Valeriy Romanenko ©
Translated by James F. Gebhardt ©
Early Versions of Airacobra Aircraft in Soviet
We present chapters from Valeriy Romanenko's book
Airacobras Enter Combat (Aerohobby, Kiev, 1993. ISBN
5-7707-5170-03). These chapters are prepared for publication on this
site by the author and translated by James F. Gebhardt. Illustrations
were kindly provided by Michael Bykov.
The book is based on original archival material
meticulously researched by the author for over a decade. The second
book, Airacobras Over Kuban', dealing with P-39K, L, and
M versions would be published this year.
All material presented here is copyrighted and can not
be reprinted and/or duplicated in any form without the written consent
of their respective authors.
The Airacobra I in the Soviet VVS
Of the early models of the Airacobra, only two were
widely employed in Soviet VVS: the ex-British Airacobra I and the
The first aircraft arrived from Great Britain. After the
RAF rejected the airplane in December 1941, it was recommended for
delivery to the USSR along with the Hurricane. The British VVS rejected
the Airacobra for the following reasons: uncompleted design, production
defects, incongruence of the conceptual design of this aircraft for the
genuine nature of combat operations in Europe, and so on. Therefore
there were legitimate reasons on the Soviet side to be critical of the
qualitative aspects of the British deliveries. However, turning away
from the "class" approach to history, the "pluses" of the British
assistance should be noted. Irrespective of the specific type of
aircraft delivered, these were: timeliness (the decision to deliver 200
fighters to the USSR at the end of July 1941 and arrival of the first 16
aircraft in Arkhangelsk on 31 August); scope of deliveries (669 fighters
before the end of 1941, true, of 800 promised by the Moscow protocol);
regularity (by the spring of 1942, 12 convoys during the seven months
since August 1941); the tendency to render uncompensated assistance
(from the letter of W. Churchill to I. V. Stalin, received on 6
September 1941, "In the first paragraph of your letter you used the word
'to sell'. We do not look at this matter from that point of view and
never thought about payment. It would be better if any assistance
rendered to you by us were based upon the same basis of comradeship on
which was based the American legislation regarding lend-lease, that is
without formal monetary accounting." ); timeliness (the peak
of British deliveries came at the end of 1941 and the first half of
1942, a period of acute shortage of aircraft in the Soviet VVS. Aircraft
deliveries to units were lagging as plants were being evacuated eastward
 ). At the beginning stage British deliveries favorably
compared with American deliveries, which began to arrive significantly
later, in early 1942. And if the positive aspects of British assistance
were obvious only until July 1942 (later it began to fall behind by
almost all measures), then the practice of designating for the USSR only
second-rate combat equipment had a place throughout the entire war.
Returning to the Airacobra, it must be noted that the
British somewhat underrated it. Soviet pilots preferred the Cobra
despite its many shortcomings to any other aircraft received from the
Allies, including the Spitifire VB, which the British deigned to give us
only in 1943.
The reasons for this will be examined below, but one of them can be
noted right here and now: The Airacobra almost ideally corresponded to
the nature of combat activities on the Soviet-German front. Here the
struggle was not for absolute air superiority, but for superiority over
specific areas of active combat activities. Dive bombers and close
support aircraft, that is, aircraft directly supporting ground forces,
operating at low altitude over the battlefield or at medium altitudes in
the operational-tactical airspace, were the basis of both the Luftwaffe
and the VVS Red Army. Correspondingly, the fighters had either to
counter the enemy's fighters, or accompany one's own bombers at those
same altitudes. Air battles rarely occurred at altitudes above 5,000
meters. In these working environments the Airacobra just had the best
flight characteristics. If one adds to this good maneuverability, easy
handling, powerful armaments, and excellent vision, then its success on
the Soviet-German front becomes obvious.
And so, beginning in December 1941, Great Britain sent to the USSR
212 fighters of the model Bell Airacobra I. All the aircraft were from
the British order and had RAF serial numbers, specifically known only
for the AH series: AH570, 571, 575, 577, 584, 586, 599, 604-8, 610-13,
615-22, 624-28, 630-36, 638-47, 649-55, 658-60, 662-71, 673-92, 694,
695, 697, 699, 700, 702-712, 714-31, 733, 734, and 739, altogether 124
items, of which 10 were lost during transport by sea (AH651, 662, 699,
705, 723, 728, 729, 731, 734, and 739). For the series AP, we only know
that the following numbers arrived in Great Britain: AP264, 269-73,
275-77, 279, 281-86, 288, 289, 292-94, 296, 298, 299, 301-3, 306-18,
320, 321, 323-25, 358, and 384. We also know that AP309 was destroyed,
20 aircraft were sent to the USAAF , and the remainder to the
USSR. According to other sources, only 11 airframes from the AP series
went to the USSR. In June 1942 aircraft BW106, 109, 131, and 149 from
the BW series were unloaded in the Soviet Union. There is no information
available on the much larger BX series (BX135-434, 300 aircraft).
All the aircraft were delivered by Allied convoys by the northern
route during 1942. The convoy normally formed up in Reykyavik or
Seydisfjord. From here it proceeded across the northwest Atlantic to the
Soviet ports of Murmansk, Arkhangelsk, or Molotovsk (present-day
Severodvinsk). This was the shortest route (approximately 1500 miles to
Murmansk), but also the most dangerous. We recall the writings of
Valentin Pikul and his "Requiem of Convoy PQ-17." According to British
data, 49 of Airacobra I aircraft were lost during the transport by sea.
