Just Shoot Me
Late in World War II, the Bell P-63 became an aerial gunner's easiest target.
- By James Dunaway
- Air & Space magazine, November 2010
National Museum Of The USAF
(Page 3 of 3)
Though the RP-63’s Allison V-1710-177 liquid-cooled engine generated up to 1,800 horsepower, the armor made the aircraft challenging to fly. Still, Ashenfelter liked the extra weight. “It was not as maneuverable as the regular P-63, but it was smoother,” he says. “On the downside, you could get a little bit of a high-speed stall if you maneuvered it too abruptly, and then you had a real problem.”
Barrie Davis, flying Pinballs at Las Vegas after a 70-mission tour in Italy in the P-47 and P-51, found that out the hard way. “I made the mistake of trying a loop one day,” he says. “I dived to pick up airspeed, and I went up and over the top in good shape. But coming out of the loop, every time I’d put a little back-step pressure on the thing, I’d hit a high-speed stall. So it was just a question of which was going to happen first: Was I going to stall into the ground, or was I going to fly that machine out of the loop? Well, I made it out of the other side, but I was below the mountains.”
According to Merlyn Franck, who flew Pinballs out of Laredo, Texas, “The whole secret was to keep your airspeed up and a little power on at touchdown. One of our pilots neglected this advice and allowed his RP-63 to get too slow on final approach. He dropped it in so hard it drove both main gear struts up through the wings.”
The RP-63’s real Achilles’ heel involved wing root ducts that fed air to the engine’s cooling system. When a bullet found the duct, its fragments would puncture parts of the system. As the engine overheated, the pilot had to choose a bailout or a deadstick landing. The latter happened plenty of times on the dry lakes of Nevada. After taking a round in the air duct, Captain Ingvar Jacobsen found a lake bed before his engine quit. On another mission, the pilot of a bomber Jacobsen was working with was having engine trouble. When Jacobsen flew closer to inspect, the waist gunner opened up on him. At such a short range, the frangible bullets were as deadly as real bullets, and they shot out his engine. Jacobsen bailed out.
There were variations in the performances of the RP-63s, especially in the hit-counting system. Vibrations from the flight of the airplane itself could set off phantom hits. On other occasions, the counters failed to work. “Back on the ground,” says Davis, “we’d take a grease pencil and go over the whole plane and mark all the new hits.” The ones from previous missions had been circled; the new ones appeared as dust spots.
Through most of 1945, the Pinball program gave gunnery students their only realistic practice at aerial combat. In all, some 300 P-63s were converted into Pinballs, but the war’s end made them obsolete. A few continued to train B-29 gunners after the Japanese surrender, but by the end of 1947, all the Air Force’s RP-63s had been mothballed. When centralized gunnery control was developed for the B-29 and introduced in the spring of 1944, automated shooting took over. In the first version of the B-52, a gunner was located in the tail, but in later versions, he was moved to the cockpit, where he operated the guns remotely. In the decades since, Pinballs were replaced by target drones. In fighters, heat-seeking missiles replaced machine guns, and some bombing missions are now flown by unmanned vehicles directed by armchair pilots thousands of miles away.
In his book Operation Pinball, Pinball pilot Ivan Hickman recounted, “Most of the pilots I knew felt that the [P]inball program, despite its shortcomings and inherent dangers, was the training device of the future.” Those pilots weren’t totally wrong. But the future they spoke of turned out to be one measured in months. And, as Horace Ashenfelter noted, “It was fun.”
James Dunaway got into the magazine business at age nine, selling door to door in New York City. He is now the editor of American Track & Field. This is his first story for Air & Space.