Bell P-63 Kingcobra in the Soviet Union




The P-63 Kingcobra was a further development of the Aircobra. It had the same general arrangement as its predecessor. The Bell Aircraft designers somewhat increased its dimensions, and changed the tail unit and wing. Out of 3,303 Kingcobra fighters constructed from 1943 to 1945, 2,400 went to the Soviet Union.

In December 1943, the Bell Company sent detailed information about the new fighter to Moscow. In February 1944, representatives of Nil WS, engineer-pilots A. G. Kochetkov and F. P. Suprun, were sent to the U. S. to carry out all-round tests of the plane before its mass delivery to the Soviet Union.

Having crashed one Kingcobra during the spin-tests, Kochetkov managed to convince the Americans of the necessity to modify the airframe. The shipment of P-63s was planned to begin in the first half of 1944. Early that summer American ferry-pilots delivered the first Kingcobras to Fairbanks and began to train Soviet pilots on them. In Alaska only the squadron commanders of the ferrying aviation division were trained. All other pilots would master the new plane directly in their regiments at the front. The P-63 ferrying went along the Siberian ALS/B air route. The first plane was handed over in June 1944. Beginning in September 1944, while still in the American aircraft factory, the P-63A began to be painted with the symbol of the Soviet Air Forces-red stars with white edging.

The new fighter did not arrive at the front immediately since there was no Soviet aviation shortage at that time. This permitted careful flight testing of the P-63. From the end of 1944 until March 1945, the planes of the series A-1, A-5, A-7 and A-10 were consecutively tested in Nil WS and LII NKAP (“Letno Ispytael’nyi Institut Narodnogo Kommissariata Aviatsionnoi Promyshlennosti/ Flying-Test Institute of People’s Commissariat of Aviation Industry). On the whole, the P-63 performed well. Among its positive attributes were: high speed, good maneuverability, powerful weapons, and safe controls.

The P-63A was at a speed disadvantage to the Messerschmitt Me 109G-4 (9 km/h at a height 5,000 meters) and in rate-of-climb (2 m/sec) at the same height. But in horizontal maneuver the American fighter outstripped both the Me 109G- 4 and Focke-Wulf FW 190A-4.

Testing revealed other lacks compared with P-39s: the P-63’s useful loading and fuel capacity were lower and its defensive armor was not as good. Also, wing covering deformation appeared on the A-1, A-5 and A-6 series aircraft. Consequently, Bell increased the thickness of the covering and strengthened the wings from the A-7 series on. The aerodynamic instability also emerged while pulling-out and during aerobatics. The latter problem was addressed on the P-63N with the installation of a more powerful engine, the V-1710-117, and a ventral fin. Despite all of the designers’ efforts, both the Kingcobra and Aircobra suffered from spins. When the cannon and fuselage machine guns ammunition were spent, the trim of the planes was disturbed, requiring immediate correction by trimming the tabs. Otherwise, the P-63 went into a spin. Therefore, Soviet pilots flying the Kingcobra were forbidden to execute a sharp pull-out and input in vertical figures.

Beginning in the spring of 1945, the P-63 began to arrive at frontline PVO aviation units. The P-63 was best suited for search and interception missions. At altitudes above 7,500 meters, the Kingcobra overtook English Spitfire Mk. IX and Soviet Lavochkin La-7. It had good ceiling of 13,105 meters. The standard equipment of all P-63 was radio semi-compass MN-26Y, that essentially facilitated navigation at night and in clouds. Early in 1945 one P-63-A-10 arrived, equipped with radar. The radar was intended to prevent attacks from behind. By May 1, 1945 51 PVO regiments were equipped with P-63s.

The initial Kingcobras went to units that had been armed with Aircobras. The first to receive P-63s was the 28th IAP of PVO, based near Moscow. By August 1945, P-63s arrived at the 17th and the 821st IAPs, ten planes in each. In autumn several Kingcobras came to the 39th IAP. All these regiments entered PVO of the Moscow region.

The P-63 began to be delivered in to Soviet Air Forces in the summer of 1945. As preparations were made for the war with Japan, the new fighters were sent to aviation units of the 12th Air Army in the Far East. The 190th aviation division under the command of Major General Fokin was the first to receive P-63A. The division was transferred to Trans-Baikal in June 1945 and by August 2 finished retraining on the new American fighter. During air operations in Manchuria it flew from two airfields-“Ural” and “Leningrad”-located not far from Choibolsan in Mongolia.

