Conversations with N. G. Golodnikov
P-39 Airacobra and Yaks
translation by James F.
N. G. Golodnikov in front of his Cobra.
Severomorsk airfield. 1943.
A. S. When
did you begin with the Cobra? On what types of Cobras were you trained?
Did you have two-seaters?
the two-seater! No, we did not have a two-seater! Our airplanes arrived
in large crates.
on the Cobra in November 1942. We received the first Cobras from Moscow,
in containers. We assembled them and then were trained on them. These
were P-39Qs, perhaps types-1 and -2, from the British order. [Apparently
that should be Aircobra I – ed.]. They had yellow camouflage paint
on them for
North Africa. We trained hard. We had instructors and various types of
written materials. Transition was conducted quickly, in five or six
ferried Cobras to us or we picked them up in Krasnoyarsk. These were
types Q-5, -10, -25, -30, and Q-35. These aircraft were made especially
for the USSR. We fought the remaining period of the war only in Q
A. S. Did
you like the Cobra?
them. Especially the Q-5. This was the best fighter of all three in
which I fought. Of the Cobras, this was the lightest.
Nikolay Gerasimovich, how did you like the cockpit?
P-40 it seemed kind of tight, but it was very comfortable.
from the cabin was outstanding. The instrument panel was very ergonomic,
with the entire complement of instruments right up to an artificial
horizon and radio compass. It even had a relief tube, in the shape of a
funnel. If you wanted to piss, pull the tube out from under the seat and
go for it.
had holders for pen and pencil.
armored seat was sturdy and thick. The armored glass was also thick. The
first models had armored glass in front and rear, but the armored seat
lacked a head protector (the rear armored glass fulfilled this role). In
the later models, somewhere beginning with the Q-25, the rear glass was
not armored but the armored seat was equipped with a head protector.
equipment was reliable, although the mask was quite small, only covering
the nose and mouth. We wore this mask only at high altitude, above
20,000 feet. Normally it lay on one of the machine guns.
set was powerful and reliable, HF. All American radio sets were HF. It
received and transmitted very clearly.
Nikilay Gerasimovich, is it true that compared to the import cockpits,
Soviet cockpits were uncomfortable?
true to some degree. But a fighter airplane is not the lap of luxury. If
the cockpits of our fighter planes were less plush, it wasn’t by much.
At that time the difference wasn’t particularly obvious to me.
Describe the machine guns, cannon, and sights.
Cobras that we received from
had a 20mm Hispano-Suiza cannon and two heavy Browning machine guns,
synchronized and mounted in the nose.
Cobras arrived with the M-6 [should be M-4 – ed.] 37mm cannon and
with four machine guns, two synchronized and two wing-mounted. We
quickly removed the wing-mounted machine guns, leaving one cannon and
two machine guns.
had interesting charging and trigger mechanisms for the
cannon—hydraulic. At first, in the English variant of the Cobra, we had
a lot of trouble with them. The hydraulics froze up. It seems that the
Cobras had been intended for North Africa, because the hydraulic fluid
was thick and clogged up the passages in the hydraulic cylinders. Our
technicians replaced the hydraulic fluid with Soviet fluid and enlarged
the diameter of the passages. The charging mechanism began to work
normally. By the way, on these Cobras all the hydraulics froze, not just
the charging mechanism.
machine guns were charged mechanically, by hand, with a special handle.
The receiver portion of the machine guns extended back into the cockpit.
The triggers for the machine guns were electric.
was American. A very simple sight—a reflector and crosshairs.
Nikolay Gerasimovich, if you compare the Hispano-Suiza 20mm cannon and
the ShVAK, which was better in your opinion?
without a doubt. The ShVAK was twice as reliable. The Hispano simply
required an unbelievable amount of maintenance. The smallest exposure to
dust, congealed lubricant, or any other kind of little thing, and the
gun would not fire. Very unreliable.
ballistics of our cannon were better. Our cannon had a flatter
trajectory, which is significant for applying lead. When you talk about
the Yaks, then one didn’t even need a sight. The tracers were almost
straight, take aim and fire, and where the nose is pointing is where the
had a higher rate of fire.
the target effect, these two cannons were about equal. In either case,
there was no difference that I could see with the human eye.
