Home Articles Early Versions of Airacobra Aircraft in Soviet Aviation. Part 1

Early Versions of Airacobra Aircraft in Soviet Aviation. Part 1

by Valery Romanenko

Dear Readers,

We present chapters from Valeriy Romanenko’s book Airacobras Enter Combat (Aerohobby, Kiev, 1993. ISBN 5-7707-5170-03). These chapters are prepared for publication on this site by the author and translated by James F. Gebhardt. Illustrations were kindly provided by Michael Bykov.

The book is based on original archival material meticulously researched by the author for over a decade. The second book, Airacobras Over Kuban’, dealing with P-39K, L, and M versions would be published this year.

All material presented here is copyrighted and can not be reprinted and/or duplicated in any form without the written consent of their respective authors.

The Airacobra I in the Soviet VVS

Of the early models of the Airacobra, only two were widely employed in Soviet VVS: the ex-British Airacobra I and the Lend-Lease P-39D-2.

The first aircraft arrived from Great Britain. After the RAF rejected the airplane in December 1941, it was recommended for delivery to the USSR along with the Hurricane. The British VVS rejected the Airacobra for the following reasons: uncompleted design, production defects, incongruence of the conceptual design of this aircraft for the genuine nature of combat operations in Europe, and so on. Therefore there were legitimate reasons on the Soviet side to be critical of the qualitative aspects of the British deliveries. However, turning away from the “class” approach to history, the “pluses” of the British assistance should be noted. Irrespective of the specific type of aircraft delivered, these were: timeliness (the decision to deliver 200 fighters to the USSR at the end of July 1941 and arrival of the first 16 aircraft in Arkhangelsk on 31 August); scope of deliveries (669 fighters before the end of 1941, true, of 800 promised by the Moscow protocol); regularity (by the spring of 1942, 12 convoys during the seven months since August 1941); the tendency to render uncompensated assistance (from the letter of W. Churchill to I. V. Stalin, received on 6 September 1941, “In the first paragraph of your letter you used the word ‘to sell’. We do not look at this matter from that point of view and never thought about payment. It would be better if any assistance rendered to you by us were based upon the same basis of comradeship on which was based the American legislation regarding lend-lease, that is without formal monetary accounting.”[1] ); timeliness (the peak of British deliveries came at the end of 1941 and the first half of 1942, a period of acute shortage of aircraft in the Soviet VVS. Aircraft deliveries to units were lagging as plants were being evacuated eastward [2] ). At the beginning stage British deliveries favorably compared with American deliveries, which began to arrive significantly later, in early 1942. And if the positive aspects of British assistance were obvious only until July 1942 (later it began to fall behind by almost all measures), then the practice of designating for the USSR only second-rate combat equipment had a place throughout the entire war.

Returning to the Airacobra, it must be noted that the British somewhat underrated it. Soviet pilots preferred the Cobra despite its many shortcomings to any other aircraft received from the Allies, including the Spitifire VB, which the British deigned to give us only in 1943.

The reasons for this will be examined below, but one of them can be noted right here and now: The Airacobra almost ideally corresponded to the nature of combat activities on the Soviet-German front. Here the struggle was not for absolute air superiority, but for superiority over specific areas of active combat activities. Dive bombers and close support aircraft, that is, aircraft directly supporting ground forces, operating at low altitude over the battlefield or at medium altitudes in the operational-tactical airspace, were the basis of both the Luftwaffe and the VVS Red Army. Correspondingly, the fighters had either to counter the enemy’s fighters, or accompany one’s own bombers at those same altitudes. Air battles rarely occurred at altitudes above 5,000 meters. In these working environments the Airacobra just had the best flight characteristics. If one adds to this good maneuverability, easy handling, powerful armaments, and excellent vision, then its success on the Soviet-German front becomes obvious.

And so, beginning in December 1941, Great Britain sent to the USSR 212 fighters of the model Bell Airacobra I. All the aircraft were from the British order and had RAF serial numbers, specifically known only for the AH series: AH570, 571, 575, 577, 584, 586, 599, 604-8, 610-13, 615-22, 624-28, 630-36, 638-47, 649-55, 658-60, 662-71, 673-92, 694, 695, 697, 699, 700, 702-712, 714-31, 733, 734, and 739, altogether 124 items, of which 10 were lost during transport by sea (AH651, 662, 699, 705, 723, 728, 729, 731, 734, and 739). For the series AP, we only know that the following numbers arrived in Great Britain: AP264, 269-73, 275-77, 279, 281-86, 288, 289, 292-94, 296, 298, 299, 301-3, 306-18, 320, 321, 323-25, 358, and 384. We also know that AP309 was destroyed, 20 aircraft were sent to the USAAF [3], and the remainder to the USSR. According to other sources, only 11 airframes from the AP series went to the USSR. In June 1942 aircraft BW106, 109, 131, and 149 from the BW series were unloaded in the Soviet Union. There is no information available on the much larger BX series (BX135-434, 300 aircraft).

