P-39 flies in New Zealand

News April 2019


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The third currently airworthy example of the Airacobra during its maiden flight from Ardmore on 26 February. Although it is painted as P-39Q 42-20431, it is really P-39F 41-7215.

“The restoration was fairly challenging and different in many respects to what we have done in the past”

The Military Aviation Museum’s Bell P-39F Airacobra, 41-7215, made its first postrestoration flight at Ardmore Airport in Auckland on 26 February, just over three years after a team at Pioneer Aero began work on the former US 5th Air Force machine. Once pilot Frank Parker has completed the test schedule, the fighter will be dismantled for transportation to Virginia Beach on the east coast of the USA, where it will be one of the star performers at the Military Aviation Museum’s Warbirds over the Beach show from 17-19 May.

Paul McSweeny, director of Pioneer Aero says, “The restoration was fairly challenging and different in many respects to what we have done in the past. The aircraft is quite small, so access to the systems is more difficult than with the Curtiss P-40 or North American P-51.

The biggest problem with the rebuild was the sourcing of P-39-specific items, which are much harder to get than Kittyhawk or Mustang components.

“The fact that the propeller, undercarriage and flaps are all electric is also a departure from what we were used to.

The three undercarriage legs are driven by one motor and reduction gearbox through a series of gearboxes, shafts and chains, which is pretty complex compared to hydraulic pipe and jacks. The flaps are the same sort of system. Thanks must go to the staff at Pioneer Aero for the great work that they have put in on this, and we are also appreciative of the positive comments we have had from around the globe as this restoration has progressed.”

This example was one of six P-39s from the 36th Fighter Squadron, 8th Fighter Group that took off from Antill Plains Airfield near Townsville, Australia on 1 May 1942 heading for Port Moresby.

Following a refuelling stop at Cooktown, the formation hit bad weather, getting lost in heavy cloud. Running low on fuel, two of the Airacobras made forced landings, Lt Walter Harvey in 41-7215 emerging unhurt following a wheels-up arrival just inland from Cape Orford Ness near Weipa, Queensland. Harvey and the pilot of the other Airacobra, Lt Faletta, took two days to walk to the nearest beach, from where they were rescued.

Harvey’s P-39 was recovered in September 1972 by members of the Cairns Aircraft Recovery Team (CART) and shipped to Cairns for a planned static restoration. The wings went into storage at the home of CART member Ian Mullins in Townsville, the fuselage going to Mount Isa Airport in western Queensland. Following some restoration work to static exhibition standard, the project was moved on to Murray Griffiths/Precision Aerospace at Wangaratta, Victoria in 2000, but following his tragic death in September 2011 the Airacobra was again moved on.

Test pilot Frank Parker opens the P-39’s ‘car door’ to prepare for the initial flight.
The Airacobra gets airborne for the first flight, highlighting the type’s distinctive, stalky nose gear.

The aircraft is now the world’s third airworthy P-39. Rod Lewis has the former Fighter Collection P-39Q, 42-19993/NX139RL, as part of the Lewis Air Legends collection at San Antonio, Texas, and the Central Texas Wing of the Commemorative Air Force operates P-39Q 42-19597/N6968 from San Marcos, 30 miles south-west of Austin, Texas.

On 20 January Pioneer Aero announced that its next project will be former Royal New Zealand Air Force Curtiss P-40N-1 NZ3147, which saw wartime service in the Solomon Islands. The fighter has been acquired by an Auckland-based businessman, and work to get it back into the air is scheduled to start later this year.