A. S. Was
a 37mm cannon necessary? Wasn’t this too large a caliber for a fighter?
You had so few rounds of ammunition. And wasn’t its rate of fire slow?
say that the 37mm cannon was a disadvantage or an advantage. Look at it
from this perspective. The M-6 cannon had its strong and weak points.
One had to take advantage of the strong points and compensate, as much
as possible, for its weaknesses.
the weaknesses: 1. Low rate of fire. 8 rounds/second [this is
incorrect—the correct rate is slightly over 2 rounds/second (130
rounds/minute) – J.G.] This is indeed a low rate of fire.
ballistics of the projectile were abysmal. The flight trajectory of the
projectile was arching, which required large lead angles. But again this
was at long ranges, especially when firing at ground targets. When
firing at ground targets we had to apply two rings of the sight for
ammunition supply. Thirty rounds.
deficiencies could be compensated for by proper selection of firing
range. If one fired from 70—50 meters, there was sufficient rate of
fire, the ballistics at this range were acceptable, and the lead
required was minimal. Thus, all the weaknesses of the 37mm cannon listed
above revealed themselves only at long ranges.
regarding the strengths: 1. The projectile was very powerful. Normally,
one strike on an enemy fighter and he was finished! In addition, we
fired this cannon at other types of targets. Bombers, vessels at sea.
The 37mm cannon was very effective against these targets.
Here is an
example. Our patrol torpedo boats had torn apart a German convoy. The
majority of them had in some way or other been damaged, but they were
withdrawing. One patrol boat was heavily damaged and lagging behind a
bit. German “hunter” boats were closing in on it. One of them moved in
either to kill or capture it. There were eight of us; my squadron
commander Vitya Maksimovich, had flown out in pair slightly ahead of us
to reconnoiter the convoy and I was leading the other six. We were
listening to the conversations of the PT boat crews (the PT boats, by
the way, were American Higgins craft). The commander of the heavily
damaged boat said, “They are on top of us!” My squadron commander said
to him, “Don’t worry! I ‘ll get him now!” He dropped down and fired a
burst of 37mm cannon. It was a pleasure to watch the German “hunter” go
up in flames. Six Bf-109Fs were covering the convoy and supporting the
attack on our PT boats. I engaged them with my group of six Cobras. We
circled round and round. I shot down two Messerschmitts and damaged one
(intelligence subsequently confirmed the damaged 109). Before we had
even landed, the crew of the damaged PT boat reported by radio that one
of the Cobras had shot down two Messers and another had set the German
“hunter” on fire. This had all happened right in front of their eyes.
Later Admiral A. V. Kuzmin, commander of the patrol torpedo boat
brigade, personally expressed his appreciation to us. All our damaged PT
boats made it back to their base.
single burst of several 37mm projectiles was sufficient to set fire to
or damage a “hunter-type” patrol vessel.
another example. We were flying on a “free hunt” mission, four of us. I
was the leader. We came upon a German tanker that we estimated at
3000—3500 tons. Most importantly, it was proceeding without escort! I
gave the command, “Prepare to attack!” I dropped down and made my pass,
firing a good burst. I pulled out at an altitude of 25 meters. He also
fired back at me. OK, fine. My wingman made his pass on the target, then
the leader of the second pair, and the fourth pilot reported, “It’s
burning. I can’t see anything!” I responded, “OK, pull out, don’t
engage.” We got a look at it, moving toward shore totally engulfed in
flames. We flew back to our airfield and reported, “We set a tanker on
fire, 3,500 tons.” And he replied, “Right. You set a tanker on fire with
all of 38 rounds expended!” He didn’t believe what I was telling them.
38 rounds for 3,500 tons! I said to him, “Isn’t that enough? We put 38
rounds into that box!” At first everyone laughed at us, but later our
agent intelligence gave us confirmation of that number. A German tanker
of 3,500 tons displacement had been burned out. Everything fit. There
you have it—38 rounds of 37mm cannon destroyed a 3,500-ton vessel!