However, this is the total number for the entire route from the USA to
the USSR, including the USA-Great Britain leg. Losses of the PQ convoys
(England-Murmansk) can be approximated thus: if of the number sent from
Great Britain (212) we subtract the number that arrived in the USSR (1
in December 1941 and 192 in 1942, according to materials of the Archive
of the Main Staff of the VVS Soviet Army, 2 in 1943 according to British
sources), and take into consideration that the first P-39D-2, K, and L
were delivered to the USSR on 12 November 1942 and 4 December 1942
 in single examples, then the magnitude of loss during transport
by sea amounts to 20-25 aircraft.
The crated Airacobras unloaded in northern Soviet ports then went in
several directions. Aircraft unloaded in Murmansk frequently went
directly to the active army and were based either in aviation units of
the VVS Northern Fleet, located nearby (78th IAP) , or were
transported by rail to Afrikanda station and there issued to the 19th
Guards IAP (VVS Karelian Front).
Unloading of crated aircraft
(photo from Artem Drabkin Collection)
The bulk of the Airacobra I fighters was sent to the city Ivanovo, to
the 22d Reserve Air Regiment (ZAP). Crated airplanes delivered to
Arkhangelsk and Severomorsk went on rail flatcars by direct line through
Vologda and from Murmansk on the Kirov line to Volkhov and beyond also
through the Vologda junction.
In 1942 the 22d ZAP became the training center in which fighter
regiments (IAP) were transitioned to imported aviation equipment. Here
also were carried out the assembly and test flight of all types of
foreign fighters that were subsequently sent to the front under their
own power. The geography of deliveries was broad-from Leningrad to
A small number of the imported aircraft were assembled right in the
Arkhangelsk area. A wooden landing field and railroad branch line to it
were constructed in the deep taiga some 25 kilometers south of the city
by prisoners under the overwatch of the NKVD. The aircraft assembled and
test flown here were then flown to Ivanovo, using an airfield in Vologda
as an intermediate stop. Specific information regarding the ferrying of
Airacobras by this route is not available.
The Soviet command (in the form of the Directorate of the VVS) was
much more careful in gaining mastery of the Airacobra than it had been
with foreign aircraft that had arrived earlier. Whether it was the
somewhat checkered reputation of the aircraft, the unusual construction
of the aircraft, or the experience of adapting the Hurricanes and
Tomahawks to our conditions, it is difficult to determine now, some 60
years later. But the period of time that elapsed between delivery of the
first Airacobras to the USSR (end of December 1941) and their appearance
in aviation units (early May 1942) speaks for itself.
The first party of 20 aircraft (all series AH, from 599 to 677)
arrived in 22d ZAP in the period between late December 1941 and early
January 1942. Their arrival was taken very seriously. The Scientific
Research Institute (NII) of the VVS sent a group of specialists to the
regiment, from which was formed a separate team (22d ZAP order no. 7 of
2 January 1942). For a number of reasons, the initial composition of the
brigade was changed, and by 15 January work was begun on receipt,
unpacking, and assembly. Heading up this effort were I. G. Rabkin (lead
aircraft engineer), V. I. Usatov (lead engineer for power plants), P. S.
Ivanov (engineer for propeller systems), and B. F. Nikishin (test
mechanic). Flight testing was entrusted to lead test pilot Captain V. E.
In addition to specialists from NII VVS Red Army, order no. 7 assigned
to the working group a representative of the department of foreign
orders (Import Directorate, VVS KA), military engineer 2d Rank Comrade
The procedure itself for receipt was conducted in the following
manner. The crates containing aircraft components were opened,
inventoried, and checked for damage in the presence of the
representative of the Import Directorate. Special attention was given to
the "newness" of the aircraft (had this aircraft been subjected to
previous use and repair).
The "eye of the state" was hardly superfluous in this particular
case, since a significant portion of the Hurricanes and P-40Cs that had
arrived earlier had been flown for some time in the RAF and had
exhausted a significant percentage of their use life. Representatives of
the military commission of the USSR in Great Britain had noted cases
when new aircraft arriving from the USA were taken into the inventory of
the Royal Air Force to replace other aircraft already in use. These
aircraft underwent repair, were disassembled, packed in crates, and sent
to the USSR. It is difficult to judge the British for this because the
first aircraft we received were not from Lend-Lease but from those
purchased for the RAF. Similar cases with aircraft of American
production practically ceased to occur after the beginning of deliveries
by Lend-Lease. We continued to receive "previously used" British
aircraft until the end of the war, though not in great numbers.
In the case of observed deficiencies, only the representative of the
Import Directorate had the right to submit complaints. Therefore by
separate order it was forbidden to unpack crates in his absence.
The assembly of the first party of aircraft was begun in mid-January.
