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The Smithsonian’s P-39 Airacobra

The Smithsonian’s P-39Q-15-BE

The Smithsonian’s P-39Q-15-BE, serial number 44-2433, is currently on loan to the Niagara Aerospace Museum in Niagara Falls, New York. The aircraft doesn’t have a combat history. The USAAF took delivery of the aircraft on November 14, 1943. It served with the 369th Fighter Group, a training unit, at Hamilton Field, California. The plane served at Moses Lake, Paine Field, and McChord Washington from August 30 – November 29, 1944. It was dropped from the USAAF inventory on December 6, 1944. [i]

P.J. “Sep” Mighton and Earl Ortman bought this P-39 to enter it in the National Air Races at Cleveland, Ohio. Ortman decided he wanted to fly a P-51 Mustang in that race. They hired Charles W. Bing to race the P-39 in for the Sohio Trophy. This race took place on August 31, 1946. Bing and the P-39 came in last. Former Women’s Air Service Pilot (WASP) Elizabeth Haas bought the P-39 for $750[ii] and registered it as NX57591 on December 4, 1946. She named the aircraft “Galloping Gertie”. She attempted to fly it in the National Air Races in 1948 but “Galloping Gertie” failed to qualify. She lent “Galloping Gertie” to the National Air Museum in 1950. She donated it permanently to the National Air Museum in 1956. The National Air & Space Museum (NASM) loaned the aircraft to the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) Museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The repainted the aircraft with USAAF markings. The EAA returned the aircraft to the NASM in 1984. The NASM kept it at the Paul E. Garber Facility in Silver Hill, MD. In 1999 the NASM loaned it to the Niagara Aerospace Museum. [iii]

[i] National Air & Space Museum web site (http://airandspace.si.edu/collections/artifact.cfm?object=nasm_A19560019000) last accessed 2/13/2016.

[ii] New York Times, December 3, 2011, by Dennis Hevesi, (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/04/us/betty-haas-pfister-dies-at-90-wartime-pilot-with-passion-for-flight.html?_r=0) last accessed 2/13/2016.

[iii] National Air & Space Museum web site (http://airandspace.si.edu/collections/artifact.cfm?object=nasm_A19560019000) last accessed 2/13/2016.

The P-39 Airacobra

The first Airacobra, the XP-39, made its first flight on April 6, 1939. It was equipped with a turbo-supercharged Allison engine and reached a speed of 390 mph (627.9 kph). This was an impressive speed for 1939. The National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA) recommended a list of modifications. One accepted modification was the removal of the turbo-supercharger.[i] This hurt the P-39’s high altitude performance.

The P-39 had a car door type access to the cockpit rather than the opening canopy. It had tricycle landing gear. It had a rear mounted engine. Its armament included a 37mm cannon which gave it enormous firepower. The engine position and 37mm cannon recoil gave it some troublesome characteristics when flying in combat.

The P-39 was unpopular with USAAF pilots. An exception is test pilot and fighter ace General Chuck Yeager. He said he “would have gladly flown it off to war.”[ii] The RAF received some P-39s and didn’t like them. They gave some of them back to the USAAF where they served in the 350th Fighter Group. The rest they gave to The Soviet Union. The P-39 was popular with WASP pilots. WASP pilot Bobby Willis Heinrich explained, “We liked it because it kept us away from the base.”[iii] Only one of the 38 WASP pilots who died during the war was killed in a P-39. On June 11, 1944 Dorothy Mae “Dottie” Nicholas crashed in her Airacobra shortly after takeoff. Hazel Ah Ying Lee, another WASP pilot, was killed a P-63 Kingcobra which was the P-39’s successor. ”[iv] The P-63 accident was a mid-air collision where neither Lee nor her aircraft were at fault.

[i] National Air & Space Museum web site (http://airandspace.si.edu/collections/artifact.cfm?object=nasm_A19560019000) last accessed 2/13/2016.

[ii] Yeager, by General Chuck Yeager and Leo Janos, © 1985 by Yeager, Inc.

[iii] The Mobile in Mobilization, by Tim Wright, Air & Space Magazine, September 2011, http://www.airspacemag.com/military-aviation/the-mobile-in-mobilization-42636053/?no-ist.

