The problem was deadly serious: In 1943, U.S. bombers in Europe were being shot down at an alarming rate. But one attempted solution provides a smile some 67 years later: an unloved American fighter stripped of its guns, painted clown-orange, and sheathed with armor that made it fly like an anvil, so that aerial gunnery students in B-17s and B-24s could shoot at it. The Bell Aircraft RP-63 Kingcobra, affectionately called the Flying Pinball Machine because of a red light on its nose that flashed when a student’s bullets hit the airplane, made its greatest contribution to the war effort as a punching bag on the home front. Its pilots enjoyed the work, for the most part. Horace Ashenfelter was a newly commissioned pilot flying the Pinball in 1945 at Tyndall Army Air Field near Panama City, Florida (and later became an Olympic steeplechase champion). Says Ashenfelter, “We were playing war games, like kids!”
By the spring of 1943, the U.S. Eighth Air Force, a unit tasked with strategic air assault against Germany, had swelled to 500 heavy bombers. Losses had swelled too. In a June raid on Kiel and Bremen, Germany, 26 bombers were shot down, 22 of them flown by inexperienced crews. In July, German fighters downed 128 U.S. bombers. U.S. gunners, meanwhile, claimed to have shot down 545 German fighters that month, a number later adjusted to 40 when planners realized that multiple guns on the same targets were producing huge errors.
On August 17, the Americans sent 146 bombers to pound the Messerschmitt factory at Regensburg, while another 230 hit the ball bearing factories at Schweinfurt. German fighters savaged the bombers, claiming 60 in a day. Into the fall of 1943, the carnage continued: September 6, Stuttgart, 45 bombers lost; October 8, Bremen, 30 lost and 26 badly damaged; October 9, above several targets in Germany and Poland, 26 lost; October 10, Muenster, 30 lost; and over Schweinfurt’s ball bearing plants again on October 14, now called Black Thursday, 60 bombers down. The result: U.S. commanders halted deep penetrations into Germany until the arrival of the P-51 Mustang escort, with its extended range.
Long before the Eighth Air Force took these losses, Cameron Fairchild, an Army Air Forces major, wanted to improve the results of the guys in the gun turrets. A trainer at Harlingen Army Air Field in Texas in the spring of 1942, Fairchild intended to improve on such practice techniques as firing shotguns at clay pigeons, shooting .30- and .50-caliber machine guns on the ground at targets on wheels, simulating air combat on a movie screen, and shooting at target banners towed by B-17s, B-34s, or AT-6s. Fairchild wondered if a bullet that splintered harmlessly on impact could be developed to fire at real pursuit airplanes.
It took the better part of a year for researchers at Duke University and the University of Michigan, as well as engineers at the Bakelite Corporation, an early maker of plastics, to come up with a plastic-metal casing for the bullet. By late 1943, the team delivered a frangible—breakable—bullet that would not jam a .30-caliber machine gun, would fly like a real bullet, and would shatter on impact. Powdered lead manufactured by DuPont gave the bullets the proper weight and density.
Some in the Army called Fairchild a “lesser Billy Mitchell” for his willingness to risk rebuke in the zealous pursuit of his ideas. Promoting the frangible bullet, he defied the usual path of Army ordnance development by first working with academics Paul Gross and Marcus Hobbs at Duke. The Army Ordnance Department then argued that a bullet made of frangible material would have different ballistics from a real one, wouldn’t fire properly, and could be safely fired only at a target airplane that had been heavily armored. The National Defense Research Committee approved the idea, but with limited funding and urgency, which slowed its progress.
In Fairchild’s favor, reports through 1943 and 1944 showed that gunners in Europe needed better training. Fairchild turned his attention to a target airplane. In the first half of 1944, a flirtation with the twin-engine, combat-proven Douglas A-20 gave way to Bell’s single-engine P-63, which the Army deemed more like a Messerschmitt Bf 109. Like its P-39 ancestor, the P-63 had been ignored by the Army in favor of the P-51 and the P-47 Thunderbolt. And like the P-39, the P-63 was exported through the Lend-Lease Act to the Soviet Union and France.
The Pinball was given modified cockpit glass that was more than an inch thick, and its wings and forward surfaces were heavily armored with a special aluminum alloy. Beneath the armor, sensors registered hits, which were displayed on a counter in the cockpit. In the nose, the 37-mm cannon was replaced by a light that flashed red with every hit.
Beginning in early 1945 at air bases in Florida, Texas, Arizona, and Nevada, Pinball pilots began to take off and rendezvous with B-17s and B-24s. From the skies over the Florida Everglades, the Gulf of Mexico, and huge swaths of western desert, countless shell casings and spent bullets began to fall. In each bomber’s waist were 12 student gunners with 2,000 rounds each, taking turns as the RP-63 swooped down from above in an attack pattern.
“We’d fly curves of pursuit, like fighters did in battle,” says Henry “Hank” Rodrique, then a 19-year-old second lieutenant flying Pinballs at Harlingen, Texas. “Sometimes when I’d break off, they’d still shoot.”