Defense Media Network

Flying the P-39 Airacobra in the Pacific Posed Challenges

Advertisement

The Bell P-39 Airacobra may have been the least-loved American fighter of World War II. Most Americans piloted the P-39 only during training and were almost universally unimpressed. A handful flew the P-39 in combat in North Africa, the Aleutians and the South Pacific.

Retired Air Force Col. Evans G. Stephens was one of them.

“It was also the only American fighter that didn’t have a fan club.”

He flew the P-39 in pre-war Louisiana military maneuvers and again during fighting in the steamy South Pacific.

With its tricycle landing gear, nose-mounted cannon and 1,300-horsepower Allison V-1710 liquid-cooled, 12-cylinder in-line engine mounted behind the pilot and turning the propeller via a long driveshaft, the P-39 was better looking than the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, which used the same engine. But the P-39 also looked better than it flew. “It lacked a supercharger for high-altitude performance,” said Stephens in a 2005 interview. “It was also the only American fighter that didn’t have a fan club.”

P-39 Airacobra

A Bell P-39 Airacobra in flight firing all weapons in a famous publicity still. The Airacobra usually carried four .30 caliber wing guns, two .50 calibers in the nose, and a 20 mm or 37 mm cannon firing through the propeller hub. U.S. Air Force photo

Of the five principal fighters flown by Army Air Forces pilots during the war (P-38, P-39, P-40, P-47, P-51), only the P-39 never had an association of pilots who met to share their experiences at reunions. Only the P-39 is not included in the fighter memorial at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.

“We didn’t really know it was an unpopular airplane,” said Stephens. “We didn’t have any chance to think about that.”

He remembers having a Japanese bomber in his gunsight and the cannon rounds from the P-39 falling short. “The malaria took me from a normal weight of 165 pounds down to 124,” he said.

 

Hot Pilot

Born in 1919, Stephens was in the 40th Fighter Squadron, the “Red Devils,” as one of the squadron’s first dozen officers who went to Selfridge Field, Mich. in July 1941, six months before Pearl Harbor. The squadron flew in the pre-war Louisiana war games and carried out a demonstration for Air Corps leaders at Bolling Field, Washington, D.C.

Within months, Stephens and his squadron were on New Guinea in the south Pacific, where he fought malaria and the Japanese. He remembers having a Japanese bomber in his gunsight and the cannon rounds from the P-39 falling short. “The malaria took me from a normal weight of 165 pounds down to 124,” he said.

P-39 Airacobra

A Bell P-39 Airacobra just off the runway at Henderson Field, Guadalcanal. Despite the fierce look of the warpaint, the P-39′s performance was unimpressive. U.S. Marine Corps photo

On April 20, 1942, the 39th, 40th and 41st squadrons became part of the 35th Fighter Group. The group took the P-39 and the P-400 Airacobra, an export model with a 20 mm cannon instead of a 37 mm gun like the P-39, to New Guinea. Said Stephens:

“We faced Japanese warplanes whose reputation made them seem invincible.”

“On that island’s steaming jungles of New Guinea, we came face-to-face with problems that were alien to most Americans. We were flying in a location where Americans had never served. The few available maps were so riddled with inaccuracies that they were virtually useless. Intelligence reports were so wildly inaccurate that we did not know what we would be facing; rumors ran rife. And, of course, we faced Japanese warplanes whose reputation made them seem invincible.

P-39 Airacobras

Five U.S. Army Air Force Bell P-400 Airacobra fighters of the 67th Fighter Squadron, 347th Fighter Group, after having arrived at Henderson Field, Guadalcanal, on Aug. 22, 1942. These planes were the first U.S. Army personnel or aircraft to reach Guadalcanal. The first aircraft in line carries the British serial “BW167″. National Archives photo

“Our new home on New Guinea was an airfield called Seven Mile. It was pretty primitive. For food, we were under Australian rations. My main meal was bread, peanut butter, jelly, and cheese. The bread was made from flour out of an old bakery at Port Moresby and had weevils in it. You would remove the weevil and eat the bread. We flew with Australian flying boots, which were fleece-lined and very comfortable.