All the aircraft were delivered by Allied convoys by the northern route during 1942. The convoy normally formed up in Reykyavik or Seydisfjord. From here it proceeded across the northwest Atlantic to the Soviet ports of Murmansk, Arkhangelsk, or Molotovsk (present-day Severodvinsk). This was the shortest route (approximately 1500 miles to Murmansk), but also the most dangerous. We recall the writings of Valentin Pikul and his “Requiem of Convoy PQ-17.” According to British data, 49 of Airacobra I aircraft were lost during the transport by sea. However, this is the total number for the entire route from the USA to the USSR, including the USA-Great Britain leg. Losses of the PQ convoys (England-Murmansk) can be approximated thus: if of the number sent from Great Britain (212) we subtract the number that arrived in the USSR (1 in December 1941 and 192 in 1942, according to materials of the Archive of the Main Staff of the VVS Soviet Army, 2 in 1943 according to British sources), and take into consideration that the first P-39D-2, K, and L were delivered to the USSR on 12 November 1942 and 4 December 1942 [4] in single examples, then the magnitude of loss during transport by sea amounts to 20-25 aircraft.

The crated Airacobras unloaded in northern Soviet ports then went in several directions. Aircraft unloaded in Murmansk frequently went directly to the active army and were based either in aviation units of the VVS Northern Fleet, located nearby (78th IAP) [13], or were transported by rail to Afrikanda station and there issued to the 19th Guards IAP (VVS Karelian Front).

Unloading of crated aircraft (photo from Artem Drabkin Collection)

The bulk of the Airacobra I fighters was sent to the city Ivanovo, to the 22d Reserve Air Regiment (ZAP). Crated airplanes delivered to Arkhangelsk and Severomorsk went on rail flatcars by direct line through Vologda and from Murmansk on the Kirov line to Volkhov and beyond also through the Vologda junction.

In 1942 the 22d ZAP became the training center in which fighter regiments (IAP) were transitioned to imported aviation equipment. Here also were carried out the assembly and test flight of all types of foreign fighters that were subsequently sent to the front under their own power. The geography of deliveries was broad-from Leningrad to Voronezh fronts.

A small number of the imported aircraft were assembled right in the Arkhangelsk area. A wooden landing field and railroad branch line to it were constructed in the deep taiga some 25 kilometers south of the city by prisoners under the overwatch of the NKVD. The aircraft assembled and test flown here were then flown to Ivanovo, using an airfield in Vologda as an intermediate stop. Specific information regarding the ferrying of Airacobras by this route is not available.

The Soviet command (in the form of the Directorate of the VVS) was much more careful in gaining mastery of the Airacobra than it had been with foreign aircraft that had arrived earlier. Whether it was the somewhat checkered reputation of the aircraft, the unusual construction of the aircraft, or the experience of adapting the Hurricanes and Tomahawks to our conditions, it is difficult to determine now, some 60 years later. But the period of time that elapsed between delivery of the first Airacobras to the USSR (end of December 1941) and their appearance in aviation units (early May 1942) speaks for itself.

The first party of 20 aircraft (all series AH, from 599 to 677) arrived in 22d ZAP in the period between late December 1941 and early January 1942. Their arrival was taken very seriously. The Scientific Research Institute (NII) of the VVS sent a group of specialists to the regiment, from which was formed a separate team (22d ZAP order no. 7 of 2 January 1942). For a number of reasons, the initial composition of the brigade was changed, and by 15 January work was begun on receipt, unpacking, and assembly. Heading up this effort were I. G. Rabkin (lead aircraft engineer), V. I. Usatov (lead engineer for power plants), P. S. Ivanov (engineer for propeller systems), and B. F. Nikishin (test mechanic). Flight testing was entrusted to lead test pilot Captain V. E. Golofastov.
In addition to specialists from NII VVS Red Army, order no. 7 assigned to the working group a representative of the department of foreign orders (Import Directorate, VVS KA), military engineer 2d Rank Comrade Smolyarov.

The procedure itself for receipt was conducted in the following manner. The crates containing aircraft components were opened, inventoried, and checked for damage in the presence of the representative of the Import Directorate. Special attention was given to the “newness” of the aircraft (had this aircraft been subjected to previous use and repair).

The “eye of the state” was hardly superfluous in this particular case, since a significant portion of the Hurricanes and P-40Cs that had arrived earlier had been flown for some time in the RAF and had exhausted a significant percentage of their use life. Representatives of the military commission of the USSR in Great Britain had noted cases when new aircraft arriving from the USA were taken into the inventory of the Royal Air Force to replace other aircraft already in use. These aircraft underwent repair, were disassembled, packed in crates, and sent to the USSR. It is difficult to judge the British for this because the first aircraft we received were not from Lend-Lease but from those purchased for the RAF. Similar cases with aircraft of American production practically ceased to occur after the beginning of deliveries by Lend-Lease. We continued to receive “previously used” British aircraft until the end of the war, though not in great numbers.

In the case of observed deficiencies, only the representative of the Import Directorate had the right to submit complaints. Therefore by separate order it was forbidden to unpack crates in his absence.
The assembly of the first party of aircraft was begun in mid-January. This author does not know the specific site of the assembly and test flight of the first Airacobra. The literature only makes reference to a large airfield on the outskirts of the town. Drawing from the basing of 22 ZAP, the site was one of three airfields: Kineshma, Ivanovo-South, or Ivanovo-North.

