The Bell P-63 Kingcobra – All Hail The King!

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.

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Commemorative Air Force USAAF 1943 Bell P-63F Kingcobra (Serial Number 43-11719) – Corsicana Airsho 2019, Corsicana Texas

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.

USAAF & Soviet Air Force Bell P-63 Kingcobra fighters
USAAF & Soviet Air Force Bell P-63 Kingcobra fighters. The Soviet example has been named “Little Toots”, which would have been applied in the United States before it’s ferry flight to Siberia – note it is also fitted with long range fuel drop tanks (USAAF photos)

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!

USAAF 1942 Bell P-39N Airacobra (Serial Number 42-8740) at the Yanks Air Museum in Chino, California in 2013.
For comparison – An airworthy USAAF 1942 Bell P-39N Airacobra (Serial Number 42-8740) at the Yanks Air Museum in Chino, California in 2013. This example was recovered from the old landing strip at Tadji in New Guinea and restored over a nine year period (completed 2002).
Soviet Air Force Bell P-63A Kingcobra (Serial Number 42-68875) at the Russian Air Force Museum in Monino in 2007
Soviet Air Force Bell P-63A Kingcobra (Serial Number 42-68875) at the Russian Air Force Museum in Monino in 2007. The variances in design are noticeable from the P-39 including the taller tail fin and four bladed propeller

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.

USAAF Bell P-63E Kingcobra (Serial Number 43-11728) was donated to the National Museum of the US Air Force by the Bell Aircraft Corporation in 1958 - although not used in the role and lacking the extra armour, it is painted in the orange livery of a RP-63A "Pinball" flying target aircraft - Photo taken during my visit to the museum in Dayton, Ohio in 2009
USAAF Bell P-63E Kingcobra (Serial Number 43-11728) was donated to the National Museum of the US Air Force by the Bell Aircraft Corporation in 1958 – although not used in the role and lacking the extra armour, it is painted in the orange livery of a RP-63A “Pinball” flying target aircraft – Photo taken during my visit to the museum in Dayton, Ohio in 2009
USAAF Bell P-63E Kingcobra (Serial Number 43-11728) was donated to the National Museum of the US Air Force by the Bell Aircraft Corporation in 1958 - although not used in the role and lacking the extra armour, it is painted in the orange livery of a RP-63A "Pinball" flying target aircraft - Photo taken during my visit to the museum in Dayton, Ohio in 2009
USAAF Bell P-63E Kingcobra (Serial Number 43-11728) at the National Museum of the US Air Force in Dayton, Ohio in 2009

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.

