The Bell P-39 Airacobra was one of the principal American fighter aircraft in service when the United States entered World War II. The P-39 was used by the Soviet Air Force, and enabled individual Soviet pilots to collect the highest number of kills attributed to any U.S. fighter type flown by any air force in any conflict. Other major users of the type included the Free French, the Royal Air Force, the United States Army Air Forces, and the Italian Co-Belligerent Air Force.
Designed by Bell Aircraft, it had an innovative layout, with the engine installed in the center fuselage, behind the pilot, and driving a tractor propeller with a long shaft. It was also the first fighter fitted with a tricycle undercarriage. Although its mid-engine placement was innovative, the P-39 design was handicapped by the absence of an efficient turbo-supercharger, preventing it from performing high-altitude work. For this reason it was rejected by the RAF for use over western Europe but adopted by the USSR, where most air combat took place at medium and lower altitudes.
Together with the derivative P-63 Kingcobra, the P-39 was one of the most successful fixed-wing aircraft manufactured by Bell.
Circular Proposal X-609
In February 1937, Lieutenant Benjamin S. Kelsey, Project Officer for Fighters at the United States Army Air Corps (USAAC), and Captain Gordon P. Saville, fighter tactics instructor at the Air Corps Tactical School, issued a specification for a new fighter via Circular Proposal X-609. It was a request for a single-engine high-altitude "interceptor" having "the tactical mission of interception and attack of hostile aircraft at high altitude". Despite being called an interceptor, the proposed aircraft's role was simply an extension of the traditional pursuit (fighter) role, using a heavier and more powerful aircraft at higher altitude. Specifications called for at least 1,000 lb of heavy armament including a cannon, a liquid-cooled Allison engine with a General Electric turbo-supercharger, tricycle landing gear, a level airspeed of at least 360 mph (580 km/h) at altitude, and a climb to 20,000 ft (6,100 m) within 6 minutes. This was the most demanding set of fighter specifications USAAC had presented to that date. Although Bell's limited fighter design work had previously resulted in the unusual Bell YFM-1 Airacuda, the Model 12 proposal adopted an equally original configuration with an Allison V-12 engine mounted in the middle of the fuselage, just behind the cockpit, and a propeller driven by a shaft passing beneath the pilot's feet under the cockpit floor.
The main purpose of this configuration was to free up space for the heavy main armament, a 37 mm (1.46 in) Oldsmobile T9 cannon firing through the center of the propeller hub for optimum accuracy and stability. This happened because H.M. Poyer, designer for project leader Robert Woods, was impressed by the power of this weapon and pressed for its incorporation. This was unusual, because fighter design had previously been driven by the intended engine, not the weapon system. Although devastating when it worked, the T9 had very limited ammunition, a low rate of fire, and was prone to jamming.
A secondary benefit of the mid-engine arrangement was that it created a smooth and streamlined nose profile. Much was made of the fact that this resulted in a configuration "with as trim and clean a fuselage nose as the snout of a high velocity bullet". Entry to the cockpit was through side doors (mounted on both sides of the cockpit) rather than a sliding canopy. Its unusual engine location and the long drive shaft caused some concern to pilots at first, but experience showed this was no more of a hazard in a crash landing than with an engine located forward of the cockpit. There were no problems with propeller shaft failure.
The XP-39 made its maiden flight on 6 April 1938 at Wright Field, Ohio, achieving 390 mph (630 km/h) at 20,000 ft (6,100 m), reaching this altitude in only five minutes.However, the XP-39 was found to be short on performance at altitude. Flight testing had found its top speed at 20,000 feet to be lower than the 400 mph claimed in the original proposal.
