Bell P-39 Airacobra

The P-39 was a single-engined, single-seat fighter built by Bell for the U.S. Army.  Its configuration was radical, employing a tricycle landing gear and having its engine situated behind the pilot, driving the forward-mounted propeller through a long shaft that passed through the cockpit and nose.

The P-39 was extensively used in the Pacific theatre, but it was not a success.  With the addition of extra armor and armament for variet combat duties, and having limited capability for engine upgrades, the P-39 had fallen behind the performance of contemporary fighters by the time it entered service.  The Army used them until they could be replaced with more effective aircraft.  Britain’s Royal Air Force equipped one squadron with P-39s in 1941, when it was desperate for fighters, but soon decided it wasn’t that desperate and the aircraft were discarded after flying just one combat mission.  On the other hand, the Soviet air force acquired a large number of the 9,584 Airacobras built and reportedly was very happy with them, achieving success against supposedly superior German fighters.

Combat efficacy aside, the P-39 earned praise for its flying characteristics from notable pilots who did not fly them in combat, such as Charles Yeager and British test pilot Eric Brown, who kept one of the rejected RAF machines as his personal aircraft through war’s end.

The P-39 is rare today.  The original nucleus of survivors had been air racers after the war, and in recent years restorable wrecks have been recovered from Pacific islands.  For many years, only two were airworthy, with two or three more on static display.  Currently, about a dozen airframes exist, and a few are being restored to flyable condition.

P-39N 42-8740

Airworthy but unflown, this P-39 is with Yanks Air Museum.  It was restored in the 1990s and registered N81575.  This P-39 was recovered from Tadji Airfield (now Tadji Airport) on the north coast of Papua New Guinea.

P-39N 42-4949

This was to be one of the many P-39s supplied to the Soviet Union, but it crashed while being ferried through British Columbia, Canada, to the USSR.  Recovered in 1971, it is shown displayed at the British Columbia Aviation Museum in the 1990s.

P-39N 42-18814

Pima Air Museum‘s P-39 was recovered in 1974 from Tadji Airfield on New Guinea, where it crashed while serving with the 5th Air Force in combat with the Japanese.  This photo from 2012 shows it under restoration at Pima.  The following year, it was completed and is now a beautiful static exhibit at the museum.

P-39N 42-19027 “Small Fry / Little Sir Echo”

The Planes of Fame P-39 was another 1974 recovery from Tadji Airfield in Papua New Guinea.  It has been a static display at the museum since 1987. 

P-39Q 42-19993 “Brooklyn Bum 2nd”

Another P-39 recovered from Papua New Guinea, this aircraft was displayed for some years as a static exhibit at the Museum of Flying in Santa Monica.  In the 1990s it became the subject of an ambitious program to create the first airworthy P-39 from one of the PNG wrecks, and is now flying with The Fighter Collection in England. It is registered N139DP.

P-39Q 42-19597

This P-39 is flying with the Commemorative Air Force in San Marcos, Texas.  Registered N6968, it was recovered from a hulk used as a playground object in New Mexico. 

P-39Q 42-20000

The March Field Museum P-39 was recovered from Tadji Airfield in Papua New Guinea and restored by the museum in the 1980s and 1990s.  It is now a beautiful exhibit wearing generic 1942 USAAC colors.

P-39Q 42-20007

Another Tadji, PNG recovery, this P-39 is displayed at the Virginia Air & Space Center.

P-39Q 44-2433 “Galloping Gertie”

The National Air & Space Museum‘s P-39 had a postwar career as a racer registered N57591.  It joined the Smithsonian collection in 1954 and recently has been on loan to the Niagara Aerospace Museum in Niagara Falls, New York.  It is only lightly restored.

P-39Q 44-3887

Modified during the war to be a 2-seat TP-39Q trainer, this plane was returned to single-seat configuration in the 1960s by a California restorer.  Apparently it was made airworthy and flown to the National Museum of the USAF for display, but without being assigned a civil registration number.  It is marked as P-39J 41-7073, flown by Lt. Leslie Spoonts of the 57th Fighter Squadron in 1942.

P-39Q 44-3908

Active as a racer immediately after the war, this Airacobra was registered N40A and stayed intermittently airworthy until the 1970s, when it was acquired by the Commemorative Air Force.  In 1981 it was sold to the Kalamazoo Air Zoo which retired it to static display.  Today it is painted in a garish shark-mouth scheme applied after a hangar accident damaged it.


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