Bummin' around at Legends
Gary Parsons reports from Duxford on the 2004 episode of Flying Legends, 10/11 July
Flying Legends 2004 had stiff competition this year - as well as the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, it was pitched against the BBC's Sport Relief weekend, together with some rather unseasonal weather. Sunday was particularly grey, with ten-tenths cloud throughout the day and a stiff breeze from the Northwest that meant jumpers were the order of the day. Saturday was by far the best day, despite a couple of showers in the afternoon, as the morning was wall-to-wall blue skies with the flying coinciding with threatening stormy clouds, making for some spectacular skyscapes. Through it all Flying Legends thankfully went without a hitch, bar one or two minor mechanical gremlins.
As usual, the Fighter Collection's aircraft made up the bulk of the flying programme, as one would expect with the company organising the scope and content of the display. Ably supported by Duxford's other operators, such as Historic Aircraft Company and the Old Flying Machine Company, many of the aircraft were familiar to Duxford regulars, but the beauty of Legends is the opportunity to see them in the air together - the sound of three Griffons and seven Merlins in the air was one to savour as ten Spitfires opened the show in a thrilling tail-chase. With four Hurricanes, four Mustangs and a cacophony of 'Cats all performing collectively throughout the three-hour flying display, the action is at times hard to keep up with, as a brace of aircraft dive in from the right as others climb from the left.
But the magic of Legends is not just the noise, the sights and the smells; it's the opportunity to catch one or two rare examples of warbirds not previously seen in UK skies before. Last year we had the Lavochkin La-9, now departed back to New Zealand, and this year two rare airframes were making their UK debuts - the P-39 Airacobra and Polikarpov I-15bis. True, we've seen something similar to an Airacobra before, but this particular example has been recently acquired by TFC after a lengthy refurbishment in the USA. However, the I-15 is definitely something new - this diminutive Russian fighter is as rare as the proverbial hen's teeth this side of the old Iron Curtain, but this example has been recently restored in the workshops of the 'Fighter Factory', part of the Aircraft Discovery Division of Aviation Institute of Maintenence, a leading aviation maintenance school located at the Norfolk, Virginia, Airport. Arriving a few days before the airshow, it was re-assembled on Thursday 8 July and test-flown the next day, showing its simple ruggedness as former aerobatic champion Oleg Federov put it through its paces over the weekend.
TFC's new Airaplane
The Fighter Collection's P-39Q Airacobra is one of only two flying examples in the world today. First flown during April 1938, the new fighter boasted several 'firsts', including a nose wheel (tricycle) landing gear with an electric retraction system. The aeroplane's second unusual feature was that its Allison V-1710 engine was installed behind the pilot, near the centre of gravity. This meant that the aircraft's large, three-bladed propeller had to be driven by a long shaft which travelled through a tunnel positioned just above the cockpit floor, the shaft then coupled to a massive reduction gearbox located just behind the propeller. This arrangement allowed the installation of an American Armament Corporation T-9 37mm cannon in the nose, firing through the propeller hub. The spinner was also unusual, as it had to be fabricated out of steel so as to be able to withstand the muzzle blast of the cannon. The latter, along with three Colt-Browning machine guns, made the new Airacobra the most heavily-armed American fighter of its time.
Great Britain, initially excited by the prototype, ordered its first batch of aircraft in 1940. These were assigned to the Royal Air Force's 601 Squadron at Duxford in the summer of 1941. However, the RAF was not pleased with the performance of the production aircraft, as incessant maintenance problems with the armament and engine system continuously plagued the squadron. The RAF was able to resolve the cannon problem by replacing the Oldsmobile-built unit with a Hispano 20mm cannon, which had a larger ammunition capacity. Deliveries to the RAF where halted after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 and these aircraft (redesignated P-400s) were redirected to newly-organised American fighter squadrons heading to the South Pacific.
More than 9,500 Airacobras were eventually built, of which more than 5,000 were shipped or flown to the USSR through Alaska and Iran. Here, the aeroplane became a favourite of the Soviet pilots that flew it, with many being the mount of choice for high-scoring aces. The remaining aircraft were used primarily by the Allies in the Pacific and Mediterranean theatres.