“That practice didn’t last long. One of our P-39 pilots, named Hall, was shot down over the jungle and had to bail out. He was descending in his parachute, his legs flailing, when those boots came off and vanished. We learned later that the boots just wouldn’t stay attached to your feet if you encountered any sort of problem. Hall spent 10 days walking out of the jungle and he was barefoot the whole time.

“Because of the heat, we flew in shorts and short-sleeved shirt. I liked flying the P-39, but always kept in mind that it would not be a match for the Japanese Zero in a fair fight.”

“Because of the heat, we flew in shorts and short-sleeved shirt. I liked flying the P-39, but always kept in mind that it would not be a match for the Japanese Zero in a fair fight.”

A well-known air ace, Lt. Col. Boyd D. “Buzz” Wagner, who’d fought the Japanese in P-40s in the Philippines on Dec. 8, 1941, was assigned to fly with the 40th Squadron. “Wagner went from first lieutenant to lieutenant colonel in just five months during those difficult early days of the war in the Pacific. He had a reputation for being a hot, aggressive pilot. They made him chief of fighter aviation in New Guinea and although he had not previously flown the P-39 in combat, he came down to join us and shot down three Japanese fighters in a single action, bringing his total number of aerial victories to eight. At that point, using a P-39 to shoot down a Zero was almost unheard of.”

 

New Guinea to Guadalcanal

Stephens was felled by malaria in the middle of the fight in the South Pacific. While his 40th Fighter Squadron (and others) battled the Japanese on New Guinea, the 70th Fighter Squadron (and others) fought under similarly grueling circumstances on Guadalcanal.

There, a hard-fighting pilot who sometimes seemed to be everywhere at once – 2nd Lt. William F. Fiedler – racked up a unique record of achievement. On Jan. 26, 1943, flying a 70th P-39D, he shot down a Zero over Wagana island. It was the beginning of a remarkable fighting streak that would claim a remarkable record.

P-39 Airacobras

While the original caption for this photo reads: “U.S. Army Air Forces crewmen service Bell P-39D Airacobra fighters of the 8th Fighter Group at Seven Mile airfield, near Port Moresby, New Guinea, in July 1942,” the aircraft in the foreground, at least, appears to be a P-400. Australian War Memorial photo

In February 1943, twenty-two Japanese destroyers sped down the “slot” near Guadalcanal with 25 Zeros flying cover. The plan was to evacuate exhausted Japanese troops from Guadalcanal. Led by Capt. James Robinson, the 70th squadron intercepted the Japanese in late afternoon, 200 miles north of Kolombangara. Fielder shot down a Zero in the fight. It was his second kill.

Transferred to the 68th Fighter Squadron, Fiedler was in the air again on June 12, 1943, when 50 Zeros made a sweep toward the Russell Islands and the Americans managed to get an impressive 90 fighters into the air. The American side claimed 31 aerial victories and one of them was a Zero bagged by Fiedler 10 miles (16 kilometers) from Cape Esperance – his third victory.

Four days later, an Australian coast watcher on Vella Lavella radioed that 38 Zeros followed by another 30 Zeros escorting 50 Aichi D3A Type 99 “Val” dive-bombers were on their way at noon from the north-west to attack U.S. Navy transports off Guadalcanal. This was a remarkably strong Japanese bid, and the transports were virtually naked to attack.

William F. Fiedler went into the history books as the only American air ace to rack up five aerial victories in the P-39 Airacobra. It is unclear how much time he had to enjoy the unique status he still holds today in the annals of Air Force history. Sadly, he was killed two weeks later, on June 30, 1943, when his Airacobra was hit by a P-38 Lightning while waiting to take off.

Six P-39s were the last aircraft to take off. They’d been held in reserve to meet a threat to the transports, which had now materialized. Fiedler shot down two “Vals,” the second with his 37 mm nose cannon inoperable, using only his four small .30-caliber (7.62 mm) wing guns. Altogether, American fighter pilots claimed 97 Japanese aircraft against a loss of five friendly aircraft. William F. Fiedler went into the history books as the only American air ace to rack up five aerial victories in the P-39 Airacobra. It is unclear how much time he had to enjoy the unique status he still holds today in the annals of Air Force history. Sadly, he was killed two weeks later, on June 30, 1943, when his Airacobra was hit by a P-38 Lightning while waiting to take off.

