Lieutenant Ivan Baranovsky’s P-39
An airacobra's journey to the eastern front...and back.
- By Tim Wright
- Air & Space magazine, September 2011
Courtesy Boris Osetinskiy Via Mark Sheppard And Ilya Grinberg
(Page 3 of 4)
Few U.S. Army Air Forces pilots—and fewer Royal Air Force ones—would have had such nice things to say about the P-39. In 1940, the British purchasing commission ordered 675; the RAF, after four missions, gave most of them back—except for 200 they charitably shipped off to the Soviet Union. Had the aircraft been equipped with a turbo-supercharger, which had been the plan, the British pilots might have been happier. But superchargers were an emerging, unreliable technology that caused constant problems, and Larry Bell, president of Bell Aircraft, had succeeded in convincing the U.S. Army that the supercharger should be removed from the airplane’s engine. Without a supercharger, though, the fighter was useless at the high altitudes where British fighter pilots had to fly to protect their strategic bombers from Luftwaffe fighters.
It may come as a surprise to the admirers of Mustangs and Lightnings that the highest-scoring U.S.-made fighters in World War II were P-39 Airacobras, flown by Soviet pilots. Throughout the war, combat on the Eastern Front rarely occurred above 20,000 feet. Against the Red Army, German aircraft flew ground attack and close-support missions, down at low altitudes where the Cobras could strike. Eight Soviet P-39 pilots shot down at least 30 German aircraft each, and the highest-scoring Soviet ace, G.A. Rechkalov, scored 48 of his 54 confirmed kills in a P-39. The Soviets called it Kobrushka—Little Cobra.
At the time it entered operations, the airplane was the only U.S. fighter with the engine located behind the cockpit. Bell chief designer Robert Woods wanted the nose section free to carry a 37-mm cannon, which fired through the propeller hub. “Normally, one strike on an enemy fighter and he was finished,” said World War II ace Nikolay Golodnikov in a 2003 interview published on Grinberg’s Lend-Lease Web site. The cannon fired a round that “no engine could withstand,” explained Golodnikov.
There are military aviation histories and Web sites in which you can read that Russians used the P-39s as tank busters, flying ground attack and strafing missions. “That’s a fairy tale,” says Grinberg. “It flew air superiority missions. Yaks and Ilyushin Sturmoviks flew in the ground attack role, at low altitude. The P-39 plugged a very important gap” by prowling the mid-altitudes used by the German and Russian bombers, Grinberg says.
“If we had flown it [as] the Americans outlined in the aircraft’s specifications, they would have shot us down immediately,” said Golodnikov, a retired major general in the Soviet air force. “This fighter was a dud in its [design] regimes. But we conducted normal combat in ‘our’ regimes.”
Cobras had another feature the Soviets desperately needed: good radios. Before World War II, only one in 10 aircraft was equipped with a radio, and “they were poor excuses for radios,” said Golodnikov. “Garbage! The circuitry was wound on some kind of cardboard material. As soon as this cardboard got the slightest bit damp, the tuning of the circuit changed and the whole apparatus quit working. All we heard was crackling.” To communicate with their pilots, commanders relied on hand signals. With the arrival of the P-39 and other Lend-Lease aircraft, Soviet pilots were finally able to communicate effectively, and this ability was a significant factor in their success against the Germans from 1943 on.
NO. 44-2911 REACHED FAIRBANKS on January 9, 1944, and was accepted by a contingent of the Soviet air force’s foreign service. Nearly a month later, on February 1, a Soviet pilot flew the airplane west to Nome and across the Bering Strait to the Soviet Union. The P-39s were flown in groups of six or more, escorted by a North American B-25 or other medium bomber with more sophisticated avionics than those in the P-39. Hopping from base to base across Siberia, in March the aircraft reached a central Siberian base at Krasnoyarsk, the end of the ALSIB. There it received the designation White 23 and may also have been repainted with Soviet markings, including the red stars it would wear.
White 23’s log shows that it flew several missions from a base near Murmansk during an October 1944 offensive to drive German forces from the Finnish town of Petsamo. Ground forces were pushing the Germans back; they occupied Petsamo and a Norwegian port city, Kirkenes. On November 19, Lieutenant Ivan Baranovsky was to fly the airplane with his squadron to the recently captured air base Luostari, near the Norwegian border. White 23 took off from the base near Murmansk, but did not make it to Luostari.
In 2010, workers at the Niagara museum lifted the engine from White 23 and found two gaping holes in the engine block. “The engine had thrown two rods,” Hugh Neeson says. Grinberg believes the poor quality of lubricants explains the crippled engine and Baranovsky’s attempt to land on Lake Mart-Yavr. Neeson asked Grinberg to track down the pilot’s family to let them know. Working with a Russian group that investigates the cases of soldiers and airmen missing in action, Grinberg quickly found telephone numbers for Baranovsky’s brother and nephew.