The airworthy Bell P-63A Kingcobra (s/n 42-69080) "Fatal Fang" at the Yanks Air Museum in Chino, California in 2013.
The airworthy Bell P-63A Kingcobra (s/n 42-69080) “Fatal Fang” at the Yanks Air Museum in Chino, California in 2013. This aircraft served with various USAAF units in Oregon, California and Washington between 1944 and 1945. The museum acquired and restored the P-63 from the Bob Bean Collection in 1978.
The airworthy Bell P-63A Kingcobra (s/n 42-69080) "Fatal Fang" at the Yanks Air Museum in Chino, California in 2013.
The airworthy Bell P-63A Kingcobra (s/n 42-69080) “Fatal Fang” at the Yanks Air Museum in Chino, California in 2013.
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USAAF Bell P-63A Kingcobra (s/n 42-69080) “Fatal Fang” at the Yanks Air Museum in Chino, California in 2013.
USAAF Bell P-63A Kingcobra "Pretty Polly" (s/n 42-68864), the fourth produced - Palm Springs Air Museum, California 2015
USAAF Bell P-63A Kingcobra “Pretty Polly” (s/n 42-68864), the fourth produced – Palm Springs Air Museum, California 2015
In flight USAAF Bell P-63A Kingcobra "Pretty Polly" (s/n 42-68864) from the Palm Springs Air Museum, California 2015
USAAF Bell P-63A Kingcobra “Pretty Polly” (s/n 42-68864) from the Palm Springs Air Museum, California 2015
USAAF Bell P-63A Kingcobra "Pretty Polly" (s/n 42-68864) at the Palm Springs Air Museum, California in 2015
USAAF Bell P-63A Kingcobra “Pretty Polly” (s/n 42-68864) at the Palm Springs Air Museum, California in 2015
USAAF Bell P-63A Kingcobra "Pretty Polly" (s/n 42-68864) at the Palm Springs Air Museum, California in 2015
USAAF Bell P-63A Kingcobra “Pretty Polly” (s/n 42-68864) at the Palm Springs Air Museum, California in 2015 – A nice looking machine
Bell P-63A Kingcobra (s/n 42-70609) was recovered from the battlefield of the Kuril Islands - Military Aviation Museum in Virginia Beach, VA in 2013
A Soviet veteran with Lenin – Bell P-63A Kingcobra (s/n 42-70609) was recovered from the battlefield of the Kuril Islands – Military Aviation Museum in Virginia Beach, VA in 2013
Soviet Air Force Bell P-63A Kingcobra (s/n 42-70609) recovered from the battlefield of the Kuril Islands and restored - Military Aviation Museum in Virginia Beach, VA in 2013
Soviet Air Force Bell P-63A Kingcobra (s/n 42-70609) recovered from the battlefield of the Kuril Islands and restored – Military Aviation Museum in Virginia Beach, VA in 2013
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Soviet Air Force Bell P-63A Kingcobra (Serial Number 42-68875) at the Russian Air Force Museum in Monino in 2007
Soviet Air Force Bell P-63C Kingcobra (Serial Number 44-4011) at the Museum of the Great Patriotic War in Moscow in 2007
Soviet Air Force Bell P-63C Kingcobra (Serial Number 44-4011) at the Museum of the Great Patriotic War in Moscow in 2007 (that was a cold, grey day!)
Legacy of Flight Museum Bell P-63C Kingcobra (S/N 43-11223) at Gunfighter Skies 2014 in Idaho (painted as P-63A S/N 42-69021)
Gunfighter Country – That big prop of the Legacy of Flight Museum Bell P-63C Kingcobra (S/N 43-11223) at Gunfighter Skies 2014 in Idaho (painted as P-63A S/N 42-69021)
Legacy of Flight Museum Bell P-63C Kingcobra (S/N 43-11223) on the tarmac at Mountain Home AFB during Gunfighter Skies 2014 in Idaho (painted as P-63A S/N 42-69021)
Legacy of Flight Museum Bell P-63C Kingcobra (S/N 43-11223) on the tarmac at Mountain Home AFB during Gunfighter Skies 2014 in Idaho (painted as P-63A S/N 42-69021)
Legacy of Flight Museum Bell P-63C Kingcobra (S/N 43-11223) at Gunfighter Skies 2014 in Idaho (painted as P-63A S/N 42-69021)
Legacy of Flight Museum Bell P-63C Kingcobra (S/N 43-11223) at Gunfighter Skies 2014 in Idaho (painted as P-63A S/N 42-69021)
Legacy of Flight Museum Bell P-63C Kingcobra (S/N 43-11223) at Gunfighter Skies 2014 in Idaho (painted as P-63A S/N 42-69021)
Legacy of Flight Museum Bell P-63C Kingcobra (S/N 43-11223) at Gunfighter Skies 2014 in Idaho (painted as P-63A S/N 42-69021). Before being restored in the 1990’s this Kingcobra sat abandoned for decades at Van Nuys Airport in California. It was originally going to be converted to an air racer but suffered some damage and basically just sat there from 1947 to 1973 until it was put into storage, where it stayed until 1996!
USAAF Bell P-63E Kingcobra (Serial Number 43-11728) was donated to the National Museum of the US Air Force by the Bell Aircraft Corporation in 1958 - although not used in the role and lacking the extra armour, it is painted in the orange livery of a RP-63A "Pinball" flying target aircraft - Photo taken during my visit to the museum in Dayton, Ohio in 2009
USAAF Bell P-63E Kingcobra (Serial Number 43-11728) was donated to the National Museum of the US Air Force by the Bell Aircraft Corporation in 1958 – although not used in the role and lacking the extra armour, it is painted in the orange livery of a RP-63A “Pinball” flying target aircraft – Photo taken during my visit to the museum in Dayton, Ohio in 2009
Bell P-63E Kingcobra (s/n 43-11727) at the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona in 2011. The fighter is on loan from the National Museum of the US Air Force.
Bell P-63E Kingcobra (s/n 43-11727) at the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona in 2011. The fighter is on loan from the National Museum of the US Air Force.
Bell P-63E Kingcobra (s/n 43-11727) at the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona in 2011. The fighter is on loan from the National Museum of the US Air Force.
Bell P-63E Kingcobra (s/n 43-11727) at the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona in 2011.
Commemorative Air Force Bell P-63F Kingcobra at the CAF Corsicana Airsho 2019
Commemorative Air Force Bell P-63F Kingcobra at the CAF Corsicana Airsho 2019. Only two of this variant with an enlarged vertical tail and Allison V-1710-135 engine were ever built – this one, the only survivor, S/N 43-11719 and 43-11722.
Commemorative Air Force Bell P-63F Kingcobra at the CAF Corsicana Airsho 2019.
Commemorative Air Force Bell P-63F Kingcobra at the CAF Corsicana Airsho 2019 in Texas
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Commemorative Air Force Bell P-63F Kingcobra puts on a great flying display at the CAF Corsicana Airsho 2019.
Commemorative Air Force Bell P-63F Kingcobra (S/N 43-11719) at the Wings Over Dallas WWII Air Show 2019 in Dallas, Texas
Commemorative Air Force Bell P-63F Kingcobra (S/N 43-11719) at the Wings Over Dallas WWII Air Show 2019 in Dallas, Texas

References

Air & Space Magazine – Just Shoot Me

Bell Aircraft – P-63 Kingcobra

Joe Baugher – Bell P-63 Kingcobra

National Museum of the US Air Force – Bell P-63E Kingcobra

Warbirds Resource Group – Bell Kingcobra

Wikipedia – Bell P-63 Kingcobra

15 thoughts on “The Bell P-63 Kingcobra – All Hail The King!

  1. Great post as always! I guess the P-63 was always the ‘forgotten big brother’ of the P-39, in a sense. What always gets me about both that and the P-39 is the ‘car door’ cockpit access. Very odd. (I once built a kit of a P-39 and finished it with the ‘door open’ option, which was a lot more trouble than it was really worth given the amount of detail I could get into the cockpit).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. We had a P-63 do an aerobatic routine at Thunder Over Michigan a few years back (Maybe the Legacy of Flight bird?)
    Really a nice display, not too different from a Mustang in flight. Very fast and agile. I don’t believe it had the range, but otherwise would be considered “modern” in the later war years.

    Liked by 1 person

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