As originally specified by Kelsey and Saville, the XP-39 had a turbo-supercharger to augment its high-altitude performance. Bell cooled the turbo with a scoop on the left side of the fuselage. Kelsey wished to shepherd the XP-39 through its early engineering teething troubles, but he was ordered to England. The XP-39 project was handed over to others, and in June 1939 the prototype was ordered by General Henry H. Arnold to be evaluated in NACA wind tunnels to find ways of increasing its speed, by reducing parasitic drag. Tests were carried out, and Bell engineers followed the recommendations of NACA and the Army to reduce drag such that the top speed was increased 16%. NACA wrote, "it is imperative to enclose the supercharger within the airplane with an efficient duct system for cooling the rotor and discharging the cooling air and exhaust gases." In the very tightly planned XP-39, though, there was no internal space left over for the turbo. Using a drag-buildup scheme, a number of potential areas of drag reduction were found. NACA concluded that a top speed of 429 mph could be realized with the aerodynamic improvements they had developed and an uprated V-1710 with only a single-stage, single-speed supercharger.
At a pivotal meeting with the USAAC and NACA in August 1939, Larry Bell proposed that the production P-39 aircraft be configured without the turbocharger. Some historians have questioned Bell's true motivation in reconfiguring the aircraft. The strongest hypothesis is that Bell's factory did not have an active production program and he was desperate for cash flow. Other historians mention that wind tunnel tests made the designers believe the turbocharger installation was so aerodynamically cluttered that it had more disadvantages than advantages.
The Army ordered 12 YP-39s (with only a single-stage, single-speed supercharger) for service evaluation and one YP-39A. After these trials were complete, which resulted in detail changes including deletion of the external radiator,] and on advice from NACA, the prototype was modified as the XP-39B; after demonstrating a performance improvement, the 13 YP-39s were completed to this standard, adding two 0.30 in (7.62 mm) machine guns to the two existing 0.50 in (12.7 mm) guns. Lacking armor or self-sealing fuel tanks, the prototype was one ton (900 kg) lighter than the production fighters.
The production P-39 retained a single-stage, single-speed supercharger with a critical altitude (above which performance declined) of about 12,000 feet (3,660 m). As a result, the aircraft was simpler to produce and maintain. However, the deletion of the turbo destroyed any chance that the P-39 could serve as a medium-high altitude front-line fighter. When deficiencies were noticed in 1940 and 1941, the lack of a turbo made it nearly impossible to improve upon the Airacobra's performance. The removal of the turbocharger and its drag inducing inlet cured the drag problem but reduced performance overall. In later years, Kelsey expressed regret at not being present to override the decision to eliminate the turbo.
After completing service trials, and originally designated P-45, a first order for 80 aircraft was placed 10 August 1939; the designation reverted to P-39C before deliveries began. After assessing aerial combat conditions in Europe, it was evident that without armor or self-sealing tanks, the 20 production P-39Cs were not suitable for operational use. The remaining 60 machines in the order were built as P-39Ds with armor, self-sealing tanks and enhanced armament. These P-39Ds were the first Airacobras to enter into service with the Army Air Corps units and would be the first ones to see action.
The P-39 was an all-metal, low-wing, single-engine fighter, with a tricycle undercarriage and an Allison V-1710 liquid-cooled V-12 engine mounted in the central fuselage, directly behind the cockpit.