The process of assembly was organized in the best Soviet traditions: foreign specialists, naturally, were absent; instructions, naturally, were in English; of the NII VVS specialists, naturally, no one knew English; the [female] translator, naturally, was an academic to whom “fonar'” [canopy in Russian airplane jargon, in usual sense a light source], for example, was a “light source” only; the aircraft, naturally, was absolutely unfamiliar to the specialists; and the period of time allotted for the work, naturally, was minimal.

The resourcefulness and ingenuity of the people and “His majesty, chance” helped out. The team leader I. G. Rabkin knew French. At that time, there was a group of British RAF specialists at 22 ZAP, engaged in assisting in the assimilation of the Hurricanes. The leader of this group, an engineer in the rank of captain, fortunately also spoke French. In addition, some of his team members were familiar with the Airacobra. Therefore the consultations went something like this: I. G. Rabkin submitted questions of interest to the British engineer in French. He consulted with his colleagues in English and responded to the questions in French. Our leader passed along the responses to his subordinates in Russian. This process somewhat speeded up the work for translating the instructions.

The assembly of the aircraft was accomplished directly on the airfield. Despite the severe winter, work went from dawn to dusk, and than for several more hours the team members conducted exercises in classrooms for ZAP specialists or were involved in translating instructions. Thanks to this unstinting effort, the first airplane was assembled and prepared in a minimum amount of time.
Typical deficiencies for foreign aircraft surfaced from the first days of its use: reduced outflow of oil from the lubrication system, the remnants of which quickly froze in the cold weather. The technicians quickly had to rework the lubrication system by means of installing additional oil taps [as in “faucets”] and also to create a special collector for the simultaneous induction of hot air into the crankcase, reduction box, radiator, and other areas that required warming before starting the engine. This collector successfully withstood testing and was recommended for implementation in the employment of the airplane.

V. E. Golofastov conducted the flight testing. The Airacobra I underwent flight tests in April 1942 with some success. It developed a speed of 493 km/h at sea level and a maximum speed of 585 km/h at 4,200 meters. It reached 5,000 meters altitude in 6.5 minutes. The technical data and performance were on a level with serially produced Soviet and enemy fighters. The maneuver, takeoff-landing, and armament performance characteristics of the aircraft were considered positives. The following conclusion was made as a result of this testing: The Airacobra aircraft was simple in techniques of piloting and could be flown by pilots of average qualifications; it could be successfully employed for the conduct of aerial combat with all types of enemy aircraft, and also for the conduct of attacks at ground targets. The Airacobra received its “air worthiness certificate” in the Soviet VVS.

The booklet “Brief technical description and technical exploitation of the Airacobra” was written based on the results of the effort of the team of NII VVS and test flights of the airplane. This booklet was quickly printed and distributed to aviation units that were being equipped with this airplane.
One who has carefully read the material above regarding the Airacobra might logically ask the question, why was this same model of the airplane so bad for British employment and so good for Soviet employment? What can explain this contradiction?

There were several reasons. We will dwell on the most important: First, we received already “reworked” aircraft that lacked the initial deficiencies. Second, our specialists tested the Airacobra for the specific altitude envelope of the Soviet-German front, which corresponded well with the best flying performance characteristics of the aircraft. Third, the aircraft actually were not bad. And fourth, the brief test period did not permit sufficient testing to expose the basic weaknesses of design and construction that were later revealed in the process of mass exploitation. The flat spin, the engine throwing connecting rods, and other manifestations were yet to be discovered.

After completion of testing, approximately in April 1942, the Airacobra I fighter began to be issued to combat units. The procedure for re-equipping a unit with new aircraft was standard. A fighter air regiment that had suffered losses at the front turned over its remaining serviceable aircraft to neighboring units. The personnel of this regiment were sent to the 22d ZAP. Here over the course of 1-2 months the regiment was re-trained, reconstituted in personnel up to TOE [table “” not found /]
level, issued new equipment, and then returned to the front. Losses in aircraft of the new type were also made up by deliveries from the same 22d ZAP.

A few words need to be said about the 22d ZAP itself. This regiment was formed on 15 October 1941 on the base of the reserve VVS Moscow Military District and VVS Red Army. The first commander was Colonel I. I. Shumov. The regiment was based at three airfields throughout the entire war: Kineshma, Ivanovo-South, and Ivanovo-North. The staff was initially based at Kineshma, but beginning on 7 April 1942 was moved to the city Ivanovo. The regiment was created specially to be a training center for transition of flight and technical personnel to foreign fighter aircraft, and also as a center for the preparation, repair, and technical service of foreign fighters. The regiment served in this capacity until it was stood down on 1 June 1946. Beginning on 15 May 1942, it was subordinated to the 6th Reserve Aviation Brigade (ZAB).

