Home Articles Conversations with N.Golodnikov. Part Three. P-39 Airacobra and Yaks

Conversations with N.Golodnikov. Part Three. P-39 Airacobra and Yaks

by Andrey Suhorukov

N. G. Golodnikov in front of his Cobra. Severomorsk airfield. 1943.

A. S. When did you begin with the Cobra? On what types of Cobras were you trained? Did you have two-seaters?

N. G. You and the two-seater! No, we did not have a two-seater! Our airplanes arrived in large crates.

I started on the Cobra in November 1942. We received the first Cobras from Moscow, in containers. We assembled them and then were trained on them. These were P-39Qs, perhaps types-1 and -2, from the British order. [Apparently that should be Aircobra I – ed.]. They had yellow camouflage paint on them for North Africa. We trained hard. We had instructors and various types of written materials. Transition was conducted quickly, in five or six days.

Later they ferried Cobras to us or we picked them up in Krasnoyarsk. These were types Q-5, -10, -25, -30, and Q-35. These aircraft were made especially for the USSR. We fought the remaining period of the war only in Q models.

A. S. Did you like the Cobra?

N. G. We liked them. Especially the Q-5. This was the best fighter of all three in which I fought. Of the Cobras, this was the lightest.

A. S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, how did you like the cockpit?

N. G. After the P-40 it seemed kind of tight, but it was very comfortable.

Visibility from the cabin was outstanding. The instrument panel was very ergonomic, with the entire complement of instruments right up to an artificial horizon and radio compass. It even had a relief tube, in the shape of a funnel. If you wanted to piss, pull the tube out from under the seat and go for it.

It even had holders for pen and pencil.

The armored seat was sturdy and thick. The armored glass was also thick. The first models had armored glass in front and rear, but the armored seat lacked a head protector (the rear armored glass fulfilled this role). In the later models, somewhere beginning with the Q-25, the rear glass was not armored but the armored seat was equipped with a head protector.

The oxygen equipment was reliable, although the mask was quite small, only covering the nose and mouth. We wore this mask only at high altitude, above 20,000 feet. Normally it lay on one of the machine guns.

The radio set was powerful and reliable, HF. All American radio sets were HF. It received and transmitted very clearly.

A. S. Nikilay Gerasimovich, is it true that compared to the import cockpits, Soviet cockpits were uncomfortable?

N. G. That’s true to some degree. But a fighter airplane is not the lap of luxury. If the cockpits of our fighter planes were less plush, it wasn’t by much. At that time the difference wasn’t particularly obvious to me.

A. S. Describe the machine guns, cannon, and sights.

N. G. The first Cobras that we received from Moscow had a 20mm Hispano-Suiza cannon and two heavy Browning machine guns, synchronized and mounted in the nose.

Later the Cobras arrived with the M-6 [should be M-4 – ed.] 37mm cannon and with four machine guns, two synchronized and two wing-mounted. We quickly removed the wing-mounted machine guns, leaving one cannon and two machine guns.

The Cobras had interesting charging and trigger mechanisms for the cannon—hydraulic. At first, in the English variant of the Cobra, we had a lot of trouble with them. The hydraulics froze up. It seems that the Cobras had been intended for North Africa, because the hydraulic fluid was thick and clogged up the passages in the hydraulic cylinders. Our technicians replaced the hydraulic fluid with Soviet fluid and enlarged the diameter of the passages. The charging mechanism began to work normally. By the way, on these Cobras all the hydraulics froze, not just the charging mechanism.

The machine guns were charged mechanically, by hand, with a special handle. The receiver portion of the machine guns extended back into the cockpit. The triggers for the machine guns were electric.

The sight was American. A very simple sight—a reflector and crosshairs.

A. S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, if you compare the Hispano-Suiza 20mm cannon and the ShVAK, which was better in your opinion?

N. G. Ours, without a doubt. The ShVAK was twice as reliable. The Hispano simply required an unbelievable amount of maintenance. The smallest exposure to dust, congealed lubricant, or any other kind of little thing, and the gun would not fire. Very unreliable.