The Airacobra was one of the first production fighters to be conceived as a "weapons system"; in this case the aircraft (known originally as the Bell Model 4) was designed to provide a platform for the 37 mm T9 cannon. This weapon, which was designed in 1934 by the American Armament Corporation, a division of Oldsmobile, fired a 1.3 lb (590 g) projectile capable of piercing .8 in (2.0 cm) of armor at 500 yd (460 m) with armor-piercing rounds. The 90 in (230 cm)-long, 200 lb (91 kg) weapon had to be rigidly mounted and fire parallel to and close to the centerline of the new fighter. It would have been impossible to mount the weapon in the fuselage, firing through the cylinder banks of the Vee-configured engine and the propeller hub as could be done with smaller 20mm cannon. Weight, balance and visibility considerations meant that the cockpit could not be placed farther back in the fuselage, behind the engine and cannon. The solution adopted was to mount the cannon in the forward fuselage and the engine in the center fuselage, directly behind the pilot's seat. The tractor propeller was driven with a 10-foot-long (3.0 m) drive shaft made in two sections, incorporating a self-aligning bearing to accommodate fuselage deflection during violent maneuvers. This shaft ran through a tunnel in the cockpit floor and was connected to a gearbox in the nose of the fuselage which, in turn, drove the three- or (later) four-bladed propeller by way of a short central shaft. The gearbox was provided with its own lubrication system, separate from the engine; in later versions of the Airacobra the gearbox was provided with some armor protection. The glycol-cooled radiator was fitted in the wing center section, immediately beneath the engine; this was flanked on either side by a single drum-shaped oil cooler. Air for the radiator and oil coolers was drawn in through intakes in both wing-root leading edges and was directed via four ducts to the radiator faces. The air was then exhausted through three controllable hinged flaps near the trailing edge of the center section. Air for the carburetor was drawn in through a raised oval intake immediately aft of the rear canopy.
The fuselage structure was unusual and innovative, being based on a strong central keel that incorporated the armament, cockpit, and engine. Two strong fuselage beams to port and starboard formed the basis of the structure. These angled upwards fore and aft to create mounting points for the T9 cannon and propeller reduction gearbox and for the engine and accessories respectively. A strong arched bulkhead provided the main structural attachment point for the main spar of the wing. This arch incorporated a fireproof panel and an armor plate between the engine and the cockpit. It also incorporated a turnover pylon and a pane of bullet-resistant glass behind the pilot's head. The arch also formed the basis of the cockpit housing; the pilot's seat was attached to the forward face as was the cockpit floor. Forward of the cockpit the fuselage nose was formed from large removable covers. A long nose wheel well was incorporated in the lower nose section. The engine and accessories were attached to the rear of the arch and the main structural beams; these too were covered using large removable panels. A conventional semi-monocoque rear fuselage was attached aft of the main structure.
Because the pilot was above the extension shaft, he was placed higher in the fuselage than in most contemporary fighters, which, in turn gave the pilot a good field of view.Access to the cockpit was by way of sideways opening "car doors", one on either side. Both had wind-down windows. As only the right-hand door had a handle both inside and outside this was used as the normal means of access and egress. The left-hand door could be opened only from the outside and was for emergency use, although both doors could be jettisoned. In operational use, as the roof was fixed, the cockpit design made escape difficult in an emergency.
The complete armament fit consisted of the T9 cannon with a pair of Browning M2 .50 caliber (12.7 mm) machine guns mounted in the nose. This changed to two .50 in (12.7 mm) and two .30 in (7.62 mm) guns in the XP-39B (P-39C, Model 13, the first 20 delivered) and two .50 in (12.7 mm) and four .30 in (7.62 mm) (all four in the wings) in the P-39D (Model 15), which also introduced self-sealing tanks and shackles (and piping) for a 500 lb (230 kg) bomb or drop tank.
Because of the unconventional layout, there was no space in the fuselage to place a fuel tank. Although drop tanks were implemented to extend its range, the standard fuel load was carried in the wings, with the result that the P-39 was limited to short-range tactical strikes.
A heavy structure, and around 256 lb (116 kg) of armor were characteristic of this aircraft as well. The production P-39's heavier weight combined with the Allison engine with only a single-stage, single-speed supercharger, limited the high-altitude capabilities of the fighter. The P-39's altitude performance was markedly inferior to the contemporary European fighters and, as a result, the first USAAF fighter units in theEuropean Theater were equipped with the Spitfire V. However, the P-39D's roll rate was 75°/s at 235 mph (378 km/h)– better than the A6M2, F4F, F6F, or P-38 up to 265 mph (426 km/h) (see NACA chart).