By the time of the beginning of the transition to the Airacobra, 22d ZAP was already an influential base with a well drawn training process and developed technical infrastructure. The personnel who arrived there initially underwent theoretical training in well equipped training classrooms, after which they took an examination. The flight crews transitioned to flights and the technical personnel were distributed to the assembly teams, where alongside the ZAP technicians they assembled aircraft for their own regiment, or were engaged in the repair of damaged aircraft in repair shops. The 22d ZAP was operating a total of four assembly teams, who were assembling aircraft out of crates delivered by railroad, and three training air squadrons (one trained pilots in Hurricanes, a second in Kittyhawks, and the third in Airacobras). After passing the examinations for flight readiness, the reconstituted air regiment received its aircraft, test flew them, and was sent back to the front in its own new aircraft.

Airacobras numbers AH610, 653, and 669 were initially used for training flight personnel in 22d ZAP. These three aircraft were designated as the 1st Training Squadron and constituted its only flight. In addition, one UTI-4, one Yak-7 [both two-seat advanced trainers], and two other foreign aircraft were assigned to 1st Squadron.

Because AH699 was destroyed in an accident on 20 June 1942, and AH610 and AH 653 in November 1942, subsequently AH624, 730, 733, 737, and AP264 were used for training. The aircraft lost in accidents were disassembled and used in training auditoriums as visual aids (in American terminology, “assigned to 26th Class”).

In addition to the 22d ZAP, an attempt was undertaken to prepare pilots in the Airacobra also in the 14th ZAP, which also belonged to 6th ZAB. Personnel of the regiment began transition training on the Airacobra on 1 August 1942, for which purpose AP264 and AH733 were transferred from 22d ZAP. However, after a month it was considered inefficient to have established a parallel flow, and both Cobras were returned. Five aircraft of the same type that had been received from later deliveries were assembled, test flown, and then delivered to front-line units.

22d ZAP trained air regiments on the Airacobra I for approximately a year, from April 1942 until March 1943. During this time two fighter regiments (153 and 185 IAP) were re-constituted and sent back to the front, the 153d two times, along with a number of individual crews (56 during 1942 and 67 in 1943). One regiment, 30th Guards (GIAP) was also trained on the Airacobra I, but later gave them up and was sent to the front on 13 March 1943 on later model Cobras.

In addition to combat regiments, the 22d ZAP became the “forebear” of a new type of unit in the Soviet VVS-ferry fighter regiments (PIAP). The necessity for these units arose in connection with the creation of the Alaska-Siberia route (ALSIB in American parlance), by which it was planned to deliver American aircraft directly from the USA to Siberia by air. In the summer of 1942, the 1st, 2d, 3d, 4th, and 5th PIAP were formed in 22d ZAP and trained on the Airacobra I and Kittyhawk, with a mean flight time of 228 hours (735 landings) per regiment. In accordance with directive VVS Red Army No. 340549/ss [5] of 12 August 1942, each regiment, consisting of three squadrons (32 pilots), naturally, without aircraft, was to be in its assigned sector between 25 August and 5 September. Because this ferry route was used only for later modifications of the P-39 (L model and beyond), information regarding it will be discussed in later chapters.

As has been discussed above, in addition to training functions the 22d ZAP was also a unique depot. Here they unpacked, test flew, repaired, reequipped, and dispatched foreign fighters to the front lines. In particular, it was here that the Airacobra I had removed from it a portion of its radio equipment that worked on wavelengths not compatible with Soviet equipment, and IFF [identify friend or foe] gear. According to documents of 6th ZAB, in 1942 alone some 254 Airacobras were assembled and flown in 22d ZAP, of which 237 were sent to the front or to other units. It is interesting that this number exceeds (according to data from the archives of the Main Staff, VVS [6]) the total number of this fighter type received in the USSR for the year (192). In the opinion of this author, this is explained by the mistaken inclusion in their number of aircraft ostensibly belonging to the five PIAPs (5 x 32). This difference, some 94 aircraft, represents a more real number of Airacobra Is that might have passed through the 22d ZAP in 1942.

The first of the combat regiments to arrive for Airacobra I transition training was the 153d IAP, sent for re-training from the Leningrad Front and arriving at 22d ZAP on 25 March 1942. The re-training of this unit took all of 27 days, with an average of 12 flight hours per pilot. By 10 June 1942 the regiment had completed transition and on 14 June was sent to Voronezh Front.

The myth regarding the employment of the Airacobra in the Soviet VVS almost exclusively as a “shturmovik” [ground-attack aircraft] is widespread in Western literature (W. Green, P. Bowers, E. McDowwell). This myth arose out of an insufficiency of information: both Soviet official and memoir sources were carefully screened by Glavlit [political censorship overseeing publication of all printed material in the USSR] and stood on the “only believable” conceptual positions, and almost until the 1970s attempted to conceal any information about Kittyhawks, Cobras, and Hurricanes, as though they almost never existed. This phenomenon was very astutely expressed by Larry Bell as far back as 1944 when in a conversation with Soviet test pilots he said, “I have sent you three thousand airplanes and I could just as well have thrown them into Lake Ontario! I know nothing about them, how they are fighting, and if your men are satisfied with them!”

With the release in the late 1960s of A. I. Pokryshkin’s “The skies of war”, one of the starkest books about pilots in war, translated into many foreign languages, the situation regarding the Airacobras was somewhat clarified. However (nature abhors a vacuum), now Western authors have taken up “class positions”. From the description of hundreds of aerial combats they have selected only a small period and have advanced a new myth: the “Russians”, it seems, successfully employed the Airacobra only against slow-moving transports and aging bombers. This was an introduction to the tale and the tale is forthcoming.

