Bell P-39 Airacobra in American Service

New Guinea
Aleutians
Guadalcanal
Kwajalein Island
North Africa and Italy
Training
Books

The Bell P-39 Airacobra was the least well regarded fighter aircraft to serve in large numbers with the USAAF during the Second World War, but despite this it did perform some useful services on New Guinea and Guadalcanal early in the war in the Pacific, as well as serving as a training aircraft used by the majority of American fighter pilots.

The P-39 entered American service with the 39th “Flying Cobras” Pursuit Squadron, part of the 31st Pursuit Group. The first aircraft reached them at Selfridge Field, Michigan, during the summer of 1941, and it was not long before the 40th and 41st Pursuit Squadrons were also equipped with the P-39. The three squadrons spent the last months of peace taking part in the series of war games that were carried out across the south of the United States. After the United States entered the Second World War the squadrons transferred to the 35th Fighter Group, and were amongst the earliest USAAF units to reach Australia.

New Guinea

The P-39 entered service with the USAAF in the skies over New Guinea. The 35th and 36th Fighter Squadrons of the 8th Fighter Group reached Australia in March 1942, with 41 Airacobras. By the time the squadrons reached Seven Mile airfield, seven miles outside Port Moresby only twenty six of them were left, most of the rest having been lost in accidents. The group went into combat on 30 April 1942, taking part in an attack on the Japanese base of Lae. This raid also saw the P-39 pilots win their first victories in a clash with a number of Zero fighters. Both sides lost four aircraft, with three of the American victories credited to Lt. Colonel Boyd “Buzz” Wagner.

Soon after this encounter Wagner evaluated the performance of the P-39 against the Zero. He reported that the Zero could out-manoeuvre, out-climb and out-accelerate the P-39, but that the P-39 was faster than the Zero at sea level. He rated the P-39 as 10% better than the P-40 Warhawk in everything but manoeuvrability. However he did list eight flaws with the P-39, amongst them problems with the reliability of the guns, a lack of armour for the engine, leaky propellers, a weak undercarriage, poor performance above 18,000ft (a higher ceiling than often reported), and perhaps most significantly in the vast spaces of the Pacific theatre, too short an operational range. The Airacobra could cope in the short range fighting early in the campaign on New Guinea, and in the skies above Guadalcanal, but would be unable to take part in the island hopping campaign, where the next target was often out of its range. In these early clashes the P-39 squadrons probably shot down as many aircraft as they lost, but as the Allies were always outnumbered in the air at this stage of the war, that was not really good enough. By the end of 1942 the P-39 squadrons in V Fighter Command had claimed 80 victories but had lost a similar number of aircraft themselves at a cost of 25 pilots killed or missing.

June 1942 also saw the 39th Fighter Squadron begin operations from Port Moresby, before being replaced by the 80th Fighter Squadron at the end of July. As the pressure on Port Moresby lifted, the 8th Fighter Group would end the year taking part in the fighting around Milne Bay.
 
One unexpected problem with the P-39 was that the jungle conditions interfered with the reliability of both the 37mm cannon and the .30in machine guns, leaving only the nose mounted .50in guns operating reliably.

1943 would see the P-39 phased out on New Guinea. The 80th Fighter Squadron scored its last P-39 victory on 17 January. The 40th and 41st retained their P-39s for long enough to take part in the fighting around Wau, which lasted into the summer of 1943. The P-39s of the 35th Fighter Group moved to this exposed forward base on 14 August 1943, which gave them the chance to score a significant number of victories fighting off Japanese attacks on the airfield.

Aleutians

The P-39 played a brief part in the campaign in the Aleutians. The 54th Fighter Group began to reach Alaska and the Aleutian islands in June 1942, joining the P-40 Warhawks of the 18th Fighter Group and a number of Navy F4F Wildcats. The P-39s were in place for the start of a short campaign against the Japanese on Kiska on 6 October, claiming ten victories before the winter weather ended the campaign on 9 October. This also ended the P-39’s time in this remote northern theatre. By the time operations resumed in 1943 the 54th Fighter Group had converted to other aircraft.