This author does not know the specific site of the assembly and test
flight of the first Airacobra. The literature only makes reference to a
large airfield on the outskirts of the town. Drawing from the basing of
22 ZAP, the site was one of three airfields: Kineshma, Ivanovo-South, or
The process of assembly was organized in the best Soviet traditions:
foreign specialists, naturally, were absent; instructions, naturally,
were in English; of the NII VVS specialists, naturally, no one knew
English; the [female] translator, naturally, was an academic to whom
"fonar'" [canopy in Russian airplane jargon, in usual sense a light
source], for example, was a "light source" only; the aircraft,
naturally, was absolutely unfamiliar to the specialists; and the period
of time allotted for the work, naturally, was minimal.
The resourcefulness and ingenuity of the people and "His majesty,
chance" helped out. The team leader I. G. Rabkin knew French. At that
time, there was a group of British RAF specialists at 22 ZAP, engaged in
assisting in the assimilation of the Hurricanes. The leader of this
group, an engineer in the rank of captain, fortunately also spoke
French. In addition, some of his team members were familiar with the
Airacobra. Therefore the consultations went something like this: I. G.
Rabkin submitted questions of interest to the British engineer in
French. He consulted with his colleagues in English and responded to the
questions in French. Our leader passed along the responses to his
subordinates in Russian. This process somewhat speeded up the work for
translating the instructions.
The assembly of the aircraft was accomplished directly on the
airfield. Despite the severe winter, work went from dawn to dusk, and
than for several more hours the team members conducted exercises in
classrooms for ZAP specialists or were involved in translating
instructions. Thanks to this unstinting effort, the first airplane was
assembled and prepared in a minimum amount of time.
Typical deficiencies for foreign aircraft surfaced from the first days
of its use: reduced outflow of oil from the lubrication system, the
remnants of which quickly froze in the cold weather. The technicians
quickly had to rework the lubrication system by means of installing
additional oil taps [as in "faucets"] and also to create a special
collector for the simultaneous induction of hot air into the crankcase,
reduction box, radiator, and other areas that required warming before
starting the engine. This collector successfully withstood testing and
was recommended for implementation in the employment of the airplane.
V. E. Golofastov conducted the flight testing. The Airacobra I
underwent flight tests in April 1942 with some success. It developed a
speed of 493 km/h at sea level and a maximum speed of 585 km/h at 4,200
meters. It reached 5,000 meters altitude in 6.5 minutes. The technical
data and performance were on a level with serially produced Soviet and
enemy fighters. The maneuver, takeoff-landing, and armament performance
characteristics of the aircraft were considered positives. The following
conclusion was made as a result of this testing: The Airacobra aircraft
was simple in techniques of piloting and could be flown by pilots of
average qualifications; it could be successfully employed for the
conduct of aerial combat with all types of enemy aircraft, and also for
the conduct of attacks at ground targets. The Airacobra received its
"air worthiness certificate" in the Soviet VVS.
The booklet "Brief technical description and technical exploitation
of the Airacobra" was written based on the results of the effort of the
team of NII VVS and test flights of the airplane. This booklet was
quickly printed and distributed to aviation units that were being
equipped with this airplane.
One who has carefully read the material above regarding the Airacobra
might logically ask the question, why was this same model of the
airplane so bad for British employment and so good for Soviet
employment? What can explain this contradiction?
There were several reasons. We will dwell on the most important:
First, we received already "reworked" aircraft that lacked the initial
deficiencies. Second, our specialists tested the Airacobra for the
specific altitude envelope of the Soviet-German front, which
corresponded well with the best flying performance characteristics of
the aircraft. Third, the aircraft actually were not bad. And fourth, the
brief test period did not permit sufficient testing to expose the basic
weaknesses of design and construction that were later revealed in the
process of mass exploitation. The flat spin, the engine throwing
connecting rods, and other manifestations were yet to be discovered.
After completion of testing, approximately in April 1942, the
Airacobra I fighter began to be issued to combat units. The procedure
for re-equipping a unit with new aircraft was standard. A fighter air
regiment that had suffered losses at the front turned over its remaining
serviceable aircraft to neighboring units. The personnel of this
regiment were sent to the 22d ZAP. Here over the course of 1-2 months
the regiment was re-trained, reconstituted in personnel up to TOE [table
of organization and equipment] level, issued new equipment, and then
returned to the front. Losses in aircraft of the new type were also made
up by deliveries from the same 22d ZAP.
A few words need to be said about the 22d ZAP itself. This regiment
was formed on 15 October 1941 on the base of the reserve VVS Moscow
Military District and VVS Red Army. The first commander was Colonel I.
I. Shumov. The regiment was based at three airfields throughout the
entire war: Kineshma, Ivanovo-South, and Ivanovo-North. The staff was
initially based at Kineshma, but beginning on 7 April 1942 was moved to
the city Ivanovo. The regiment was created specially to be a training
center for transition of flight and technical personnel to foreign
fighter aircraft, and also as a center for the preparation, repair, and
technical service of foreign fighters. The regiment served in this
capacity until it was stood down on 1 June 1946. Beginning on 15 May
1942, it was subordinated to the 6th Reserve Aviation Brigade (ZAB).