2. The M-6
cannon was very reliable. If it was properly maintained it worked very
reliably. We could charge the cannon only one time from the cockpit, but
this one re-charging was completely sufficient. If this cannon
malfunctioned, it was due entirely to unqualified maintenance.
involved in another incident. A young, inexperienced armorer installed
the belts upside down, so that the teeth of the links of the belt were
on top, for both machine guns and the cannon. We were flying in pair.
This was my wingman’s second combat sortie. We spotted a pair of
Fokkers[Fw-190 – ed.]. I attacked the lead Fokker, who went into
a vertical climb. I fired a shot from my cannon, the glowing ball of the
projectile’s tracer crossing the path of the enemy aircraft. The German,
naturally, abruptly dove; the range closed rapidly and I had him in my
sights. I got off one round from each machine gun and experienced a
complete stoppage! I re-charged both guns—to no avail! None of my
weapons worked! It was a good thing that I had hit him with these two
rounds. The German was smoking heavily and had lost a great deal of
speed. I had nothing to kill him with! I called to my wingman, “Get the
Fritz!” But he was circling in a merry-go-round with the German’s
wingman and continued to circle until the German shot him up. Except for
“his own German,” my wingman did not see anything, and the damaged
Fokker got away. On the ground it was discovered that my wingman had not
fastened his earphones to his helmet, and during the high-G maneuvers
his earphones had come off. He had not heard my commands. A month later
someone shot down a German pilot in a Fokker, and during his
interrogation by the division commander he asked, “Why, a month ago, did
a pilot from this regiment not finish me off? Two of my cylinders were
shot up.” (The German well knew that only the pilots of 2d GSAP VVS SF
flew “red-nosed” Cobras. A. S.) Our division commander replied to him,
“Yes, he was something of a screw up, kind of like you, but he didn’t
get shot down.”
wanted to send the armorer to a tribunal [courts martial], but he got
off with a reprimand. I was categorically opposed to a tribunal. He was
a young kid, still a “newbie”. The fault really lay with the armaments
mechanic. It was his direct duty to check the correctness of the loading
of the rounds. He knew that his armorer was inexperienced, but he did
not stop to check and simply took the armorer’s word. “Is it ready?”
“Yes, it’s ready.”
A. S. Did
you have small-caliber machine guns on your P-39s?
A. S. It
is well known that the American sights had two types of cross-hair. The
first was the so-called “Christmas tree”, where the crosshairs have
countless supplementary marks that show the convergence point, and a
second with a “clean” crosshair, totally without markings. What kind did
A. S. What
about the engine in the P-39. Was it weak? They say that it was
unreliable, it was never good for the recommended 120 hours, and it
“threw” connecting rods.
Allison engines. They were powerful, but . . . the engines in the Cobras
were unreliable, especially early on. These were on the English
variants, the Q-1 and Q-2. Their engines were weaker. After the first
three or four air combats, all ten Cobras were laid up for engine
first Allisons did not deliver even one-half of the recommended engine
hours. 50 hours was its limit, and frequently less. Normally 10—15
sorties if they were in combat. They seized, the bearings melted; this
happened to me once. I sat out for a while with no engine. They
monitored these engines closely. As soon as any metal showed up in the
oil, they changed out the engine. The supply of replacement engines was
plentiful, but it was not always possible to get delivery of them.
Sometimes they brought them in on an Li-2 [Soviet-built C-47], four in a
load, such was the demand for new power plants. But just the same,
despite our best efforts, there were seizures. True, this engine did not
“throw” connecting rods, at least this never happened to us. On type-5
and later models the engines were more powerful and reliable.
regarding power settings. In principle the RPMs were regulated by a
conventional throttle. In the Cobras there were two regimes of throttle
operation, “normal” and “war emergency”, which was characterized by
increased manifold pressure. The throttle quadrant was mounted in the
[left side of the] cockpit and the pilot controlled it. The “war
emergency” regime had a lever position that we called “51 inches and 57
inches of boost”. If we were flying on Soviet B-95 fuel, then “war
emergency power” was set at 51 inches. If we were using American B-100
fuel, then “war emergency power” was set at 57inches. Although it was
mounted in the cockpit, on the throttle quadrant, the pilot did not
adjust this setting. The position of the “war emergency power” selector
was controlled by a piece of wire that could be broken easily with
greater forward pressure on the throttle quadrant.
