Home Articles Early Versions of Airacobra Aircraft in Soviet Aviation. Part 2

Early Versions of Airacobra Aircraft in Soviet Aviation. Part 2

by Valery Romanenko

The P-39D-2 in the Soviet VVS

P-39D-2 Airacobras (Bell Model-14A) arrived in the USSR exclusively by the “southern” route, through Iran. Transport ships brought crates containing aircraft from Island or directly from east coast ports of the USA by two sea routes: either through Gibralter, Suez Canal, Red Sea, Arabian Sea, and the Persian Gulf to the port Abadan (Island-Abadan approximately 12,500 miles, New York-Abadan approximately 15,600 miles), or around Cape of Good Hope (22,000 miles and 23,500 miles respectively). The Allies were forced to use such long routes in late 1942 after the decisive destruction of convoy PQ-17 and the general growing losses in arctic convoys of up to 11-12 percent of their vessels. The new routes passed either through regions of absolute Allied superiority at sea and in the air or were generally away from the theater of military operations. A positive aspect of the route was safety (reduced losses to convoys despite significantly fewer escort vessels) and a serious negative aspect was the protracted time of delivery of the cargo, which had grown to as much as 35-60 days.

Specific difficulties existed as well on the “land” stage, which passed through the territory of Iraq and Iran. The pro-German orientation of the governments of these two countries, mountainous topography, and absence of a transportation infrastructure created significant obstacles for the establishment of a through path across Iran from the Persian Gulf to Soviet Azerbaydzhan. Serious military, political, and engineering support of the route was required, and was accomplished in 1941-42. In May 1941, British forces suppressed a pro-German coup in Iraq, supported from the air by German and Italian aviation. In September, British and Soviet forces occupied Persia (Iran). They brought to power a government that was friendly to Great Britain and the USSR. Unequivocal acts of aggression by today’s standards, these military-political actions in 1941 turned out to be positive preventive measures that enabled the countries of west Asia to be “snatched away” from cooperation with the fascists. British engineer troops, under the leadership of General Connoly, enlarged the ports, built a highway, and reconstructed the railroad and airfield network.
The southern route for aviation began to operate beginning in June 1942. Bostons and Hurricanes traveled this route first, and in November also Airacobras, Spitfires, and Kittyhawks. Crated fighters were unloaded in the port Abadan. Assembly and test flight was accomplished normally in the immediate Abadan area (Iran), or at an RAF airbase in Basra (Iraq) some 60 kilometers to the west.

The Soviet VVS undertook a number of preparatory measures to solidify the southern route. In the summer of 1942, the Soviet VVS created an assembly airfield at Abadan and positioned there approximately 300 Soviet engineers and workers under the overall supervision of A. I. Evtikhov. An intermediate airbase was created in Teheran, at which was carried out the reception of aircraft by military representatives of the Import Directorate of the VVS Red Army (chief-Colonel V. V. Fokin). Ferry aviation regiments and special training centers were formed to move the imported aircraft and transition Soviet personnel to them.
The route functioned in the following manner for Airacobras. The airplanes delivered by sea were unloaded in Abadan, assembled by Soviet specialists, and test flown by Soviet pilots. They were ferried along an air route to Teheran, to the Kvali Marga airfield, where military representatives of the Import Directorate received them. Subsequently the aircraft were ferried to a training center in the town Adzhi-Kabul [about 80 km southwest of Baku] (Azerbaydzhan) or to ferrying airfields in the vicinity of the city Kirovabad. Because of Stalin’s pathological mistrust of foreigners, British and American specialists were allowed minimal participation in the delivery of these aircraft. They were allowed to consult during the unpacking, assembly, and test flight in Abadan and in the inventory and turnover process at Teheran. After the takeoff from the airfield in Teheran in the northwest direction, the aircraft disappeared forever from the eyes of the Allies. They only rarely were called regarding ungenerous complaints of defects that arose during the shipping of the items, primarily corrosion in the onboard weapons.

