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The Bell P-39 Airacobra in the RCAF

The Bell P-39 Airacobra in the RCAF

P-39 RCAFBy Bill Zuk

In 1939, as war clouds brewed over Europe and the Far East, Canada was ill-prepared for war. The RCAF, in particular, relied on a handful of obsolete Grumman Goblin 1 two-seat biplanes as front line fighters, although Canada Car and Foundry in Fort William (where the Chief Engineer Elsie MacGill became known as the “Queen of the Hurricanes”) had already started the production of a small run of Hawker Hurricanes. Eventually 1,300 Hurricane Mk X series were manufactured, but the orders were intended for RAF use.

In mid-May 1940, Canadian and US officers watched comparative tests of a Curtiss XP-40 prototype and a production standard Supermarine Spitfire Mk 1, at RCAF Uplands. Ottawa. While the Spitfire was considered to have performed better, it was not available for use in Canada, and the RCAF still wanted to consider other alternatives.

Throughout the early stages of the Second World War, the growing tension between Japan and the US resulted in the need to strengthen and upgrade Canada's Western Air Command. With all available Hurricanes committed to Europe, orders for 144 Bell P-39 Airacobra fighter aircraft had been placed to fulfill the fighter defence role in this theatre.

CAHS Vol 42  No4The Bell P-39 had a curious genesis, designed as an interceptor and incorporating the latest technology, yet handicapped by a decision to delete the turbo-supercharger that had made the prototype a world-beater. The innovative design was the first fighter in history with a tricycle undercarriage and the first to have the engine installed in the center fuselage, behind the pilot, creating a streamlined, futuristic fighter. Despite the performance of the XP-39 reaching nearly 400 mph at 20,000 ft in tests, USAAC officials and company founder Larry Bell made a fateful decision to rely on the single-stage, single-speed supercharger that effectively limited the new fighter to a low-altitude role.

On April 3, 1940, an order for 200 P-39s were placed by Armée de l'Air but were undelivered when France capitulated, leading to the RAF taking over the consignment in September 1940, adding to the total order of 675 Bell Model 14s (Bell P-39D), initially named “Caribou”, later to be redesignated as the Airacobra 1. Test results were disappointing, falling below that of the current Hurricane and Spitfires in service with inadequate rate of climb and performance at altitude, adding to a plethora of other concerns, none more troubling then a cramped cockpit and poor egress in the event of bailout. The operational debut of the Bell fighter with No. 601 Squadron was limited to one combat sortie flown, against enemy barges at Dunkirk, before the type was retired. All remaining Airacobras, redesignated P-400s, were diverted to US Pacific fighter squadrons.

Although not related to the RCAF eventual cancellation of its order, the RAF’s rejection of the Bell Airacobra must have played a role in acquiring the Curtis P-40 Kittyhawk fighter that was ordered to meet home air defense requirements. In all, eight Home War Establishment Squadrons were equipped with the Kittyhawk: 72 Kittyhawk I, 12 Kittyhawk Ia, 15 Kittyhawk III and 35 Kittyhawk IV aircraft, for a total of 134 aircraft. These aircraft were mostly diverted from RAF Lend-Lease orders for service in Canada and arrived in time to see duty in the Aleutians and Alaska.

In 1942, the Imperial Japanese Navy occupied Attu and Kiska in the Aleutian Island chain and Nos. 14, 111 and 118 squadrons flying the Kittyhawk I were involved in the drawn-out campaign. On 25 September 1942, S/L Boomer shot down an A6M2-N “Rufe” fighter at Kiska. During the final stages of Japanese attacks against North America, RCAF Kittyhawks would shoot down a total of three balloon bombs.

Bell P-39s were fated never to serve with the RCAF, although thousands would eventually make their way through Canada via the Northwest Staging Route airfields as the fighters made their way to the USSR, where the fighter would eventually make its mark as a premiere low-altitude dogfighter.

For more information on the Curtiss P-40 in Canadian service, see: “The P-40 in RCAF Service” by Hugh Halliday, CAHS Journal, Volume 4, No. 2, Summer 1966. A cover illustration, “Red Stars over Edmonton” by Tony Cashman, is in the CAHS Journal, Volume 42, No. 4, Winter 2004 showing Bell P-39s in Russian markings over Edmonton’s Legislative Building.