Bell P-63 Kingcobra

Last revised September 12, 1999






On September 29, 1942, the US Army ordered full-scale production of the Kingcobra. The first production version of the Kingcobra was the P-63A (Bell Model 33).

Deliveries of production P-63As began in October of 1943. However, the US Army examined the P-63A at Eglin Field, Florida and concluded that it was unsuitable for service with the USAAF as a combat aircraft, even though test pilots spoke favorably of its characteristics, and its performance was comparable with that of other fighters of the time. Nevertheless, the Soviet Union had a need for a high-altitude fighter (where the P-39 was deficient), and it was thought that the P-63 might be a natural choice for them, combining good high-altitude performance with excellent ground attack capabilities using the 37-mm cannon.

The initial production block was P-63A-1. It was virtually identical to the XP-63A production prototype. It was fitted with 87.7 pounds of pilot armor and had an internal fuel capacity of 100 gallons. It was armed with a type M-4 37-mm cannon fed by a 30-round magazine. There were two synchronized 0.50-inch machine guns in the nose with 270 rpg, and two underwing 0.50-inch guns with 250 rpg. A centerline underfuselage rack could carry a 75-US gallon auxiliary fuel tank or a 500-lb bomb.

The P-63A-5 introduced a dorsal radio mast, which became standard on all later models.

The A-1 and A-5 could carry a 75- or 175-gallon drop tank or a 522-pound bomb under the center section. The P-63A-6 was fitted with underwing racks so that either a 75-gallon tank or a 500-pound bomb could be carried under each wing.

The P-63A-7 was fitted with an Aeroproducts propeller of slightly reduced diameter. An increase in wing loading limited this variant to a 64-gallon tank under each wing. The nose gun mounts were modified, elevator chord was increased by two inches, and the span of the horizontal stabilizer was increased by 16 inches to 14 feet 7 inches.

The P-63A-8 featured 188.8 pounds of armor. An improved version of the Aeroproducts propeller increased maximum speed to 417 mph. Water injection was added to the engine, which was incorporated in all subsequent Kingcobra versions. A Type N-6 gun camera was added. Ammunition for the two wing guns was decreased from 250 to 200 rpg.

The P-63A-9 had 198.9 pounds of armor. It introduced the 37-mm M10 cannon in place of the earlier M4, and an increase in ammunition capacity from 30 to 58 37-mm rounds.

The P-63A-10 had rocket rails fitted underneath the wings. The weight of the armor increased to 236.3 pounds.

Production deliveries of the P-63A began in October of 1943, and by December of 1944 1725 P-63As had been produced. The USAAF never saw fit to use the Kingcobra for operational combat missions, since by that time in the war the need for low-altitude close-support fighter aircraft was more than adequately filled by such aircraft as the P-47 Thunderbolt. Nevertheless, P-63As did serve for a few months with the 31st, 444th, and 445th Squadrons while they were based Stateside.

Most of the P-63As that were manufactured at the Buffalo plant were immediately ferried to the Soviet Union. Upon completion, the P-63s would be rolled out of the factory and ferried from Niagra Falls to Selfride Field, Michigan. After refueling, the would be flown to Truax Field in Madison, Wisconsin where Soviet ferry pilots (usually women) would pick them up and fly them to Edmonton, Anchorage and then across the Bering Straits to the Soviet Union. The Russians used the Kingcobra primarily for close-support and ground strafing. The Kingcobra had a relatively good low-altitude performance and had the ability to absorb a lot of battle damage and still remain flying. It proved to be a potent ground attack aircraft and tank-buster, but it never received the amount of attention in the Soviet Union as did the Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik.

The P-63A never served in combat with US forces. US Kingcobras remained stateside for use by the Army in training. Many of these P-63As were converted into RP-63A target aircraft.

The Paul Garber restoration facility of the Smithsonian Institution in Suitland, Maryland has a P-63A on display. However, I was not able to get close enough to this plane to record its serial number.

I also seem to remember a P-63A being on display at the Champlin Fighter Museum in Mesa, Arizona. I remember it as being painted in Russian insignia. However, I have no information about its serial number.

Serials of the P-63A were as follows:

42-68861/68910 		Bell P-63A-1 Kingcobra 
42-68911/68930 		Bell P-63A-5 Kingcobra 
42-68931/69060 		Bell P-63A-6 Kingcobra 
42-69061/69210 		Bell P-63A-7 Kingcobra 
42-69211/69410 		Bell P-63A-8 Kingcobra 
42-69411/69860 		Bell P-63A-9 Kingcobra 
42-69861/70685 		Bell P-63A-10 Kingcobra 

Specification of P-63A-10:

Engine: One Allison V-1710-93 twelve-cylinder Vee liquid cooled engine with a single-stage supercharger and auxiliary hydraulic turbosupercharger, rated at 1325 hp at sea level and 1150 hp at 22,400 feet. Performance: Maximum speed was 361 mph at 5000 feet, 392 mph at 15,000 feet, and 410 mph at 25,000 feet. An altitude of 25,000 feet could be reached in 7.3 minutes. Service ceiling was 43,000 feet. Ferry range was 2575 miles. Weights were 6375 pounds empty, 8800 pounds loaded, and 10,500 pounds maximum takeoff. Dimensions: Wingspan 38 feet 4 inches, length 32 feet 8 inches, height 12 feet 7 inches, and wing area 248 square feet. Armament One 37-mm M10 cannon with 58 rounds firing through the propeller hub, two 0.50-inch machine guns in the nose with 200 rpg, and one 0.50-inch machine gun in each of two underwing gondolas with 900 rpg. A centerline underfuselage rack could carry a 75-US gallon auxiliary fuel tank or a 500-lb bomb.

Sources:

  1. The American Fighter, Enzo Angelucci and Peter Bowers, Orion, 1987.

  2. War Planes of the Second World War, William Green, Doubleday, 1964.

  3. United States Military Aircraft Since 1909, Gordon Swanborough and Peter M. Bowers, Smithsonian, 1989.

  4. P-39 Airacobra In Action, Ernie McDowell, Squadron/Signal Publications, 1980.

  5. Bell Cobra Variants-P-39 Airacobra and P-63 Kingcobra, Robert F. Dorr, Wings of Fame, Vol 10, 1998.