By the time of the beginning of the transition to the Airacobra, 22d
ZAP was already an influential base with a well drawn training process
and developed technical infrastructure. The personnel who arrived there
initially underwent theoretical training in well equipped training
classrooms, after which they took an examination. The flight crews
transitioned to flights and the technical personnel were distributed to
the assembly teams, where alongside the ZAP technicians they assembled
aircraft for their own regiment, or were engaged in the repair of
damaged aircraft in repair shops. The 22d ZAP was operating a total of
four assembly teams, who were assembling aircraft out of crates
delivered by railroad, and three training air squadrons (one trained
pilots in Hurricanes, a second in Kittyhawks, and the third in
Airacobras). After passing the examinations for flight readiness, the
reconstituted air regiment received its aircraft, test flew them, and
was sent back to the front in its own new aircraft.
Airacobras numbers AH610, 653, and 669 were initially used for
training flight personnel in 22d ZAP. These three aircraft were
designated as the 1st Training Squadron and constituted its only flight.
In addition, one UTI-4, one Yak-7 [both two-seat advanced trainers], and
two other foreign aircraft were assigned to 1st Squadron.
Because AH699 was destroyed in an accident on 20 June 1942, and AH610
and AH 653 in November 1942, subsequently AH624, 730, 733, 737, and
AP264 were used for training. The aircraft lost in accidents were
disassembled and used in training auditoriums as visual aids (in
American terminology, "assigned to 26th Class").
In addition to the 22d ZAP, an attempt was undertaken to prepare
pilots in the Airacobra also in the 14th ZAP, which also belonged to 6th
ZAB. Personnel of the regiment began transition training on the
Airacobra on 1 August 1942, for which purpose AP264 and AH733 were
transferred from 22d ZAP. However, after a month it was considered
inefficient to have established a parallel flow, and both Cobras were
returned. Five aircraft of the same type that had been received from
later deliveries were assembled, test flown, and then delivered to
22d ZAP trained air regiments on the Airacobra I for approximately a
year, from April 1942 until March 1943. During this time two fighter
regiments (153 and 185 IAP) were re-constituted and sent back to the
front, the 153d two times, along with a number of individual crews (56
during 1942 and 67 in 1943). One regiment, 30th Guards (GIAP) was also
trained on the Airacobra I, but later gave them up and was sent to the
front on 13 March 1943 on later model Cobras.
In addition to combat regiments, the 22d ZAP became the "forebear" of
a new type of unit in the Soviet VVS-ferry fighter regiments (PIAP). The
necessity for these units arose in connection with the creation of the
Alaska-Siberia route (ALSIB in American parlance), by which it was
planned to deliver American aircraft directly from the USA to Siberia by
air. In the summer of 1942, the 1st, 2d, 3d, 4th, and 5th PIAP were
formed in 22d ZAP and trained on the Airacobra I and Kittyhawk, with a
mean flight time of 228 hours (735 landings) per regiment. In accordance
with directive VVS Red Army No. 340549/ss  of 12 August 1942,
each regiment, consisting of three squadrons (32 pilots), naturally,
without aircraft, was to be in its assigned sector between 25 August and
5 September. Because this ferry route was used only for later
modifications of the P-39 (L model and beyond), information regarding it
will be discussed in later chapters.
As has been discussed above, in addition to training functions the
22d ZAP was also a unique depot. Here they unpacked, test flew,
repaired, reequipped, and dispatched foreign fighters to the front
lines. In particular, it was here that the Airacobra I had removed from
it a portion of its radio equipment that worked on wavelengths not
compatible with Soviet equipment, and IFF [identify friend or foe] gear.
According to documents of 6th ZAB, in 1942 alone some 254 Airacobras
were assembled and flown in 22d ZAP, of which 237 were sent to the front
or to other units. It is interesting that this number exceeds (according
to data from the archives of the Main Staff, VVS ) the total
number of this fighter type received in the USSR for the year (192). In
the opinion of this author, this is explained by the mistaken inclusion
in their number of aircraft ostensibly belonging to the five PIAPs (5 x
32). This difference, some 94 aircraft, represents a more real number of
Airacobra Is that might have passed through the 22d ZAP in 1942.
The first of the combat regiments to arrive for Airacobra I
transition training was the 153d IAP, sent for re-training from the
Leningrad Front and arriving at 22d ZAP on 25 March 1942. The
re-training of this unit took all of 27 days, with an average of 12
flight hours per pilot. By 10 June 1942 the regiment had completed
transition and on 14 June was sent to Voronezh Front.
The myth regarding the employment of the Airacobra in the Soviet VVS
almost exclusively as a "shturmovik" [ground-attack aircraft] is
widespread in Western literature (W. Green, P. Bowers, E. McDowwell).
This myth arose out of an insufficiency of information: both Soviet
official and memoir sources were carefully screened by Glavlit
[political censorship overseeing publication of all printed material in
the USSR] and stood on the "only believable" conceptual positions, and
almost until the 1970s attempted to conceal any information about
Kittyhawks, Cobras, and Hurricanes, as though they almost never existed.
This phenomenon was very astutely expressed by Larry Bell as far back as
1944 when in a conversation with Soviet test pilots he said, "I have
sent you three thousand airplanes and I could just as well have thrown
them into Lake Ontario! I know nothing about them, how they are
fighting, and if your men are satisfied with them!"
