It is really hard to find a more controversial fighter aircraft of
the World War II period than Bell P-39 Airacobra. It was loved by ones,
hated by others and gained radically different opinions from pilots
flying it. To some extent, the Bell fighter may be compared to Brewster
Buffalo. Now it seems that early Allied losses suffered over Pacific
caused unfair and wrongful opinion about both aircraft. Simply something
had to be guilty. Experiences gained over other war fronts proved that
properly handled Airacobras and Buffalos could be extremely worthy
Although there is no agreement on Airacobra fighting capabilities,
many pilots considered P-39 as better than at least one other US fighter
of the era: P-40. One of the first pilots who scored with Airacobra was
first USAAC ace Boyd Wagner. He had mixed emotions about Bell fighter.
Despite pointing out several technical flaws of P-39, he stated that
Airacobra was better than P-40E in all respects except of
maneuverability. He was who called Airacobra Iron Dog and
appreciated its advantages as low level anti bomber interceptor.
USAAF aces scoring with Airacobras
It is surprising how many later USAAF aces opened their scores flying
the Bell fighter. However, only one pilot William F. Fiedler Jr. managed
to down five opponents flying the Airacobra, making him the only true
ace on the type. Fiedler was fighting against Japanese over Guadalcanal
with 347th Fighter Group.
George Welch - Pearl Harbor defender
There were only so few US pilots that managed to get
airborne during Japanese attack against Pearl Harbor. George "Wheaties"
Welch was not only lucky enough to climb with a P-40B, but skilled
enough to down four aggressors during that day of infamy. This famous
action was only a brilliant start of an outstanding flyer's career.
Exactly a year after Pearl Harbor Wheaties took heavy
toll on Japanese aircraft again. This time he was flying the Airacobra
with 8th Fighter Group and shot down three enemy planes over New Guinea.
As an outstanding ace he was allowed to move from P-39 equipped 36th FS
to 80th FS flying new Lightning fighters. Just three further combats in
summer of 1943 sufficed to rise his score to sixteen confirmed
Immediately afterwards Welch was moved to the States,
and then he decided to test new fighters for North American Aviation.
Wheaties did maiden flights for such aircraft like P-82B, P-82E and
F-86. Sadly his test-pilot career showed to be more risky than aerial
combat. On October 12th 1954 he was killed in flying accident during
In 8th FG he was assigned with P-39D-1 s/n 41-38359
"K" nicknamed Miss Helen the Flying Jenny. He used this
plane to score his triple kill during first anniversary of Pear Harbor.
After his move to 80th FS he was assigned with P-38G-15 s/n 43-2203
"E". This Lightning was used to score his final four victories
and may be to score earlier victories no. 8 & 9 as well.
Bell P-39D-1 Airacobra
Ser. no 41-38359
8th Fighter (Pursuit) Group, New Guinea, 1942
pilot George Welch
Welch's P-39D-1 carried typical scheme of the era.
Olive Drab upper surfaces and Neutral Gray under surfaces. National
insignia were located probably in four positions. Standard "U.S.
ARMY" should appear on the bottom wings. At the time when the photo
was taken, the plane was heavily weathered. Unfortunately I don't know
any photo of the rear part of "Miss Helen" so weathering style
was based on other P-39Ds of 8th FG.
Those times 8th Fighter Group pilots often used
flamboyant white aircraft symbols to mark victories. George Welch was no
exception. Note that his first victim downed over Ewa seemed to be quite
large at least for him.
No, I don't know any photo of "Miss
Helen's" port side. Drawing this side I was basing on other Group's
Airacobras. Note that P-39 pilots used to get off out of the cockpit to
the starboard side because of throttle location. It caused not typical
practice of adorning what was called later "wrong side" of the
aircraft. Looking at Welch's squadron mates' Airacobras I assume that
"Miss Helen" carried only letter "K" and Welch's
name on the port board.
Bell company used to paint serial numbers using
different style of 9 inch characters. Picture above shows what I could
figure out of several Airacobras photos. This style was common on medium
and late production P-39s.
Boyd Wagner - 1st USAAC ace
Like George Welch, "Buzz" Wagner was one of
those USAAC pilots who gained fame during the first days of Pacific war.
At the time of Pearl Harbor, Buzz stationed thousands miles westward -
at the Nichols Field in Philippines as a member of 17 Pursuit Squadron.
On December 12th 1941 Wagner took his P-40E against Japanese raiders and
managed to shoot down four Nate fighters in one day. On December 16th
Buzz downed another one Nate. This victory made him the first USAAC ace
of the war. On December 22nd an explosive shell hit the windscreen of
his P-40E and broken glass wounded him. Nevertheless injuries were light
enough to allow him to escape to Australia in January 1942.