153d (28th Guards) IAP

The 153d IAP, at full strength, was formed on the basis of TOE 015/284 (2 squadrons, 20 aircraft and 23 pilots), under the command of Hero of the Soviet Union Major S. I. Mironov, arrived at Voronezh airfield on 29 June 1942. It began combat operations without any delay, on 30 June 1942. Later the regiment was relocated to Lipetsk airfield, from which it operated until 25 September 1942. In 59 flying days on the Voronezh Front the regiment conducted 1,070 combat sorties with 1162 hours of flight time; fought 259 aerial engagements, of which 45 were of a group nature; shot down 64 enemy aircraft, of which 18 were bombers (15 Ju-88, 1 Do-217, 1 He-111, and 1 FW-198), 45 fighters (39 Bf-109F, 1 Bf-110, 1 Me-210, 4 MS-200), and 1 aerial observation aircraft. Losses during these three months of combat were 3 pilots and 8 aircraft. “These relatively insignificant losses are explained in the first place by the experience of the pilots and the good flight performance characteristics of the Airacobra aircraft.” Regiment commander Lieutenant Colonel Mironov, HSU (TsAMO, collection 28 Guards IAP, index 143456, file 1) [TsAMO – central archive of the Defense Ministry].

The cited document gives a an adequate representation of the fact whom did the Soviet Cobras contest successfully. For outstanding combat effort on the Voronezh Front, the 153d IAP was recommended for the “guards” designation.

On 7 August 1942 a group of pilots was selected from the regiment for a special assignment of the command of the VVS Red Army. These eight cadre pilots, led by Major O. M. Rodionov, along with 28 technical personnel, operated independently as part of the VVS of West Front from airfields at Kubinka, Alferyevo, and Klimovo. From 8 August through 11 September 1942, they executed 167 sorties with a total flight time of 190 hours, of which 68 were in combat. They shot down 13 enemy aircraft (9 Ju-88, 4 Bf-109F) and damaged 17 others. Their own losses were two wounded pilots and two aircraft lost. Non-combat losses were one pilot and one aircraft.

Altogether in 1,237 combat sorties the regiment destroyed 77 enemy aircraft, of which one was by ramming. Captain A. F. Avdeev conducted a frontal attack on a Messerschmitt and neither pilot gave way. This was the first ramming incident in an Airacobra.

On 1 October 1942, the regiment arrived at Ivanovo, at 22d ZAP, for re-constitution to TOE 015/174 (three squadrons). Major O. M. Rodionov was appointed the regiment commander.
In connection with the situation at the front, the regiment, without having completed transition training, was thrown back into combat on 27 October 1942 with 32 Airacobra I aircraft. One squadron operated from Lyubertsy airfield and the second from Vypolzovo airfield (North-West Front).

During nine flying days from 31 October to 28 November the regiment flew 94 sorties (91 hours of flight time), of which 29 were in combat. They conducted six aerial engagements, shooting down 1 Ju-87 and four Bf-109F. Two Airacobras were lost.

On 22 November 1942 the 153d IAP received the Guards title and renamed as the 28th Guards IAP. In November 1943 the regiment received the honorific title “Leningradskiy”(28th Guards “Leningradskiy” IAP).

Until 1 August 1943 the regiment flew exclusively in Airacobra I aircraft. The serial numbers included AH626, 690, BX182, 184, 206, 228, 234, 235, 240, 254, BX/AP (?)[12] 264, 266, 268, 271, 272, 279, 282, 285, 305, 318, 324, 338, 379, 381, and 384. On 1 August 1943 the regiment still had 11 Airacobra aircraft on hand.

From 1 December 1942 through 1 August 1943 the regiment carried out 1,176 combat sorties (1,283 hours), fought 66 group engagements, in which it destroyed 63 enemy aircraft (23 Bf-109F, 23 FW-190, 7 FW-189, 6 Ju-88, 4 Hs-126) and 4 aerostats, damaged 7 fighters and one bomber. Aircraft losses were 14 in aerial combat, 4 to airfield bombardment, 5 in accidents; pilots killed or missing in action-10. The regiment was re-equipped with P-39N and Q models beginning on 1 August 1943.

185th Red Banner IAP

185th Red Banner IAP arrived at 22d ZAP on 7 April 1942 from Leningrad Front with 11 pilots. In the process of transition it was reconstituted from the reserve of 22d ZAP with nine pilots. The regiment was the first to complet a course of study on the Airacobra I lasting 26 days on 9 June 1942, and was sent to the front on 30 June 1942. The regiment commander was a Lieutenant Colonel Vasin. The regiment was also formed on TOE 015/284 (2 squadrons, 20 pilots, 20 aircraft). Serial numbers AH605, 608, 627, 632, 633, 643, 650, 652, 654, 671, 673, 675-78, 681, 702, 710, 717, and 720. The author does not have access to more detailed data about the combat record of this regiment.