With the release in the late 1960s of A. I. Pokryshkin's "The skies
of war", one of the starkest books about pilots in war, translated into
many foreign languages, the situation regarding the Airacobras was
somewhat clarified. However (nature abhors a vacuum), now Western
authors have taken up "class positions". From the description of
hundreds of aerial combats they have selected only a small period and
have advanced a new myth: the "Russians", it seems, successfully
employed the Airacobra only against slow-moving transports and aging
bombers. This was an introduction to the tale and the tale is
153d (28th Guards) IAP
The 153d IAP, at full strength, was formed on the basis of TOE
015/284 (2 squadrons, 20 aircraft and 23 pilots), under the command of
Hero of the Soviet Union Major S. I. Mironov, arrived at Voronezh
airfield on 29 June 1942. It began combat operations without any delay,
on 30 June 1942. Later the regiment was relocated to Lipetsk airfield,
from which it operated until 25 September 1942. In 59 flying days on the
Voronezh Front the regiment conducted 1,070 combat sorties with 1162
hours of flight time; fought 259 aerial engagements, of which 45 were of
a group nature; shot down 64 enemy aircraft, of which 18 were bombers
(15 Ju-88, 1 Do-217, 1 He-111, and 1 FW-198), 45 fighters (39 Bf-109F, 1
Bf-110, 1 Me-210, 4 MS-200), and 1 aerial observation aircraft. Losses
during these three months of combat were 3 pilots and 8 aircraft. "These
relatively insignificant losses are explained in the first place by the
experience of the pilots and the good flight performance characteristics
of the Airacobra aircraft." Regiment commander Lieutenant Colonel
Mironov, HSU (TsAMO, collection 28 Guards IAP, index 143456, file 1)
[TsAMO - central archive of the Defense Ministry].
The cited document gives a an adequate representation of the fact
whom did the Soviet Cobras contest successfully. For outstanding combat
effort on the Voronezh Front, the 153d IAP was recommended for the
On 7 August 1942 a group of pilots was selected from the regiment for
a special assignment of the command of the VVS Red Army. These eight
cadre pilots, led by Major O. M. Rodionov, along with 28 technical
personnel, operated independently as part of the VVS of West Front from
airfields at Kubinka, Alferyevo, and Klimovo. From 8 August through 11
September 1942, they executed 167 sorties with a total flight time of
190 hours, of which 68 were in combat. They shot down 13 enemy aircraft
(9 Ju-88, 4 Bf-109F) and damaged 17 others. Their own losses were two
wounded pilots and two aircraft lost. Non-combat losses were one pilot
and one aircraft.
Altogether in 1,237 combat sorties the regiment destroyed 77 enemy
aircraft, of which one was by ramming. Captain A. F. Avdeev conducted a
frontal attack on a Messerschmitt and neither pilot gave way. This was
the first ramming incident in an Airacobra.
On 1 October 1942, the regiment arrived at Ivanovo, at 22d ZAP, for
re-constitution to TOE 015/174 (three squadrons). Major O. M. Rodionov
was appointed the regiment commander.
In connection with the situation at the front, the regiment, without
having completed transition training, was thrown back into combat on 27
October 1942 with 32 Airacobra I aircraft. One squadron operated from
Lyubertsy airfield and the second from Vypolzovo airfield (North-West
During nine flying days from 31 October to 28 November the regiment
flew 94 sorties (91 hours of flight time), of which 29 were in combat.
They conducted six aerial engagements, shooting down 1 Ju-87 and four
Bf-109F. Two Airacobras were lost.
On 22 November 1942 the 153d IAP received the Guards title and
renamed as the 28th Guards IAP. In November 1943 the regiment received
the honorific title "Leningradskiy"(28th Guards "Leningradskiy" IAP).
Until 1 August 1943 the regiment flew exclusively in Airacobra I
aircraft. The serial numbers included AH626, 690, BX182, 184, 206, 228,
234, 235, 240, 254, BX/AP (?) 264, 266, 268, 271, 272, 279,
282, 285, 305, 318, 324, 338, 379, 381, and 384. On 1 August 1943 the
regiment still had 11 Airacobra aircraft on hand.
From 1 December 1942 through 1 August 1943 the regiment carried out
1,176 combat sorties (1,283 hours), fought 66 group engagements, in
which it destroyed 63 enemy aircraft (23 Bf-109F, 23 FW-190, 7 FW-189, 6
Ju-88, 4 Hs-126) and 4 aerostats, damaged 7 fighters and one bomber.
Aircraft losses were 14 in aerial combat, 4 to airfield bombardment, 5
in accidents; pilots killed or missing in action-10. The regiment was
re-equipped with P-39N and Q models beginning on 1 August 1943.
185th Red Banner IAP
185th Red Banner IAP arrived at 22d ZAP on 7 April 1942 from
Leningrad Front with 11 pilots. In the process of transition it was
reconstituted from the reserve of 22d ZAP with nine pilots. The regiment
was the first to complet a course of study on the Airacobra I lasting 26
days on 9 June 1942, and was sent to the front on 30 June 1942. The
regiment commander was a Lieutenant Colonel Vasin. The regiment was also
formed on TOE 015/284 (2 squadrons, 20 pilots, 20 aircraft). Serial
numbers AH605, 608, 627, 632, 633, 643, 650, 652, 654, 671, 673, 675-78,
681, 702, 710, 717, and 720. The author does not have access to more
detailed data about the combat record of this regiment.
