Bell P-39Q Airacobra

The P-39 Airacobra soldiered on in US service into 1943, long after it was obvious it wasn’t the best fighter for most jobs.  But it took time to get newer types into service.

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After the jump, let’s look at a late model Airacobra.

The vast scope of World War Two ensured that many types would stay in service for longer than was ideal.  From the start of the war the US Army Air Force favored P-40 Warhawks in more active locations, while the Airacobra was more often kept to the rear.  But this wasn’t always possible.  It wasn’t even always desirable.  The Airacobra had better firepower than the Warhawk thanks to a 37 mm cannon in the nose, and with a high top speed on the deck it was often useful for close support work.

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The armament was the most obvious upgrade on the P-39Q model. There is a 37 mm cannon in the propeller hub, and two .50 mg in the nose, which had long been standard for American Airacobras. But now the two .30 mg in each wing have been removed, and replaced by underwing gondolas that each house a single .50 mg.

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The 15th Fighter Group was attached to the 7th Air Force.  That means they worked in the Central Pacific.  They spent much of the war protecting Hawaii and other Pacific outposts.  Given how much the Central Pacific was the Navy’s war, the 7th Air Force served in the background for most of the war.  Those familiar with the book or movie Unbroken may recall that Louie Zamparini served in the 7th Air Force flying long range bombing missions, from one tiny spot in the ocean to another.  But these ranges far exceeded what any of the early war fighters could fly.  So Warhawk and Airacobra fighter squadrons were based at remote islands to chase the occasional long range raid or recon mission.

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This aircraft was based at Caroline Island through much of 1943.  Because Caroline was a coral speck of land with little foliage the ground crews acquired Army tan paint from the local engineers to give their aircraft better camouflage on the ground.  This is slightly different from the Air Force Desert Tan often seen on planes that served in North Africa, I think it is lighter and less pink. This color would quickly disappear late in the year when the group was reassigned to Makin Island, which had more green.  And from Makin, in the Gilbert Islands, the 15th Fighter Group would fly more actual combat missions since several islands in the chain were “bypassed”, or left in Japanese hands. In 1944 they were equipped with P-47 Thunderbolts.

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Much later in the war the 15th Fighter Group was re-equipped with Mustangs and based on Iwo Jima to fly very long range escort missions for B-29s.

P-39Q in flight.

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A P-40N with the P-39Q. These were the final production versions of the two main fighters the US started the war with.

This model is from the Eduard kit. It is of a “Q” model Airacobra which, as far as I know, is the highest sub-type letter used for any US aircraft!  But per my “What’s in a Name – United States” from a while back, early in the war even minor tweaks to a type would often get a whole new sub-type designation.  While later in the war such changes were made only rarely. In fact, I believe more changes occurred during the production of the P-39Q than all previous sub-types combined.

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About atcDave

I'm 53 years old and live in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I'm happily married to Jodie. I've been an air traffic controller for 30 years; grew up in the Chicago area, and am still a fanatic for pizza and the Chicago Bears. My main interest is military history, and my related hobbies include scale model building and strategy games.
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15 Responses to Bell P-39Q Airacobra

  1. shortfinals says:

    Little known fact. Britain ‘inherited’ a French order for an earlier version of the P-39, and they equipped just one of the RAF’s premier fighter units, No. 601(City of London) Squadron. The P-400 had a 20mm Hispano cannon instead of the 37mm, and it was NOT well liked, and proved completely unsuitable for European operations. It had the SHORTEST operation career of any first-line RAF type – 9-11 October, 1941, during which just four aircraft completed a couple of low-level sweeps against the enemy-held French coast. The compass became inaccurate after the guns were fired, and there were many other problems. 200 of the order were sent to Russia, and the rest retained in the ZI, following December 7th.

    Here is a pure piece of propaganda showing the Aircobra in Great Britain!

    • atcDave says:

      That’s a fun piece of wartime fluff.
      I previously posted a bit about the P-400 here.
      My all time favorite tidbit comes from Edwards Parks, an Airacobra pilot with the 31st Fighter Group in New Guinea; he stated what the Airacobra really excelled at was taxiing. From the moment the plane took off it was obvious it wanted nothing more than to return to taxiing.

    • atcDave says:

      Really funny thing is that Soviets apparently loved the type. They even used it effectively against the Germans.
      I think it started with their desperation for anything “modern”. And they basically threw out the rule book and figured out how to play to the type’s strengths. So they just flew fast, on the deck, all the time.

  2. shortfinals says:

    Sorry…typo….Airacobra!

  3. Theresa says:

    I loved this plane’s use in protecting the shipping and supply lanes in the Pacific campaign.

  4. Pierre Lagacé says:

    So true…

    The P-39 Airacobra soldiered on in US service into 1943.

  5. Pierre Lagacé says:

    Reblogged this on My Forgotten Hobby and commented:
    One of my favorite airplanes.

  6. jfwknifton says:

    A really informative article about a rather Cinderella aircraft. I still can’t really believe that the Soviets thought it was so splendid, although perhaps if you were used to Polikarpov fighters, you would be pleased to have a P-39!

    • atcDave says:

      I’m sure that was a big part of it. It also had decent pilot armor, radios that worked, heavy firepower and a mechanically reliable engine. These were all uncommon luxuries for a Soviet pilot early in the war!

  7. Another terrific looking build Dave. Of course, as you mentioned in your comments, the P-39 and that powerful 37mm cannon were used to great effect by the Soviets against German ground forces during the second world war. 4.719 (of all types) were used by the Soviets, which represented a vast number of aircraft in Russian service. Fascinating article, great build once again.

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