The Bell P-39 Airacobra was one of the principal American fighter aircraft in service when the United States entered World War II. The P-39 was used with great success by the Soviet Air Force, which scored the highest number of kills per pilot attributed to any U.S. fighter type.[N 2] Other major users of the type include the Free French, the Royal Air Force, the United States Army Air Forces, and the Italian Co-Belligerent Air Force.
Designed by Bell Aircraft, it had an innovative layout, with the engine installed in the center fuselage, behind the pilot, and driving a tractor propeller via a long shaft. It was also the first fighter fitted with a tricycle undercarriage. Although its mid-engine placement was innovative, the P-39 design was handicapped by the absence of an efficient turbo-supercharger, limiting it to low-altitude work. Together with the derivative P-63 Kingcobra, the P-39 was one of the most successful fixed-wing aircraft manufactured by Bell.
Design and development
Circular Proposal X-609
In February 1937, Lieutenant Benjamin S. Kelsey, Project Officer for Fighters at the United States Army Air Corps (USAAC), and Captain Gordon P. Saville, fighter tactics instructor at the Air Corps Tactical School, issued a specification for a new fighter via Circular Proposal X-609. It was a request for a single-engine high-altitude "interceptor" having "the tactical mission of interception and attack of hostile aircraft at high altitude". Despite being called an interceptor, the proposed aircraft's role was simply an extension of the traditional pursuit (fighter) role, using a heavier and more powerful aircraft at higher altitude. Specifications called for at least 1,000 lb of heavy armament including a cannon, a liquid-cooled Allison engine with a General Electric turbo-supercharger, tricycle landing gear, a level airspeed of at least 360 mph (580 km/h) at altitude, and a climb to 20,000 ft (6,100 m) within 6 minutes; the toughest set of specifications USAAC had presented to that date.[N 3] Although Bell's limited fighter design work had previously resulted in the unusual Bell YFM-1 Airacuda, the Model 12 proposal adopted an equally original configuration with an Allison V-12 engine mounted in the middle of the fuselage, just behind the cockpit, and a propeller driven by a shaft passing beneath the pilot's feet under the cockpit floor.
Bell XP-39 showing the position of the supercharger air intake.
The main purpose of this configuration was to free up space for the heavy main armament, a 37 mm (1.46 in) Oldsmobile T9 cannon firing through the center of the propeller hub for optimum accuracy and stability when firing. This happened because H.M. Poyer, designer for project leader Robert Woods, was impressed by the power of this weapon and pressed for its incorporation. This was unusual, because fighters had previously been designed around an engine, not a weapon system. Although devastating when it worked, the T9 had very limited ammunition, a low rate of fire, and was prone to jamming.
A secondary benefit of the mid-engine arrangement was to create a smooth and streamlined nose profile. Much was made of the fact that this resulted in a configuration “with as trim and clean a fuselage nose as the snout of a high velocity bullet”. Entry to the cockpit was through side doors (mounted on both sides of the cockpit) rather than a sliding canopy. Its unusual engine location and the long drive shaft caused some concern to pilots at first, but experience showed this was no more of a hazard in a crash landing than with an engine located forward of the cockpit. There were no problems with prop shaft failure.