The delivery of fighters, including the P-39D, was executed by the 6th Ferrying Fighter Regiment (PIAP), specially designated for this purpose, commanded by Major Mishchenko. This regiment was formed on 10 February 1943 on TOE 015/174 (3 squadrons, 3 flights with 3 crews in each plus the regiment headquarters flight, total of 31 crews) and was subordinated to the VVS of the Transcaucasus Front. Each squadron specialized in a specific aircraft type (1-Airacobras, 2-Kittyhawks, 3-others), which, however, was a temporary distinction. The headquarters was located initially in the city Kirovabad, to where the aircraft were initially ferried. After the confirmation in June 1943 of the endpoint of the ferry route at Adzhi-Kabul, the headquarters was moved to a nearby railroad station at Kazi-Magomed.

The regiment ferried a total of 2,386 aircraft in 1943. Taking into consideration the complexity of the route (a distance of 1,450 km with one intermediate landing in Teheran, the flight was conducted at altitudes from 3,000 to 5,000 meters in difficult conditions, across two mountain ranges), losses during the year were minimal-all of one pilot. There were no cases where a loss of orientation occurred.

At Adzhi-Kabul the delivered aircraft were turned over to the 25th ZAP, which was the “southern” training center analogous to the 22d ZAP. The 25th ZAP was formed on 30 October 1941 and until 25 July 1943 was based at Adzhi-Kabul, Azerbaydzhan. It belonged to the VVS of Transcaucasus Front. In 1942 it trained pilots on the MiG-3 and LaGG-3, and from November 1942 also on the Kittyhawk. Effective 31 January 1943 the regiment trained exclusively on foreign fighters. During 1943 it trained 9 air regiments, of these four-45th, 298th, 16th Guards, and 494th IAP-on Airacobras, and an additional 185 individual pilots. Some 339 Airacobra P-39 models D-2, K, L, M, and N were prepared and sent to the front. Specifically, in the period from 28 November 1942 through 4 May 1943, 57 Airacobra P-39D-2s (serial numbers 41-38414, 416-38, 440, 444-63, 520, 528, 532, 540, 541, 544-47, 550, 555, and 556) and one P-39D-1 (41-28257, the first in that series) arrived at 25th ZAP. Counting three P-39D-2s that arrived at 22d ZAP directly from Kirovabad (41-38439, 442, 522), bypassing 25th ZAP, the total number of the first Lend-Lease series P-39D-1 and D-2s delivered to the USSR was 61 aircraft.

Organizationally the 25th ZAP was similar to the 22d ZAP (minus, of course, the assembly teams and military inventory group), and consisted of three squadrons, of which 1st Squadron trained pilots exclusively on the P-39, and the 3d Squadron parallel on the P-39 and P-40. P-39D-2 (numbers 41-38435, 426, 436, 459, 460, and 461) aircraft were principally used for pilot training. Of these the first was lost to catastrophic damage, while the remainder, having survived several accidents and repair, safely endured until 1944.

The process of transition training also was typical. A depleted regiment was brought from the front, re-manned, trained on the new equipment, received aircraft, and was sent back to the front. The replacement of aircraft combat losses in regiments that had passed through the 25th ZAP was also accomplished. Modest numbers of aircraft were sent to fighting units (for familiarization), that had been identified for later transition. So in addition to its role as a training center, the regiment also served as a depot for distributing arriving aircraft directly to combat units. Therefore the 25th ZAP was a primary channel through which American and British aircraft arrived in the southern sector of the Soviet-German front.

Because the quantity of arriving imported air frames was continuously growing, this channel had to be considerably broadened. The 11th ZAP was also assigned the mission to transition existing regiments to American and British aircraft. For this purpose, 25th ZAP transferred to the 11th ZAP P-39D-2 serial numbers 41-38436 and 461 in September 1943. The 26th ZAP was brought on line in November 1943. However, only the later models of the P-39 (M, N, and beyond) passed through these units.

298th (104th Guards) IAP

This regiment began transition training to Airacobra aircraft at 25th ZAP on 10 January 1943. It was the first to complete transition training. The regiment received their aircraft and flew to the front on 16 February 1943, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel I. A. Taranenko. This regiment was formed on TOE 015/174 and had 32 Airacobras, type P-39K-1 and P-39D-2. Almost two-thirds of its aircraft were D models (serial numbers 41-38414, 417-422, 440, 444, 445, 447-55, 457, and 463). The method of distribution of these aircraft is of some interest. The regiment commander, chief of gunnery service, navigator, and squadron commanders and zampolits [political officers] all received the P-39K, while the flight commanders and all remaining pilots received the P-39D-2.