The ballistics of our cannon were better. Our cannon had a flatter trajectory, which is significant for applying lead. When you talk about the Yaks, then one didn’t even need a sight. The tracers were almost straight, take aim and fire, and where the nose is pointing is where the rounds struck.

Our ShVAK had a higher rate of fire.

Regarding the target effect, these two cannons were about equal. In either case, there was no difference that I could see with the human eye.

A. S. Was a 37mm cannon necessary? Wasn’t this too large a caliber for a fighter? You had so few rounds of ammunition. And wasn’t its rate of fire slow?

N. G. One cannot say that the 37mm cannon was a disadvantage or an advantage. Look at it from this perspective. The M-6 cannon had its strong and weak points. One had to take advantage of the strong points and compensate, as much as possible, for its weaknesses.

These were the weaknesses: 1. Low rate of fire. 8 rounds/second [this is incorrect—the correct rate is slightly over 2 rounds/second (130 rounds/minute) – J.G.] This is indeed a low rate of fire.

2. The ballistics of the projectile were abysmal. The flight trajectory of the projectile was arching, which required large lead angles. But again this was at long ranges, especially when firing at ground targets. When firing at ground targets we had to apply two rings of the sight for lead.

3. Minimal ammunition supply. Thirty rounds.

All these deficiencies could be compensated for by proper selection of firing range. If one fired from 70—50 meters, there was sufficient rate of fire, the ballistics at this range were acceptable, and the lead required was minimal. Thus, all the weaknesses of the 37mm cannon listed above revealed themselves only at long ranges.

Now regarding the strengths: 1. The projectile was very powerful. Normally, one strike on an enemy fighter and he was finished! In addition, we fired this cannon at other types of targets. Bombers, vessels at sea. The 37mm cannon was very effective against these targets.

Here is an example. Our patrol torpedo boats had torn apart a German convoy. The majority of them had in some way or other been damaged, but they were withdrawing. One patrol boat was heavily damaged and lagging behind a bit. German “hunter” boats were closing in on it. One of them moved in either to kill or capture it. There were eight of us; my squadron commander Vitya Maksimovich, had flown out in pair slightly ahead of us to reconnoiter the convoy and I was leading the other six. We were listening to the conversations of the PT boat crews (the PT boats, by the way, were American Higgins craft). The commander of the heavily damaged boat said, “They are on top of us!” My squadron commander said to him, “Don’t worry! I ‘ll get him now!” He dropped down and fired a burst of 37mm cannon. It was a pleasure to watch the German “hunter” go up in flames. Six Bf-109Fs were covering the convoy and supporting the attack on our PT boats. I engaged them with my group of six Cobras. We circled round and round. I shot down two Messerschmitts and damaged one (intelligence subsequently confirmed the damaged 109). Before we had even landed, the crew of the damaged PT boat reported by radio that one of the Cobras had shot down two Messers and another had set the German “hunter” on fire. This had all happened right in front of their eyes. Later Admiral A. V. Kuzmin, commander of the patrol torpedo boat brigade, personally expressed his appreciation to us. All our damaged PT boats made it back to their base.

Thus, a single burst of several 37mm projectiles was sufficient to set fire to or damage a “hunter-type” patrol vessel.

Here is another example. We were flying on a “free hunt” mission, four of us. I was the leader. We came upon a German tanker that we estimated at 3000—3500 tons. Most importantly, it was proceeding without escort! I gave the command, “Prepare to attack!” I dropped down and made my pass, firing a good burst. I pulled out at an altitude of 25 meters. He also fired back at me. OK, fine. My wingman made his pass on the target, then the leader of the second pair, and the fourth pilot reported, “It’s burning. I can’t see anything!” I responded, “OK, pull out, don’t engage.” We got a look at it, moving toward shore totally engulfed in flames. We flew back to our airfield and reported, “We set a tanker on fire, 3,500 tons.” And he replied, “Right. You set a tanker on fire with all of 38 rounds expended!” He didn’t believe what I was telling them. 38 rounds for 3,500 tons! I said to him, “Isn’t that enough? We put 38 rounds into that box!” At first everyone laughed at us, but later our agent intelligence gave us confirmation of that number. A German tanker of 3,500 tons displacement had been burned out. Everything fit. There you have it—38 rounds of 37mm cannon destroyed a 3,500-ton vessel!

