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Bell’s P-39 Aircobra In Three Acts

War, Restoration, and Relinquishment

First flown in 1938 and fielded by the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1941, Bell’s P-39 Aircobra was born into war. It was a strange creature, the P-39 was ahead of its time in many ways, yet wanting for rudimentary features essential to air-combat—of which it saw a great deal.

Among the Aircobra’s curiosities was its 1,200-horsepower Allison V-1710-85 V-12 liquid-cooled engine, which was mounted amidships, behind the pilot, and  drove the aircraft’s single, forward, 3-bladed constant-speed, tractor propeller by means of a long shaft. For reasons passing understanding, the big Allison engine was without a supercharger—an omission that handicapped the P-39 at altitude.

Notwithstanding its eccentricities, Soviet pilots put the Aircobra to deadly use—scoring more kills in the machine than any U.S. fighter type flown by any air force in any conflict.

America provisioned a great many Allied nations with P-39s. In addition to the Soviet Union, Aircobras were flown by air forces of France, Poland, Portugal, Britain, and Australia. The Aussies cast the aircraft in the role of a stop-gap interceptor, and plied it to the defense of Australia’s coastal cities from Japanese belligerence.

One such P-39, forced down by a 1943 tropical storm, sat idle at its Cape York crash-landing site for more than forty-years before being salvaged by a team of aviation enthusiasts from the northeast-Australian cities of Cairns and Townsville.

Among the intrepid group was a chap called Sid Beck, who got passionately about the arduous business of restoring the long-suffering Aircobra. Beck’s work, however, came to the attention of Australia’s nanny-state government, which dispatched a squad of Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) goons to dismantle the P-39s wholly non-functional machine-guns. In their eagerness to render the inoperable inoperative, the credentialed buffoons destroyed a section of the old fighter’s nose.

Undeterred, Beck repaired the damage and pressed on with the Aircobra’s restoration. In time, he returned the aircraft to soundness, even rebuilding its decades-dormant engine—which readily fired up in a sublimely ear-splitting, petrol-redolent declaration of Bell’s and Allison’s engineering prowess and Beck’s ingenuity and persistence.

The Aircobra remained in the care of Mr. Beck’s family as an exhibit at Mareeba, Australia’s Beck Military Museum until 2017, when the museum closed and its collection was acquired by private parties. What’s become of the old fighter is something of a mystery—as befits a warplane as enigmatic as the P-39.



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