The regiment went into combat on 17 March 1943 from Korenovsk airfield, in the Kuban, as part of the 219th Bomber Division, 4th Air Army. The regiment fought in this subordination for the entire extent of the celebrated air campaign over the Kuban. It fought against the best German fighter squadrons: JG 51 (Mulders) and JG 3 (Green Hearts). During the period from 17 March to 20 August 1943, the regiment flew 1,625 combat sorties with a flight time of 2,072 hours. It conducted 111 aerial engagements, in which it shot down 167 and damaged an additional 29 enemy aircraft. Its losses were 30 Airacobras destroyed and 11 damaged.
For combat successes in the Kuban campaign, the 298th IAP was designated the 104th Guards IAP on 24 August 1943. The regiment commander, I. A. Taranenko, received the rank Hero of the Soviet Union and was promoted. Major V. G. Semenishin, who had been awarded HSU on 24 May 1943, was named the regiment commander on 18 July 1943. In August 1943, the newspaper Pravda published a photograph of the four best pilots of the regiment with the inscription, “Fighter pilots who, in the battle for the Kuban, have shot down 60 German aircraft: major V. Semenishin, Captains K. Vishnevetskiy and V. Drygin, Junior Lieutenant A. Vilyamson”. V. M. Drygin received the HSU rank on 24 May 1943, Vishnevetskiy at the end of the Kuban campaign on 24 August 1943, and Vilyamson on 27 June 1945.

On 21 August 1943 the regiment was reassigned to the most celebrated in Soviet VVS 9th Guards Fighter Division (IAD), which by the end of the war had earned the honorific titles Mariupol’sko-Berlinskaya Order of Lenin, Red Banner, Order of Bogdan Khmelnitskiy Guards Division. However the story of the subsequent actions of the regiment is outside the parameters of this publication. Despite the receipt in April of two P-39D-2s (41-38432 and 532), and also one P-39D-1 (41-28257), practically no Airacobras of these models remained in the regiment. The first one shot down was 41-38444 (pilot Sergeant G. I. Belyakov died) on 19 March 1943. When Semenishin took over command of the regiment in mid-July, he signed for only 41-38414, 420, 453, and 41-28257. In August 41-38453 was lost, and 41-38414 in September. 41-38463 was destroyed in a catastrophic failure on 21 April 1943.

The aircraft numbers of the aces who flew the P-39D-2 in the Kuban were: HSU V. M. Drygin-41-38421, HSU M. S. Likhovid-41-38455, and A. S. Zakalyuk-41-38457.

45th (100th Guards) IAP

This regiment was located at 25th ZAP for transition training from 23 October 1942 through 18 February 1943, with the 2d Squadron of 25th ZAP. It trained on the Kittyhawk until the end of 1942 and then on the P-39. Actual training flights commenced on 22 November 1942 and were completed on 14 February 1943. Statistics have been preserved that describe the quantitative aspects of the flight training: 155 training combat sorties, 112 gunnery training flights at panels and 98 at drones, 134 routine sorties, and 113 “blind” sorties. The total flight time was 671 hours with 1,682 landings and one catastrophic accident (13 February 1943).
The regiment was sent back to the front on 16 February 1943, formed on TOE 015/174. At the moment of departure it had 18 pilots with combat experience, 13 pilots without combat experience, 10 P-39D-2 aircraft (serial numbers 41-38416, 427, 429, 431, 433, 446, 451, 456, 458, and 462), 11 P-39K-1 aircraft, and 9 P-40E aircraft. The Airacobras were in the 1st and 3d Squadrons, the Kittyhawks in the 2d Squadron. The regiment commander was Lieutenant Colonel I. M Dzusov. The regiment arrived at the Krasnodar airfield on 9 March and immediately began combat operations as part of the 216th Mixed Air Division, 4th Air Army.

The regiment fell into the “oven” of combat over the Kuban and on the second day suffered its first loss: Airacobra 41-38427 with engine Allison V-1710-63 (E-6) no. AAC 42-135031 did not return from its combat mission. This was the first P-39D-2 shot down on the Soviet-German front.