Above the supercharger's critical altitude of about 12,000 ft (3,700 m), an early P-39's performance dropped off rapidly. This limited its usefulness in traditional fighter missions in Europe as well as in the Pacific, where it was not uncommon for Japanese bombers to attack at altitudes above the P-39's operational ceiling (which in the tropical hot air was lower than in moderate climates). The late production N and Q models, 75% of all Airacobras, could maintain a top speed of approximately 375 mph (604 km/h) up to 20,000 ft (6,100 m).
The weight distribution of the P-39 was supposedly the reason for its tendency to enter a dangerous flat spin, a characteristic Soviet test pilots were able to demonstrate to the skeptical manufacturer who had been unable to reproduce the effect. After extensive tests, it was determined the spin could only be induced if the aircraft was improperly loaded, with no ammunition in the front compartment. The flight manual noted a need to ballast the front ammunition compartment with the appropriate weight of shell casings to achieve a reasonable center of gravity. High-speed controls were light, consequently high-speed turns and pull-outs were possible. The P-39 had to be held in a dive since it tended to level out, reminiscent of the Spitfire. The recommended never-exceed dive speed limit (Vne) was 475 mph (764 km/h) for the P-39.
Soon after entering service, pilots began to report that "during flights of the P-39 in certain maneuvers, it tumbled end over end." Most of these events happened after the aircraft was stalled in a nose high attitude with considerable power applied. Concerned, Bell initiated a test program. Bell pilots made 86 separate efforts to reproduce the reported tumbling characteristics. In no case were they able to tumble the aircraft. In his autobiography veteran test and airshow pilot R.A. "Bob" Hoover provides an account of tumbling a P-39. He goes on to say that in hindsight, he was actually performing a Lomcovak, a now-common airshow maneuver, which he was also able to do in a Curtiss P-40. An informal study of the P-39's spinning characteristics was conducted in the NASA Langley Research Center 20-foot Free-Spinning Tunnel during the 1970s. A study of old reports showed that during earlier spin testing in the facility, the aircraft had never tumbled. However, it was noted that all testing had been done with a simulated full ammunition load, which drew the aircraft's center of gravity forward. After finding the original spin test model of the P-39 in storage, the new study first replicated the earlier testing, with consistent results. Then, the model was re-ballasted to simulate a condition of no ammunition load, which moved the aircraft's center of gravity aft. Under these conditions, the model was found to often tumble when thrown into the tunnel.
The rear-mounted engine was less likely to be hit when attacking ground targets, but was vulnerable to attacks from above and behind. At its upper altitude limits, the Airacobra was out-performed by many enemy aircraft.
Service and versions
In September 1940, Britain ordered 386 P-39Ds (Model 14), with a 20 mm (.79 in) Hispano-Suiza HS.404 and six .303 in (7.7 mm), instead of a 37 mm (1.46 in) cannon and six 0.30 in (7.62 mm) guns. The RAF eventually ordered a total of 675 P-39s. However, after the first Airacobras arrived at 601 Squadron RAF in September 1941, they were promptly recognized as having an inadequate rate of climb and performance at altitude for Western European conditions. Only 80 were adopted, all of them with 601 Squadron. Britain transferred about 200 P-39s to the Soviet Union.
Another 200 examples intended for the RAF were taken up by the USAAF after the attack on Pearl Harbor as the P-400, and were sent to the Fifth Air Force in Australia, for service in the South West Pacific Theatre.
By the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, nearly 600 P-39s had been built. When P-39 production ended in August 1944, Bell had built 9,558 Airacobras, of which 4,773 (mostly −39N and −39Q) were sent to the Soviet Union through the Lend-Lease program. There were numerous minor variations in engine, propeller, and armament, but no major structural changes in production types, excepting a few two-seat TP-39F and RP-39Q trainers. In addition, seven went to the U.S. Navy as radio-controlled drones.