One time I
sensed a lack of power (I needed to get ahead of a German) and I
thought, “The hell with it”! I broke the wire and selected “57”. Then I
experienced what “57” meant! My airplane leapt forward! The Germans
spotted me from above and dove immediately, which was what we wanted.
gasoline was better than ours. Not more powerful, but better. The
anti-detonation qualities of our gasoline came from the addition of
tetraethyl lead. After every two or three flights the engine mechanic
had to clean the lead from our spark plugs. If he waited too long, a
lead droplet would form between the electrodes. But this was not a
special problem. Normally our spark plugs were quickly cleaned after
every sortie. But with the American gasoline, this did not happen.
Either they used higher octane to begin with and added less lead or they
raised the octane rating with benzol [another additive]. Perhaps it was
just the benzol. Because our gasoline was pink in color and the American
gasoline was dark blue.
Incidentally, the Allison “made metal” on any gasoline. Realistically
the Allison engine began to live up to its full 100 hours of use only in
1944. These engines came in the Q-25-30. But by this time the intensity
of air combat had already fallen somewhat, and the primary distinction
of these types was the perceptible decrease in power output. Therefore
we removed the wing machine guns. They were heavy [one Browning .50
caliber under each wing], slowed the airplane down, and their recoil was
felt in combat.
Wasn’t this somewhat of a surprise, a deficiency in power output when
one would think power should be increasing as the war progressed?
of the matter was that from modification to modification the Cobra was
somehow improved in construction, but this came at the price of constant
increases in weight, which was not compensated for even by the growing
power output of the engine. The P-63 KingCobra was a “leap”. I had a
chance to fly it after the war (thank God!). The strongest [P-39] in
power output were the types from Q-2 to the early Q-10s, and then the
power output began to fall. Again, beginning with the -10, the
propellers came with a unified system of throttle/pitch, and this also
did not increase survivability in combat. I’ve already addressed that.
Nikolay Gerasimovich, did you have the impression that they initially
delivered the Cobra with an overstressed engine, that is under normal
circumstances that Allison engine would have developed 100—150 less
entirely possible. But in the course of the war, the Allison lived up to
its specifications. You have to give the Americans their due.
A. S. You
said that various propellers were mounted?
first they had three-bladed props, later four blades. I did not detect
any appreciable difference between them. These propellers were
mechanical, they were controlled by hand, with a system of levers and
rods. On later Cobras they installed combined throttle/pitch control.
This was the case on some Q-10s, on all of the Q-25s and Q-30s. We
preferred the de-linked control, where the throttle and the pitch were
separate. This was on the Q-5 up to the Q-10.
A. S. How
much fuel did you carry?
If we hung
the 175-gallon fuselage auxiliary tank, we had enough for six hours of
A. S. In
the literature the Cobra is said to have the following deficiencies: 1.
Unreliable engine. 2. Weak tail. 3. A pilot bailing out of a Cobra would
be struck by the vertical stabilizer. 4. Because of the rearward center
of gravity, it was easy to enter an inverted spin and difficult to
recover. The engine problems you have already mentioned, and what else
can you say?
I can’t say anything about the weak tail. We never experienced that
As for the
pilot being struck by the vertical stabilizer, one had to observe
specific instructions. In the first place, never open both doors, but
only one. If you opened one door, then you had only to stick your head
out and the air stream would pull you out. If you opened both doors, you
could only crawl out of the cockpit like an old man. Secondly, pull up
of gravity of the Cobra was exceptionally rearward. We even had 10 kilos
of lead weight mounted in the forward portion to unload the tail.
Sometimes this center of gravity created problems with the wing and in
inverted flight. Once again, during non-combat flights, don’t place any
load in the empty rear portion of the fuselage. Somebody didn’t do it
and couldn’t make it back. The airplane flew as if balanced on a tip of
an awl. Later we gained experience and loaded everything in the forward
had other deficiencies. The rear armored glass would fall out. It was
heavy, perhaps 12 kilos, and was secured with a special pin. During
abrupt maneuvers this pin sometimes did not hold and the glass fell out.