The regiment had to face Luftwaffe aces from Udet, Green Heart, and Mulders squadrons. Already on the following day, 11 March, two P-39D-2s (138433 [11] and 446) went into repair. Nonetheless, the regiment quickly launched into the fight with the stubborn Teutons. On 23 March 8 Airacobras faced off against 30 Messerschmitts and shot down 13, losing 3 of their own. But this victory came at a terrible price. Two pilots, in order to change the course of a badly developing battle, consciously flew their damaged and burning aircraft into enemy airplanes and perished, destroying two Messers in the process. Sergeant N. Kudryashov was 19 years old and Senior Lieutenant I. Shmatko was in his twenties. B. B. Glinka was wounded in this battle-a round came straight through the cockpit of his P-39D-2, no. 138431.

April aerial combats were particularly successful, when the pilots had a firmer grasp on their airplanes and tactics. During that month I. I. Babak shot down 14 fighters, Lieutenant Boris Glinka 3 fighters and 2 bombers, Senior Lieutenant Dmitriy Glinka 5 and 1, Sergeant I. Kudrya 5 and 1, Lieutenant N. Lavitskiy 1 and 2 respectively, and Senior Sergeant V. Sapyan 2 fighters. The regiment suffered losses as well, because its opponents were the “cream” of the Luftwaffe. 15 April 1943 is considered the “black day” of the regiment: D. Glinka and V. Sapyan were shot down at around 1300, and Senior Lieutenant M. Petrov and Sergeant Bezbabnov in the evening at around 1900. Erich Hartmann, a relatively new fighter pilot in III/JG 52, shot down one of the “evening” Cobras (41-38451 or 42-4606). This was the seventh kill (and first Airacobra) of the future top German ace of World War II, who finished his career in Soviet captivity with a score of 352 kills, some 345 of them on the Eastern front.

Altogether during two months of intense aerial combat over the Kuban, pilots of 45th IAP shot down 118 German aircraft, losing 7 Airacobras shot down and 8 damaged in combat or in accidents, 1 P-40E shot down and 1 destroyed in an accident. The regiment had the best results in the theater and was quickly, already by 10 May, re-equipped with new models of the Airacobra: P-39L, M, and N. The surviving intact old P-39D-2s (138416, 429, 456, and 458), P-39K, and P-40Es were handed off to the 16th Guards IAP and 298th IAP.

For combat successes in the aerial campaign over the Kuban, on 18 June 1943 the 45th IAP was re-designated as the 100th Guards IAP. Regiment commander I. M Dzusov had been promoted to colonel in May and elevated to command of the 216th Mixed Air Division, which in turn was re-designated the 9th Guards Fighter Division (with the 16th, 100th, and 104th Guards IAP). Four pilots of the regiment were given the HSU rank immediately upon the completion of the campaign: B. B. Glinka (15 kills), P. M. Berestnev (10 personal + 2 group kills), N. D. Kudrya (11 kills), and D. I. Koval (10 + 3) on 24 May 1943. The awards to Kudrya and Koval were posthumous. I. I. Babak (18 + 2) and N. E. Lavitskiy (11 + 1) received their HSU on 1 November and 24 August 1943 respectively. D. B. Glinka became a captain during the spring-summer campaign and received two HSU stars: 24 April 1943 for 15 kills and 24 August for 29, of these 25 in the Kuban battle.

B. B. Glinka flew on P-39D-2 no. 41-38431 until 22 March 1943, and I. I. Babak on 41-38416 until 26 April 1943.

16th Guards IAP

This regiment was the only one transitioned at 25th ZAP that had received its Guards designation (8 March 1943) before the receipt of the Airacobras. Having fought continuously since 22 June 1941, it was first relieved for rest and reconstitution at the end of December 1942 when it arrived at 25th ZAP. The regiment began transition on Airacobras on 1 January and began flight training on 17 January. However, the training process had to be extended three months because of the lack of airframes. They began to arrive for 16th Guards IAP only on 11 March. The Pilots had to ferry them themselves from Teheran.

By 3 April 1943 the regiment had been reformed on TOE 015/175 (32 air crews) and departed for the front, to the 216th Mixed Air Division of 4th Air Army. It had in its inventory 14 P-39L-1, 7 P-39K-1, and 11 P-39D-2 (serial numbers 41-38424, 425, 428, 430, 434, 437, 438, 528, 547, 550, and 555). It arrived at Krasnodar airfield on 8 April and on 11 April was relocated to Popovicheskaya airfield.

