Bang, You're Dead: Meet the P-39 “Peashooter” (A World War II Legend)

Warfare History Network

Key point: This adorable plane served well in training many pilots and also took the fight to the enemy.

If there is an American combat airplane that has achieved an ill-deserved reputation, no doubt it would be the much-maligned Bell P-39 Airacobra, a tricycle landing gear single-engine fighter whose reputation was greatly overshadowed by the more famous, and of more recent design, Lockheed P-38 Lightning, Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk, Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, and North American P-51 Mustang.

In the minds of some, the P-39 was a practically worthless airplane, with few redeeming features.

They consider the nickname used by pilots of the P-39 Airacobra—Peashooter—a term of derision that implies the airplane’s effectiveness as a fighter. But the P-39’s many detractors ignore the reputation of the Airacobra with the Soviet Air Force, and the important role it played in the Southwest Pacific Area of Operations in 1942, when P-39s were the only fighters available, thanks at least in part to the decision not to use them in large numbers in the European Theater. And if considering overall capabilities instead of concentrating solely on certain features, the P-39 comes off as a capable fighter.

Making Up for Low Altitude Performance

While it is true that the P-39 lacked the high altitude performance needed to excel as an interceptor, it had other attributes that made it a successful combat airplane. When Bell Aircraft was designing the single-engine fighter, U.S. defense plans centered around the possibility of repelling naval attacks and possible landings on American shores. Little attention was paid to the high altitude performance needed to intercept formations of enemy bombers, because the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans provided the best possible defense from foreign attack. No country possessed the capabilities of mounting a transoceanic air attack in 1935, and the United States had yet to seriously consider the possibility of combat in Europe or around what would come to be known as the Pacific Rim.

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