It was easy to re-install, though.
another deficiency; at high speed a vent window mounted within the left
door window (there was no vent window in the right door) was dislodged,
and this piece of glass struck the pilot with enormous force. This
happened twice in our unit and the pilots died.
The tube for the oxygen mask was thin and not corrugated, but smooth.
This was not very good because when we constantly put on and took off
the mask, it could twist around and pinch at the most inconvenient time
for proper breathing. We had an instance of this where the pilot lost
consciousness, thank God not for long. He managed to regain
consciousness while still aloft.
Cobras there was a lousy heater. Our cockpit was heated by a small
heater like in the Zaporozets [a Russian-manufactured car – J.G.], with
a small igniter and a fuel nozzle. This igniter created terrible
feedback noise in the earphones, interfering with radio. When we turned
it on, we got rushing noise. When we turned it off, we froze. My hands
froze in this cockpit.
excellent heaters in the Q-5 and subsequent models, based on engine
heat. We had no problems with them.
A. S. Did
you have gun cameras?
end of the war, only on the Cobras.
A. S. Was
the engine capable of high altitude?
8,000 meters without problem, and neither we nor the Germans flew higher
Nikilay Gerasimovich, could the Cobra really contend with the Bf-109G
and FW-190 in aerial combat?
Cobra, especially the Q-5, took second place to no one, and even
surpassed all the German fighters.
more than 100 combat sorties in the Cobra, of these 30 in
reconnaissance, and fought 17 air combats. The Cobra was not inferior in
speed, in acceleration, nor in vertical or horizontal maneuverability.
It was a very balanced fighter.
A. S. This
is strange. In the words of one American pilot, the Cobra was an
airplane “suitable for large, low, and slow circles”. To go further, if
we judge by references, then the maximum speed of the Cobra fell below
that of the Bf-109F, not to mention the later German fighters. The
Allies removed it from their inventories because it could not fight with
the “Messer” and the “Fokker”. Neither the British nor the Americans
kept it as a fighter airplane.
don’t know. It certainly did well for us. Pokryshkin fought in it;
doesn’t that say something? [Aleksandr Pokryshkin was the number 2
Soviet ace at the end of the war and flew a P-39 from late 1942 to the
war’s end – J.G.]
that everything depends on what you wanted out of it. Either you flew it
in such a manner as to shoot down Messers and Fokkers, or you flew it in
a way that guaranteed 120 hours of engine life.
the speed of the Cobra and the Messer. I had a Q-25 Cobra, with cameras
for reconnaissance. Behind the engine were a vertical AFA-3s and two
oblique AFA-21s. I simply flew away from a group of Bf-109Gs in this
airplane, admittedly in a dive. Perhaps a single Messer could have
caught me, but I flew away from a group.
Nikolay Gerasimovich, being completely honest, was the Cobra better than
our fighters? And in general, Soviet-produced aircraft, were they fully
want to talk about Soviet-made fighters, then you have to specify which
ones and when.
already addressed the I-16.
remaining aircraft, I flew in the LaGG-3 and the MiG-1 in the first half
of the war. I began to fly the LaGG in 1941, while still at aviation
school. It was heavy, even the lightened version. They took an immediate
dislike to it when it was introduced to the forces. The engine was weak
for the air frame. I never fought an aerial engagement in it.
I began to
fly the MiG-1 in the regiment, as we had three of them. They sat on the
apron a lot because of their unreliable engines. As a former instructor,
I was permitted to fly in one of them.