2. The M-6 cannon was very reliable. If it was properly maintained it worked very reliably. We could charge the cannon only one time from the cockpit, but this one re-charging was completely sufficient. If this cannon malfunctioned, it was due entirely to unqualified maintenance.

I was involved in another incident. A young, inexperienced armorer installed the belts upside down, so that the teeth of the links of the belt were on top, for both machine guns and the cannon. We were flying in pair. This was my wingman’s second combat sortie. We spotted a pair of Fokkers[Fw-190 – ed.]. I attacked the lead Fokker, who went into a vertical climb. I fired a shot from my cannon, the glowing ball of the projectile’s tracer crossing the path of the enemy aircraft. The German, naturally, abruptly dove; the range closed rapidly and I had him in my sights. I got off one round from each machine gun and experienced a complete stoppage! I re-charged both guns—to no avail! None of my weapons worked! It was a good thing that I had hit him with these two rounds. The German was smoking heavily and had lost a great deal of speed. I had nothing to kill him with! I called to my wingman, “Get the Fritz!” But he was circling in a merry-go-round with the German’s wingman and continued to circle until the German shot him up. Except for “his own German,” my wingman did not see anything, and the damaged Fokker got away. On the ground it was discovered that my wingman had not fastened his earphones to his helmet, and during the high-G maneuvers his earphones had come off. He had not heard my commands. A month later someone shot down a German pilot in a Fokker, and during his interrogation by the division commander he asked, “Why, a month ago, did a pilot from this regiment not finish me off? Two of my cylinders were shot up.” (The German well knew that only the pilots of 2d GSAP VVS SF flew “red-nosed” Cobras. A. S.) Our division commander replied to him, “Yes, he was something of a screw up, kind of like you, but he didn’t get shot down.”

They badly wanted to send the armorer to a tribunal [courts martial], but he got off with a reprimand. I was categorically opposed to a tribunal. He was a young kid, still a “newbie”. The fault really lay with the armaments mechanic. It was his direct duty to check the correctness of the loading of the rounds. He knew that his armorer was inexperienced, but he did not stop to check and simply took the armorer’s word. “Is it ready?” “Yes, it’s ready.”

A. S. Did you have small-caliber machine guns on your P-39s?

N. G. No, only large-caliber.

A. S. It is well known that the American sights had two types of cross-hair. The first was the so-called “Christmas tree”, where the crosshairs have countless supplementary marks that show the convergence point, and a second with a “clean” crosshair, totally without markings. What kind did you have?

N. G. I saw both.

A. S. What about the engine in the P-39. Was it weak? They say that it was unreliable, it was never good for the recommended 120 hours, and it “threw” connecting rods.

N. G. We had Allison engines. They were powerful, but . . . the engines in the Cobras were unreliable, especially early on. These were on the English variants, the Q-1 and Q-2. Their engines were weaker. After the first three or four air combats, all ten Cobras were laid up for engine repairs.

These first Allisons did not deliver even one-half of the recommended engine hours. 50 hours was its limit, and frequently less. Normally 10—15 sorties if they were in combat. They seized, the bearings melted; this happened to me once. I sat out for a while with no engine. They monitored these engines closely. As soon as any metal showed up in the oil, they changed out the engine. The supply of replacement engines was plentiful, but it was not always possible to get delivery of them. Sometimes they brought them in on an Li-2 [Soviet-built C-47], four in a load, such was the demand for new power plants. But just the same, despite our best efforts, there were seizures. True, this engine did not “throw” connecting rods, at least this never happened to us. On type-5 and later models the engines were more powerful and reliable.

Now regarding power settings. In principle the RPMs were regulated by a conventional throttle. In the Cobras there were two regimes of throttle operation, “normal” and “war emergency”, which was characterized by increased manifold pressure. The throttle quadrant was mounted in the [left side of the] cockpit and the pilot controlled it. The “war emergency” regime had a lever position that we called “51 inches and 57 inches of boost”. If we were flying on Soviet B-95 fuel, then “war emergency power” was set at 51 inches. If we were using American B-100 fuel, then “war emergency power” was set at 57inches. Although it was mounted in the cockpit, on the throttle quadrant, the pilot did not adjust this setting. The position of the “war emergency power” selector was controlled by a piece of wire that could be broken easily with greater forward pressure on the throttle quadrant.

