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Bell P-39Q Airacobra

Updated: Jun 27

My last model was supposed to be a quick job, but it turned out quite differently. It became my longest build ever (yes, I took two long breaks from the hobby in the meantime), but there was still a lot of work involved. This time, I've carefully chosen a simpler and smaller model for a quicker build. I decided to use an older Eduard model of the American fighter - the P-39Q Airacobra.

Design and Development

The P-39Q Airacobra was one of the few aircraft from Bell that introduced innovative ideas and unique features. The Airacobra was essentially built around the 37mm Colt M4 cannon, designed by the Browning Arms Company. Apart from the P-39, this cannon was only mounted on the P-63 Kingcobra. Generally, pilots disliked it because of its low muzzle velocity (2000 ft/s). Nevertheless, the cannon, along with additional machine guns in the nose of the aircraft, provided very powerful armament for that time.

Due to the size and space needed for the cannon and the decision to use tricycle landing gear, Chief Designer Robert Woods chose to place the engine in the center of the airframe. This engine position required a 3-meter-long shaft and gears to run under the pilot, connecting the engine to the propeller.

The XP-39 Airacobra prototype debuted at Wright Field on April 6, 1939, and from the start, it performed exceptionally well at high altitudes. In its first run, the prototype reached a speed of 390 mph, and in subsequent tests, it nearly hit 400 mph. The fighter also had an impressive climb rate, reaching 20,000 feet in just 5 minutes. This outstanding performance was primarily due to the Allison V-1710 engine with the new B-5 turbocharger. Additionally, the prototype was unarmed and lacked armor and self-sealing fuel tanks, which contributed to its lightweight and speed.

However, the airframe had its flaws. The small fin caused problems with longitudinal stability, and the chosen aerofoil section was not ideal for the higher end of the aircraft's speed range. While the plane was undergoing tests at Wright Field, NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) engineers determined that the air intakes created excessive drag and had them removed. The cockpit was lowered, the wings were clipped, and the fuselage was stretched. Most importantly, the original engine was replaced with a less powerful Allison engine featuring a single-stage mechanical supercharger. These modifications, along with the addition of armament, self-sealing fuel tanks, and armor, significantly degraded the fighter's performance - attempts to improve the aircraft inadvertently removed several of its original advantages.

After entering operational service, the aircraft gained a reputation as a dangerous machine, primarily due to its weight distribution. With a heavily loaded nose (full of ammunition), the weight was concentrated near the aircraft's center of gravity, resulting in excellent maneuverability at low altitudes. However, firing off all the heavy cannon ammunition altered the weight distribution, potentially causing the pilot to induce a dangerous flat spin. Additionally, gun fumes tended to collect in the cockpit, and firing all the weapons would disrupt the magnetic compass reading.

Despite these issues, the Russians were quite satisfied with the Airacobra's performance and handling. Most of the combat on the Eastern Front occurred at altitudes below 20,000 feet, which likely contributed to the decision to dispatch a large portion of the P-39s produced to that theatre.

Versions & Service

were completed for further evaluation and testing. It was not until the P-39D version that the aircraft became combat-ready. This version featured a bulletproof windshield, armor protection for the pilot, self-sealing fuel tanks, and was armed with four wing-mounted 0.30-inch machine guns, two fuselage-mounted 0.50-inch machine guns, and a 37mm cannon. Subsequent versions included the F, J, K, L, and M, but the first model produced in large numbers was the P-39N, with over 2,000 units built. The next in line was the P-39Q, the last and most produced version, with just over 4,000 units built. On July 25, 1944, P-39 production ceased, with a total of 9,558 units produced.

The Airacobra saw combat in the Southwest Pacific, Mediterranean, and Soviet theaters. In Europe, it was used by the UK, France, and later in the war, Italy and Portugal. The P-39 also served in North Africa with units of the USAAF and other countries. Initially, the UK ordered almost 400 P-39Ds. The British Airacobra was identical to the American P-39D except for the cannon, with the original 37mm replaced by a Hispano 20mm. Ultimately, only No. 601 Squadron RAF flew them. This was mainly because British expectations were based on the prototype's performance before all the changes were implemented. When it became apparent that the performance of the non-turbo-supercharged production airframe was often inferior to existing aircraft like the Hawker Hurricane or Supermarine Spitfire, most of the ordered examples were either sent to the Soviet Union or requisitioned by the USAAF. After Pearl Harbor, the USA urgently needed aircraft. The examples originally manufactured for the UK but adopted by the USA were designated P-400.