The regiment began combat operations on 9 April, at the very beginning of the battle for the Kuban. This campaign is considered pivotal in the history of Soviet VVS. Over the course of two months of intense battles with the best fighter squadrons of the Luftwaffe, Soviet pilots won strategic superiority in the air. Approximately 1100 German aircraft were destroyed, some 800 of them in the air. Western historians call this battle the “Stalingrad” of the Luftwaffe.

The pilots of the regiment fought combat operations of a corresponding nature with German fighters. The outcome of the battles in April: 289 Airacobra and 13 Kittyhawk combat sorties, in which were conducted 28 aerial engagements. Shot down were Bf-109E-14, Bf-109F-12, Bf-109G-45, FW-190-2, Ju-88-4, Do-217-1, and Ju-87-1. Of these, Guards Captain A. I. Pokryshkin shot down 10 Messers, Guards Senior Lieutenant V. I. Fadeev 12-Bf-109s, and Guards Senior Lieutenant G. A. Rechkalov 7 Messers and 1 Ju-88.

Copyright Michael Bykov ©
P-39D-2 “White 37” of Guards Snr.Lt. V.I. Fadeev, CO of the 3-rd Squadron, 16 GIAP. Kuban’, April-May, 1943

This delineated parsing of Messerschmitt kills by model is explained by the fact that in this period Soviet pilots received official credit only for aircraft downed over Soviet-controlled territory. Those destroyed on the German side of the front line were not counted, as a rule. Because of this method of counting, A. I. Pokryshkin, for example, was “shorted” 13 German aircraft (by the end of the war his actual score was 72 kills but of these only 59 were counted officially). A pilot received credit for an enemy airplane destroyed after confirmation by ground forces of its fall, with a tally of its location, type, and number. Frequently the ground unit removed and sent to the air unit the engine data plate.

During this same period the regiment lost 13 Airacobras destroyed or not returned from combat missions, two in accidents, and 11 pilots. 19 Airacobras were received into the regiment in April (of these P-39D-2 numbers 41-38416, 429, 458, and 520) and 4 P-40Es, received from 45th IAP, 84th IAP, and 25th ZAP. 41-38423 was the last, received on 5 June.

During two months of intensive battles a large portion of the earlier model P-39s was used up. By 1 June 1943 19 Airacobras remained in the regiment, of these 6 P-39D-2 (41-38416, 424, 429, 434, 458, and 520). There were non-combat losses as well: 41-38528 went into a spin during a training flight on 30 May 1943 and the pilot died. The “old men” turned out to be 41-38458, destroyed on 22 October 1943, and 41-38520. The latter had been set aside for the regiment commander who did not fly on combat missions. After 24 April 1943 it was given to pilot P. P. Ketov and safely fought to the end of 1943, setting some kind of record for longevity. A. I. Pokryshkin made a single combat flight in this aircraft in April.

The following aces of 16th Guards IAP flew in P-39D-2s: G. A Rechkalov (41-38547, briefly), V. I. Fadeev (41-38428, tactical number 37), and N. M. Iskrin (41-38555, tactical number 27).

The most successful P-39D-2 pilot Guards Snr. Lt. V.I. Fadeev, CO of the 3-rd Squadron, 16 GIAP (call name “Boroda” [Beard]) with his wingman Guards Lt. A.I. Trud sitting on the wing of Fadeev’s White 37 41-38428. According to 16 GIAP documents, during 394 combat missions/51 encounters Fadeev scored 17 personal and 3 shared kills (from which 14 Bf-109 and 1 Ju-87 while flying Airacobra from April 4 to May 5, 1943). Fadeev was killed in action on May 5, 1943 and was posthumously awarded the Golden Star (photo from the author’s collection)

