Throughout World War II, Bell fighter aircraft design seemed to be a step or two behind the latest developments. The Bell P-39 Airacobra (see NASM collection) was one of the first American military airplanes to fly 644 kph (400 mph) yet it could not be upgraded in response to operational combat experience (for example, increased armament) and was declared obsolete by the middle of the war. The P-63 Kingcobra succeeded the P-39 but it boasted nothing not already seen on other American fighter aircraft. No Kingcobra ever flew combat. Instead, the U. S. Army Air Forces (AAF) used the P-63 to train fighter pilots and bomber gunners. Two-thirds of the Kingcobras built were diverted to the Lend-Lease program and sent to Russia. The French flew about 200 P-63s after World War II and many saw combat in Indochina.
Transferred from the U.S. Air Force
Low-wing, single-engine monoplane fighter interceptor
Throughout World War II, Bell fighter aircraft design seemed to be a step or two behind the latest developments. The Bell P-39 Airacobra (see NASM collection) was one of the first American military airplanes to fly 644 kph (400 mph), yet it could not be upgraded in response to operational combat experience (for example, increased armament). In the middle of the war it was declared obsolete. The P-63 Kingcobra succeeded the P-39 but it boasted nothing not already seen on other American fighter aircraft. No Kingcobra ever flew combat. Instead, the U.S. Army Air Forces (AAF) used the P-63 to train fighter pilots and bomber gunners. Two-thirds of the Kingcobras built were diverted to the Lend-Lease program and sent to Russia. The French flew about 200 P-63s after World War II and many saw combat in Indochina.
Bell developed the Kingcobra from the XP-39E, a subseries of the Airacobra meant to improve that model's numerous deficiencies. Early in 1942, the company built three XP-39Es with improved wings, more powerful engines, as well as other refinements. Several new empennage configurations were tested as well. Speed improved over production P-39s, but almost all other performance categories suffered. It was time to abandon the P-39 completely and start from scratch with a new fighter that incorporated lessons learned from the XP-39E.
The new Kingcobra was similar to the Airacobra. Bell kept the engine behind the pilot and drove the nose-mounted propeller with a drive shaft. The tri-cycle landing gear arrangement was also retained, along with automobile-style doors fitted to both sides of the cockpit. Like the P-39, armament consisted of an M10 37mm cannon firing through the propeller spinner and machine guns with this block of production. The M-10 had a 58-round magazine for the cannon and was the standard armament for the Kingcobra through most of the remaining production.
In other respects, the P-63 was a brand new design. There were no interchangeable parts and the Kingcobra was noticeably larger than the Airacobra. It had a laminar flow wing, a 2-stage, supercharged engine, new empennage design, and better visibility from the cockpit. In June 1941, the AAF ordered two prototypes powered by the promising Continental V-1430 engine. By February 1942, however, the Continental engine project was dead, so Bell redesigned the Kingcobra to accept a newer version of the tried-and-true Allison V-1710.
By now weight growth, the bugbear of nearly every new airplane design, had become a major problem. Bell and the AAF undertook extraordinary measures to reduce it and succeeded in meeting their target weight by first flight on December 7, 1942. The prototype was lost the following month when the landing gear malfunctioned, but the P-63 looked promising. Bell began flying the second prototype on February 5, but it, too, was lost within a month after the engine disintegrated. Fortunately, the AAF had already ordered another prototype and it flew in April 1943.
During the next year, the AAF tested the Kingcobra exhaustively. Bell won a production contract and began delivering P-63As (here the 'A' denoted the first production model) in October 1943, but the fighter could not approach the P-51 Mustang (see NASM collection for two examples) in speed or range. Range had been one of the great weaknesses of the P-39 and it is remarkable that Bell engineers increased internal fuel capacity in the P-63 by only 22.7 lit (6 gal).
The Mustang remained the undisputed king of long-range fighter combat and the AAF relegated the Kingcobra to training and Lend-Lease shipments. The United States supplied 2,400 P-63s to the Soviets but by the time they arrived and front-line units were ready to take them into combat, the war in Europe was over. Not a single P-63 flew against the Germans. Only 51 had reached operational status in the Soviet Air Force by VE Day, and these were based near Moscow. Soviet Kingcobra pilots did see combat in the Pacific during the last days of war. Their only aerial victory occurred on August 15, 1945, against a Japanese fighter.
One AAF role for the P-63 is notable. Born in the fertile mind of an instructor at the AAF Flexible Gunnery School, the RP-63 was a manned, armored, flying target for bomber gunners-in-training. Professors at Duke University developed a frangible .50 caliber machine gun bullet composed of lead and phenolic resin plastic. This round matched the ballistics of a standard .50 caliber projectile but the Duke bullet shattered harmlessly against armor plate. Bell modified several P-63As with heavier armored skins and they removed all internal armor and guns to save weight. They also replaced several Plexiglas sections with armor and increased protection for the carburetor air scoop located directly behind the cockpit canopy. Engineers installed 109 sensors on the skin of these Kingcobras. When a frangible round struck a sensor, it transmitted an electrical impulse to a light mounted inside the propeller spinner. The gunner knew he had hit his target when the light flashed. The "Flying Pinball" was born and nearly 300 of these airplanes provided gunners with realistic training targets in the final year of the war.
After the war, the French received about 200 P-63s and many of these Kingcobras were flown in combat in Indochina from 1949 until 1951. Civilian air racing enthusiasts in the United States recognized potential in the Kingcobra. Stripped of military equipment to reduce weight, the P-63s were formidable competitors for at least a few years.
NASM's example of the Kingcobra is a P-63A-10-BE, AAF serial number 42-70255. Bell manufactured this fighter toward the end of the "A" model production run. The AAF officially accepted the airplane at the Bell factory in Buffalo, New York, on September 23, 1944, and then transferred it to Vandalia, Ohio, two days later to undergo further modifications. Near the end of the year, the Kingcobra was flown to Ladd Field, Alaska, and spent the early months of 1945 with the AAF Cold Weather Test Detachment. It was flown from a number of other bases, then remained on the ground from May until late October. At this time, the AAF flew the P-63 to Freeman Field, Indiana. It was selected for preservation in the Allied and Axis aircraft collection and moved to the national air museum storage facility at Park Ridge, Illinois. It landed on May 22, 1945, ending its last flight with just over 173 hours total flying time on the airframe.
Today, the faded words "Edyth Louise" can still be seen on the nose of this Kingcobra. Wilbert "Dick" Dickmeyer named the fighter in 1944 after his fiancé, Edyth Louise Hoelting. At that time, Dickmeyer was ferrying P-39s to Fairbanks, Alaska. Soviet pilots waited there to pick up the aircraft and continue on to Russia. As the war drew to a close, the AAF re-assigned Dickmeyer to pilot the NASM P-63. During a public tour of the Paul Garber Facility on September 23, 1999, an elderly couple stepped forward to ask the docent guide if they would pass a Bell P-63 during the tour. The docent's response triggered a revelation: the couple was Dick and Edyth Louise Dickmeyer, married for 55 years, visiting Washington, D.C., with their son and daughter-in-law. Then the family was treated to an extraordinary experience: the sight of Dick Dickmeyer, husband and father, sitting in his old warplane 55 years after flying it.