Bell P-39D Airacobra

The P-39D was the first version of the Airacobra to be produced in large numbers, and the first to reach the Soviet Union, where the aircraft would achieve its main successes.

As a result of the lower than hoped speed of the P-39C the Army Air Corps began to see the Airacobra as more of a ground-support and attack aircraft and less as a high speed interceptor. As a result the P-39D received self sealing fuel tanks (although the fighting in Europe was beginning to show that these were essential on all combat aircraft). The number of guns was increased – the P-39D retained the 37mm cannon (with 30 rounds, double the amount carried in the P-39C) and the two .50in machine guns in the nose, while the .30in guns were moved from the nose and doubled in number from two to four. Finally the aircraft was given a centreline belly rack capable of carrying up to a 600lb bomb or a jettisonable fuel tank. The P-39D began to enter American service in April 1941, and a total of 429 were built.


The P-39D-1 was the designation given to 186 aircraft built for Great Britain as part of lend-lease, to replace the export model P-400 Airacobra I. It carried the same machine guns as the P-39D, replacing the .303in guns used in the P-400/ Airacobra I with standard American .30in guns. The main change was the replacement of the 37mm cannon with a 20mm Hispano-Suiza Mk 404 (M1) cannon in the nose. Most of these aircraft eventually reached the Soviet Union.


The P-39D-2 was a second lend-lease version of the Airacobra. It was very similar to the P-39D-1, with the same 20mm cannon and .30in wing guns. The main difference was the use of the Allison V-1710-63 engine, capable of producing 1,325hp, in place of the V-1710-35 used in earlier aircraft. 158 P-39D-2s were built.


The P-39D-3 designation was given to twenty-six P-39D converted to act as photographic reconnaissance aircraft. These aircraft had one K-24 and one K-25 camera in the rear fuselage. All twenty-six D-3s were produced by converting the basic P-39D.


The P-39D-4 designation was given to eleven  P-39D-1s converted to act as photographic reconnaissance aircraft in the same way as the P-39D-3.

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 (7 July 2008), Bell P-39D Airacobra,

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