Trials of a laminar flow wing (in the XP-39E) and Continental IV-1430 engine (the P-76) were unsuccessful. The mid-engine, gun-through-hub concept was developed further in the Bell P-63 Kingcobra.
A naval version with tailwheel landing gear, the XFL-1 Airabonita, was ordered as a competitor to the Vought F4U Corsair and Grumman XF5F Skyrocket. It first flew 13 May 1940, but after a troublesome and protracted development and testing period, it was rejected.
The Airacobra saw combat throughout the world, particularly in the Southwest Pacific, Mediterranean and Soviet theaters. Because its engine was equipped with only a single-stage, single-speed supercharger, the P-39 performed poorly above 17,000 feet (5,200 m) altitude. In both western Europe and the Pacific, the Airacobra found itself outclassed as an interceptor and the type was gradually relegated to other duties. It often was used at lower altitudes for such missions as ground strafing
The most successful and numerous use of the P-39 was by the Red Air Force (Военно-воздушные силы, Voenno-Vozdushnye Sily, VVS). They received the considerably improved N and Q models via the Alaska-Siberia ferry route. The tactical environment of the Eastern Front did not demand the high-altitude performance the RAF and AAF did. The comparatively low-speed, low-altitude nature of most air combat on the Soviet Front suited the P-39's strengths: sturdy construction, reliable radio gear, and adequate firepower.
Soviet pilots appreciated the cannon-armed P-39 primarily for its air-to-air capability. A common Western misconception is that the Bell fighters were used as ground attack aircraft. This is because the Soviet term for the mission of the P-39, prikrytiye sukhoputnykh voysk (coverage of ground forces) is commonly translated ground support, which is often taken to mean close air support. In Soviet usage, it has a broader meaning. Soviet-operated P-39s did make strafing attacks, but it was "never a primary mission or strong suit for this aircraft". The Soviets developed successful group aerial fighting tactics for the Bell fighters and scored a surprising number of aerial victories over a variety of German aircraft. Soviet P-39s had no trouble dispatching Junkers Ju 87 Stukas or German twin-engine bombers and matched, and in some areas surpassed, early and mid-warMesserschmitt Bf 109s. The usual nickname for the Airacobra in the VVS was Kobrushka ("little cobra") or Kobrastochka, a blend of Kobra and Lastochka (swallow), "dear little cobra".
The first Soviet Cobras had a 20 mm Hispano-Suiza cannon and two heavy Browning machine guns, synchronized and mounted in the nose. Later, Cobras arrived with the M4 37 mm cannon and four machine guns, two synchronized and two wing-mounted. "We immediately removed the wing machine guns, leaving one cannon and two machine guns," Golodnikov recalled later. That modification improved roll rate by reducing rotational inertia. Soviet airmen appreciated the M4 cannon with its powerful rounds and the reliable action but complained about the low rate of fire (three rounds per second) and inadequate ammunition storage (only 30 rounds).
The Soviets used the Airacobra primarily for air-to-air combat against a variety of German aircraft, including Bf 109s, Focke-Wulf Fw 190s, Ju 87s, and Ju 88s. During the battle of Kuban River, VVS relied on P-39s much more than Spitfires and P-40s. Aleksandr Pokryshkin, from 16.Gv.IAP (16th Guards Fighter Aviation Regiment), claimed 20 victories in that campaign in a P-39.
The last plane shot down by the Luftwaffe was a Soviet P-39, on May 8 by Oblt. Fritz Stehle of 2./JG 7 flying a Me 262 on Erzgebirge. Also, the last Soviet air victory was in a P-39 on May 9 when Kapitan Vasily Pshenichikov scored against a Focke-Wulf Fw 189, in the sky over Prague. Five of the 10 highest scoring Soviets aces logged the majority of their kills in P-39s. Grigoriy Rechkalov scored 44 victories in Airacobras. Pokryshkin scored 47 of his 59 victories in P-39s, making him the highest scoring P-39 fighter pilot of any nation, and the highest scoring Allied fighter pilot using an American fighter. This does not include his 6 shared victories, at least some of which were achieved with the P-39.
