The Bell P-63 Kingcobra first flew in December 1942 and was the successor to the Bell P-39 Airacobra. The Kingcobra featured significant improvements in design and performance but visually the most notable difference is the larger airframe and tail fin, along with the big four bladed propeller.
The Bell P-39 Airacobra and P-63 Kingcobra both featured a tricycle undercarriage, the unique cockpit car style doors (if the pilot had to bail out, they could be jettisoned by pulling a red lever in front of the door – otherwise they wouldn’t be easy to open in the airstream!) and a mid mounted engine behind the cockpit. The P-39 Airacobra lacked an engine supercharger though and suffered heavily in performance at high altitude. The Allison V1710 V-12 liquid cooled engine fitted to the P-63 Kingcobra resolved this issue with not only one supercharger but a second remotely mounted one, that could be engaged for extra power at higher altitude (apparently it wasn’t overly reliable though).
Although operated by the United States Army Air Force from October 1943, the P-63 was only deployed in combat during World War Two by the Soviet Air Force. The USAAF preferred the more powerful, reliable and significantly longer ranged Republic P-47 Thunderbolt and North American P-51D Mustang fighters. They were cheaper to build too!
3,303 P-63’s were produced between 1942 and 1945, of which 2,397 were supplied to the Soviet Union under the Lend Lease Act and ferried via the Alaska Siberia Route and Iran. The primary production series were the P-63A, C and E variants.
P-63’s saw service with the Soviet Air Force primarily in the Far East and were used in combat against the Japanese whom they declared war upon on August 8th, 1945. Noteable use of the P-63C Kingcobra included combat in the Manchukuo campaigns in Manchuria, on the Korean peninsula and missions flown by the 128th Composite Air Division during the invasion of the Kuril Islands. Although forbidden for use outside of the Far East under 1943 Lend Lease terms, it is rumoured Soviet P-63’s also saw combat against the Germans.The last Soviet P-63’s were not retired until 1953.
The Soviets were also the major operator of the P-39 Airacobra and praised the ruggedness and firepower of both aircraft types, which included a 37mm cannon firing through the propeller hub and a pair of nose cowl mounted 0.50 calibre machine guns plus another pair of 0.50 calibre guns in underwing gondolas (they could also carry underwing bombs and rockets). The Americans chose to operate the P-63A in stateside training roles and later to strip that armament out and use the Kingcobra in an important but unglamorous role in comparison to its grand name!
With the guns removed, painted bright orange, fitted with thickened cockpit glass and clad in extra armour plating, many of the poor old USAAF Bell P-63 Kingcobra’s were used from 1945 as piloted flying targets for bomber gunners who were firing special frangible bullets that would disintegrate upon impact! The intent was to simulate German fighters on the attack, to improve the aim of gunners headed for bombing missions over Europe.
These brightly clad Kingcobra’s, designated the RP-63, had sensors under the extra armour that would register bullet hits on a cockpit mounted counter. A red light mounted where the nose cannon used to be would light up every time the plane was hit, presumably to let the gunners know they had hit their mark (the pilot would also radio relay the score to the bomber crew)! Amusingly, as a result the RP-63’s became known as the “Flying Pinball Machine“!
300 aircraft were converted to RP-63 target aircraft (100 RP-63A and 200 RP-63C) – all were retired by 1948. 30 RP-63G “Pinball” aircraft were built in 1945 and 1946 as dedicated target aircraft and were fitted with lights along the fuselage and outer wings to indicate when target hits were made – they were in service until at least 1948.
Delivered too late to see combat service during World War Two, the French Air Force received 114 Bell P-63C Kingcobra fighters in 1945. They would go on to be deployed to Algeria and then be used in the ground attack role in French Indochina between 1949 and 1951, before being retired that same year (around 60 went to Indochina and apparently almost half of them were lost in action or due to accidents). The Honduran Air Force also operated 5 P-63E Kingcobra’s for a few years after World War Two.
Around 15 Bell P-63 Kingcobra fighters survive today and are mostly on display in museums or under restoration but 5 are airworthy and flown regularly in the United States (where most of the survivors can be found). The airworthy examples are 3 P-63A’s (s/n 42-68864 “Pretty Polly”, 42-68941“TEST” and 42-69080 “Fatal Fang”), a P-63C (s/n 43-11223) and the silver painted Commemorative Air Force P-63F which is a personal favourite of mine (when it comes to those car like cockpit doors, what’s not to like?)! It is always great to see these unique aircraft fly and I have managed to see 9 of the survivors to date.
The non flyers in the United States are a pair of P-63A’s (s/n 42-70609 and 42-70255 “Edyth Louise”), a pair of P-63E’s (s/n 43-11727 and 43-11728) and a “Pinball” RP-63C (s/n 43-11117) and RP-63G (s/n 45-57295). The other Kingcobra’s are located in the Honduras – a P-63E (s/n 43-11730), Russia where surprisingly only 2 survive – a P-63A and P-63C (s/n 42-68875 and 44-4011) and in the United Kingdom – a P-63C (s/n 43-11137). There are a few other incomplete airframes and a couple of postwar survivors have unfortunately been lost in accidents over the years too.