Bell RP-63A/C "Pinball"

Last revised September 12, 1999

Although the P-63 never served with the USAAF in any combat role, it was, however, to serve with the USAAF in an another completely different capacity. This was, in fact, one of the most strange and bizarre roles ever fulfilled by any military aircraft, namely that of manned flying target!

The first flying target Kingcobras were created by taking five P-63A-9s off the production line, redesignating them RP-63A-11, and subjecting them to extensive modifications. First, they were stripped of all armament. Next, all internal armor was removed. The wings, tail, fuselage, and rear canopy were then reskinned with over a ton of heavy sheet metal. A special frangible bullet for firing by gunnery students was designed. The bullet was manufactured of lead and graphite compound, so chosen that the bullet would easily shatter upon impact. Pressure-sensitive plates were fitted to the skin so that hits by the frangible ammunition on the airplane could be recorded. A light in the propeller hub (situated where the cannon used to be) would flash whenever a hit was registered, causing crews to give the aircraft the nickname "Pinball". The name stuck.

It was thought that the dorsal air scoop of the "Pinball" would be its most vulnerable spot, so various styles of air scoop were tested. The first RP-63A-11, 42-69647, had a much smaller "clamshell" scoop in place of the regular intake. The second RP-63A-11, 42-69654, had a flush intake with no scoop at all. The third and fifth (42-69769 and 42-69801) also had "clamshell" intakes,whereas the fourth (42-69771) had a normal intake. Eventually, the "clamshell" type of intake was adopted as standard.

After these five modifications were completed, 95 production versions of the "Pinball" were produced under the designation RP-63A-12. It was similar to the P-63A-10.

In 1948, surviving RP-63A aircraft were redesignated QF-63A, although they were never used as pilotless drones.

Two hundred examples of the P-63C-1 were modified on the production line as armored target aircraft ("Pinballs"). Serials were 43-10933/11132. These were redesignated RP-63C-2 (Model 33C-2), and were more or less similar to their RP-63A predecessors, except that it had the V-1710-117 (E-21) engine and had several minor refinements. Like the RP-63A, the RP-63C-2 had all combat equipment removed and was fitted with a 1488-pound armor skin against which frangible bullets fired by gunnery students shattered. However, the RP-63C-2 differed from the RP-63A in reverting to the normal dorsal air intake of the standard P-63C.

Many RP-63Cs were used as target tugs rather than as targets. In 1948, surviving RP-63Cs were redesignated QF-63C, although they were never used as pilotless drones.

Serials of the P-63As converted as flying targets were as follows:

42-69647 	Bell RP-63A-11 Kingcobra 
42-69654 	Bell RP-63A-11 Kingcobra 
42-69769 	Bell RP-63A-11 Kingcobra 
42-69771 	Bell RP-63A-11 Kingcobra 
42-69801 	Bell RP-63A-11 Kingcobra 
42-69880/69974  Bell RP-63A-12 Kingcobra 

  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.