46th over Kanton Atoll

The 46th Fighter Squadron was formed in the Hawaiian Islands on December 1, 1940. Along with the 45th and 47th Fighter Squadrons, it became part of the 15th Fighter Group of the 7th Air Force. The Fighter Group saw its first combat during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. At that time, the group was equipped with Curtiss P-36 Hawks and P-40B Tomahawks. Throughout 1942, the group conducted intensive fighter patrols over Hawaii, primarily for operational training, as there was almost no enemy activity in the region. That same year, the 45th and 47th Squadrons were gradually re-equipped with the latest P-40E and P-40N Warhawks, while the 46th Squadron began operating Bell P-39D and Q Airacobras.

After the successful Guadalcanal campaign, during which P-400s were deployed as part of the Cactus Air Force, the 15th Fighter Group was transferred to the Central Pacific theater. On March 27, 1943, the first P-39Q Cobras of the 46th Squadron landed on Kanton Atoll in the Phoenix archipelago, located 1,000 miles east of the Gilbert Islands. Over the next nine months, the pilots of the 46th conducted long patrols over the Phoenix archipelago but encountered no enemy aircraft. Even for long-range reconnaissance, Japanese aircraft found Kanton Atoll too distant from the ongoing combat. In December 1943, the pilots were relieved to learn that Operation Galvanic had been successful, despite heavy losses, and Makin Island had been captured. This meant that the 46th Squadron would be transferred closer to the front lines, with the Gilbert Islands as their next destination.

Bell P-39Q Airacobra, Eduard 1:48

This kit was released by Eduard in 2021, but the molds themselves are over 20 years old! The first model was released in 2000, and it was the P-400 version of the aircraft. It has been reissued many times with new parts and decals and under different brands like Accurate Miniatures and Academy. While Eduard's brand-new releases of aircraft have more and better-detailed parts, this kit is still quite good. Considering the molds are 20 years old, the details look really good and crisp. There is a small number of ejector pin marks, mostly in places that will be hidden from view. I also can't see any sink marks. There are some blemishes here and there, but they can easily be corrected with a quick sanding without destroying any surrounding details.

Inside the box, we find three dark grey plastic sprues and one with clear parts. Additionally, there are decals covering four different schemes and a standard A4 instruction booklet. Color call-outs, as always with Eduard, are for Gunze and Mission Models paints.

For this build, I’m aiming for a quick assembly, so I won’t be displaying the engine, flaps, gun bays, or other internal parts of the aircraft. I will focus on the cockpit, which is quite visible through the rather large windows. For the first time, I will try using 3D decals for the cockpit. I’m eager to see the results. Besides that, I decided to use a few more aftermarket sets. Check the list below:

- Eduard 648958 P-39 Exhaust Stacks

- Eduard 648957 P-39 Seat

- Eduard 648203 P-39 Wheels Late

- Eduard FE1158 P-39Q Weekend

- Quinta Studio QD48034 P-39Q/N 3D-Printed & Colored Interior

- Eduard EX702 P-39/P-400 TFace

- HGW Models P-39 Airacobra harness

For reference, I will use the Yellow Series book by Artur Juszczak and Robert Pęczkowski - Bell P-39 Airacobra. This book contains detailed information about airframe design, technical details, and descriptions of all versions, as well as a large number of close-up shots of restored airframes. It offers much more information than required for this particular build.

Bell P-39Q-1-BE Airacobra/42-19467

The principal difference between the Bell P-39Q and earlier versions was in the fighter's armament. The four wing-mounted 0.30-inch machine guns were replaced by two 0.50-inch machine guns, each with a capacity of 300 rounds, mounted in fairings underneath each wing. The two fuselage-mounted 0.50-inch machine guns with 200 rounds per gun and the hub-mounted 37mm cannon with 30 rounds were retained. The Q version was equipped with an Allison V-1710-85 engine producing 1200 hp.

The airframe serial 42-19467, which I am going to recreate in scale, belonged to the 46th Fighter Squadron, 15th Fighter Group of the 7th Air Force. I will reproduce the aircraft as it was stationed on Kanton Atoll in the last months of 1943.

Due to the environmental conditions on the island, which lacked almost any vegetation, the Airacobras were repainted with a sand color on the upper and side surfaces, while the lower surfaces were painted light blue.

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