Manufacturer: Bell
Designation: P-39
Version: Q
Nickname: Airacobra
Type: Fighter
Crew: Pilot
Length: 30' 2" 9.19 M
Height: 12' 5" 3.78 M
Wingspan: 34' 0" 10.36 M
Wingarea: 213.00 Sq Ft 19.79 Sq M
Empty Weight: 5680.00 lbs 2575.00 Kg
Gross Weight: 7651.00 lbs 3469.00 Kg
No. of Engines: 1
Powerplant: Allison V-1710-85
Horsepower (each): 1200
Range: 650 miles 1046.00 Km
Max Speed: 382.00 Mph 615.00 Km/H 332.43 Kt
Ceiling: 34790.0 Ft 10603.0 M


The plane was designed by Robert Woods and Harland Poyer around a model of
the typical Air Corps pilot made by averaging all of the physical
characteristics of existing pilots such as height, weight, arm length, etc. It
was built in 1940 by Bell Aircraft of Buffalo, New York with a twelve cylinder
inline Allison V-1710 engine that was mounted behind the pilot. The drive shaft
ran forward under the pilot's seat and was geared to a hollow propeller drive
shaft that allowed a 20mm or 37mm cannon to be fired directly ahead of the
pilot. Additional armament consisted of four, .50 caliber machine guns; two in
the nose and two mounted in the wings. All four were later moved into the wings.
Because the guns and cannon shells had different trajectories, the pilots marked
a line with finger nail polish on the windshield as a gun sight for the guns and
another for the cannon.

The placement of the engine left space available in the nose of the plane, so
a tricycle landing gear was adopted because of the stowage space for retraction.

Another feature was the door, similar to a car door, for entry into the
cockpit. When the nose guns and cannon were fired, the concentration of carbon
monoxide in the cockpit became almost lethal and the compass was rendered
useless. A crank-down side window solved part of the problem.

The original range of 350 miles was extended by a drop tank under the
fuselage to 1,000 miles. The drop tank became an effective weapon against wooden
bridges, buildings and palm revetments by mixing equal parts of gasoline and
engine oil ignited by three incendiary bombs. The same position could carry a
500 pound bomb.

A total of 9,585 Airacobras were built. During WWII, the P-39 was first flown
by the Royal Air Force in 1941. The Russians received 4,773 of them through a
delivery route through Air Corps bases in Alaska and across Siberia. The Russian
pilots used the P-39 on their eastern front. The plane was also flown by the
Australian AF, the Portuguese, the Italian Co-Belligerent AF and the Free French

In 1946, a P-39 flown by Tex Johnston (later the chief test pilot for
Boeing), won the Thompson Trophy Race at Cleveland, Ohio, averaging 347 mph on a
rectangular 15 mile closed course . The 300 mile race was 20 laps around the
closed course.

The March Field Museum's P-39 is a Q model, serial number 42-20000, manufactured by Bell Aircraft in Buffalo, New York, and delivered to the US Army Air Force on 23 June 1943. It served in the United States throughout World War II in the 339th Fighter Bomber Group at Walterboro, South Carolina; 430th Base Unit in Ephrata, Washington; and the 464th Base Unit in McChord, Washington. It was discarded as surplus in January of 1945 because it had crash landed in New Guinea. Our P-39Q "Airacobra" was recovered from the jungles of New Guinea in the mid 1970s by aircraft collector and museum sponsor David Tallichet. It was presented to the museum in 1985. Our aircraft is located hanging from the museum ceiling partly due to its current configuration; its weight is reduced because it does not have its landing gear or engine installed. This aircraft is on loan from the USAF.

According to the Air Force Historical Research Agency (AFHRA/RSA), Maxwell
AFB, AL, the museum's P-39 has the following history:

P-39Q, s/n 42-2000 was manufactured by Bell Aircraft, Buffalo, NY and
received by the USAAF on 23 Jun 1943. Its assignments were:

Jul 1943  - To 339th Fighter-Bomber Group (3AF), Walterboro AAF SC

Jul 1944  - To 430th AAF Base Unit (4AF), Ephrata AAF WA

Sep 1944  - To 464th AAF Base Unit (4AF), McChord AAF WA

Jan 1945  - Disposed as surplus by Reconstruction Finance Corporation,
Ontario CA

- - - - - - - - -

Some Additional P-39 History

by Jim Gebhardt, Major, USA (Retired), Leavenworth, KS

The 37mm cannon mounted in the P-39 had two ammunition types: M54 HE and M80
AP. The penetration characteristics of the solid shot M80 permitted it to defeat
1.0 inches of homogeneous steel at 500 yards and .8 inches of rolled plate steel
at the same range. If you look at German tanks of the period, this would include
all the early Panzers (I, II, II, and IV) on the tops of their turrets and rear
decks. The Tiger and Panther series were not vulnerable to this ammunition from
any aspect. However, according to a 1946 War Department document on the shipment
of Lend-Lease supplies, the Soviets received 1.2 million rounds of M54 but zero
(none!) of the M80.

A careful study of the memoirs of Soviet pilots who flew the P-39 reveals
that they were used in several roles, none of which included attacking tanks.
The primary role of the aircraft was air superiority. Several of the Soviet Air
Force's top aces flew the P-39, including Aleksandr Pokryshkin (48 kills in
type, 59 total), Nikolay Gulaev (41 kills in type, 57 overall), Gregoriy
Rechkalov (50 kills in type, 56 overall), and Dmitriy Glinka (41 kills in type,
50 overall). Other missions included air and ground reconnaissance, bomber
escort, suppression of AAA ahead of bomber attacks, ground attack of soft
targets (airfields, motorized columns, trains, troops in the open, cargo and
armed ships at sea), and protection of important objects (bridges, headquarters,
amphibious landing zones).

You can read an interview of a Soviet P-39 pilot of the air forces of
Northern Fleet at  He flew the
Hawker Hurricane, then the P-40 Kittyhawk, and finally the P-39.

A recent book in English sheds more light on the Soviet use of the P-39:
Attack of the Airacobras: Soviet Aces, American P-39s, and the Air War against
Germany (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2001). It is available from