180th (30th Guards) IAP
30th Guards IAP (later 30th Guards Baranovicheskiy Red Banner IAP)
arrived at 22d ZAP on 20 July 1942, having lost in about a month of
combat the greater part of its Hurricanes. (The regiment had been sent
to the front from 22d ZAP with 20 Hurricanes on 12 June 1942.) The unit
began transition to Airacobra I aircraft on 3 August 1942. It left for
Chernava airfield in the Central Front on 13 March 1943, formed with TOE
015/174 (3 squadrons, 32 pilots). The total flight time during the
transition period from 5 February through 12 March 1943 was 510 hours
(1,649 landings). Airacobras AH584, 599, 634, BX/AP (?) 265, 275, 282,
316, 321, 355, 359, and 370 were issued to the regiment. Materials
regarding the combat efforts of the regiment in 1943 have not been
145th (19th Guards) IAP
This regiment was the first in the Soviet VVS to begin combat actions
in the Airacobra I. In distinction from the 153d and 185th IAP, which
trained in a rear-area training center, the 145th IAP mastered the
imported fighter directly in its operational zone (less than 100 km from
the front line), without any kind of instructions, guidance in the
Russian language, or assistance of instructors.
The 145th IAP (14th Army, Karelian Front on the Murmansk axis) was
formed on 17 January 1940 in the settlement Kayrelo (former territory of
Finland). It participated in the Finnish campaign, shot down 5 enemy
aircraft and lost 5 of its own. It began the war in the I-16, then flew
the LaGG-3, MiG-3, and Hurricane. On 4 April 1942, for successful combat
effort, the 145th IAP was designated 19th Guards IAP. At the end of this
same month it received the tasking to transition over to the Airacobra I
and P-40E Kittyhawk fighters. The regiment was sent to Afrikanda
airfield for this purpose. Here they received crates containing
aircraft, delivered by the Kirov railroad. Over the course of the month
of May the engineer-technical staff of the regiment, under the
supervision of Major P.P. Gol'tsev, regiment senior engineer, assembled
16 Airacobra Is and 10 Kittyhawks.
The technical documentation for these aircraft was only in English.
Assembly and study of the imported fighters occurred simultaneously.
Work was conducted for the most part under the open sky, in conditions
of polar night [extended periods of darkness], but cold temperatures.
Nonetheless, already on 26 April squadron commander Captain P. S.
Kutakhov (future twice HSU and marshal of aviation ) conducted
three training flights around a circle in the Airacobra. By 15 May the
entire component (22 pilots) had mastered the techniques of piloting the
new fighters. Simultaneously the regiment was reconstituted on TOE
015/174 (3 squadrons). The regiment returned to full duty without a
single accident or incident.
On 15 May, 19th Guards IAP was relocated to Shonguy and began combat
operations, now equipped with 16 Airacobras (including AH618, 619, 660,
664, 679, 692, 697, 703, 708, 709, 713, and 724) and 10 P-40Es.
Airacobra I aircraft of 19 GIAP (photo from Artem Drabkin collection)
The first aerial engagement on the Soviet-German front between an
Airacobra and Luftwaffe aircraft occurred on this same day, with the
somewhat rare German fighters He-113 . On the following day
the regiment suffered its first losses. One Airacobra (AH660 with engine
Allison E-4 No. A-206301) was shot down in an aerial engagement with 2
He-113s and 6 Bf-109s. During a forced landing in a forest the aircraft
was destroyed. But the pilot, Senior Lieutenant I. D. Gaydayenko, was
uninjured. This aircraft could be considered the first Airacobra lost in
combat on the Soviet-German front.
In the future, the effectiveness of the combat utilization of the
Airacobra grew as the pilots became more familiar with the aircraft. For
example, already on 15 June 6 Airacobras intercepted 6 bombers and 16
escort Bf-110 fighters in the area of Murmashy airfield, flying to bomb
Murmansk. As a result of the aerial engagement that followed, 9 German
aircraft were shot down without losses to the Soviet side.
A pilot of the 19th Guards IAP carried out the first aerial ramming
incident in an Airacobra in the north. On 9 September 1942, during the
fending off of a German bomber raid on Murmansk, Lieutenant E. A.
Krivosheyev (96 combat sorties, 5 personal and 15 group kills) destroyed
a Messerschmitt. And when his ammunition was all expended, he rammed a
second Bf-109 that was coming into the rear of one of our Airacobra
fighters. His Airacobra (BX/AP (?) 320, with engine Allison E-4 No.
206448) was destroyed and the pilot was killed. He was posthumously
awarded Hero of the Soviet Union on 22 February 1943.
The dynamic of acquisition and loss of Airacobra I aircraft in 19th
Guards IAP is shown below: May 1942-received 16, lost 2; June-3 and 5
correspondingly; July-5 and 3; no subsequent issue of aircraft, but
losses: August-1, September-2, October-none, and December-1. Altogether
to the end of 1942, 14 Airacobra I aircraft were lost (10 were shot down
in combat, 1 did not return from a combat sortie, 1 catastrophic loss
, and 2 by accident), numbers correspondingly AH660, 636 679,
703, 707, 713, 618, 724, 619, 709, 726, 697, BX/AP (?) 320. Single AH298
On 1 January 1943 the 19th Guards IAP had 11 Airacobra I aircraft on
hand: AH658, 664, 682, 708, 720, BX231, 237, 257, BX/AP (?) 336 and 342.