Immediately after his arrival he was assigned to the
recently reformed 17 Pursuit Squadron (Provisional), but due to flip of
the coin he did not move to Java with it. Instead of that he joined the
headquarters of 5th Fighter Command.
In late spring 1942 Wagner took two squadrons of
Airacobra equipped 8th Fighter Group, and moved with them to New Guinea
still being officially assigned to 5th FC. On April 30th 1942 he downed
three Zeros while flying P-39, while Graham Greene of 35th PS destroyed
another one. These four kills were first victories of the 8th Fighter
Group. Because of his strange assignment status his three victories were
not credited officially and thus they are not counted in USAF Historical
Study, but now Mr. Frank Olynyk considers them as valid. On the other
hand it is hard to prove fully their authenticity as far as survived
Japanese loss reports show less than four downed Zeros claimed by 8th FG
on that day.
Soon after his last controversial kills Wagner was
withdrawn from the front and moved to the States. Sadly it didn't saved
his life as he was killed in flying accident on November 29th 1942 in
Ser. no 41-7170
8th Fighter (Pursuit) Group, New Guinea, 1942
pilot Boyd Wagner
Because of extremely chaotic situation over Philippines in December
1941, no details of Wagner's P-40s are known. His subsequent aircraft
are less enigmatic. He scored his final triple kill while flying a P-39.
According to Mr. Olynyk it was of "D" variant but in summer
1942 he was seen in P-39F s/n 41-7170 and all of his aircraft comparison
reports were based on P-39F variant. This is also the aircraft shown on
the profile, designated "X" and carrying the 39th Pursuit
Squadron badge on the cockpit entry door.
By the way, Wagner stated that P-39F was slightly better than P-40E
in all respects except of manoeuvrability. On the other hand Bell
aircraft was plagued by several minor but arduous technical problems.
Richard Suehr - Biologist and ace
Dick Suehr was not a rogue, Dick Suehr was a
graduated biologist before joining Air Corps. But his life ran far from
family's expectations. He joined USAAF before Pearl Harbor day, and was
commissioned a 2Lt on October 31st 1941. Initially he was assigned to
57th PG, but after Japanese attack he requested to join any front line
squadron. Thus he was assigned to 33 PS (Provisional) which headed
southwest to Australia. But during ferry flight he force landed, was
wounded and spent a few days in a hospital. Afterwards he was
transferred to the 39th FS of the 35th FG, which was supposed to stop
Japanese advances in New Guinea.
There Dick Suehr started to fly unconventional Bell
P-400 Airacobra fighters. The neglected aircraft was good enough to
allow Dick to score his first aerial victory in June. But in October
1942 whole 39th FS was lucky to receive Lockheed P-38F fighters as first
Fifth Fighter Command outfit. With Lightnings everything went smoother
and Suehr downed four further Japanese planes during Spring of 1943. In
Summer 1943 Suehr returned to the States, but he re-appeared over
Pacific in late 1944 as a member of 49th Fighter Group. On January 1st
1945 Dick Suehr was forced to ditch in the Ocean, but he managed to swim
to the nearest coast and was rescued after three days.
Richard Suehr survived the war, and served in USAF
until 1968, then retired.
Initially Richard Suehr's mount was P-400 no. 19 nicknamed The
Flaming Arrow. In October 1942, 39th Fighter Squadron was selected
as first 5th AF's squadron to convert to P-38s. Thus Dick Suehr was
assigned with P-39F no. 30 "Regina", and scored further four
kills with Lightnings.
Bell P-400 Airacobra
39th Fighter (Pursuit) Squadron, 35th Fighter (Pursuit) Group
Port Moresby, New Guinea, 1942
pilot Richard Suehr
The aircraft presented on the profile was produced for RAF as mid-series
Airacobra Mk. I. With the British disappointment in Airacobra's combat
qualities and the US entry into war it was taken over by USAAC under Air
Corps designation P-400. The plane carried factory-applied camouflage to
British standards and RAF insignia, although the latter were exchanged
to US stars. In such form the aircraft was assigned to 39th FS, 35th FG,
which headed to New Guinea to defend Port Moresby.
In 39th FS the aircraft received number "19" and was given
to future ace Lt. Richard Suehr, with blue spinner and tail tip denoting
39th FS. Suehr nicknamed the aircraft The Flaming Arrow. Small
numbers 19 were applied onto the leading edges of both wings
Suehr scored one victory flying a P-400, but I don't know if that
happened using the displayed aircraft.