In the future 16th Guards IAP became the most famous fighter regiment in the Soviet VVS. The fundamentals of tactics of air combat that brought victory and glory were laid down in the difficult battles over the Kuban. It was here that the celebrated “Kuban bookshelf” was born, the structuring of the squadron in pairs with 100-150 meters of separation and horizontally dispersed coming out of the sun. The lower flight was the strike element that engaged in combat, and the upper flight provided cover. This formation gave freedom of maneuver, good visibility and observation, and also permitted the pilots to compensate for the insufficient vertical maneuverability of their Airacobras by mutually supporting pairs. An enemy fighter attempting to gain altitude fell under the attack of the upper “covering” pair. If the upper pair was attacked, it could dive to a lower level, thus bringing the enemy fighters under the fire of the “strike” element. The author of this combat formation, as well as a number of other tactical methods, was A. I. Pokryshkin, a leading Soviet ace and future three times Hero of the Soviet Union. For successes in April battles, on 4 May Guards Captain Pokryshkin was named the chief of aerial gunnery service of 16th Guards IAP. Given that his regiment commander was not flying combat missions [the relationship of these two men was tortured and almost fatal for Pokryshkin early in 1943–JG], Pokryshkin became in effect the “director” of his own “school of aerial combat”. Among the graduates of this school before the end of the war were one twice Hero and about ten Heroes of the Soviet Union.

494th IAP

The last unit to train on the early models of the Airacobra was the 494th IAP. The regiment arrived on 11 March 1943 and left for the front on 13 August 1943, transitioned to Airacobras and formed on TOE 015/174 (32 aircrews). Among the aircraft received were P-39D-2 numbers 41-38541, 544, and 546. The regiment was commanded by Major I. V. Belov from 1 March to 30 November 1943 and fought as part of the 303d Smolensk IAD, alongside the renowned Normadie regiment. However it played only a small part in combat operations, completing altogether 62 combat sorties (44 hours). The regiment downed 3 enemy aircraft with the loss of a single Airacobra and pilot. It was folded into the 22d ZAP on 1 December 1943.

Several other units received single P-39D-2 aircraft. The 84th IAP, which was at the 25th ZAP for transition training from April through July 1943, received numbers 41-58545 and 41-38423. It gave up the latter to 16th Guards on 31 May. The 57th Guards IAP, which had trained earlier at the 25th ZAP on another aircraft type [Spitfire V], received P-39D-2 number 41-38429 on 27 May 1943 (pilot Junior Lieutenant V. P. Dudarev), apparently for familiarization, because in December 1943 the entire regiment was re-equipped with the P-39 model N and Q.

The famous 9th Guards IAP also received single issuance of P-39D-2 number 41-38416. This aircraft established an exemplary record: in its brief life it managed to belong to four different regiments. 25th ZAP received it in January 1943. It was identified as being in an accident in the 45th IAP on 26 April, it was damaged again in the 16th Guards IAP, and finally, on 1 August 1943, it was sent to 9th Guards IAP, clearly for training flights.

One P-39D-2 (41-38556) went on 22 May 1943 to the 28th IAP, a regiment equipped with Kittyhawks.
The 436th IAP, also equipped with Kittyhawks, gave them up on 10 March 1943 and independently began preliminary transition training on the Airacobra, for which it had received two P-39D-2s. By 15 March the entire pilot component of the regiment was flying the Airacobras. The regiment went through transition at the North-West Front, executed 114 sorties with a total time of 16 hours 10 minutes. On the following day, having given up the P-39D-2s, it arrived at 45th ZAP to receive more modern models of the Airacobra.

To sum up the overview of the employment of the P-39D-2 on the Soviet-German front, one can cite from “Report concerning the work of the engineer-aviation service of 216th SAD” for April 1943, which pertains, by the way, also to the P-39 models K and L: “In the opinion of the pilots, the evaluation of the Airacobra with Allison engine is very positive.” As was outlined above, about 70 percent of the 216th’s aircraft were early models.

The reports of the maintenance chief of the 216th SAD for May and June also reveal a great number of defects: weak chassis, stumbling of the engine when in transition from high RPMs to low RPMs, and the tendency for the aircraft to go into a spin. But the overall evaluation of the aircraft remained unchanged.