One time I sensed a lack of power (I needed to get ahead of a German) and I thought, “The hell with it”! I broke the wire and selected “57”. Then I experienced what “57” meant! My airplane leapt forward! The Germans spotted me from above and dove immediately, which was what we wanted.

American gasoline was better than ours. Not more powerful, but better. The anti-detonation qualities of our gasoline came from the addition of tetraethyl lead. After every two or three flights the engine mechanic had to clean the lead from our spark plugs. If he waited too long, a lead droplet would form between the electrodes. But this was not a special problem. Normally our spark plugs were quickly cleaned after every sortie. But with the American gasoline, this did not happen. Either they used higher octane to begin with and added less lead or they raised the octane rating with benzol [another additive]. Perhaps it was just the benzol. Because our gasoline was pink in color and the American gasoline was dark blue.

Incidentally, the Allison “made metal” on any gasoline. Realistically the Allison engine began to live up to its full 100 hours of use only in 1944. These engines came in the Q-25-30. But by this time the intensity of air combat had already fallen somewhat, and the primary distinction of these types was the perceptible decrease in power output. Therefore we removed the wing machine guns. They were heavy [one Browning .50 caliber under each wing], slowed the airplane down, and their recoil was felt in combat.

A. S. Wasn’t this somewhat of a surprise, a deficiency in power output when one would think power should be increasing as the war progressed?

N. G. The crux of the matter was that from modification to modification the Cobra was somehow improved in construction, but this came at the price of constant increases in weight, which was not compensated for even by the growing power output of the engine. The P-63 KingCobra was a “leap”. I had a chance to fly it after the war (thank God!). The strongest [P-39] in power output were the types from Q-2 to the early Q-10s, and then the power output began to fall. Again, beginning with the -10, the propellers came with a unified system of throttle/pitch, and this also did not increase survivability in combat. I’ve already addressed that.

A. S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, did you have the impression that they initially delivered the Cobra with an overstressed engine, that is under normal circumstances that Allison engine would have developed 100—150 less horsepower?

N. G. That’s entirely possible. But in the course of the war, the Allison lived up to its specifications. You have to give the Americans their due.

A. S. You said that various propellers were mounted?

N. G. Yes. At first they had three-bladed props, later four blades. I did not detect any appreciable difference between them. These propellers were mechanical, they were controlled by hand, with a system of levers and rods. On later Cobras they installed combined throttle/pitch control. This was the case on some Q-10s, on all of the Q-25s and Q-30s. We preferred the de-linked control, where the throttle and the pitch were separate. This was on the Q-5 up to the Q-10.

A. S. How much fuel did you carry?

N. G. If we hung the 175-gallon fuselage auxiliary tank, we had enough for six hours of flight.

A. S. In the literature the Cobra is said to have the following deficiencies: 1. Unreliable engine. 2. Weak tail. 3. A pilot bailing out of a Cobra would be struck by the vertical stabilizer. 4. Because of the rearward center of gravity, it was easy to enter an inverted spin and difficult to recover. The engine problems you have already mentioned, and what else can you say?

N. G. I can’t say anything about the weak tail. We never experienced that problem.

As for the pilot being struck by the vertical stabilizer, one had to observe specific instructions. In the first place, never open both doors, but only one. If you opened one door, then you had only to stick your head out and the air stream would pull you out. If you opened both doors, you could only crawl out of the cockpit like an old man. Secondly, pull up your legs.

The center of gravity of the Cobra was exceptionally rearward. We even had 10 kilos of lead weight mounted in the forward portion to unload the tail. Sometimes this center of gravity created problems with the wing and in inverted flight. Once again, during non-combat flights, don’t place any load in the empty rear portion of the fuselage. Somebody didn’t do it and couldn’t make it back. The airplane flew as if balanced on a tip of an awl. Later we gained experience and loaded everything in the forward compartment.