The United States did not supply M80 armor-piercing rounds for the autocannons of Soviet P-39s—instead, the Soviets received 1,232,991 M54 high-explosive rounds, which they used primarily for air-to-air combat and against soft ground targets. The VVS did not use the P-39 for tank-busting duties.
A total of 4,719 P-39s were sent to the Soviet Union, accounting for more than one-third of all U.S. and UK-supplied fighter aircraft in the VVS, and nearly half of all P-39 production. Soviet Airacobra losses totalled 1,030 aircraft (49 in 1942, 305 in 1943, 486 in 1944 and 190 in 1945).
Airacobras served with the Soviet Air Forces as late as 1949, when two regiments were operating as part of the 16th Guards Fighter Aviation Division in the Belomorsky Military District.
- Bell Model 11, one prototype 38–326 first flown 6 April 1938. Powered by an Allison V-1710-17 (E2) engine (1,150 hp/858 kW), the aircraft was fitted with a General Electric B-5 turbosupercharger, creating a two stage supercharging system similar to the P-38 (engine-mounted mechanical supercharger, remote exhaust-driven turbo-supercharger as a second stage for high-altitude). Provision was made for two .50 in (12.7 mm) machine guns in the forward fuselage and one 25 mm (.98 in) cannon but aircraft remained unarmed. Later converted to XP-39B.
- One conversion first flown 25 November 1939. Streamlined XP-39 based on NACA wind tunnel testing resulting in revised canopy and wheel door shape, oil cooler/ engine coolant radiator intakes moved from right fuselage to wing roots, fuselage increased length (by 1 ft 1 in, to 29 ft 9 in) and decreased wingspan (by 1 ft 10 in, to 34 ft). The turbosupercharger was removed, and the single-stage, single speed, supercharged Allison V-1710-37 (E5) engine (1,090 hp/813 kW) was left in place. The carburetor air intake was moved behind canopy, just above the carburetor.
- Bell Model 12, service test version, V-1710-37 (E5) engine (1,090 hp/813 kW). First two aircraft delivered with armament, the remained with a M4 37 mm (1.46 in) autocannon with 15 rounds, 2 × .50 in (12.7 mm) machine guns with 200 rpg, and 2 × .30 in (7.62 in) machine guns with 500 rpg in the nose. wider vertical tail than XP-39B. 12 completed with the first flying 13 September 1940.
- One intended to have a high-altitude V-1710-31 engine (1,150 hp/858 kW), but was delivered as a regular YP-39.
- Bell Model 13, first flown in January 1941 it was the first production version, identical to YP-39 except for V-1710-35 engine (1,150 hp/858 kW). Armed with 1 × 37 mm (1.46 in) cannon, 2 × .50 in (12.7 mm) & 2 × .30 in (7.62 mm) machine guns in the nose. Aircraft lacked armor and self-sealing fuel tanks. Twenty produced out of an order of 80 the remainder were redesignated P-39D
- Bell Model 13, production variant based on the P-39C with 245 lb (111 kg) of additional armor, self-sealing fuel tanks. Armament increased to 1 × 37 mm/1.46 in cannon (30 rounds), 2 × .50 in/12.7 mm (200 rpg) and 4 × wing mounted .30 in/7.62 mm (1,000 rpg) machine guns; 60 Produced.
- Bell Model 14A, production variant fitted with a 20 mm (.79 in) M1 cannon. Specifically ordered for delivery under Lend-Lease; 336 produced:1 sent to Soviet Union and used in combat alongside P-39D-2s.
- Bell Model 14A-1, production variant with a V-1710-63 (E6) engine (1,325 hp/988 kW) restored the 37 mm (1.46 in) cannon, provisions for a single 145 gal (549 l) drop tank or maximum 500 lb (227 kg) bomb under the fuselage; 158 produced. Some 50 at least sent to USSR and used in combat, some 15–20 used by 16th Guards Fighter Regiment.