180th (30th Guards) IAP

30th Guards IAP (later 30th Guards Baranovicheskiy Red Banner IAP) arrived at 22d ZAP on 20 July 1942, having lost in about a month of combat the greater part of its Hurricanes. (The regiment had been sent to the front from 22d ZAP with 20 Hurricanes on 12 June 1942.) The unit began transition to Airacobra I aircraft on 3 August 1942. It left for Chernava airfield in the Central Front on 13 March 1943, formed with TOE 015/174 (3 squadrons, 32 pilots). The total flight time during the transition period from 5 February through 12 March 1943 was 510 hours (1,649 landings). Airacobras AH584, 599, 634, BX/AP (?) 265, 275, 282, 316, 321, 355, 359, and 370 were issued to the regiment. Materials regarding the combat efforts of the regiment in 1943 have not been preserved.

145th (19th Guards) IAP

This regiment was the first in the Soviet VVS to begin combat actions in the Airacobra I. In distinction from the 153d and 185th IAP, which trained in a rear-area training center, the 145th IAP mastered the imported fighter directly in its operational zone (less than 100 km from the front line), without any kind of instructions, guidance in the Russian language, or assistance of instructors.

The 145th IAP (14th Army, Karelian Front on the Murmansk axis) was formed on 17 January 1940 in the settlement Kayrelo (former territory of Finland). It participated in the Finnish campaign, shot down 5 enemy aircraft and lost 5 of its own. It began the war in the I-16, then flew the LaGG-3, MiG-3, and Hurricane. On 4 April 1942, for successful combat effort, the 145th IAP was designated 19th Guards IAP. At the end of this same month it received the tasking to transition over to the Airacobra I and P-40E Kittyhawk fighters. The regiment was sent to Afrikanda airfield for this purpose. Here they received crates containing aircraft, delivered by the Kirov railroad. Over the course of the month of May the engineer-technical staff of the regiment, under the supervision of Major P.P. Gol’tsev, regiment senior engineer, assembled 16 Airacobra Is and 10 Kittyhawks.
The technical documentation for these aircraft was only in English. Assembly and study of the imported fighters occurred simultaneously. Work was conducted for the most part under the open sky, in conditions of polar night [extended periods of darkness], but cold temperatures. Nonetheless, already on 26 April squadron commander Captain P. S. Kutakhov (future twice HSU and marshal of aviation [7]) conducted three training flights around a circle in the Airacobra. By 15 May the entire component (22 pilots) had mastered the techniques of piloting the new fighters. Simultaneously the regiment was reconstituted on TOE 015/174 (3 squadrons). The regiment returned to full duty without a single accident or incident.

On 15 May, 19th Guards IAP was relocated to Shonguy and began combat operations, now equipped with 16 Airacobras (including AH618, 619, 660, 664, 679, 692, 697, 703, 708, 709, 713, and 724) and 10 P-40Es.

Airacobra I aircraft of 19 GIAP (photo from Artem Drabkin collection)

The first aerial engagement on the Soviet-German front between an Airacobra and Luftwaffe aircraft occurred on this same day, with the somewhat rare German fighters He-113 [8]. On the following day the regiment suffered its first losses. One Airacobra (AH660 with engine Allison E-4 No. A-206301) was shot down in an aerial engagement with 2 He-113s and 6 Bf-109s. During a forced landing in a forest the aircraft was destroyed. But the pilot, Senior Lieutenant I. D. Gaydayenko, was uninjured. This aircraft could be considered the first Airacobra lost in combat on the Soviet-German front.

In the future, the effectiveness of the combat utilization of the Airacobra grew as the pilots became more familiar with the aircraft. For example, already on 15 June 6 Airacobras intercepted 6 bombers and 16 escort Bf-110 fighters in the area of Murmashy airfield, flying to bomb Murmansk. As a result of the aerial engagement that followed, 9 German aircraft were shot down without losses to the Soviet side.

A pilot of the 19th Guards IAP carried out the first aerial ramming incident in an Airacobra in the north. On 9 September 1942, during the fending off of a German bomber raid on Murmansk, Lieutenant E. A. Krivosheyev (96 combat sorties, 5 personal and 15 group kills) destroyed a Messerschmitt. And when his ammunition was all expended, he rammed a second Bf-109 that was coming into the rear of one of our Airacobra fighters. His Airacobra (BX/AP (?) 320, with engine Allison E-4 No. 206448) was destroyed and the pilot was killed. He was posthumously awarded Hero of the Soviet Union on 22 February 1943.

The dynamic of acquisition and loss of Airacobra I aircraft in 19th Guards IAP is shown below: May 1942-received 16, lost 2; June-3 and 5 correspondingly; July-5 and 3; no subsequent issue of aircraft, but losses: August-1, September-2, October-none, and December-1. Altogether to the end of 1942, 14 Airacobra I aircraft were lost (10 were shot down in combat, 1 did not return from a combat sortie, 1 catastrophic loss [9], and 2 by accident), numbers correspondingly AH660, 636 679, 703, 707, 713, 618, 724, 619, 709, 726, 697, BX/AP (?) 320. Single AH298 were repaired.
On 1 January 1943 the 19th Guards IAP had 11 Airacobra I aircraft on hand: AH658, 664, 682, 708, 720, BX231, 237, 257, BX/AP (?) 336 and 342.

