This week’s aircraft is one of the lesser known fighters of WW2, even tho it played a significant role in the allied victory.
Before the Bell P-39 was built, almost all airframes were built around an engine. A manufacturer would go out, select an engine, and then design the airframe around that specific engine and it’s power out put. The P-39, on the other hand, was the first to be designed around a gun. Bell selected the Oldsmobile T9 37mm cannon, which fired though the propeller hub. This lead to a unique design. Since the cannon and it’s ammo storage took up so much room in the nose, Bell moved the Allison V-1710-85 liquid-cooled V-12, 1,200 hp engine to the mid section of the airframe, and connected the propeller to the engine with a drive shaft that ran through the cockpit, between the pilots feet.
While the P-39 saw limited service with the U.S. air corps, it saw heavy use in the Russian forces as part of the lend-lease act. The Russian pilots used the P-39 as a ground attack aircraft, using the 37mm as an excellent anti tank weapon. As well as ground attack, the Soviet P-39 was heavily used in air to work roles, easily shooting down Ju-87 stukas and Ju-88 medium attack bombers of the Luftwaffe. Many Soviet P-39s had the wing guns removed to increase the role rate.
After the war, a few P-39s were configured for air racing, and a few even won first places tropheys in the national air races. Cobra II, flown by Tex Johnston, even beat race modified P-51s.
Over all, the P-39 is an extremely cool looking aircraft, and one that is often over looked