The Cobra had other deficiencies. The rear armored glass would fall out. It was heavy, perhaps 12 kilos, and was secured with a special pin. During abrupt maneuvers this pin sometimes did not hold and the glass fell out. It was easy to re-install, though.

There was another deficiency; at high speed a vent window mounted within the left door window (there was no vent window in the right door) was dislodged, and this piece of glass struck the pilot with enormous force. This happened twice in our unit and the pilots died.

One more. The tube for the oxygen mask was thin and not corrugated, but smooth. This was not very good because when we constantly put on and took off the mask, it could twist around and pinch at the most inconvenient time for proper breathing. We had an instance of this where the pilot lost consciousness, thank God not for long. He managed to regain consciousness while still aloft.

On English Cobras there was a lousy heater. Our cockpit was heated by a small heater like in the Zaporozets [a Russian-manufactured car – J.G.], with a small igniter and a fuel nozzle. This igniter created terrible feedback noise in the earphones, interfering with radio. When we turned it on, we got rushing noise. When we turned it off, we froze. My hands froze in this cockpit.

We had excellent heaters in the Q-5 and subsequent models, based on engine heat. We had no problems with them.

A. S. Did you have gun cameras?

N. G. Near the end of the war, only on the Cobras.

A. S. Was the engine capable of high altitude?

N. G. Fully. 8,000 meters without problem, and neither we nor the Germans flew higher than that.

A. S. Nikilay Gerasimovich, could the Cobra really contend with the Bf-109G and FW-190 in aerial combat?

N. G. Yes. The Cobra, especially the Q-5, took second place to no one, and even surpassed all the German fighters.

I flew more than 100 combat sorties in the Cobra, of these 30 in reconnaissance, and fought 17 air combats. The Cobra was not inferior in speed, in acceleration, nor in vertical or horizontal maneuverability. It was a very balanced fighter.

A. S. This is strange. In the words of one American pilot, the Cobra was an airplane “suitable for large, low, and slow circles”. To go further, if we judge by references, then the maximum speed of the Cobra fell below that of the Bf-109F, not to mention the later German fighters. The Allies removed it from their inventories because it could not fight with the “Messer” and the “Fokker”. Neither the British nor the Americans kept it as a fighter airplane.

N. G. Well, I don’t know. It certainly did well for us. Pokryshkin fought in it; doesn’t that say something? [Aleksandr Pokryshkin was the number 2 Soviet ace at the end of the war and flew a P-39 from late 1942 to the war’s end – J.G.]

It seems that everything depends on what you wanted out of it. Either you flew it in such a manner as to shoot down Messers and Fokkers, or you flew it in a way that guaranteed 120 hours of engine life.

Let’s take the speed of the Cobra and the Messer. I had a Q-25 Cobra, with cameras for reconnaissance. Behind the engine were a vertical AFA-3s and two oblique AFA-21s. I simply flew away from a group of Bf-109Gs in this airplane, admittedly in a dive. Perhaps a single Messer could have caught me, but I flew away from a group.

A. S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, being completely honest, was the Cobra better than our fighters? And in general, Soviet-produced aircraft, were they fully capable fighters?

N. G. If you want to talk about Soviet-made fighters, then you have to specify which ones and when.

I have already addressed the I-16.

Of the remaining aircraft, I flew in the LaGG-3 and the MiG-1 in the first half of the war. I began to fly the LaGG in 1941, while still at aviation school. It was heavy, even the lightened version. They took an immediate dislike to it when it was introduced to the forces. The engine was weak for the air frame. I never fought an aerial engagement in it.

I began to fly the MiG-1 in the regiment, as we had three of them. They sat on the apron a lot because of their unreliable engines. As a former instructor, I was permitted to fly in one of them.

A. S. Did this MiG-1 have wing slats?

N. G. Yes, with three machine guns. It was somewhat flimsy. But it had its strong points. It had an outstanding air frame, little effort was required on the stick. It was comfortable. Visibility from the cockpit was very good. It reacted quickly to inputs. It was supercharged. “Above 4,000 meters, this airplane is God,” Pokryshkin correctly stated about the MiG.

The M-35 engine drove it. It was horribly unreliable, very shoddy. There was a rule: if a pilot ran the engine to maximum RPM in flight, the engine would fail in the next flight or the one after that.