Concerning losses inflicted on the enemy by the Airacobra pilots, it is difficult to judge according to regiment reports because until November, Airacobras and Kittyhawks flew together. Regarding the fact that these losses were significant one can judge by the personal scores of the pilots who flew exclusively in Airacobras from May 1942: Captain I. V. Bochkov, chief of regiment VSS [aerial gunnery service]-45 combat sorties, 7 personal and 32 group kills (KIA 4 April 1943 in aerial combat 4 km southwest of Murmansk, in Airacobra BX/BW (?) 168 with engine Allison No. 14041); deputy squadron commander Senior Lieutenant I. D. Gaydayenko-29 kills (personal and in group by August 1942); squadron commander Major P. S. Kutakhov, HSU-40 combat sorties, 7 personal and 24 group kills (by 1 May 1943).

Capt. I. V. Bochkov of the 19th GIAP in front of his P-400 Aircobra I number “16” in East Carelia in 1942. Bochkov was killed in action on April 4, 1943 and was posthumously awarded the Golden Star on May 1, 1943 having scored 7 personal and 32 shared victories (photo from the author’s collection)

In 1943 19th Guards IAP also continued their combat work in the Airacobra I. However already in February they received 17 aircraft of later models, and in October the flight crews delivered an additional 25 P-39N and Q Airacobras from Krasnoyarsk and the regiment was completely transitioned to these types. Even so, the last examples of the Airacobra I (AH658, 723) flew in the regiment until early 1944.

To the period ending on 31 December 1943, 19th Guards IAP flew 7,451 combat sorties with a combined 5,410 hours 19 minutes. They shot down Bf-109E-56, Bf-109F-43, Bf-109G-14, He-113-1, Bf-110-30, Ju-88-7, Ju-87-9, He-111-1, Do-215-2, Hs-126-5, Fi-156-1, and FW-189-1. During this time the regiment’s losses were pilots-46 (of these 35 in combat), aircraft-86 (of these, 59 shot down in combat, 20 of which were Airacobras). Non-combat losses were 3 catastrophic losses (of these, 1 Airacobra). A total of 128 aircraft were input to the regiment, of these 56 Airacobras.

Copyright Michael Bykov ©
Airacobra I BX168 “White15” of Guards Capt. Bochkov, 19 GIAP. I.V. Bochkov was shot down and killed in aerial combat on April 4, 1943

In addition to the normal simultaneous re-equipping of aviation units (complete or partial) with a new type of aircraft, the practice also existed to deliver several air frames of new aircraft directly to front-line regiments for pilot transition training. For example, 17th IAP received four Airacobra I aircraft in July 1942. The most experienced pilots of the regiment flew in these airplanes: squadron commander Captain A. I. Novikov, HSU [Hero of the Soviet Union] (as of 23 August 1942-242 combat sorties, 11 personal kills), Senior Lieutenant I. V. Zherdev, and Sgt. Kolomiets among others. Till the end of 1942 the regiment operated LaGG-3 and Yak-1 transitioning to the Airacobra and La-5 in the interludes between battles. On 3 January 1943 the regiment turned over all four Airacobras in operational condition to another unit and was sent to the 22d ZAP for transition. It subsequently was trained for re-equipping on the Airacobra, Bf-109G2 (!), and later again on the Airacobra. But the second time it was the model P-39N and Q. The regiment still had AH702 in its inventory during training in 22 ZAP.

By order No. 111 of 6 September 1942, 22d ZAP, AH645, 670, 715, and AP/BX (?) 301 were sent to the North-West Front. Their subsequent disposition is unknown.
Airacobra AH610 was transferred to 22d ZAP from 295th IAP.

In addition to the VVS of the Red Army, Airacobra Is were actively employed in the air forces of the VMF (navy), albeit exclusively in the VVS of Northern Fleet [10]. Here in two fighter regiments (2d Guards Mixed and 78th Fighter Regiments) of 6th Fighter Brigade was a broad assortment of aircraft equipment from the Soviet-produced I-16 to imported Hurricanes and Kittyhawks. The reason was simple: these regiments were responsible for air cover of Allied convoys and the destination port Murmansk. Therefore aircraft unloaded there were made available to these units first (by the timeless principle, “that which you guard you shall have”). And if one speaks seriously, this was indeed very dangerous duty. A pilot who was shot down over these northern waters faced almost certain death. The war did not show mercy even to such an ace as Twice Hero of the Soviet Union B. F. Safonov, who went down in the sea near convoy PQ-16 [flying a P-40 that day-JG].
It was namely his comrades in the 2d Guards Mixed Air Regiment, which by order of the People’s Commissar of the Navy was named after their commander B. F. Safonov, who first received the Airacobra I in the spring of 1942: squadron commanders Captains A. A. Kovalenko and A. N. Kukharenko, and pilots Lieutenants N. A. Bokiy, Z. A. Sorokin, and P. D. Klimov. Just one fact serves as sufficient description of their successes in the Cobra: by the middle of 1943, all of them (except Z. A. Sorokin and A.N. Kukharenko) had received the rank Hero of the Soviet Union, which was awarded for not less than 10 personally destroyed enemy aircraft. (Sorokin received this distinction on 19 August 1944.)