- 26 conversions from P-39D-1 to Photo Reconnaissance Configuration; K-24 and K-25 camera in rear fuselage, extra armor for oil coolers
- 11 conversions from P-39D-2 to Photo Reconnaissance Configuration. Same modifications as D-3 aircraft.
- Bell Model 23. three P-39Ds modified for ground and flight testing first flown 21 February 1942. Intended for Continental I-1430-1 engine with (2,100 hp/1,566 kW) actually flown with Allison V-1710-47 (1,325 hp/988 kW) engine. Airframes were used to test various wing and different vertical tail surfaces. Fuselage was lengthened by 1 ft 9 in (53 cm). Used in the development of the P-63. The production variant, with the Continental engines was to be redesignated P-76; there was no Bell XP-76 as such.
- Bell Model 15B, production variant with three-bladed Aeroproducts constant speed propeller, 12 exhaust stacks; 229 built.
- One P-39F converted as a two-seat training version with additional cockpit added in nose— no armament.
- 27 conversions from P-39F-1 with additional belly armor and cameras in rear fuselage.
- Bell Model 26, 1800 ordered, intended to be a P-39D-2 with an Aeroproducts propeller. Due to modifications during production no P-39G were actually delivered. Instead, these aircraft were re-designated P-39K, L, M and N.
- Bell Model 15B, P-39F with V-1710-59 (1,100 hp/820 kW) engine with automatic boost control,; 25 built.
- Bell Model 26A, a P-39D-2 with Aeroproducts propeller and V-1710-63 (E6) (1,325 hp/988 kW) engine. Vents added to nose; 210 built. Some 50 sent to USSR and used in combat – 16th Guards Fighter Regiment were initially issued 11, 1 of, which was Pokryshkin's first Airacobra.
- Six conversion from P-39K-1 with additional belly armor and cameras in rear fuselage.
- One conversion with a V-1710-85 (E19) engine to serve as a P-39N prototype
- Bell Model 26C, a P-39K with Curtiss Electric propeller, revised nose gear for reduced drag, provision for underwing rockets; 250 built.
- Eleven conversions from P-39L-1 with additional belly armor and cameras in rear fuselage.
- Bell Model 26D, variant with an 11 ft 1 in Aeroproducts propeller, V-1710-67 (E8) (1,200 hp/895 kW) engine with improved high-altitude performance at the expense of low-altitude performance, 10 mph (16 km/h) faster than P-39L at 15,000 ft (4,600 m). Note: some P-39M-1BE were delivered with the V-1710-83 (E18) engine; 240 built.
- Bell Model 26N, originally part of the P-39G order. V-1710-85 (E19) (1,325 hp/988 kW) engine. Aeroproducts propeller (10 ft 4 in diameter) & different propeller reduction gear ratio. Starting with the 167th aircraft, propeller increased to 11 ft 7 in & internal fuel reduced from 120 gal (454 l) to 87 gal (329 l); 500 built.
- Variant with internal changes to adjust center of gravity when nose guns were fired; 900 built.
- 128 P-39N-1 converted with additional belly armor and cameras in rear fuselage.
- 35 P-39N converted with additional belly armor and cameras in rear fuselage.
- Variant with armor reduced from 231 lb (105 kg) to 193 lb (88 kg), Armor plate replaced the bulletproof glass behind the pilot, SCR-695 radio was fitted, and a new oxygen system was installed; 695 built.
- 84 P-39N-5 converted with additional belly armor and cameras in rear fuselage.
- The final production variant last one built in August 1944.
- Bell Model 26Q, variant with wing-mounted 0.30 in (7.62 mm) machine guns replaced with a single 0.50 in (12.7 mm) with 300 rounds of ammunition in a pod under each wing. Armor increased to the original 231 lb (105 kg) of armor of the P-39N-1BE; 150 built.