The P-39Q was the most produced variant, with more than 4,900 being delivered by Bell. Aside from its use by the USAAF, RAF and the Soviet Air Force, Airacobras were flown by other Allied countries including France and Italy. The last Airacobra was delivered in May 1944, when Bell began production of the more advanced P-63 Kingcobra.
P-39Q-6-BE, construction number 26E-397, USAAF serial number 42-19993, was built at Bell's main plant in Buffalo and delivered to the Army Air Force on 8 June 1943. The aircraft was quickly transported to a military depot near Stockton, California, where it arrived with several other P-39s on 27 June. The aircraft were prepared for overseas shipment via an uncertain and often dangerous sea transportation system that was still being mauled by Japanese ships and submarines. The P-39s departed for their South Pacific location on 16 August, protected against the ravages of the salt air.
The convoy finally arrived safely at the hot and humid seaport of Port Moresby, on the island of New Guinea. Offloaded, assembled, fuelled and given a hasty acceptance check flight, the Airacobras were flown across the forbidding Owen Stanley Mountain Range to the frontline base at Dobodura, where the aeroplanes were handed over to Fifth Air Force Command. P-39Q 42-19993 was promptly assigned to the 82nd Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron (TRS), commanded by Major Don Gordon. This unit was one of four squadrons which made up the 71st Tactical Reconnaissance Group (TRG) that had arrived in-theatre in September 1943 and was just becoming operational at Milne Bay. The 71st, a former National Guard unit, was labelled a 'composite group' since it consisted of two P-39 fighter squadrons (82nd and 110th TRSS), one squadron of B-25 Mitchells and one squadron of Stinson L-5s.
The fighter was assigned to Lt Peter McDermott and placed under the technical care of Squadron Engineering Officer Capt James Parks and Crew Chief Sgt James W O'Mara, while the weapons were cleaned and ammunition loaded by Armourer Sgt John Conway. The pilot's and ground crew's names were quickly added by the squadron artist to the sides of the fuselage.
"If there wasn't a war going on, I am sure I would have been kicked out the military", states McDermott, who now lives in Maryland, and is amazed that his aircraft has been returned to flying condition. "I was always in trouble", said the veteran pilot. "One time I was out flying and I decided to buzz our base. I got a bit too low and hit a tree. The CO was furious and ordered me to give a lecture to the troops. However, before the lecture, I took another bird up, flew under a bridge for the hell of it and then flew around some more. However, I got lost, ran out of gas and made a crash-landing on a country road. The CO got even madder!"
For a name, the pilot selected 'Brooklyn Bum 2nd'. "The Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team was my childhood favourite. I added the 'bum' because it was also their nickname, and because I was probably a bit of a bum", recalled McDermott. The artist also added a fancy insignia on both of the Airacobra's door. The motif consisted of a large green shamrock, with a horseshoe and boxing gloves within a white circle. The wheel covers were painted in several colours, which created a pin wheel pattern as they rotated. Airacobra 42-19993 was now ready to grace the flightline alongside the other P-39Qs operated by the 82nd TRS, all of which sported their own names.
In combat, McDermott flew what seemed like endless missions against the Japanese, dropping bombs, strafing, and taking photos (the P-39Q-6 was a service depot modification of a Q-5 that mounted a camera in the fuselage). McDermott added nine bomb markings to the left side of his fighter's fuselage for dive-bombing sorties flown against a number of large enemy transports he caught offloading troops and supplies. He eventually flew 139 missions, virtually all in 42-19993.
By September 1944, all of the unit's Airacobras were tired and well-worn from the harsh environment and never-ending missions. At this time the 82nd TFS traded in its P-39s for P-40s, the remaining Airacobras being quickly flown off to the 110th TRS - now located at Tadji - as the P-40s were delivered. The 110th was still actively flying its veteran P-39Qs, so these new arrivals were towed off into the 'boonies', which consisted of an adjacent field of Kunai grass. Here, the fighters, including Brooklyn Bum 2nd, were cannibalised for parts to keep the 110th's remaining Airacobras flying. P-39Q 42-19993 was stricken from the USAAF on 21 May 1945 - a sad end to a good flying machine.
