

Loved by the Soviets

Maybe the P-39 really sucked, or it could just be the circumstances, but for the Soviet Union’s Red Army, Airacobra was a rather charming aircraft. The Eastern Front air combat was mostly conducted at lower altitudes, and the Soviet Union’s airfields were usually close to the front lines. This meant that the low altitude capabilities and short flight range of the P-39 were no big deal to them. They also loved the 37mm cannon in the nose for ground attacks on troops and tanks.

The Russian forces even managed to create an effective aerial fighting group composed of Airacobra planes that they got from the U.S. and the U.K. via the Alaska-Siberia ferry route. Their group saw a number of victories against the Germans, and they even affectionately nicknamed the plane  Kobruksha, or “Little Cobra.” The P-39 was used in Russian service until 1949.