CAF Bell P-63F Kingcobra Re-emerges in Fresh Livery

The CAF's unique Bell P-63F Kingcobra preparing to depart John Mosley's workshop in Clinton, Mississippi on March 6th, 2019 following some TLC and a full repaint into her authentic wartime markings as a Bell Aircraft test airframe. (photo by John Mosley)

Following on from our report concerning the first flight of Bell P-39F Airacobra 41-2175 a few weeks ago, comes news of another of Bell’s mid-engined fighters re-emerging from refurbishment. The Commemorative Air Force’s (CAF) unique Bell P-63F Kingcobra 43-11719 has just some TLC, topped off with a complete repaint with her original factory markings at John Mosley’s facility John’s 360° Coatings in Clinton, Mississippi.

The P-63F is essentially a modified version of the P-63E, with the most striking external differences being its significantly extended ventral fin and vertical tail (for better longitudinal stability). It also had the improved Allison V-1710-135 engine (1425 hp) over the V-1710-109 of its predecessor. This variant first flew in April, 1945, and there is some contention as to whether it was due to go into series production, or merely to serve as a demonstrator for the improved empennage configuration that was slated for the P-63E-5 variant for the Soviet Union. American forces never used the P-63 in combat, and while the French did receive some towards the end of the war, the Soviet Union was the primary customer for the type, with more than 70% of the 3,303 examples built going to that nation under Lend Lease. With the war in Europe ending in May, 1945, Lend-Lease deliveries to the Soviets were effectively at an end. As a result, both the E-5 and F-model Kingcobras never made it into production.

A wartime photograph showing the P-63F sitting outside the Bell Aircraft factory hangar. (photo via CAF)
Another wartime image of the CAF’s P-63F, this time in flight. The large “X” painted on both the wing and fuselage indicated that this was a test airframe. (photo via CAF)

43-11719 is the sole surviving P-63F of the two believed built. It did not see formal military service, but rather flew as a test airframe with Bell Aircraft. Following WWII, the U.S. Government sold the aircraft on the surplus market. H.L. Pemberton acquired her in 1946, and flew her as Race #21 in the Thompson Trophy event at the 1946 Cleveland Air Races. Of the ten aircraft of the original twelve which started the race, Pemberton came dead last with an average lap time of 304.406mph. Ironically, it was a P-39Q with a modified Allison V-1710-135 (the same as the P-63F!) engine and P-63 four-bladed propeller which came in first with an average lap time of 373.908mph. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the pilot of the winning Airacobra was none other than ‘Tex’ Johnston, then a test pilot for Bell Aircraft! The P-63 passed on to Trans American Aviation Service in Chicago during 1954, and was with a Mr.A.T.George in Atlanta, Georgia by 1966. By 1974, she belonged to Jack Flaherty of Hollister, California and the Whittington Brothers (Bill and Don) of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. They competed with her as Race #8 in the Reno Air Races of 1978. They finished fourth in the Silver Races, with an average lap speed of just 298.63mph… somewhat slower than even her Thompson Trophy outing in 1946. The CAF finally acquired the airframe in 1981, and she has been with them ever since. A emergency gear-up landing incident in October, 2013 necessitated some significant repairs, but she was back flying again with the CAF’s P-63 Sponsor Group by the following April. As it happens, it was that incident which finally prompted this latest refurbishment.

As the CAF’s Mark Allen related to us recently, “After the damage from the gear up landing in 2014, and the related repairs, the aircraft was in desperate need of new paint. [The aircraft received] all new Dzus fasteners, some panels replaced, new fabric on tail feathers, new rear canopy glass, and some limited body work…. The cockpit was completely refurbished in 2018.”

In keeping with the aircraft’s unique status as a test aircraft with Bell Aircraft, the CAF P-63F Sponsor Group has elected to replicate its original wartime markings, complete with a large “X” on each side of the forward fuselage which designated its experimental status while at Bell. The CAF Dixie Wing similarly decided to repaint their P-63A with in its N.A.C.A. test markings following its rebuild a couple of years ago as well, and this is an important trend in the vintage military aviation scene. These test aircraft played a vital role in improving the technology of the day, and thus, in winning the war, so it’s important that where applicable, these aircraft and the personnel associated with flying them are highlighted for the public to gain better understanding for WWII history.

The repairs and repaint were completed at the end of February, and this remarkable P-63F flew home from John Mosely’s shop on March 6th. She is already scheduled to make several air show appearances this season. So far the following dates are booked for this significant airframe, although others will surely follow.

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