Peter McDermott summed up his thoughts on the P-39; "It had no range, bad stall characteristics and would flat spin and snap out of high-G situations. However, it was not as bad as depicted by the guys back home. We never dallied around sitting on the ground with the Allison running, as the coolant would reach maximum temperatures in no time. We would taxi with a door open to cool off the cockpit, make a quick magneto check, and it took only one take-off with the door unlatched to wake you up really good! The P-39 fitted in well with our air-to-ground combat role. The cannon would really raise havoc with the barges and ships we attacked. The four 0.50s and the 37mm cannon would devastate everything that got in the way. The P-39 served me well, and always brought me home."
Long Road Back
During the early 1970s, interest in finding and restoring World War 2 aircraft was in its infancy. Knowing that many airframes were still in New Guinea, Charles Darby and Monty Armstrong travelled to that location in 1974 and were thrilled to discover the hulk of Brooklyn Bum 2nd still sitting in the grass at Tadji, on West Sepik. The aeroplane was disassembled and shipped to New Zealand. Time had not been kind to the P-39, as its propeller, guns and radios had been cannibalised, the fabric had rotted from the control surfaces and the airframe was suffering from exposure to the elements. Many of the maintenance panels and components had also been removed, discarded or used to repair the 110th TRS's last remaining Airacobras.
The airframe was very roughly prepared for static display, being patched-up with everything and anything available including heavy wallpaper liberally painted over with brush and spray cans! The P-39Q was displayed at locations in New Zealand and Australia, before being purchased by American collector Don Whittington and shipped to Florida in 1989. Nothing was done to the aircraft once it was back in America, and in 1992 the Airacobra was sold to the Museum of Flying in Santa Monica, California. Arriving at the Museum, the aircraft underwent a limited restoration so that it could at least be displayed statically as part of the museum's growing collection. A more extensive overhaul was scheduled to take place at a later date.
Museum volunteers patched up the old bird and put it on display, but in 1994 it was acquired by The Fighter Collection (TFC) and moved to Fighter Rebuilders at Chino, California. The company, owned by Steve Hinton, had restored several other TFC aircraft. "When we got the P-39, I was appalled" said Steve. "Under the paint, the aeroplane was in really bad condition, and we knew this was going to be a multi-year job. Our guys are very talented, and they took on the Airacobra as a personal challenge. TFC acquired some P-39 wrecks from the former Soviet Union, and they yielded various good bits, an Allison was overhauled by JRS and other parts were discovered by collectors."
Needless to say, it was a most daunting mission, but the aeroplane slowly began to take shape at Fighter Rebuilders. This year saw a frenzy of activity as the Airacobra finally started to come together, and it did appear that Brooklyn Bum 2nd would once again see air beneath its wings. That happened at 1915 hrs on 17 June 2004, when Steve strapped into the cockpit and took the P-39Q aloft for a successful 15-minute test flight over Chino.
As usual, there were some minor problems that needed correcting, but the crew was soon on top of those. "We had put thousands of hours of work into the aeroplane", said Steve after the flight. "All the dedication of our crew really paid off. I had never flown a P-39 before, but had time in P-63s, and these Bell fighters are unusual aircraft. With that drive shaft, there is a lot of strange noise going on inside the cockpit, and it, and the P-63, are the only World War 2 single-engine fighters where the pilot actually sits ahead of the wing, so visibility is tremendous. The Airacobra has a fantastic rate of climb and the aircraft's controls are surprisingly light, especially the ailerons."
Further test flights were undertaken, and on 18 June the P-39 was disassembled, placed into a container, driven to New York and loaded on a ship for transport to Britain, courtesy of P&O Nedlloyd. Quickly put together the week before Flying Legends, Steve Hinton test-flew Brooklyn Bum 2nd in the skies above Duxford on 8 July, some sixty-two years after those RAF examples had graced the same airspace.
a scale of one to ten, with ten being the most difficult restoration,
the P-39 rated an 8.5. However, it is great to get an authentic combat
veteran back into the air where it belongs", stated the veteran warbird
Legend in its own lifetime
So the largest warbird gathering in Europe grows in popularity, and deservedly so - it has become an event more than just the flying with many visitors dressing in period wartime costumes to join those volunteers walking the flightline similarly adorned. If you haven't made Flying Legends yet, put it in your diary for next year - you won't be disappointed.
Thanks to the IWM press team for their assistance in preparing this article.