The 245th IAD, which included the 940th and the 781st IAP regiments also flew P-63s. In July and August Kingcobras arrived at the 128th SAD (mixed aviation division), based on Kamchatka peninsula. At the beginning of air operations 97 P-63s arrived at the 9th and the 10th Air Armies.

During the brief military campaign against Japan, Kingcobras were used to provide air cover from air ground troops and ships, to attack and bomb, provide escort, and conduct reconnaissance. For example, on the second day of the offensive 40 11-4 bombers, escorted by 50 P-63s bombed the fortifications at Suchzhou. Pilots of the 190th and the 245th IADs working as attack planes and light bombers supported the advancing Soviet and Mongolian troops. They also covered transport planes, delivering fuel to the advanced tank and mechanized units. The P-63s carried two Soviet FAB-100 bombs externally. Underwing large-caliber machine guns were not usually mounted. The 888th and the 410th IAPs from the Kamchatka peninsula inflicted considerable damage to Japanese bases on the Kuril Islands, and then covered the landing of Soviet troops on them.

The Japanese aircraft did not offer serious resistance to the advancing Soviet armies, therefore it was impossible to assess the Kingcobra’s performance in air combat. One unique air combat in a P-63 was flown by Junior Lieutenant I. F Mirishnichenko of the 17th IAP. On August 17 he and V. F. Sirotin (a Hero of the Soviet Union) attacked two Japanese fighters, who were attacking transport planes coming in for a landing not far from the ship Vanemyao. One Japanese pilot was shot down, another managed to disappear on low-level flight among nearby bills. Miroshnichenko probably shot down the Japanese Ki-43 Hayabusa fighters.

Concurrently, the first P-63s arrived at the 7th IAD naval aviation unit of the Pacific Ocean Fleet. At the beginning of the war with Japan, the division had only 10 Kingcobras. Another twenty arrived during the battle actions. However, they didn’t participate in combat operations.

The lease of the American fighters to the Soviet mission in Alaska stopped immediately after Japan’s capitulation. The last Kingcobra was delivered to Kamchatka peninsula on September 29, 1945. The Soviet Union managed to receive 2,400 P-63 of the total 2,450 ordered. After the war the most advanced lend-lease fighter occupied a firm position in Soviet aviation. Kingcobras were sent not only to aviation units in the USSR, but also to Soviet occupation armies in Germany (the 1st Guard IAD in Neuhausen), Austria, China (the 83d IAK in Port-Arthur). The exact number of P-63s in Soviet naval aviation is not known, but there were many of them Kingcobras came in aviation regiments of the North and Black Sea Fleets, earlier armed with P-39 Aircobra. Pilots of the 314th and the 246th IAPs flew on these planes in the Baltic Fleet.

Soviet pilots liked the P-63 for its ease of operation, and spacious, heated cabin with a perfect view, good devices and a shooting sight. However, after 1948 the problem of engine wear appeared. It was forbidden to fly the planes at extreme speeds. This edict was enforced by locking the throttle limiter quadrant. Kingcobras remained in action right up to the introduction of jet fighters. Their replacement began in 1950. In the end they played the important role in training pilots on jet engineering fighters MiG-9, and then MiG-15. Like the P-63, the jet fighters had a similar undercarriage with a nose-wheel. All Soviet fighters had an undercarriage of the old circuit with tailwheel. Here and there the task was sometimes complicated. For example, the landing approach was mastered without releasing the landing flaps at speeds of 400-500 km/b, imitating the MiG-15. When P-63s were removed from the inventory of combat units, they still remained in flying schools, as transitional plane.

The two-seat trainer variants of P-63 were produced in the USSR. Their first variants were made by hand air workshops and repair bases. The standard project of alteration was offered by TsNEB WS (Tsentral’naya Nauchno-Experimentalnaya Baza Voenno-Vozdushnykh Sil/ Central Scientific-Experimental Base of Air Forces). The second cabin was placed instead of weapon bay. One machine gun was preserved to perform exercises in aerial gunnery. One two-seat P-63, altered by the 321st repair base, between December 1948 and April 1949 passed tests in Nil WS. V. E. Golofastov flew it. The changes in alignment improved antispin characteristics of the plane. Program of tests included also parachute jumps to prove the safety of leaving the faulty plane. The jumps were done by the well-known parachutist V. G. Romanyuk. After that began a mass alteration of fighters into an educational variant on repair bases of air armies and fleet began. At present only one plane has been preserved in Russia. This strange hybrid of a P-39 and P-63 assembled from fragments of several planes that crashed on the Siberian air route ALSIB, is displayed in the Air Forces museum in Monino.

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