Bell P-63A Kingcobra
Fighter - Ground attack aircraft
"The flying cannon"
Of the nine new fighter designs tested by the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) in 1942-43, only one was produced in quantity - the Bell P-63. This aircraft was designed to address the shortcomings of the P-39 Airacobra. Although similar in appearance to the P-39, the P-63 was in fact a completely redesigned airplane and only a few parts are interchangeable between the two aircraft. The picture above is an early photo of the very P-63 the Dixie Wing is restoring, taken shortly after its delivery to the USAAF in early 1944. Our P-63 is currently undergoing a complete restoration and should be flying in a few years.
The P-63 was a fast airplane - its performance approaching that of the P-51 - but since the P-51 and P-47 were in full production, about 2,400 of the 3,303 P-63s produced were sent to the Soviet Union under the Lend-Lease act. France used some in Indo-China after the end of World War II. The U.S. used it as a test plane and, in a unique version, as live gunnery target training for bomber crews. These variants, called RP-63s or "Pinballs," had much more armor to withstand the impact of the special frangible bullets used by the crews on these training missions.
History of our CAF Dixie Wing P-63A Kingcobra
The first CAF Kingcobra was found in Blythe, California. It was purchased and sponsored by Col Rufus Shackleford in 1963, at an initial cost of $12,000. This ship was latered destroyed by fire with no injuries. In 1965, a second Kingcobra was purchased and sponsored by Cols "Buck" Rogers and Dudley Johnson of Rolling Fork, Mississippi.
The last FAA airworthiness certificate for our P-63 expired in 1976, and at that time the airframe had less than 370 hours logged on it. Low hours, but the years of being stored among the elements had taken its toll and the menace of corrosion began to rear its ugly head. The aircraft was grounded and stored at Harlingen, Texas, then the location of CAF Headquarters. There it remained, awaiting restoration, until it was adopted by the Missouri Wing of the CAF. It remained there until disaster struck and the Mississippi River flooded in 1995, damaging several of the Missouri Wing's aircraft and even partially submerging the airframe of this P-63. Several parts were lost in the flood, and Missouri Wing had to abandon the project to repair its other aircraft.
Soon after, the Dixie Wing of the CAF was assigned the stricken P-63, and the aircraft was trucked from Missouri to Georgia in the December of 1996. Here it has remained, with serious restoration work begun in 1999 and continuing through today. As with all aircraft this age, there are no new parts mass-produced -- any part that is missing or damaged must be repaired, salvaged from another aircraft, or hand-made to the original specifications. This is a very long and arduous process, but it is fueled by dedicated volunteers who devote their spare time to get this rare warbird back in the air. Only a handful of the 3,303 Kingcobras produced from 1942 to 1945 are flying today, and we at the Dixie Wing are working hard to restore this aircraft to its former glory.
Dixie Wing Restoration Hanger
The project has really made some headway in the last year - (we did manage to restore a few other planes since we first received the P-63!) When the aircraft arrived at the Dixie Wing in 1996, all of the major subassemblies were present (wings, fuselage, empennage, etc.), but many smaller parts were missing. Still more of the parts that the project had were damaged or badly corroded. This corrosion was complicated by the P-63's construction -- several of the skins and smaller castings were made from magnesium, a readily available, cheap, and lightweight material that unfortunately suffers from serious corrosion over time. When it first arrived at our restoration facility, we spent much of our time cataloguing what parts were missing and remanufacturing missing or corroded parts.
A great deal of the fuselage is complete. New front corner skin panels for the bottom center section have been installed. Work on this subassembly included restoration of systems within the aft fuselage as well as replacement of all nut plates and several Dzus fasteners. Restoration work was required on the sheet metal fairings, and the rear fuselage ventral fin was removed, restored, and riveted back into place.
The forward fuselage subassembly has been the focus of recent work. Several parts were missing, especially on the underside where the oil cooler and radiator bays are located. Several parts and panels have been remanufactured for the underside and new front corner skins have been riveted into place. The engine compartment mounts have been completely restored, and systems are slowly making their way into the forward fuselage. Much work has been done on the electrical and control systems. The forward compartment, which houses most of the fixed armament and nose gear, has also been worked on extensively. Work has been put into restoring the nose gear door and oxygen system located in this compartment. We are building and installing nonfunctional weapons in this location such that the aircraft appears authentic.
Most of the cockpit components were missing when we received the project, and at this time we have rebuilt the control panel and trim pedestal to the original specifications from scratch. The rudder pedal wells, another example of a magnesium component, were recently reproduced from aluminum and installed. Unfortunately, we were missing the entire rudder panel assembly and are in the process of manufacturing the assembly based on original blueprints. The cockpit is painted and ready for the installation of the instruments which have all been restored and re-calibrated.
All bolts in the center section were removed, inspected, reinstalled and torqued to the proper specification.
The two main landing and nose gear struts have been dissembled, examined and N.D.T. New seals have been installed and the gear reassembled. The landing gear is now in serviceable conditions...and it may very well be sitting on its gear by the end of 2011!!
The wings - like the rest of the aircraft -suffered from damage due to corrosion. Most of the initial work went into disassembly and diagnosis of the extent of the damage. Corrosion was found on the rear wing spar, and efforts were made to grind this corrosion out and create a suitable repair. Many parts have been remanufactured for both wings, and the right wing is 90% complete.
The wing subcomponents have seen major work as well. The wing tips have been fully restored and both wing flaps have been completely reskinned (the skins were formerly made of magnesium).
The horizontal and vertical stabilizers have been recovered with new metal skin. They had some hangar rash and needed reskinning, and most of the hardware was replaced (nut plates, bearings, bonding straps, etc.). The elevator and rudder have been covered with fabric. The horizontal and vertical stabilizers are now on display in the restoration hangar.
The original Allison V-1710-93 engine installed on this Kingcobra came to the Dixie Wing with the rest of the project. However, the engine has shown signs of corrosion, and it is known that the engine was underwater during the 1995 flood of the Mississippi River. Therefore, we sought a new engine from CAF headquarters, in late 2000 acquired a zero-time Allison V-1710-111 engine which was originally meant as the right-hand engine on a P-38L Lightning. This engine will require a complete overhaul but appears to be in great shape. When overhauled, we will have to remove the reduction gear case at the front of the engine and attach the 11-foot extension shaft to the engine crankshaft. This extension shaft will mate with a remote reduction gear box at the front of the aircraft, which we have in storage. When completed, we will have approximately 175 more horsepower than a "stock" Kingcobra. This is because the V-1710-93 is rated at 1325 hp at takeoff, while the -111 is rated at 1500 hp. However, there is little to no physical or mechanical difference between the two engines, so it will still properly integrate with all of the components and systems on our aircraft.
The oil cooler and both radiators have been completely refurbished and are complete - ready for installation.
We will need to x-ray the propellers to check them for damage and - like the engine - will have them overhauled when the project is nearing completion.
Wings and new skin
New and original rudder pedals and assembly
Newly manufactured "guns"
Oil cooler - completely overhauled ad ready for installation
While similar in appearance, the P-63 (above) was a complete redesign of the P-39 Airacobra (bottom)