Concerning losses inflicted on the enemy by the Airacobra pilots, it
is difficult to judge according to regiment reports because until
November, Airacobras and Kittyhawks flew together. Regarding the fact
that these losses were significant one can judge by the personal scores
of the pilots who flew exclusively in Airacobras from May 1942: Captain
I. V. Bochkov, chief of regiment VSS [aerial gunnery service]-45 combat
sorties, 7 personal and 32 group kills (KIA 4 April 1943 in aerial
combat 4 km southwest of Murmansk, in Airacobra BX/BW (?) 168 with
engine Allison No. 14041); deputy squadron commander Senior Lieutenant
I. D. Gaydayenko-29 kills (personal and in group by August 1942);
squadron commander Major P. S. Kutakhov, HSU-40 combat sorties, 7
personal and 24 group kills (by 1 May 1943).
Capt. I. V. Bochkov of the 19th
GIAP in front of his P-400 Aircobra I number "16" in East Carelia in
Bochkov was killed in action on April 4, 1943 and was posthumously
awarded the Golden Star on May 1, 1943
having scored 7 personal and 32
shared victories (photo from the author's collection)
In 1943 19th Guards IAP also continued their combat work in the
Airacobra I. However already in February they received 17 aircraft of
later models, and in October the flight crews delivered an additional 25
P-39N and Q Airacobras from Krasnoyarsk and the regiment was completely
transitioned to these types. Even so, the last examples of the Airacobra
I (AH658, 723) flew in the regiment until early 1944.
To the period ending on 31 December 1943, 19th Guards IAP flew 7,451
combat sorties with a combined 5,410 hours 19 minutes. They shot down
Bf-109E-56, Bf-109F-43, Bf-109G-14, He-113-1, Bf-110-30, Ju-88-7,
Ju-87-9, He-111-1, Do-215-2, Hs-126-5, Fi-156-1, and FW-189-1. During
this time the regiment's losses were pilots-46 (of these 35 in combat),
aircraft-86 (of these, 59 shot down in combat, 20 of which were
Airacobras). Non-combat losses were 3 catastrophic losses (of these, 1
Airacobra). A total of 128 aircraft were input to the regiment, of these
Copyright Michael Bykov ©
Airacobra I BX168 "White15" of
Guards Capt. Bochkov, 19 GIAP. I.V. Bochkov was shot down and killed in
aerial combat on April 4, 1943
In addition to the normal simultaneous re-equipping of
aviation units (complete or partial) with a new type of aircraft, the
practice also existed to deliver several air frames of new aircraft
directly to front-line regiments for pilot transition training. For
example, 17th IAP received four Airacobra I aircraft in July 1942. The
most experienced pilots of the regiment flew in these airplanes:
squadron commander Captain A. I. Novikov, HSU [Hero of the Soviet Union]
(as of 23 August 1942-242 combat sorties, 11 personal kills), Senior
Lieutenant I. V. Zherdev, and Sgt. Kolomiets among others. Till the end
of 1942 the regiment operated LaGG-3 and Yak-1 transitioning to the
Airacobra and La-5 in the interludes between battles. On 3 January 1943
the regiment turned over all four Airacobras in operational condition to
another unit and was sent to the 22d ZAP for transition. It subsequently
was trained for re-equipping on the Airacobra, Bf-109G2 (!), and later
again on the Airacobra. But the second time it was the model P-39N and
Q. The regiment still had AH702 in its inventory during training in 22
By order No. 111 of 6 September 1942, 22d ZAP, AH645, 670, 715, and
AP/BX (?) 301 were sent to the North-West Front. Their subsequent
disposition is unknown.
Airacobra AH610 was transferred to 22d ZAP from 295th IAP.
In addition to the VVS of the Red Army, Airacobra Is
were actively employed in the air forces of the VMF (navy), albeit
exclusively in the VVS of Northern Fleet . Here in two
fighter regiments (2d Guards Mixed and 78th Fighter Regiments) of 6th
Fighter Brigade was a broad assortment of aircraft equipment from the
Soviet-produced I-16 to imported Hurricanes and Kittyhawks. The reason
was simple: these regiments were responsible for air cover of Allied
convoys and the destination port Murmansk. Therefore aircraft unloaded
there were made available to these units first (by the timeless
principle, "that which you guard you shall have"). And if one speaks
seriously, this was indeed very dangerous duty. A pilot who was shot
down over these northern waters faced almost certain death. The war did
not show mercy even to such an ace as Twice Hero of the Soviet Union B.
F. Safonov, who went down in the sea near convoy PQ-16 [flying a P-40
It was namely his comrades in the 2d Guards Mixed Air Regiment, which by
order of the People's Commissar of the Navy was named after their
commander B. F. Safonov, who first received the Airacobra I in the
spring of 1942: squadron commanders Captains A. A. Kovalenko and A. N.
Kukharenko, and pilots Lieutenants N. A. Bokiy, Z. A. Sorokin, and P. D.
Klimov. Just one fact serves as sufficient description of their
successes in the Cobra: by the middle of 1943, all of them (except Z. A.
Sorokin and A.N. Kukharenko) had received the rank Hero of the Soviet Union, which was
awarded for not less than 10 personally destroyed enemy aircraft.
