New projects for local restorer
The Pioneer Aero team is ready to tackle the P-39Q Airacobra. From left: Allen House, Steve Cox, Craig Cunha, Alex Stockdale, Paul McSweeny (in cockpit), Trevor Miller, Martin Hedley and William Lowen.
Pioneer Aero has taken delivery of three interesting new projects, with a Bell P-39Q Airacobra and two Vought OS2U Kingfishers arriving at the Ardmore hangar workshop on 20 May. They are to be restored to flying condition for Jerry Yagen’s Military Aviation Museum at Virginia Beach, USA.
After a career start with the Glenn L. Martin Company, Larry Bell was hired in 1928 by Consolidated Aircraft in Buffalo, New York. He rose to general manager and business was booming.
In 1935, Consolidated Aircraft moved to San Diego, and Bell, having always wanted his own company, remained in Buffalo where he established the Bell Aircraft Company on 10 July 1935 in the former Consolidated plant.
The company’s first successful military product, the Bell P-39 Airacobra, flew on 6 April 1938 and was innovative in more ways than one. It was one of the first fighter aircraft with tricycle undercarriage, and rather than being designed around an engine, the P-39 was designed around a gun—the American Armament Corporation T9 37mm cannon.
The installation of this cannon left no room in the nose for the engine, so the 1217hp Allison V-1710-85 liquid-cooled V-12 was positioned amidships, behind the cockpit, with the propeller shaft running under the pilot’s seat to the nose.
The Airacobra lacked the planned turbocharger and, like the P-40 with similar Allison engine, was fitted with a single-stage, single-speed supercharger and consequently suffered from poor performance at high altitudes. However, at low altitudes it came into its own and was used to great effect by the Soviet Air Force (VVS) which, unlike the Allied forces which operated the P-39 mainly in the ground attack role, found it a useful dogfighter.
A total of 9588 P-39s was built between 1940 and 1944, and the P-39Q now in the Pioneer Aero hangar is ex-Soviet Air Force and is to be restored as USAAC 220341.
The Vought OS2U Kingfisher was an American catapult-launched observation floatplane from the same company that produced the F4U Corsair. The two at Pioneer Aero are Bu. Nos 5982 and 5985, the latter planned to fly first.
Initially flying on 1 March 1938, the Kingfisher was the primary shipboard observation aircraft used by the USN during WWII. Production eventually moved to the Naval Aircraft Factory in Pennsylvania as the OS2N to free up the Vought production lines for the Corsair. A total of 1519 emerged from the two factories.
With a crew of two—pilot and observer—the Kingfisher was powered by a 450hp Pratt & Whitney R-985-AN-2 radial engine (the same as the Beaver), but despite its blunt appearance and massive centre float plus two small stabilising floats, it could cruise at 152mph, reach a maximum speed of 164mph and stay airborne for up to six hours. The OS2U could also operate from land on specially fitted landing gear, with such versions having slightly better performance.
An OS2U flown by Lt D.W. Gandy claimed a Japanese Zero at Iwo Jima on 16 February 1945, confirmed by observers aboard other Kingfishers. If it was indeed a Zero and not a misidentification, it probably reflects more on the poor standard of Japanese pilots at that late stage of the war rather than the OS2U’s performance!
Owing to the popularity of the Consolidated PBY Catalina, the search and rescue capabilities of the Kingfisher have been overlooked. However, many a downed WWII airman owed his life to the type.
One of the more famous rescue missions involving a Kingfisher occurred in April 1944, when Lt John A. Burns used his aircraft to rescue 10 downed aviators from Truk Lagoon during Operation Hailstone, lashing the survivors to the wings and taxying them to the waiting submarine USS Tang. Lt Burns was awarded the Navy Cross for his efforts.
Pioneer Aero directors Paul McSweeny and Steve Cox are understandably excited at the projects. Steve hopes that Kingfishers will win the hearts of the public, much like the Polikarpovs did when they appeared on the airshow scene in 1998, because they also played an important role in WWII that deserves to be recognised.
Paul says he can’t wait to see both the Airacobra and Kingfishers fly. “Like the P-40, the Airacobra is much maligned, but the Russians were very happy with them and flew them to their strengths. That resulted in the P-39 ending the war with the highest number of kills attributed to any American fighter type.
“It’s all-electric but didn’t have great range—but that wasn’t its role. Like the Spitfire, the original specification was for an interceptor.”
Paul says that reports from WWII suggest that the Airacobra could turn inside both the Spitfire and Zero, and with the same engine he expects performance to be similar to the new-build Yak-3s as the P-39 is not a large, heavy aeroplane.
“Although the Kingfisher has an all-aluminium monocoque fuselage, the trailing edge of the wings and control surfaces are fabric, so you can definitely see the Corsair lineage,” says Paul. “The biggest challenge will be finding a specialist in stressed skin aircraft!”
Pioneer is currently assessing the condition of all three aeroplanes before beginning work in earnest.
Aviation News thanks the Pioneer Aero directors for their assistance with this article We look forward to reporting more on these three restorations when they fly.
- Report by Nicholas McIndoe, photographs supplied by US Marine Corps and Paul McSweeny.
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