KIT: Special Hobby 1/32 P-39D Airacobra
KIT #: 32002
PRICE: $64.00 MSRP
DECALS: Three options
REVIEWER: Tom Cleaver
NOTES: New Mold


      Often derided as the least of the fighters with which the USAAF went to war, the airplane the RAF rejected and only the Russians loved, the Bell P-39 "Airacobra" has mostly gotten a bad rap for events beyond its control, all stemming from the completely-idiotic decision by the Army Air Corps to remove the supercharger that originally equipped the prototype when it developed problems; this dropped the P-39's overall performance and crippled it at altitudes over 10,000 feet.  When this was followed up by sending the airplane into combat with under-trained pilots in 1942 against the pilots of the Imperial Japanese Navy - at the time perhaps the best pilots in the world man for man - and forcing it to fight at altitudes at which it could not perform... well, no wonder it got a bad reputation. 

      On the other hand, the Russians - who used the airplane for combat below 10,000 feet where its performance wasn't crippled - couldn't get their hands on enough Airacobras; the airplane was flown by several of their leading aces, including second-ranked Alexsandr Pokryshkin, who scored the majority of his victories in Airacobras. In North Africa, where the airplane was used within its performance envelope, it won a respectable reputation as a low-level tactical aircraft.  No less a judge of aeronautical horseflesh than Chuck Yeager called the P-39 "my favorite for all-around flying so long as you didn't take it over ten thousand feet; other than that it handled beautifully."

      The P-39 prototype first flew April 6, 1939.  It demonstrated a climb to 20,000 feet in five minutes, and a top speed approaching 400 m.p.h. which was admittedly achieved by an airplane lacking armor, weapons, ammo, and other operational equipment - after Bell’s advertising campaign about its speed, pilots were quite disappointed with the operational airplane they flew.  The heavy armament of one 37mm cannon, two .50 cal. machine guns two .30 cal. machine guns was made possible by the radical design step of mounting the Allison engine on the aircraft's center of gravity, behind the pilot, powering the propeller through an extension shaft.  This also allowed the airplane to become the first fighter with a tricycle landing gear, which made it easier to handle on the ground than the conventional taildraggers.

      Unfortunately, the Army Air Corps at the time was singularly unimaginative in deciding on the use of the airplane.  With an official national policy of isolationism in 1939, it was not expected that the United States would face an enemy with an effective fighter force; this meant that U.S. fighters would not need a high-altitude capability since they would be strafing invaders on the beaches.  Thus, both the P-39 and P-40 were crippled at birth by the removal of the supercharging systems each prototype was originally equipped with.  Only the P-38 escaped this fate since it was to be a bomber interceptor, and even the USAAC expected enemy bombers to come over at high altitude.

      The British Purchasing Commission ordered the airplane as the Airacobra I, based on the P-39D configuration which was the first version produced in any numbers for the Air Force.  This airplane differed from the American version by the substitution of a Hispano 20mm cannon for the Oldsmobile 37mm weapon that equipped the P-39D.  By the time the Airacobras arrived in England in July 1941, air combat was regularly taking place at altitudes well over 10,000 feet; 601 Squadron found the airplane lacking in capability for ETO conditions, and the 212 Airacobras already delivered under the RAF order were sent on to the Russians, who fell in love with them for their heavy armament and good handling. 

      The remaining 179 aircraft on the British order were confiscated by the USAAF after Pearl Harbor and designated P-400 Airacobras, to distinguish them from the regular P-39s.

      The P-39 came early to the New Guinea campaign, with the first aircraft arriving at Port Moresby's Five Mile Drome with the 35th Pursuit Group in April 1942.  While the P-39 - flown by inexperienced pilots and crippled by the lack of supercharging - was unable to compete successfully against the well-trained IJN veterans of the Tainan Air Group based across the island at Lae, they managed to contribute enough to the defense of Port Moresby to keep it in Allied hands during the desperate summer of 1942, and allow it to become the base for the re-conquest of New Guinea.

     As soon as he could get other, more capable fighters, General George Kenney took the P-39s off first-line air defense operations.  The airplane had excellent performance at low altitude, and had made a name for itself in ground support for troops in the retaking of Buna. Edwards Park - later Curator of the Smithsonian Institution - was one of those pilots; his book "No, No, Nanette" provides an excellent account of these events.


     The only other 1/32 kits of the P-39 I am aware of is an early vacuform that was (if I remember correctly) released by ID models and which was the kind of vacuform that gives the genre a bad name, and a resin kit that was the first release from Scratchbuilders; this kit is on my list of Ten Worst Kits Ever Released.  Fortunately, this new kit from Special Hobby makes both of those nightmares obsolete.

      I have had the opportunity to see the built-up kit that was recently published over at HyperScale, and to compare it directly with the P-39N that lives out at Planes of Fame.  The kit is an excellent recreation of the real thing.  A couple of “experts” took issue with the kit when they saw the photograph, pointing to some “hip” in the rear fuselage behind the air intake, and questioning whether the fuselage was long enough. (Editor's Note: I've shown only the main airframe parts as there are too many to properly portray. One of these days, reviewers will do as I request and photograph them all in one frame. Either that, or scan the parts diagram from the instructions)

      There is no “hip.”  Not in the built-up kit, not in the kit residing in the box here at Le Chateau du Chat.  If it ever “existed” it was some glitch in a digital picture.  I have compared the fuselage, with the rudder and spinner, with published dimensions, and it is spot-on for length. The raised-panel surface detail is accurate when compared to the real thing.

      The cockpit is accurate when compared with the real thing, and the kit provides pre-painted photoetch seatbelts that add to the realistic finished look. The kit provides separate control surfaces that can be posed in more “dynamic” positions for a realistic final look.


      This new P-39 has excellent production design that will lead to easy construction.  Test-fitting reveals the parts want to go together. The provision of resin exhausts - which are the only thing that visibly identify the various sub-types of P-39s - says that there will be future releases of different sub-types.  This is an excellent kit that will soon hit the top of my “to do” pile.  For those who like to do weathered paint schemes, this is a prime candidate for a sun-faded paint job.  Highly recommended. 

Thanks to MPM for the review kit.

Tom Cleaver

August 2007

If you would like your product reviewed fairly and quickly by a site that has around 400,000 visitors a month, please contact me or see other details in the Note to Contributors.

Back to the Main Page

Back to the Previews Index Page