I myself was chasing after a high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft, just about ready to commence firing. At that moment my engine died. I landed with a dead engine. My instructor habits came in handy. It turned out that the timing gear mechanism had broken. Flights in our MiGs were forbidden after this incident. I had made three or four flights in the MiG but had fought no aerial engagements.

A. S. Pokryshkin, in his memoirs, wrote that a pilot who could fly the I-16 and the MiG could easily transition to any fighter.

N. G. This is normal. I did not experience any complexes regarding Soviet fighters. We had very good machines. I flew on them and can make comparisons. No, our fighters were not worse than the Cobra.

I flew most of the Yaks immediately after the war, along with the Cobra. Thus I am able to make comparisons. I flew in the Yak-1B (we had one, for the division commander), Yak-7B, and Yak-9.

The Yak-1B was very light and accelerated very rapidly. Only the Yak-3 was quicker. That was its strong suit.

The Yak-7B was heavier but I liked it a lot.

The Yak-9 was heavy.

In aerodynamics and power output, the Yak aircraft were on the highest level while remaining simple, but on the limit of stress.

I regret that I was not able to fly the La-5 or the La-7, but I flew the La-9 and La-11 and can thus judge the Lavochkin. High class. I particularly liked the La-9.

A. S. The Yak-9. With 37mm cannon?

N. G. Why 37mm? Ours had a 57mm cannon.

A. S. This was a Yak-9K?

N. G. I don’t remember the model designation. We had two or three of them. They were designed especially for combating ships, patrol vessels, and so on. It seems to me that there were 12 rounds for the cannon, no eight. Yes, it was eight. But if you were flying along at 600 kph and fired the cannon, your speed dropped to 400! It stopped you in mid-air! Then you had to regain the speed.

We flew very little on them because they were not built for air-to-air combat.

A. S. Did anyone compare the Cobra with our own aircraft?

N. G. Yes, even I did that. I flew a training engagement in the Cobra against a Yak-1. Three flew against me and in all three cases I got behind the Yak.

A. S. So the Yak was not as good an airplane?

N. G. I was a better pilot. I had great experience and a feeling for my fighter. My opponents were young. Had I been flying the Yak and they been in the Cobra, I would have done the same. Later the division commander said to me, “What are you doing? Give the guys a chance to believe that their airplane is also good! They won’t understand why you beat them!”

A. S. Tell us, our later aircraft—the Yaks and Lavochkins—did they fall far behind the Germans?

N. G. They were not inferior. I have already said that in speed, acceleration capability, and maneuverability the Cobra was at a minimum on a par with the German aircraft. And the Yaks and Lavochkins were not less capable than the Cobra. What superiority are you talking about?

A. S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, if you look at any reference book, the superiority in speed of German aircraft—the Bf-109G and FW-190—is indisputable. Minimum 20—25 kilometers at low altitudes and up to 80—100 kilometers at high altitudes. And you say ours did not lag behind?

N. G. No, some difference in speed always exists. At low altitudes we were a bit faster, at high altitudes they were. The difference was on the order of 10—20 km. But this difference was not so great that it ensured overwhelming superiority. In combat it was practically not discernible.

A. S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, sometime relatively long ago I was speaking with a pilot—a frontline veteran. Right after the war they flew in captured aircraft. And no matter how hard they tried, they were unable to attain the speeds the Germans had written in their specifications. The shortfall in speed was significant. In the end, they prevailed upon a German, a high-level specialist, and asked him, “Why this shortfall in speed? Are we using the engine’s capability incorrectly?” His response was that they would never achieve the target speed, because the German specifications showed the theoretical speed, and they were attempting to attain that speed on their instruments.

Nikolay Gerasimovich, in your view, is this possible?

N. G. Of course. We had a group of specialists with us from NII VVS. They were examining specifications and were looking at speed. “What speed is indicated at 7,000 meters? 780? Take away 100. And what about 3,000 meters? 700? Reduce it 70 km.” This is how they calculated the instrumented speed and, characteristically, almost always hit their target. Perhaps they knew something about our focus on speed.

Text © AndreySukhorukov
Translation © James F. Gebhardt

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