Drawing conclusions, it can be said that the debut of the Airacobra in the Soviet VVS was singularly successful. In skilled hands it was a powerful weapon, fully on a par with the enemy equipment. There was no “special” operational environment for the Airacobras-they were employed as normal multi-purpose fighters that fulfilled the same roles as Lavochkins and Yakovlevs: they contested with fighters, escorted bombers, flew on reconnaissance, and protected our ground forces. They differed from Soviet-produced fighters in having a more powerful armament, survivability, and a good radio, and fell behind our fighters in vertical maneuverability, capability to withstand excessive G-forces, and to execute acute maneuvers. The pilots loved their Airacobras for comfort and good protection. As one P-39 pilot expressed it, he felt like he was “flying in a safe”. Airacobra pilots did not burn because the aircraft was metal and the fuel cells were positioned far away in the wing. They were not subject to jets of steam or streams of oil because the engine was behind them. Their faces were not beat up on protrusions of the gunsight. If the airplane should happen to flip over on landing, they were not turned into lump of flesh, as happened to twice HSU A. F. Klubov after transitioning from a P-39 to an La-7. There was a kind of mystical belief that a pilot attempting to preserve a damaged Cobra by belly landing it would almost always emerge not only alive, but also undamaged. But if he bailed out of the same airplane he often was seriously injured or killed by the stabilizer, which was on the same level as the door.

One more quotation to conclude this matter. On 5 November 1943, the notes of a conversation of the ambassador of the USA A. Harriman with the People’s Commissar of Foreign Affairs of the USSR, V. M. Molotov: “There is one type of airplane, namely the Airacobra, which is used very well by the Soviet air forces. Harriman says that the Russians use this airplane even better than the Americans. Therefore Vandenberg (General, one of the leaders of the US Army Air Force) would be wise to acquaint himself with the experience of Soviet pilots. In connection with this, Vandenberg would want to visit Soviet squadrons equipped with the Airacobra aircraft.” Molotov responded that he considered such a meeting to be acceptable.


[1] Calculations were made, but not immediately, taking into consideration the mutual exchange deliveries over a specified period (year or longer), normally with a delay in payment until the end of the war. The USSR delivered primarily metal ores and paid in gold.
[2] Soviet aircraft industry delivered a total of 600 aircraft in December 1941.
[3] US Army Air Force, which prior to December 1941 was named the US Army Air Corps.
[4] According to 25th ZAP materials.
[5] Sovershenno sekretno-top secret.
[6] See Voyenno-istoricheskiy zhurnal, No. 2 1991, page 28.
[7] Marshal Kutakhov received his first HSU award on 1 May 1943 for combat performance, and his second on 15 August 1984 “for great contribution to the improvement of combat readiness and acquisition by the VVS of modern aviation equipment and in connection with his 70th birthday”. JG
[8] So stated in the original (and in Soviet reference books, for example, “German aircraft of 1941″). The designation is borrowed from German propaganda materials. In all likelihood, it was a Bf-109F.
[9]”Catastrophic loss /failure” indicates the loss of an aircraft and human fatalities, as opposed to a an accident when the equipment is damaged or lost but no casualties are inflicted. These definitions are irrelevant to the cause (human or technical).
[10] Northern Fleet VVS received a total of 75 Airacobra I aircraft in 1942-43. See Morskoy sbornik
5-6 /92, page 14.
[11] This is an abbreviated form of annotating the serial number on the aircraft’s tail. The corresponding complete number is 41-38433.
[12] Russian typewriters did not have Latin letters on the keyboard and Latin letter codes were omitted from all typed documentation. In rear instances of handwritten documents these codes are present. Therefore BX/AP (?) and alike means that the letter code is not known.
[13] IAP – Istrebitel’nyj Aviatsionnyj Polk (Fighter Aviation Regiment); GIAP – Gvardeyskiy Istrebitel’nyj Aviatsionnyj Polk (Guards Fighter Aviation Regiment); ZAP – Zapasnoj Aviacionnyj Polk (Reserve Aviation Regiment); ZAB – Zapasnaya Aviatsionnaya Brigada (Reserve Aviation Brigade); IAD – Istrebitel’naya Aviatsionnaya Diviziya (Fighter Aviation Division); PAP – Peregonochnyj Aviatsionnyj Polk (Ferry Aviation Regiment); VA – Vozdushnaya Armiya (Air Army); VVS – Voenno-Vozdushye Sily (Air Forces); VVS SF – Voenno-Vozdushnye Sily Severnogo Flota (Air Forces of the Northern Fleet)

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Translated by James F. Gebhardt ©

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