Bell Airacobra I in British Service

The Bell Airacobra first entered service with the RAF, in October 1941, but only flew a handful of sorties before it was withdrawn from the front line. British interest in the Airacobra began after the fall of France. One of the aircraft orders that was taken over from the French was for 170 Bell P-400 Airacobras. Deliveries had been due to begin in October 1940, but the first aircraft only reached Britain in the summer of 1941.

The British placed two further orders for the Airacobra I, bringing the total number of aircraft on order up to 675 aircraft, all before getting their hands on one of the aircraft. The first British pilot to fly the new fighter, Christopher Clarkson, made his first flight on 30 December 1940, in the United States, while the first aircraft to reach Britain were three P-39Cs which arrived by sea in July 1940.

Bell Airacobra Is of No.601 Squadron
Bell Airacobra Is of No.601 Squadron

These aircraft were soon assembled, and on 30 July 1941 tests began at the Fighter Development Unit at Duxford. These tests revealed that the Airacobra could out-turn and out-dive the Bf 109E at up to 15,000ft, but was “utterly useless” above 20,000ft. The top speed of the Airacobra also disappointed.

Airacobra in flightOnly one RAF squadron ever received the Airacobra. No.601 “City of London” Squadron swapped its Hurricane IICs for Airacobras in August 1941, just in time to see the aircraft withdrawn to have twenty-five modifications made to the fuselage. The first four aircraft were finally declared operational in October 1941.

The Airacobra’s brief RAF combat career lasted from 9-11 October 1941. No.601 Squadron sent its four airworthy aircraft on two fighter sweeps to France, attacking a small number of ground targets. The aircraft RAF Airacobra I being armedwas then withdrawn again after problems with the compass. During its time with No.601 Squadron five aircraft were lost in accidents, all said to be due to pilot error. The squadron never flew its Airacobra’s in action again, and in March 1942 replaced them with the Spitfire V.

Only eighty of the British Airacobras were assembled for the RAF. Of the remaining aircraft around 200 were quickly dispatched to the Soviet Union, while the rest remained in the United States, and as the P-400 fought on New Guinea and Guadalcanal.

Bell P-39 Airacobra, Robert F. Dorr with Jerry C. Scutts (Crowood Aviation). A detailed looked at the development and service history of this controversial American fighter aircraft. The P-39 had a poor reputation amongst British and American pilots, and Dorr examines the reasons why, as well as looking at why the same aircraft was so much more popular in Soviet Service. Scutts provides a chapter on the P-63 Kingcobra, and the book also covers the numerous Bell fighter projects that failed to enter production.
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (9 July 2008), Bell Airacobra I in British Service , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_P-39_Airacobra_UK.html

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