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Bell P-63 Kingcobra Fighter (1943)

Authored By Staff Writer | Last Updated: 11/16/2013

The P-63 saw more success abroad than at home, being utilized heavily by the Soviet Union through the Lend-Lease Act of WW2.

At its core, the Bell P-63 Kingcobra proved a modest improvement over the relative failure that was the P-39 Airacobra. Though the P-39 developed into a useable platform, she never lived up to the original specifications thanks to meddling on the part of the USAAF. As such, the P-63 was designed with the intention of improving upon the poor high-altitude performance of the P-39, though performance of this system itself would never come close to matching the excellent fighters already in service. As such, the P-63 led an "under-the-radar" existence and was fielded primarily by air forces other than the United States.

The P-39 Airacobra was already in production for the USAAF (United States Army Air Force). This unique little aircraft sported a rear-mounted engine turning a three-bladed propeller system via a shaft running under the cockpit floor. With the engine mounted in the rear of the fuselage, the nose assembly was free to fit armament - this coming in the form of a 37mm Oldsmobile M4 cannon firing unobstructed through the propeller hub. Additionally 2 x 12.7mm heavy machine guns were fitted into the engine cowl and synchronized for firing through the spinning propeller blades. This armament was supplemented by the addition of four .30 caliber machine guns - two to a wing. Power was supplied by an Allison-brand V-1710-85 liquid-cooled V-12 engine supplying up to 1,200 horsepower.

Though initially unveiled as a dedicated interceptor, the uniqueness of the aircraft proved much more expensive than the USAAF was interested in and, as such, it provided "suggestions" in an attempt to cut down on costs. One of the biggest changes was in dropping the turbocharger - effectively the backbone of the P-39's performance as an interceptor. This was replaced by a mechanically-based supercharger which didn't provide much in the way of high-altitude performance and the P-39 was doomed as a fighter. As it stood, the P-39 went on to more action in the low-altitude attack aircraft, with most of its success coming from the hands of Soviet pilots utilizing the type through Lend-Lease deliveries. Despite its inherent deficiencies, the P-39 became Bell's most successful production endeavor.

While the P-39 design essentially foundered for what it was intended to be, Bell sought solutions to the design while USAAF interest was still in their favor. The same basic fuselage design and engine (with two superchargers) arrangement was taken and fitted into an enlarged airframe - essentially based on the XP-39E with a laminar flow wing planform, improved supercharger and new Continental I-1430 engine. Three prototypes were ordered with two fitting the base Allison V-1710-47 series engine and one fitting a version of the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine built by Packard as the V-1650 series (Merlins were used in the excellent Supermarine Spitfires and North American P-51 Mustangs). The Packard-engined XP-63 was never to be for these Merlins were earmarked for Mustangs, leaving this prototype to eventually be powered by an Allison V-1710-93 engine. These engines powered a new large four-bladed propeller system. Armament remained faithful to the P-39Q model design with its 37mm nose cannons, 12.7mm heavy machine guns in the engine cowl and an additional 2 x 12.7mm heavy machine guns slung under the wings in pods. The developmental designation was set as XP-63.

Externally, the P-63 remained faithful to the P-39 Airacobra design before it with the exception of its larger overall dimensions. The pilot sat relatively forward along the contoured fuselage in a glazed cockpit featuring the identifiable automobile-style doors of the P39 design. The cockpit was situated just forward of the wing leading edge. Wings were rounded monoplanes with noticeable dihedral. The front of the fuselage was dominated by the large four-bladed propeller system. The propeller was controlled via a shaft running under the cockpit floor and into the rear-mounted Allison engine, this being situated about midway through the fuselage. The empennage was of a standard configuration with a single vertical tail fin and a conventional horizontal plane. The undercarriage was a more-modern tricycle arrangement featuring two main single-wheeled landing gears and a single-wheeled nose gear. The nose gear retracted rearwards under the cockpit floor whilst the main gears retracted inwards towards the fuselage centerline, each system fitted under each wing. When at rest, the P-63 took on a pronounced "front-up" look thanks to its tall nose gear. Overall, she was a fine-looking - albeit unique - aircraft with much of her P-39 pedigree still in place. As mentioned, armament was carried over from the P-39Q model series with some slight alterations in placement and ammunition supply in the P-63.

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Specifications for the
Bell P-63 Kingcobra
Fighter


Focus Model: Bell P-63C Kingcobra
Country of Origin: United States
Manufacturer: Bell Aircraft Corporation - USA
Initial Year of Service: 1943
Production: 3,303


Crew: 1


Length: 32.81ft (10m)
Width: 38.39ft (11.70m)
Height: 12.47ft (3.80m)
Weight (Empty): 6,834lbs (3,100kg)
Weight (MTOW): 8,818lbs (4,000kg)


Powerplant: 1 x Allison V-1710-117 liguid-cooled V-12 piston engine generating 1,800hp.


Maximum Speed: 410mph (660kmh; 356kts)
Maximum Range: 450miles (725km)
Service Ceiling: 42,979ft (13,100m; 8.1miles)
Rate-of-Climb: 2,500 feet per minute (762m/min)


Hardpoints: 3
Armament Suite:
1 x 37mm cannon in propeller hub
4 x 12.7mm machine guns (2 x in nose; 2 x in wing assembly).

Bomb racks under wing and fuselage centerline.


Variants:
XP-63 - Initial Prototypes based on XP-39E Airacobra; 2 examples produced; laminar flow wing


XP-63A - Improved XP-63 Prototypes; 2 examples produced; fitted with bomb racks.

XP-63B - Proposed "improved" XP-63A prototype; cancelled.

XP-63H - Modified P-63E model with a new engine selection.

P-63A - Initial production models produced in 1 - 10 blocks; 1,726 examples produced.

P-63C - Improved P-63A models; fitted with Allison V-1710-117 engine of 1,500 horsepower with 1,800 horsepower capable through water-injection; decreased wingspan; 1,227 examples produced.

P-63D - Improved P-63; fitted with Allison V-1710-109 engine of 1,425 horsepower; increased wingspan; rear-sliding bubble canopy; 1 example produced; never entered quantitative production.

P-63E - Improved P-63D model with new propeller system and ventral fin extension; 13 examples produced.

P-63F - Improved P-63E with enlarged vertical tail; fitted with Allison V-1710-135 series engine; only 2 examples produced.

RP-63A "Pinball" - Aerial Target Aircraft; 100 examples produced/modified; sans armor and armament; bright orange paint scheme.

RP-63C "Pinball" - Improved RP-63A aerial target models; 200 examples produced/modified; sans armor and armament; bright orange paint scheme.

RP-63G "Pinball" - Aerial Target Aircraft; 32 examples delivered; a further 420 were cancelled; sans armor and armament; bright orange paint scheme.


Operators:
Honduras; United Kingdom; France; Soviet Union; United States