 

Stephens’ Wars

After the war, Evans G. Stephens was among the first to make the transition to jets. When the Korean War began in 1950, he commanded the 16th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron in Japan, equipped with the Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star.

On Nov. 8, 1950, Stephens was flight leader of four F-80s that were attacked by Soviet MiG-15s along the Yalu River. It was the first battle in history in which both sides used jet airplanes. Stephens’ wingman, 1st Lt. Russell Brown, was credited with shooting down a MiG.

P-39 Airacobra

The P-39 Airacobra was no match for the Japanese Zero, but was skillfully flown by its U.S. Army Air Forces pilots. San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives photo

Stephens transitioned in 1964 to the F-105 Thunderchief. The following year, he became vice commander of an air division at Yokota, Japan, flying the F-105. During this two-year tour, “I wasn’t supposed to fly missions in the F-105 in Vietnam, but I did,” Stephens said. Stephens went to South Korea during the Pueblo incident in 1968 and retired later that year.

“I wasn’t supposed to fly missions in the F-105 in Vietnam, but I did.”

He later piloted a civilian Beech Bonanza, but in civilian life he didn’t always follow pattern as one of the Air Force’s most accomplished fighter pilots. “For three years, I owned a liquor store,” he said.

By

Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...

  • The Aircobra was the not only the most successful fighter it built (and a marginal success at that), it was the ONLY successful plane to reach mass production. Every other Bell aircraft except the helicopters were unusual edgy or experimental designs that never reach mass production.

  • the 37mm guns were often recycled and put on PT boats

  • Robert F, Dorr

    Bell built almost 3,500 P-63 Kingcobra fighters and no one would call them marginal. Bell didn’t design the B-29 but it built plenty of them in what was then called Atlanta and is now called Marietta. Bell built the first U.S. jet aircraft. I’d be very interested to see a source for the 37mm guns being transferred from P-39s to PT boats.

  • The Airacobra’s case as a failure remains to be proven, even today. Sure, it could have used a two-stage supercharger or turbocharger, but the Russians loved it, and more of their top aces flew it than not. The difference was that they flew it below 15,000 feet, most of the time, and there, according to them, it gave more than a good account of itself. It may be that because this testimony comes from the former Soviet Union it is distrusted. Or it may be that, because the Airacobra was a low-level fighter with heavy wing-loading facing the Zero, which climbed like a homesick angel and had the wing-loading of a moth, it came off looking decidedly second-best. One wonders what would have happened if the American Volunteer Group had procured 100 P-400s instead of 100 Hawk 81s.

  • Here’s the P-39′s fan club: the P-39 and P-63 Cobra Association at http://www.p39p63cobraassn.com.

  • PT 658 in Portland oregon has one of the p-39 37mm guns on the front deck. that is where I found out about it, has the distinctive ammo box. P-59 airacomet was also a failure other than being 1st US jet, Lockheed P-80 built on successful P-38 technology and wings, but F-86 Sabre was the 1st american fighter that could fight the MiG-15 on even terms.

  • Thanks for that. I’m actually a fan, and think the P-39 was never given its due.

  • Might be better to compare the P-39 to the Skyraider (Vietnam) or the A-10, Sturmovik and Stuka as it did well in ground support. Not good comparison to P-38 or even P-40 which were its contemporaries, or P-47 which was bomber, not bad in a/s or P-51 which was premier a/s fighter in WWII.

  • Robert E. Johnson

    >William F. Fiedler went into the history books as the only American air ace to rack up five aerial victories in the P-39 Airacobra. It is unclear how much time he had to enjoy the unique status he still holds today in the annals of Air Force history.”

    To the contrary, an article by Bell Foreign Service, reveals Captain William D. Wells shot down four (4) Japanese bombers on 16 June 1943. It claims he was an ace as well. He was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry.
    Robert E. Johnson