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The Bell P-39 Airacobra was a single-seat fighter used by the United States and her allies during World War II.


The first production model of the series was the P-39C model, originally designated P-45. Unlike most fighters of the time, the P-39 had a tricycle undercarriage, due to the fact that it was powered by an Allison V-1710 liquid cooled engine located behind the cockpit. The engine was mounted in this position, directly over the center of gravity, in order to allow the aircraft to carry a 37mm M4 cannon that fired through the middle of the propeller. The P-39 also had an additional two 12.7mm MGs mounted in the nose and two 7.62mm MGs mounted in the wings.[2]

The P-39 also differed by having a side opening car style door for the cockpit instead of a sliding hood.[3]


The P-39 Airacobra was developed by R. J. Woods and O. L. Woodson in 1938, and the first prototype - the XP-39 - made its initial flight in April 1939, with the first models entering service soon afterwards. A British order in 1940 led to the P-39D based Aircobra I, which had the 15 round M4 cannon replaced by a 60 round Hispano Auto-cannon. Arriving in June 1941,[1] these underwent RAF tests, which revealed that production P-39s had an overall performance that did not match contemporary British fighters, prompting British rejection of the type.[3] Apart from one example retained by the Royal Navy for experimental work, the P-39s intended for the RAF were either returned to US service as the P-400, or passed to the Soviet Union.[N 2]

A total of 9,588 examples were built, with the final batch, comprising the last of over 4,900 of the P-39Q version, being delivered in May 1944.[1]

Bell also developed a naval fighter based on the P-39 design. Delivered as Navy No. 1588,[4] and known as the XFL-1 Airabonita, this aircraft was first flown on 13 May 1940, and primarily differed from the land-based aircraft by having tailwheel undercarriage and underwing radiators. Further development was abandoned at the beginning of 1942, after the type failed its carrier qualification trials.[5]

An improved version of the P-39 was later created. Known as the P-63 Kingcobra,[6] this entered production in 1944.[1]


  1. As well as being operated by the Free French, the Italian Co-Belligerent Air Force, Portugal (Interned aircraft), the Soviet Union and - briefly - the Royal Air Force,[1] the type was also flown in limited numbers by the air arms of Australia (type code A-53), Canada (one example tested late November 1941), Germany (captured example flown with fuselage code GE+DV) and Poland (P-39Q of the 2nd Special Air Regiment, Polish Air Force, serving as the personal aircraft of Russian General Fyodor Polynin, Commander of the Polish Air Force in 1944 - 1947).
  2. A number of these retained the 20 mm Hispano cannon and original British serial.[1]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Gunston, Bill. Illustrated Directory of Fighting Aircraft of World War II. Salamander Books. 1988. ISBN 0-86101-390-5 Page 98
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Aircraft of the World Card Collection (Group 11 Card 21).
  4. Gunston, Bill. St Michael Aircraft of World War 2. Octopus Books. 1982. ISBN 0-86273-014-7 Page 20
  5. Green, William and Gordon Swanborough. Complete Book of Fighters. Salamander Books. 2001. ISBN 1-84065-269-1 Page 57
  6. "Aircraft of the World card collection (Group 11 Card 30).
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