The P-39 was one of America's first-line pursuit planes in December 1941. It made its initial flight in April 1939 at Wright Field, Ohio, and by the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, nearly 600 had been built. Its unique engine location behind the cockpit caused some pilot concern at first, but experience showed that this was no more of a hazard in a crash landing than with an engine located forward of the cockpit. The P-39's spin characteristics, however, could be a problem if proper recovery techniques were ignored.
Fighting the Japanese in Alaska From September to November 1942 pilots of the 57th Fighter Squadron flew P-39s and P-38s from an airfield built on land bulldozed into Kuluk Bay on the barren island of Adak in Alaska's Aleutian Islands. They attacked the Japanese forces which had invaded Attu and Kiska islands in the Aleutians in June 1942. The number one foe that claimed the most lives, however, was not the Japanese but the weather. The low clouds, mist, fog, driving rain, snow and high winds made flying dangerous and lives miserable. The 57th remained in Alaska until November 1942 and then returned to the United States.
The Airacobra saw combat throughout the world, particularly in the Southwest Pacific, Mediterranean and Russian theaters. Because its engine was not equipped with a supercharger, the P-39 performed best below 17,000 feet altitude. It often was used at lower altitudes for such missions as ground strafing. When P-39 production ended in August 1944, Bell had built 9,584 Airacobras, of which 4,773 were sent to the Soviet Union through lend-lease. Russian pilots appreciated the cannon-armed P-39 for its ground attack capability. Other P-39s served with Free French and British forces.
The Museum's Aircraft
This P-39Q is painted as a P-39D flown by Lt. Leslie Spoonts of the 57th Fighter Squadron on Adak Island during the Aleutians Campaign. The P-39Q on display was obtained by the Air Force Museum Foundation from Hardwick Aircraft Co., El Monte, Calif., in 1966.
TECHNICAL NOTES: Armament: One 37mm cannon firing through the propeller hub, two .50-cal. machine guns in the nose, two .50-cal. machine guns in packets under the wing, 500 lbs. of bombs externally Engine:Allison V-1710 of 1,200 hp Maximum speed: 376 mph Cruising speed: 250 mph Range: 650 miles Ceiling: 35,000 ft. Span: 34 ft. Length: 30 ft. 2 in. Height: 12 ft. 5 in. Weight: 7,570 lbs. normal load Cost: $46,000 Serial number: 44-3887