RAF style camouflage of Aircarobra Mk. I /P-400 deserves further
comment. Taking existing colour photos into account, it can be stated
that the Bell company used its own RAF paint equivalents. The Dark
Earth seems to be a bit more red than its British equivalent, and
the elusive light-green Sky was simply substituted with US Sky
Gray. Dark Green was actually not replaced with US bluish Medium
Green 42 as stated elsewhere, but was very similar to the British
The US star insignia were superimposed over RAF roundels without any
visible remnants of the latter. RAF Fin Flashes were overpainted with
some darker colour, perhaps Olive Drab. Closeup of the tail shows
how the dark patch covering RAF Fin Flash was applied. The basic
camouflage was painted using rubber masks and had semi-hard edges, but
the patch seemed to be applied with brush and thus its edges were
The fuselage insignia application was apparently done while the plane
was standing on the retracted legs, and because of that the stars were
parallel to the ground rather than to the level of flight. At the time
when the known photos of The Flaming Arrow were taken, the
camouflage as well as insignia were seriously faded.
The second closeup shows the location of Suehr's simple noseart.
Unfortunately I could not determine what - if anything - was painted on
the starboard side of the nose.
Also, available photos show the noseart design somewhat blurry, which
is why the shape of the string "...RRO..." is conjectural.
Also the colours of the artwork are purely speculative.
A photo published in the old Squadron Signal Aces of the Southwest
Pacific shows two small dark blotches on the nose of this aircraft,
while another photo published in Airacobra In Action shows the
nose "clean". As far as I don't know if it was a result of
some repairs or it was a dirt or they were simply spots on the photo, I
decided to present "clean" appearance without the blotches.
The dark small rectangle above a hole in nose cowling is a place
where stenciling had been applied. I don't know if it was black over
Olive Drab or black over Dark Green.
Assigned to Norb Ruff
By a twist of circumstances, the very same P-400 had a further career
in another unit. By end-1942, as the 39th FS embarked on a
brand-new P-38 Lightnings, their Airacobras had been transferred to 80th
FS. AH 736 was assigned to Norbert C. Ruff, a promising pilot who hadn't
scored any aerial victory so far.
In the new unit the aircraft received new artwork and individual
numbering compatible with 8th FG practice. But surprisingly ground crews
did not strip previous numbers nor ID elements given by 39th FS. Thus
no. 19 remained no.19 but it was supplemented by the individual letter K.
Bell P-400 Airacobra
80th Fighter (Pursuit) Squadron, 8th Fighter (Pursuit) Group
Milne Bay, New Guinea, 1943
pilot Norb Ruff
The camouflage was still the same, although by the beginning of 1943
the camouflage colours were seriously faded. The edges of upper
camouflage colours were barely visible, and on some b/w photos they are
almost impossible to detect. This faded scheme combined with overall
worn appearance caused many artists to think that entire plane was repainted
with Olive Drab.
clues lead me to the conclusion that this was not the case. For example,
the dark patch on the fin once applied to conceal the RAF fin flash was
still noticeable. The blue spinner and tail tip were retained unchanged.
There were many speculations that these 39th FS color elements were
overpainted in yellow or light gray, but I think it is not true. The spinner
on the photos looks really old and dirty, not like a recently painted
A closer look at the nose shows that former Suehr's noseart was
overpainted with a slightly different shade, or maybe simply stripped
off. Also the yellow letter "K" is clearly visible. As in the
case of other 80th FS' aircraft, a stylised sharkmouth was painted on
the nose. It was most probably black with white teeth and red tongue,
but dark blue/white/red combination is also possible.
I don't know anything about further fate of this aircraft. In May
1943 even the 80th Fighter Squadron was converted to Lightnings, and
Norb Ruff would score four kills with P-38s.
John C. Stanaway, Lawrence J. Hickey
"Attack & Conquer" Schiffer Publishing Ltd.
Frank Olynyk "Stars and
Bars" Grub Street 1995;
Ernie McDowell "P-39 Airacobra
in Action" Squadron/Signal (Aircraft no. 48);
Gene B. Stafford "Aces of
Southwest Pacific" Squadron/Signal Publications Inc.
Bert Kinzey "P-39 Airacobra in
Detail" Squadron/Signal Publications Inc. 1999
(copyright by Detail & Scale Inc.);
Kenn C. Rust "Fifth Air Force
Story" A Historical Aviation Album Publication 1973;
Jacek Tomalik "Bell P-39
Airacobra, cz. 1" AJ-Press 1999.
USAF Historical Study No. 85