- Five P-39Q-1s modified to carry cameras for photographic reconnaissance by adding K-24 and K-25 cameras in the aft fuselage.
- Production variant with reduced armor (193 lb/88 kg), fuel capacity increased (110 gal/416 l). Type A-1 bombsight adapters added; 950 built.
- One conversion to a two-seat training variant with additional cockpit added in nose – no armament. Enlarged tail fillet and a shallow ventral fin added.
- 148 P-39Q-5s modified to carry cameras for photographic reconnaissance by adding K-24 and K-25 cameras in the aft fuselage.
- Variant with increased armor (228 lb/103 kg), fuel capacity increased (120 gal/454 l). Automatic Boost controls added and Throttle & RPM controls were coordinated. Winterization of oil systems and rubber mounts added to the engines; 705 built.
- Eight P-39Q-10s modified to carry cameras for photographic reconnaissance by adding K-24 and K-25 cameras in the aft fuselage.
- Production variant with reinforced inclined deck to prevent .50 in (12.7 mm) machine gun tripod mounting cracking, bulkhead reinforcements to prevent rudder pedal wall cracking, a reinforced reduction gearbox bulkhead to prevent cowling former cracking, and repositioning of the battery solenoid. Oxygen system reduced from four bottle to only two; 1,000 built.
- Production variant with minor equipment changes. The under-wing 0.50 in (12.7 mm) machine gun pods were sometimes omitted in this version; 1,000 built.
- 109 P-39Q-20 fitted with a four-bladed Aeroproducts propeller.
- 12 P-39Q-20s converted to two-seat trainers .
- Production variant similar to the P-39Q-21 but with a reinforced aft-fuselage and horizontal stabilizer structure; 700 built.
- Production variant that reverted to the three-bladed propellor; 400 built.
- Remaining examples in service, re-designated in June 1948.
- The P-45 was the initial designation of the P-39C or Model 13.
- XFL-1 Airabonita
- One prototype tail-wheel undercarriage carrier fighter for the USN.
- United States Navy (USN) designation for two P-39Qs used as target drones. Assigned to NAS Cape May for test work. Later redesignated F2L-1K.
- XTDL-1 drones re-designated
- An export model of the P-39 with a less powerful cannon, using a 20 mm Hispano cannon rather than the standard 37 mm cannon. It also had 2 .50 caliber machine guns in the nose, and 2 .30 caliber machine guns in each wing.
- Airacobra I
- Bell Model 13, Royal Air Force (RAF) designation for three P-39Cs delivered to the A&AEE Boscombe Down for testing.
- Airacobra IA
- Bell Model 14. Briefly named Caribou. V-1710-E4 (1,150 hp/858 kW) engine, 1 × 20 mm (.79 in) cannon with 60 rounds & 2 × 0.50 in (12.7 mm) machine guns were mounted nose and four 0.303 in (7.7 mm) machine guns were mounted in the wings. IFF set removed from behind pilot. note: the designation IA indicates direct purchase aircraft (as opposed to Lend-Lease); 675 built. The USAAF operated 128 former RAF aircraft with the designation P-400.
- Australia: Royal Australian Air Force
- Italian Co-Belligerent Air Force operated 170 Bell P-39 Airacobra 
- Italian Air Force operated 102 surviving Bell P-39 Airacobra retired in 1950s
- Poland: Polish Air Force (One aircraft operated; personal aircraft of General Fyodor Polynin, Commander of the Polish Air Force)
- Portugal: Esquadrilha Airacobra (Airacobra Squadron), later renamed Esquadrilha 4 (Squadron No. 4) — Aeronáutica Militar (Army Military Aviation)
- Soviet Air Forces (Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sily or VVS)
- Soviet Naval Aviation
- Royal Air Force
- Royal Navy (Airacobra Mk 1 – test flight)
- United States Army Air Corps / United States Army Air Forces