[iv] The Mobile in Mobilization, by Tim Wright, Air & Space Magazine, September 2011, http://www.airspacemag.com/military-aviation/the-mobile-in-mobilization-42636053/?no-ist.

P-39 in Combat

In January and February 1943 the 350th Fighter Group’s 75 P-39s flew from their stations in England to Port Lyautey, French Morocco. 13 aircraft landed in neutral countries and their pilots were interned. In a hunter became the hunted situation a Ju-88 of KG-40 shot down a P-39 and the Airacobra pilot was killed.[i]

KG-40 launched 21 He-177s against convoy KMF 26 on November 26, 1943. The P-39s of 350th Fighter Group were among the units defending the convoy. The 350th didn’t score any kills. The Spitfires of the French GC 1/7 shot down at least 4 of the 6 He-177s that were shot down that day.[ii] The Spitfires also claimed 2 probable kills and 4 damaged so it is possible the GC 1/7 accounted for all the He-177s lost to fighters that day. The battle wasn’t all one sided an Hs-293 glide bomb sank the troop transport Rohna and over 1,000 of the troops drowned.

Lt. Colonel Boyd D. “Buzz” Wagner, the first USAAF ace, shot down 3 Japanese Zeros on April 30, 1942 while flying a P-39.[iii] 2nd Lieutenant William F. Fiedler was the only American pilot to become a P-39 ace. He shot down 5 Japanese aircraft from January to June 1943. He was killed on June 30, 1943 when a P-38 Lightning stuck his P-39 as Fielder was waiting to take off.[iv]

The P-39 would have been written off as a flop had they not been given to The Soviet Union. The Russian Front had extremely harsh conditions for flying and fighting. The Russian Front gave the P-39 the distinction of shooting down more enemy aircraft than any other U.S. built aircraft. Airacobras also produced higher scoring aces than any other U.S. or UK built aircraft. Aleksander I. Pokryshkin shot down 48 aircraft while flying P-39s. His total score was 59. Captain Grigori A. Rechkalov shot down 44 aircraft with P-39s. His total score was 58.[v] Many top Soviet Aces scored many of their victories while flying Airacobras. The Soviet Air Force proved in capable hands the P-39 was a formidable weapon.

[i] Ciel De Gloire, 350th Fighter Group, http://www.cieldegloire.com/fg_350.php last accessed 2/14/2016.

[ii] Ciel De Glorie, GC 1/7, http://www.cieldegloire.com/gc_1_07.php last accessed 2/14/2016.

[iii] Acepilots.com, Lt. Col. Boyd “Buzz” Wagner, by Stephen Sherman, December 2002, updated August 1, 2012, http://acepilots.com/pto/wagner.html last accessed 2/14/2016.

[iv] Flying the P-39 Airacobra in the Pacific Posed Challenges, by Robert F. Dorr, September 2, 2012, http://www.defensemedianetwork.com/stories/flying-the-p-39-airacobra-in-the-pacific-posed-challenges/ last accessed 2/14/2016.

[v] Fighter Aces by Christopher Shores © The Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited 1975.

Special Thanks

Thanks to Mike Marshall who gave invaluable information relevant to this article.

P-39 and P-47 Statistics

Source: Vintage Aircraft Recognition Guide by Tony Holmes (c) HarpersCollins Publishers 2005.


Max Speed




650 miles

2,350 miles

Engine Horsepower




1x37mm Cannon and 2x50 caliber MG and 2-4 30 cal MG

8x50 cal MG

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Robert Sacchi


Robert Sacchi (author) on May 02, 2016:

Thank you for the suggestion.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on May 02, 2016:

You certainly do tell us a lot about certain types of airplanes and those who flew them! Interesting that the Russians had great success flying the P39s. You should write an entire article about the value of the WASP pilots if you have not already. They are an important part of history and were ground breaking at that time.

Robert Sacchi (author) on March 04, 2016:

Definitely, pilot skill makes all the difference.

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on March 04, 2016:

Maybe the P39 story shows that not only are the Machines capabilities important but the pilots too!

In the right hands the P39 became lethal.

Enjoyed this hub.