The Bell P-400/ Airacobra I was the export version of the P-39 Airacobra, originally developed in response to a French order of 30 March 1940 for 170 aircraft. Unfortunately delivery of these aircraft was not due to start until October 1940, after the fall of France. The original order was taken over by Great Britain, and was later expanded to a total of 675 aircraft by orders for 205 and then 300 extra aircraft. Only after these orders had been placed did Christopher Clarkson become the first British pilot to fly the Airacobra (30 December 1940), and the shortcomings of the Airacobra would not become clear until a number of P-39Cs reached Britain during 1941.
The P-400 was armed with one Hispano-Suiza Mk 404 (M1) 20mm cannon in the nose. The four .30in machine guns in the wings were replaced with British standard .303in guns. The P-400 entered British service as the Airacobra I, after a brief spell when it was known as the Caribou. Before entering RAF service the Airacobra received a great deal of positive publicity, but when it arrived in Britain the lack of high altitude performance soon became clear, and the type only ever equipped one front line squadron (No. 601 “City of London” squadron). The aircraft was soon withdrawn from RAF service.
The entire production run of 675 aircraft was still completed. Around 200 of these aircraft were sent from Britain to the Soviet Union in some of the earliest of the Arctic convoys, although only around 150 of these aircraft arrived safely in northern Russia. They would become the first of thousands of Airacobras that would play a major part in the air war on the Eastern Front. The remaining aircraft were taken over by the USAAF, and a number of them found their way west into the Pacific, taking part in the fighting 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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