Wednesday, September 03, 2014

King Cobra Love!

Some nice shots of the Bell Aircraft P-63 King Cobra from Thunder Over Michigan.
This beauty was one of the reasons that I went this year. It's one of the rarest of the flying warbirds, with just a handful left, two out of 3,300 built.
The P-63 looks like the earlier Bell P-39 Airacobra, but it's not one. It's a follow-on design that was intended to correct all of the problems of the P-39. It was bigger and had a supercharged engine that the P-39 lacked. As a consequence, if flew faster and higher than it's predecessor.
Like the P-39, it's armament consisted of two .50 machine guns in the nose that fired over a 37mm cannon mounted behind the propeller, firing through the the prop hub.
It also shared the same cockpit design as the P-39, including automotive-style doors.
The US Army Air Corps ordered this plane, but then chose not to adopt it, so most of the production run wound up going to the Russians under the Lend-Lease program. The Russians, who were already using lots of the P-39s, loved this one.
After the war, we gave most of the rest to the French, who used them in Indochina in 1950-51.
The new USAF kept a few for use as gunnery targets like this one that I photographed at Wright Patterson Air Force Museum a few years back.

This surviving P-63E Kingcobra was modified as an RP-63 training aircraft. Aerial gunnery students fired at these manned target aircraft using .30-cal. lead and plastic frangible machine gun bullets which disintegrated harmlessly against the target's external armor plating. Special instruments sent impulses to red lights in the nose of the aircraft, causing them to blink when bullets struck the plane. Pilots nicknamed these aircraft "pinballs".

Sadly, only four P-63s survive in flying condition today, and less than half a dozen display aircraft still exist. Like so many other fine aircraft types in the post-war days, they were valued more for their metal than their history or abilities. Heck, my grandparents didn't even think to put one away for me when the US government was selling them for a few hundred dollars each.
But at least I got to see this one fly.
A serviceable plane, it's one of the relative few US military aircraft that was never actually used as a fighter by the US Army Air Force. They all went overseas or into use as training aircraft and not one of the 3,300 ever fired a shot in anger in US service.

For more really good P-63 pics, hit Aaron's blog here:

King of the rare birds--the P-63C Kingcobra


  1. Beautiful bird! :-)

  2. Anonymous7:16 PM

    +1 Old NFO

  3. The real drawback to the P-63 and the P-39 was that the pilot was sitting in front of the engine. In th event of a crash-landing, the engine might pop off its mounds and come storming through the cockpit.

    1. Plus, plenty of pilots were saved by rounds that didn't penetrate the engine (rear of the cockpit is realtively easy to armor; front, not so much).

      The same argument was heard when the Israeli Merkava MBT was introduced (with a front mounted engine vice the normal rear location -- the Merkava swapped some disadvantages in favor of having the powerpack up front, where it could slow down incoming rounds. (Since Israel was designeing a tank for primarily defensive battles and figured they would be at their most vulnerable in the opening stages of an invasion, with tanks in stationary defensive positions buyt not sure if hostilities were on until the shooting started, the trade-offs were acceptable.)

  4. Man, that is one cool bird!

  5. Didn't we give most of the King Cobra's to the Red Air Force?

    I read Saburo Sakai's book about being a Japanese naval aviator in WW2. The P-39 made up a large portion of his 90 odd kills. He said in the book that he was always amazed the Americans kept coming up to fight the Zero's in that aircraft.

  6. The King Cobra suffered from being under powered with a full ordnance load. When you take away the ordnance and fly them for fun, they're really neat.

  7. You know who designed that 37mm autocannon in the prop hub? That's right... :)

    1. Why yes, that would be one of America's truly great men, Mr. J.M. Browning.

      Note to self: Do NOT play "Trivial Pursuit, Guns Edition" with Tam.

  8. Sorry, I just see that as underpowered and underarmed. 2 x 50 cal firing through the prop, so synchronized and not firing at max rate. 37 mm cannon, but slow rate of fire. Just not putting much lead out front. 8 x 50 cal on the wing, there's some lead out there for someone to run into.
    Neat airplane, but ...