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War Thunder: Flying the Bell P-39 Aircobra

War Thunder is a free to play online WWII Air Combat Simulator, developed by Gaijin Entertainment and release for Open Beta in 1 November 2012, this game has quickly consumed my free time. WWII era aviation being one of my personal interests and free-to-play always being a plus, I quickly feel in love with the game.

It has several different game types to choose from, all of them team based, with differing levels of historical accuracy and realism.

You can find out a lot more general information on the game as well as the free download at warthunder.com.

This article focuses on my current favorite plane to fly, the Bell P-39 Aircobra.

P-39N

In Real Life:

Introduced the P-39Q was a solidly constructed craft with an innovative feature of placing the engine mid-ship, under the pilot. This was done in order to make space for the massive 37 MM cannon that sits in front of the pilot and fires through the propeller hub. This was backed up by two nose mounted .50 caliber machine guns and four .30 caliber machine guns in the wings.

While moving the engine back did favorably change the center of gravity for the plane and offer the pilot increased forward visibility it unfortunately placed the engine in a cramped part of the fuselage.

Bell P-39 Airacobra

With little room left the design choice was made to forgo a turbo-supercharger for the engine. This one design choice kept the Aircobra from achieving great success and prestige.

Without the turbo-supercharger the plane was restricted to low altitude work less than 5100 meters. This being unfortunate because the slow firing 37 MM cannon was best suited for large and slow targets, like the high altitude bombers of the 3rd Reich.

Unable to engage in high altitude air combat or perform bomber escort duties and only capable of carrying a meager 500 Kg bomb-load the P-39 was not suitable for the war in Europe. Without an arresting hook and with only moderate range and endurance the plane was also not suitable for combat in the Pacific.

It was through the lend-lease program that the Aircobra was able to find its niche.

In the Eastern Front combat took place at much lower altitudes, the lack of a turbo-supercharger was not an issue, Russian pilots had no problems bringing the 37 MM cannon to bear on German ground targets as well as dog fighting with the Fw 190 and Me 109’s of the Luftwaffe.

In War Thunder:

shot 2013.08.12 00.49.00

Being a level 6 plane the Aircobra is the go-to choice for arcade and some historical battle missions for mid-level players. I have access to level 9 planes now and I still include the P-39Q and P-39N in my arcade line-ups and regularly use them in historical battles. The machine gun armament is sufficient to take down other interceptors or single engine attack craft with ease and the 37 MM cannon is absolutely devastating against all aircraft, from smaller planes all the way up to 4 engine heavy bombers. The lack of turbo-super charger is much less of an issue in game than it was in real life, especially in arcade mode. This is because most air combat takes place much lower than 5100 meters, usually below even 2000 meters.

In game the plane is a stable weapons platform, at speeds exceeding 600 KM there is minimal turbulence or jutter, so once you are on-target you will stay there, lining up and putting down targets is a breeze.

The 37 MM gun IS hard to aim correctly against maneuverable opponents, it has a slow rate of fire and the projectiles themselves seem to move a lot slower than standard machine gun bullets, but with a lot of practice and some luck you will find yourself “one-shotting” (one shot fired, one plane downed) in almost every match.
The downside to such a heavy armament is that the P-39 is very fragile.

shot 2013.07.12 19.58.53

It does not have an armored cockpit, and the engine being placed in the center of the fuselage means that more shots are likely to hit it.

I often find my control surfaces being completely shot out after just one pass by an enemy fighter.

The lack of armor means that gunners on the bombers you are hunting can disable you in just a burst or two, so care must be taken to always present yourself as a hard-target.

Thankfully due to the responsiveness of the planes controls this is not hard at all.

The Aircobra is by no means or dog fighter or an energy fighter, in any kind of turning match you will find yourself with a bogie on your tail 9 times out of 10.

The plane does not retain speed or energy in a turn, after a 1000 meter dive one turn is all that it takes to reduce your speed from 600 Km to just 300 Km, and this is a death sentence if any of the enemy are around to take advantage of it.

Coupling this with the planes generally weak armor most new pilots will not last long unless proper tactics are employed.

Proper Tactics:

I fly very conservatively.

I like to imagine the pilot in the plane is really me, and dying is the last thing I personally want to do, so I try to do everything in my power to ensure I will come out on top of a fight before committing. In the beginning of a match I will generally take 5 to 10 minutes to gain altitude while flying perpendicular to the enemy.

shot 2013.08.12 00.59.12

The advantage of this is 2-fold.

1. The enemy does not get within striking distance of me, and I gain the altitude advantage.
2. My team mates generally rush in and occupy the enemy, allowing me the ability to attack from the side or above.

I generally stop gaining altitude around 5000 meters and then scan the horizon for bombers.

If I see a lone bomber trying to make a pass on our airfield or a remote column of tanks I will pursue it and try to bring it down with my heavy cannon. Bombers with escorts are not a viable target unless I know for sure the escort has high-altitude difficulties as well. Bombers themselves are hard targets to hit, they are fast and will be shooting at you with their gunners, and anything else to worry about, like a Bf 109 escort, will make getting the kill shot with your cannon much harder, if not impossible.

Also, you cannot even dream of dog fighting at this altitude, your plane will take almost half a minute to turn in a circle and your engine will be so choked for air you will be struggling to keep speed.

So let’s say that there are no viable high-altitude bomber targets, what do you do then?

The key to playing as the Aircobra is to realize that you are not in an “honorable” plane, you do not fight the capable members of the enemy team, you look for those in a bad situation, wounded, alone, or a severe positional disadvantage.

Ideally all 3.

shot 2013.07.13 05.10.40

While the Aircobra cannot keep energy in a turn it can dive at incredible speed without fear of breaking apart, in arcade i personally have dove as fast 850 Km and in historical battles 700 Km before my plane started to experience any noticeable turbulence. Using this to your advantage you will stay on the edges of a fight, several kilometers above and wait for someone to wander off or try to escape. Then you pounce on them and unleash a massive barrage at high speeds, then after you pass you use as much of your gained speed to gain altitude back up to your vantage point, rinse and repeat.

Some will recognize this tactic and the boom and zoom, this is how you fly an Aircobra.

In Summation:

shot 2013.08.12 00.49.11

The P-39 is a ideal fighter for those who don’t mind taking some time to plan a route of attack, its high maximum speed in a dive and fierce armament mean that if deployed carefully no target is out of reach, but it’s lack of armor and poor turning characteristics mean that it cannot be flown without thought.

It is one of my favorite planes for its potential to kill quickly, but it is also one of my frustrating to fly because of its potential to die just as fast.

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