Just Shoot Me

Late in World War II, the Bell P-63 became an aerial gunner’s easiest target

Bundled against temperatures as low as –60° F, aerial gunners struggled to protect their B-17s from German fighters. (National Museum Of The USAF)
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Robert Corson, a crew chief at Yuma Army Airfield in Arizona, says, “The Pinballs would come in with holes in the empennage, because the gunners would freeze on the trigger and keep on firing when the Pinballs pulled up at the end of a run, and the rudder and horizontal stabilizers were vulnerable. We’d just patch the holes with small squares of cloth and glue them on, and go on our way.”

One gunner, Harry J. Byer, recalls, “The RP-63s were making high side passes, and about the last couple of hundred yards the instructors would make us stop firing. Then the guy would break down under the ship, come up on the other side, go up on the perch, and make another pass. When they’d finish a pass, they’d call the ship and say, ‘You got six hits, or ten, or three.’ ”

“We would normally fly two or three missions a day,” says Ashenfelter. “The missions would last about an hour and a half. The RPs would hold gas for about two hours’ worth, but by the time you got up there and did your thing with each airplane you had to attack, you’d be out of gas.”

The Pinball pilots were a mixed lot. Some were newly minted 19- or 20-year-old second lieutenants on their first assignments. Others were veterans of combat missions with fighter groups in England and Italy. After flying frontline fighters, adjusting to the RP-63 was not a problem for veterans, but deliberately letting themselves be shot at took some getting used to. “We’d get pilots with combat experience in Europe,” says Corson, “and they’d come to our base after a month or two of R&R. The first time around in an RP-63, the first mission, they were definitely twitchy. They’d been shot at, after all, and then going up and doing it on purpose was something they didn’t really like. But they’d all come down after that first mission with big grins on their faces.”

John Aranyos had flown 82 combat missions in the P-47 and been shot at plenty of times by Germans, but wasn’t sure about being fired on by Americans. “I’ll tell you what,” he says, “I was a little apprehensive. I got to my altitude and made my first pass at the bomber, a B-17. He was at 9,000 feet and I was several thousand feet higher. And I thought to myself that I was deliberately setting myself up as a perfect target for some eagle-eyed kid aspiring to be a top-notch gunner at my expense. I felt I was the world’s greatest idiot.

“As I made the first pass, I was expecting to feel the impact of the frangible bullets—and there was no impact! I couldn’t believe it. I thought they were dry firing at me or something. And the recorder showed I had been hit 14 times. That is when I started being able to feel confident that the airplane was going to give me a good ride.”

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.


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