(Sorokin received this distinction on 19 August 1944.)
While completing the account of the Airacobra I in
Soviet aviation, the following conclusions can be drawn. Despite a
number of design deficiencies of this first model of the air frame
(undercarriage weakness, engine seizures, inadequate rate of climb,
tendency to flat spin), it was a threatening weapon in the hands of
skilled aerial warriors. As was written in the summary of the commander
of 153d (28th Guards) IAP regarding the combat work in the Voronezh and
West Fronts in July-August 1942, "The Airacobra aircraft is considered
by the Germans to be the most dangerous enemy and should be engaged in
combat only when they [the Germans] have numerical superiority and the
advantage in altitude and surprise." Therefore, the decision by the VVS
command regarding preliminary serious study of the aircraft and its
testing and subsequent delivery to units that had combat experience
turned out to be correct. Combat tested and experienced pilots were able
to master the correct tactical employment of the airplane in a minimal
period of time. They learned to compensate inadequate vertical maneuver
with good formation flying, echeloned by altitude (pair above pair with
100-200 meter interval). Mutual fire support also made possible minimal
losses and maximum damage to the enemy. The most clear example of this
was in the 19th Guards IAP, where group kills were almost three times
greater than individual kills. A year later A. I. Pokryshkin, the
creator of the celebrated "Kuban' bookshelf", arrived at this same
"group" tactic independently and in more complete form. The conclusion
regarding whom the Airacobra engaged-slow-moving transports and aging
bombers, or Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs of the latest models, can be
drawn from the statistics presented above.
The Airacobra I was actively employed in the Soviet VVS
for approximately a year, from June 1942 until the early summer of 1943.
Subsequently losses in this air frame were compensated for by deliveries
of the later models. The last two Airacobra Is arrived in the USSR in
January 1943. By the end of the summer of 1943 they had almost
disappeared from line units, although the last examples fought on until
the spring of 1944.
In conclusion, several words need be said regarding the
odyssey of the last combat "Englishman". Bell Airacobra I AH586 arrived
in the RAF as one of the first and debuted in the 601st Division
mentioned above. After having served almost a year in the RAF, it was
disassembled, put back into crates, and sent to the VVS Red Army on 9
September 1942. Here it was once again unpacked in 22d ZAP. In the fall
of 1943, it was assigned to the 69th Guards IAP, which was transitioning
here to the Cobra, and at the moment the regiment was sent to the front,
on 1 October 1943, AH586 was assigned to the regiment either as a
trainer or as a museum display. All the remaining P-39s were the
significantly later models K, L, M, and N.
In addition to combat employment, the Airacobra I served
for a long time as "guinea pigs" at NII VVS Red Army. Two Cobras from
the very first party, AH628 and AH644, went into the institute in May
1942 immediately after completion of government testing. They never were
able to "take a rest". From the beginning of mass exploitation reports
about exposed hidden defects began to emerge from the horn of plenty. In
most cases the engine failed, either upon takeoff or during combat. For
example, in the 19th Guards IAP, there was one catastrophic failure and
four accidents in the first two weeks; in the 153d IAP, one catastrophic
failure and one accident. At first everyone blamed the Allison, in
general a decent, light, and powerful engine that did not, however, want
to work on Soviet-refined oils. It was real "picky", however, only at
the beginning, and not without reason. After filtration, which removed
dross and other debris, the Allison stopped "self destructing". Another
defect required a great amount of investigation, the so-called "throwing
of rods". This allegedly occurred when because of frequent running at
the engine's operating limits (without which, of course, aerial combat
was unthinkable) the aforementioned parts broke loose, came through the
crankcase and destroyed everything in their path, in particular the
control rods. A number of flight and laboratory tests were undertaken
which enabled the test engineers to recommend the most favorable
operating regimes of the engine to combat pilots, and succeeded in
reducing the level of this type of failure.
As was graphically expressed in the words of I. G.
Rabkin, the Airacobra at the institute was never far from view. Highly
qualified specialists of the NII VVS pored over it through the course of
an entire year: pilots V. E. Golofastov, K. A. Gruzdev, Yu. A. Antipov,
A. G. Kochetkov, engineers P. S. Onoprienko, V. I. Usatov, P. S. Ivanov,
and V. Ya. Klimov. After the defects in the engine, the most serious
"illness" of the Cobra was its tendency to enter into a flat spin. The
correct diagnosis of this "illness" was not discovered immediately. It
took several months of testing, during which one of the best pilots of
the NII, Major K. A. Gruzdev, died. This experienced test pilot, from a
front-line unit (former commander of 402d and 416th IAPs, 17 kills),
took off in AH628 on 2 February 1943. He spun the aircraft for about an
hour in the sky above the town Koltsov, near Sverdlovsk, where the
institute had been evacuated. After this the aircraft went into a dive
and exploded on impact with the ground.
They "defeated" the spin on later models of the
Airacobra. The second institute "snake", AH644, was sent back to 22 ZAP
in May 1943.
It is not an exaggeration to say that Soviet pilots and
engineers, front-line troops and researchers, gave their maximum effort
to turn the Airacobra into a fully capable combat aircraft. And in doing
so they saved the Bell firm from great unpleasantness associated with
the production of a series of "unfinished" aircraft. But more about this
in the following chapters.
Continue to Part 2