A. S. Did
this MiG-1 have wing slats?
three machine guns. It was somewhat flimsy. But it had its strong
points. It had an outstanding air frame, little effort was required on
the stick. It was comfortable. Visibility from the cockpit was very
good. It reacted quickly to inputs. It was supercharged. “Above 4,000
meters, this airplane is God,” Pokryshkin correctly stated about the
engine drove it. It was horribly unreliable, very shoddy. There was a
rule: if a pilot ran the engine to maximum RPM in flight, the engine
would fail in the next flight or the one after that.
was chasing after a high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft, just about
ready to commence firing. At that moment my engine died. I landed with a
dead engine. My instructor habits came in handy. It turned out that the
timing gear mechanism had broken. Flights in our MiGs were forbidden
after this incident. I had made three or four flights in the MiG but had
fought no aerial engagements.
Pokryshkin, in his memoirs, wrote that a pilot who could fly the I-16
and the MiG could easily transition to any fighter.
normal. I did not experience any complexes regarding Soviet fighters. We
had very good machines. I flew on them and can make comparisons. No, our
fighters were not worse than the Cobra.
most of the Yaks immediately after the war, along with the Cobra. Thus I
am able to make comparisons. I flew in the Yak-1B (we had one, for the
division commander), Yak-7B, and Yak-9.
was very light and accelerated very rapidly. Only the Yak-3 was quicker.
That was its strong suit.
was heavier but I liked it a lot.
aerodynamics and power output, the Yak aircraft were on the highest
level while remaining simple, but on the limit of stress.
that I was not able to fly the La-5 or the La-7, but I flew the La-9 and
La-11 and can thus judge the Lavochkin. High class. I particularly liked
A. S. The
Yak-9. With 37mm cannon?
Ours had a 57mm cannon.
A. S. This
was a Yak-9K?
remember the model designation. We had two or three of them. They were
designed especially for combating ships, patrol vessels, and so on. It
seems to me that there were 12 rounds for the cannon, no eight. Yes, it
was eight. But if you were flying along at 600 kph and fired the cannon,
your speed dropped to 400! It stopped you in mid-air! Then you had to
regain the speed.
very little on them because they were not built for air-to-air combat.
A. S. Did
anyone compare the Cobra with our own aircraft?
I did that. I flew a training engagement in the Cobra against a Yak-1.
Three flew against me and in all three cases I got behind the Yak.
A. S. So
the Yak was not as good an airplane?
I was a
better pilot. I had great experience and a feeling for my fighter. My
opponents were young. Had I been flying the Yak and they been in the
Cobra, I would have done the same. Later the division commander said to
me, “What are you doing? Give the guys a chance to believe that their
airplane is also good! They won’t understand why you beat them!”
A. S. Tell
us, our later aircraft—the Yaks and Lavochkins—did they fall far behind
not inferior. I have already said that in speed, acceleration
capability, and maneuverability the Cobra was at a minimum on a par with
the German aircraft. And the Yaks and Lavochkins were not less capable
than the Cobra. What superiority are you talking about?
Nikolay Gerasimovich, if you look at any reference book, the superiority
in speed of German aircraft—the Bf-109G and FW-190—is indisputable.
Minimum 20—25 kilometers at low altitudes and up to 80—100 kilometers at
high altitudes. And you say ours did not lag behind?
No, some difference in speed always exists. At low altitudes we were a
bit faster, at high altitudes they were. The difference was on the order
of 10—20 km. But this difference was not so great that it ensured
overwhelming superiority. In combat it was practically not discernible.
Nikolay Gerasimovich, sometime relatively long ago I was speaking with a
pilot—a frontline veteran. Right after the war they flew in captured
aircraft. And no matter how hard they tried, they were unable to attain
the speeds the Germans had written in their specifications. The
shortfall in speed was significant. In the end, they prevailed upon a
German, a high-level specialist, and asked him, “Why this shortfall in
speed? Are we using the engine’s capability incorrectly?” His response
was that they would never achieve the target speed, because the German
specifications showed the theoretical speed, and they were attempting to
attain that speed on their instruments.
Gerasimovich, in your view, is this possible?
We had a group of specialists with us from NII VVS. They were examining
specifications and were looking at speed. “What speed is indicated at
7,000 meters? 780? Take away 100. And what about 3,000 meters? 700?
Reduce it 70 km.” This is how they calculated the instrumented speed
and, characteristically, almost always hit their target. Perhaps they
knew something about our focus on speed.
Text © AndreySukhorukov
Translation © James F.