P-39 Airacobra, U.S. Fighter

Photograph of P-39 Airacobra

National Museum of the USAF

Bell P-39D Airacobra


Crew 1
Dimensions 34'0" by 30'2" by 11'10"
10.36m by 9.19m by 3.61m
Wing area 213 square feet
19.8 square meters
Weight 5460-8200 lbs
2480-3700 kg
Maximum speed       368 mph at 13,800 feet
592 km/h at 4200 meters
Cruise speed 245 mph
394 km/h
Landing speed 82 mph
132 km/h
Climb rate 45 feet per second
13.7 meters per second
Service ceiling 32,100 feet
9780 meters
Power plant 1 1150 hp (857 kW) Allison V-1710-35 vee-12 liquid-cooled engine driving a three-bladed propeller
Armament 4 0.30 fixed wing machine guns
2 0.50 fixed cowling machine guns
1 37mm M4 fixed propeller cannon with 30 rounds
External stores 500 lbs (227kg) bombs or 62 gallon (235 liter) drop tank
Range 800 miles (1290 km) with 500 lb (277 kg) bomb load
1550 miles (2500 km) ferry
Fuel 72 gallons
273 liters
Production 9588 of all P-39 types to 5/44 at Bell Aircraft Corporation, Buffalo, NY, of which about 5000 went to the Soviet Union. 4900 of these were P-39Qs.

The P-39C was armed with two 0.30s and two 0.50s in the nose and no wing guns. It was being replaced by the -D by the time war broke out.

The P-400 was exported to Australia and the Soviet Union and was equipped with a 20mm cannon with 60 rounds in place of the 37mm.

The P-39N/Q had a 1200 hp (895 kW) Allison V-1710-85 engine, giving it a speed of 386 mph (621 km/h) but reducing its range to 650 miles (1046 km).

In 1937, the U.S. Army Air Corps awarded a pair of contracts for interceptor aircraft. The contract for a two-engine interceptor was awarded to Lockheed for the P-38 Lightning, which went on to become a successful fighter-bomber in the Southwest Pacific. The contract for a single-engine interceptor was awarded to Bell for the P-39 Airacobra, which turned out rather differently. Although heavily armed and armored and very tough, this plane was a bust in its original design role as an interceptor. However, it was very successful as a ground attack aircraft. 

The design was marred by a number of poor decisions. The turbosupercharger was eliminated due to exaggerated concerns over the drag from its air scoop, which all but guaranteed that the design would be a bust as a fighter. The airfoil section for the wings was also badly chosen, and the tail section was too small for adequate directional stability. The first prototype flew in 1939 and production was ordered by the British in 1940. The first aircraft were delivered in June 1941 to 601 Squadron, which found the aircraft so unsatisfactory, due to poor high altitude performance and mediocre handling, that they failed to make the effort to keep them serviceable.

Operational losses of this type in the Southwest Pacific were extremely high because of its unusual engine placement (behind the cockpit) and 37mm armament, which made maintenance difficult. The engine placement also seems to have degraded the maneuverability, and made it particularly difficult to recover from a spin.

The export version of the P-39, the P-400, was an even poorer fighter, and the joke went that a P-400 was a P-40 with a Zero on its tail. However, half of all production of the P-39 went to the Soviet Union, which used it with great success as a ground attack aircraft.

About 60% of American P-39 crews were deployed to the Pacific, a reflection of the low priority given to the theater because of the "Germany First" policy.

Image Gallery

Photograph of P-39 Airacobra preparing for takeoff


Photograph of P-39 Airacobra cockpit


Photograph of P-39 Airacobra firing its guns at




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