Guadalcanal

The Airacobra arrived on Guadalcanal in the shape of a detachment of P-400s of the 67th “Fighting Cocks” Fighter Squadron, under the command of Captain Dale Brannon. The detachment arrived on Guadalcanal on 22 August 1942, and scored its first victory two days later. Despite this early success the Airacobra was not well suited to the fighting above Guadalcanal. Too many of the Japanese aircraft were flying at heights over 20,000 feet, giving the P-400s little chance of reaching them let alone fighting effectively. The 67th lost ten of its 14 P-400s in just four days of operations, forcing General Vandegrift to order that no more P-400s should be flown unless there was an extreme emergency. This rather well described the situation on the island for some time, and in October 1942 the 339th Fighter Squadron arrived on the island with its Airacobras.

The situation for the Airacobra units improved somewhat when they switched from high level interception to low level ground and sea attack duties, attacking Japanese troops, nearby bases such as Munda or taking part in attacks on Japanese shipping. The pilots on Guadalcanal reported the same problems with the unreliable guns as those on New Guinea, blaming the cables used to charge the guns. The 37mm cannon was seen as especially prone to jam, often after only two or three shots. This combined with the difficult conditions to see aircraft flying with odd combinations of working weapons.

On 13 January 1943 the AAF units on Guadalcanal became part of the Thirteenth Air Force. The situation on Guadalcanal itself was no longer so desperate, and the P-39 was most likely to be used to support attacks on Japanese bases across the Solomon Islands or for low level interceptions, where its problems over 15,000ft were not relevant. This period also saw the first signs of a decline in the quality of the Japanese pilots, as the early losses began to take their toll. This period also saw Lt. William Fiedler score five victories in the P-39, making him the only American air ace to become an ace in the Airacobra.

Kwajalein Island

The P-39s of the 318th Fighter Group’s 46th and 72nd Fighter Squadrons were some of the last to see action in the Pacific theatre, taking part in the landings on Kwajalein Island. Their role was to fly continuous daylight patrols over Mille Islands to suppress the Japanese aircraft based there, a role which they carried out with some success.

Whatever good features it may have possessed, by 1944 the P-39 simply did not have the range to take part in the fighting in the Pacific, and had to be phased out in favour of the P-38 Lightning and the longer ranged versions of the P-51 Mustang.

North Africa and Italy

The P-39 equipped the 81st Fighter Group, 350th Fighter Group and two squadrons of the 68th Observation Group in North Africa, coming into action by the end of 1942. All of these units struggled to find a full complement of aircraft during the fighting in North Africa, and also struggled against the Luftwaffe. During the fighting in North Africa and Italy the USAAF lost 107 P-39s, most of them lost to ground fire while undertaking ground attack missions. In return the P-39 pilots scored twenty confirmed aerial victories and destroyed a similar number of aircraft on the ground, but their main role by now was no longer as a air superiority fighter. The final aerial victory for a USAAF P-39 probably came on 6 April 1944.

A sign of the low status of the P-39 came when the Tuskagee airmen of the 332nd Fighter Group were given them in Italy in February 1944. Regardless of any merits the aircraft may have had, the pilots were convinced that this was a snub to the group, and their commander Colonel Benjamin O. Davis eventually got it replaced with more modern aircraft, after a frustrating period spent fighting on the edge of the war in Italy.

Training

The most important American use for the P-39 was as an advanced trainer. The Airacobra earned something of a reputation as a killer aircraft, mostly because it could easily enter a lethal flat spin in the hands of a new pilot, and because it had a high stall speed for the time (and therefore a higher than usual landing speed).  

Books

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 (10 July 2008), Bell P-39 Airacobra in American Service , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_P-39_Airacobra_US.html

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