P-39 Airacobra, Bell Fighter in World War II

Published on
July 23, 2023
Review Author(s)
Book Author(s)
David Doyle
Other Publication Information
Hardback, A4 (9.0" x 9.0"), 144 pages 240 color and b/w photos
Company: Shiffer Publishing - Website: Visit Site
Provided by: Casemate Publishers - Website: Visit Site


With a mid-engined configuration, sturdy tricycle landing gear, and nose-mounted 37 mm cannon, the Bell P-39 was a thoughtful and innovative design. However, the plane lacked the all-out performance of some other key fighters available to Allied fliers (e.g., Spitfire, Hellcat, Mustang), particularly at altitude. Largely rejected by British and American combat squadrons, the Airacobra was much better received in the Soviet Union, where the Red Air Force successfully deployed large quantities of the type against the Luftwaffe. This new entry in the Legends of Warfare series features detailed photographic coverage of all variants of the Airacobra, including prototypes, trainer versions, production models C through Q, and the P-400


This publication is broken down into chapters as follows:

Introduction, pages 1-5. Here the author provide some history on the Bell P-39's service as well as the initial development criteria for the aircraft. Included are two black and white images of the natural metal finish XP-38 and the XP-40.

Chapter 1. XP-39, pages 6-11. The Bell Aircraft Company was in its second year when it responded to Circular X-609 in February 1937 competing against Curtis and Seversky. Seversky submitted five proposals while Curtis and Bell each submitted two. The two Bell proposals were selected as showing the greatest promise. The Model 3 proposal looked more like a sleek racing aircraft than a military aircraft, however, the major shortcoming for this model was the limited visibility for the pilot and for that reason was not given further consideration.

The Model 4 design included a mid-engine layout with a 10 foot extension shaft for the propeller. The cockpit was narrower than the requirements but was approved, and included two side-opening automotive-style doors, as well as tricycle landing gear. Initially problems with the Allison engine delayed flight testing. With flight testing underway the top speed of the aircraft was lower than the goal, but the design showed promise. Bell dubbed the aircraft "Airacobra".

This chapter includes several black-and-white images of the aircraft on the tarmac and in the wind tunnel, sans propeller and extended landing gear,

Chapter 2. XP-39B, pages 12-17. Since the XP-39 fell short of the 400 MPH top speed Bell was aiming for (375 MPH without armament and a full fuel load) Hap Arnold ordered wind tunnel testing of the aircraft to determine how to improve the performance. Several design changes were implemented in the new design that became the XP-39B. A higher performing engine was installed, but a single-stage supercharger was used. Performance was still not up to expectations.

The black and white images included here began to show the P-39 as we know it today. The wind tunnel images are particularly striking when a technician is included in the picture.

Chapter 3. YP-39, pages 18-27. The XP-39 was eventually destroyed in a hard landing accident 0n August 6, 1940, however, several additional aircraft were on order. Thirteen aircraft were ordered for flight testing, and some were equipped with armament.

This first color photo is included in this chapter along with several black and white images. All images are included with text information on the specific image. Most of the images depict the aircraft in flight.

Chapter 4. P-39C, pages 28-35. On August 10, 1939, the Army Air Corps ordered eighty more of the aircraft, which were true production models. These were the first to wear olive drab top colors and neutral grey undersides. The first twenty lacked armor and self-sealing fuel tanks and were eventually assigned non-combat duties.

Most of the images are black and white while a few are full color.

Chapter 5. Airacobra I/P-400, pages 36-45. This chapter covers the export of the Airacobra. The French and British ordered the aircraft, but the fall of France stopped the delivery to that country. The British took over the order but were disappointed in the aircraft performance with testing of the first ones delivered. The British aircraft were eventually transferred to Russia, whose pilots used them to great effect against the Luftwaffe and ground targets.

Several color and black-and-white images, line drawings, and color profiles round out this chapter.

Chapter 6. P-39D, pages 46-61. The P-39D represented a version with improved armament, bullet-proof windshield, pilot armor protection and self-sealing fuel tanks.

Several color and black-and-white images, line drawings and color profiles round out this chapter. Also included are several interior cockpit images. Page 61 has a schedule of features for the various P-39 versions.

Chapter 7. XP-39E, pages 62-63. This version was proposed to improve the performance of the P-39. Two aircraft were built featuring a larger engine, square-cut wing tips, and a lengthened fuselage, After the first prototype was destroyed in a crash the program was canceled. Many of the lessons learned were used in the development of the P-63 Kingcobra.

Chapter 8. P-39F and P-39J, pages 66-73. The F version utilised an Aeroproducts propeller, Oldsmobile provided the 37 mm cannon rather than Colt, and twelve exhaust stacks were provided. The P-39F served in the Aleutian Islands campaign.

Several contemporary color images are included in this chapter.

Chapter 9. P-39K, pages 74-75. The Army AirCorps ordered 1800 P-39G's, but none were delivered due to the ever-changing criteria and component availability. The first group was designated P-39K and was built with an Allison V-1710-63 boasting 1325 HP compared to the J version's 1100 HP. Six of the K's were modified for photoreconnaissance missions and were designated P-39K-2-BE

Two pages and three black-and-white images adorn this chapter..

Chapter 10. P-39L, pages 76-81. The P-39G original order was broken down into models K through N. 250 P-39L's were built with some going to the Soviet Union, while others made their way to battle in New Guinea and North Africa.

Several color and black-and-white images, line drawings, and a color profile round out this chapter. Also included are several interior cockpit images.

Chapter 11. P-39M, pages 82-85. The P-39M was the third version spawned from the original G version requirements. An engine upgrade offered improved altitude performance for this version.

Black and white images complement this chapter.

Chapter 12. P-39N, pages 86-99. The P-39N was the last of the original G version requirements. Engine and propeller changes along with the reduction of fuel capacity and the addition of bulletproof glass were features of this model.

Several color along with black and white images, line drawings, and a color profile round out this chapter. Also included are interior cockpit images.

Chapter 13. P-39Q, pages 100-141. More P-39Q's were built than any other version, and it was the last version of the P-39. The Q included underwing pods. Most of these aircraft were provided to the Soviet, Free French and Italian co-belligerent air forces.

Several color and black-and-white images, line drawings, and a color profile round out this chapter. Also included are several interior cockpit images. Page 115 has a color image of a very well-worn and weathered P-39Q. The final pages included contemporary color images of the aircraft.

Chapter 14. TP-39, Pages 142-143. The TP-39 was the trainer version of the P-39 was probably one of the ugliest aircraft to be built. Enough said!


David Doyle is an author of over 200 books, his ground warfare books are noted for their thorough coverage of historic equipment and his celebrated ability to locate scarce vintage imagery. This publication offers a lot of details and information for the various versions of the P-39. The photos, both black and white and color are very clear and will offer the modeler a trove of details.

I enjoyed this book and recommend it for its wealth of information. My thanks to Casemate Publications and IPMS/USA for the opportunity to review and add this book to my reference library.


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