Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Remembering the P-39.

The Bell P-39 Airacobra. Today virtually unknown save to a few aircraft and military buffs. But once there were many of them. Bell Aircraft Co. made over 9,584 of these during World War Two and they saw service in every theater of the war and with every ally we had (to include Russia, who got thousands of them via Lend-Lease).

Lacking a turbosupercharger, it was not exactly a stellar fighter, espcially at high altitudes. It couldn't hold it's own against the Japanese Zero or contemporary German fighters, but down low it was a phenominal ground-attack aircraft, especially with the 37MM cannon that fired through the propeller hub. The Russians positively loved it and took roughly half of Bell's production run.

Sadly, by war's end, they were considered obsolete and almost all of them were either junked or left behind overseas by returning American forces. Very few survive today, even as static display aircraft. Now just a handful are left, only three of which are still airworthy. Here's the one that I photographed at the Wright-Patterson AFB museum last year:

One of the few remaining P-39 aircraft is now restored and on display in Buffalo, NY. It is P-39Q S/N 42-19995. This one flew with US forces in the Pacific Theater until it was abandoned and left to rot in the jungles of New Guinea along with numerous other British and American aircraft at war's end. In 1974, it was recovered by salvagers and brought back to the US and now post-restoration, it's on static display at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park. This video tells just a bit of the aircraft's story and shows this particular plane as it looks today:

Read more about it's discovery and restoration here.

And here's another veteran come home. P-39Q, S/N 44-2911,was sent to Russia as Lend-Lease and spent sixty years sitting on a lake bed in that country. This video tells the story of how it got back to Niagara Falls from that lake. I'm glad to see it back, but sadly, like 42-19995, it'll never fly again.
Recovered with log books intact. Damn. There's a lot more about the recovery of 44-2911 at this excellent website.

When I once had to opportunity to speak with Gen. Chuck Yeager back in the late 1980's, he told me that of all the aircraft that he'd flown--and he'd flown pretty much everything in USAF inventory from World War Two trainers and fighters to Vietnam-era jets--the P-39 was his personal favorite.

It's just a damned shame that no one bothered to save more than a few of them at war's end. The smelters got almost all of them and the few that survive today did so only through unique circumstances or because they were rebuilt from long-abandoned wreckage. More should have been saved...and at least one of them set aside for me, darn it.

Oh, and if you still want more P-39 stuff, this Army training film should take care of you quite nicely:


  1. Very nice - thank you.

  2. One of my favorites of World War II... If only because its hard to deny the idea that it could have been inspiration for the A-10... Centerline main gun, built as a pure CAS fighter to support the ground forces...

    Whats not to love (as a a man who's entire enlistment revolved around CAS)?!

  3. Good post, and good point, but we have to remember the 'mentality' was a bit different back then.

  4. Ok, next time you're in town, we're so going on my friend's boat and diving on the P-39 wreck that's in lake St Clair.

    P-39 Serial #: 42-21249 crashed 12/12/1943, pilot was one of the Tuskegee airmen training out of Selfridge.

  5. About the scrapped planes...

    One of the most fascinating/weird/heartbreaking stories of Post WWII that most people don't know about are the ANZAC demolitions guys sent out to destroy left-behind 'stuff' reported by locals and natives in the Pacific Theater. Evidently it wasn't uncommon for entire posts, bases, and runways to be simply abandoned.

    I'm not sure what the title of the book was, sorry, but I remember to this day the demo guys' description of following a native lead and humping through overgrown jungle in the 1970s, to find an ENTIRE INTACT US airfield, complete with planes, sitting in a clearing. They blew it all up. Nuts.

    Actually, until the advent of cheap AKs, the various territorial wars on New Guinea against encroaching Indonesians were fought with salvaged Japanese and Allied guns left in the jungles...

    Strange stuff, indeed.