While completing the account of the Airacobra I in Soviet aviation, the following conclusions can be drawn. Despite a number of design deficiencies of this first model of the air frame (undercarriage weakness, engine seizures, inadequate rate of climb, tendency to flat spin), it was a threatening weapon in the hands of skilled aerial warriors. As was written in the summary of the commander of 153d (28th Guards) IAP regarding the combat work in the Voronezh and West Fronts in July-August 1942, “The Airacobra aircraft is considered by the Germans to be the most dangerous enemy and should be engaged in combat only when they [the Germans] have numerical superiority and the advantage in altitude and surprise.” Therefore, the decision by the VVS command regarding preliminary serious study of the aircraft and its testing and subsequent delivery to units that had combat experience turned out to be correct. Combat tested and experienced pilots were able to master the correct tactical employment of the airplane in a minimal period of time. They learned to compensate inadequate vertical maneuver with good formation flying, echeloned by altitude (pair above pair with 100-200 meter interval). Mutual fire support also made possible minimal losses and maximum damage to the enemy. The most clear example of this was in the 19th Guards IAP, where group kills were almost three times greater than individual kills. A year later A. I. Pokryshkin, the creator of the celebrated “Kuban’ bookshelf”, arrived at this same “group” tactic independently and in more complete form. The conclusion regarding whom the Airacobra engaged-slow-moving transports and aging bombers, or Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs of the latest models, can be drawn from the statistics presented above.

The Airacobra I was actively employed in the Soviet VVS for approximately a year, from June 1942 until the early summer of 1943. Subsequently losses in this air frame were compensated for by deliveries of the later models. The last two Airacobra Is arrived in the USSR in January 1943. By the end of the summer of 1943 they had almost disappeared from line units, although the last examples fought on until the spring of 1944.

In conclusion, several words need be said regarding the odyssey of the last combat “Englishman”. Bell Airacobra I AH586 arrived in the RAF as one of the first and debuted in the 601st Division mentioned above. After having served almost a year in the RAF, it was disassembled, put back into crates, and sent to the VVS Red Army on 9 September 1942. Here it was once again unpacked in 22d ZAP. In the fall of 1943, it was assigned to the 69th Guards IAP, which was transitioning here to the Cobra, and at the moment the regiment was sent to the front, on 1 October 1943, AH586 was assigned to the regiment either as a trainer or as a museum display. All the remaining P-39s were the significantly later models K, L, M, and N.

In addition to combat employment, the Airacobra I served for a long time as “guinea pigs” at NII VVS Red Army. Two Cobras from the very first party, AH628 and AH644, went into the institute in May 1942 immediately after completion of government testing. They never were able to “take a rest”. From the beginning of mass exploitation reports about exposed hidden defects began to emerge from the horn of plenty. In most cases the engine failed, either upon takeoff or during combat. For example, in the 19th Guards IAP, there was one catastrophic failure and four accidents in the first two weeks; in the 153d IAP, one catastrophic failure and one accident. At first everyone blamed the Allison, in general a decent, light, and powerful engine that did not, however, want to work on Soviet-refined oils. It was real “picky”, however, only at the beginning, and not without reason. After filtration, which removed dross and other debris, the Allison stopped “self destructing”. Another defect required a great amount of investigation, the so-called “throwing of rods”. This allegedly occurred when because of frequent running at the engine’s operating limits (without which, of course, aerial combat was unthinkable) the aforementioned parts broke loose, came through the crankcase and destroyed everything in their path, in particular the control rods. A number of flight and laboratory tests were undertaken which enabled the test engineers to recommend the most favorable operating regimes of the engine to combat pilots, and succeeded in reducing the level of this type of failure.

As was graphically expressed in the words of I. G. Rabkin, the Airacobra at the institute was never far from view. Highly qualified specialists of the NII VVS pored over it through the course of an entire year: pilots V. E. Golofastov, K. A. Gruzdev, Yu. A. Antipov, A. G. Kochetkov, engineers P. S. Onoprienko, V. I. Usatov, P. S. Ivanov, and V. Ya. Klimov. After the defects in the engine, the most serious “illness” of the Cobra was its tendency to enter into a flat spin. The correct diagnosis of this “illness” was not discovered immediately. It took several months of testing, during which one of the best pilots of the NII, Major K. A. Gruzdev, died. This experienced test pilot, from a front-line unit (former commander of 402d and 416th IAPs, 17 kills), took off in AH628 on 2 February 1943. He spun the aircraft for about an hour in the sky above the town Koltsov, near Sverdlovsk, where the institute had been evacuated. After this the aircraft went into a dive and exploded on impact with the ground.

They “defeated” the spin on later models of the Airacobra. The second institute “snake”, AH644, was sent back to 22 ZAP in May 1943.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Soviet pilots and engineers, front-line troops and researchers, gave their maximum effort to turn the Airacobra into a fully capable combat aircraft. And in doing so they saved the Bell firm from great unpleasantness associated with the production of a series of “unfinished” aircraft. But more about this in the following chapters.

Continue to Part 2 >

Translated by James F. Gebhardt ©

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