By Moreno Aguiari & Stephen Chapis
After more than 40 years since it’s last flight, 16 years of restoration, being affected by the Mississippi River flood of 1993 and countless man hours by the dedicated volunteers of the CAF Dixie Wing, the Commemorative Air Force (CAF) Dixie Wing Bell P-63A-6 Kingcobra serial number 42-68941 flew for the first time on Saturday February 18, 2017. Just after 1300hrs local time pilot Jim Dale took off from the Atlanta Regional Airport, home of the Dixie Wing. Since receiving its Airworthiness Certificate several months ago there have been opportunities to fly, but each time something got in the way and the flight was always postponed.
For this important test flight the Dixie Wing asked experienced pilot Jim “JD” Dale to perform the all-important first post-restoration flight. JD is the director of maintenance for the Lewis Air Legends Collection and the of the highest time P-63 pilot in the U.S. Jim’s first flight in a Kingcobra was in the Palm Springs Air Museum’s P-63 Pretty Polly. Jim started flying very young under the watch of his father, a former B-29 pilot. He gained experience with historic aircraft working for Steve Hinton at the “Mecca” of warbirds, Chino, California. To date Dale has more than 6,000 hours in warbirds.
“This was very successful test flight, the Dixie Wing guys did a phenomenal job, it took a lot of perseverance to stay on this project for 16 years. The flight was great, no major issues to report but only minor adjustments. The airplane was just slightly left wing heavy and the controls are a bit heavy but nothing that can’t be fixed with ease. The trims were great, light and quick to react.” Said Jim after the first flight. After the first flight Dale and the Dixie Wing crew performed a debriefing and went through some of the minor issues encountered in the first flight. Based on Jim’s recommendation, a small adjustment to the RPM settings of the propeller were applied. A little after 1600hrs a second test flight was conducted. This time Jim flew a little longer (about 25 mins) without encountering any major issues. On Sunday February 19, three additional flights were conducted and once again the airplane performed very well.
This Kingcobra joined the CAF when it was purchased by William R. Rodgers and Olin C. Crabtree, both of Rolling Fork, Mississippi, on June 21, 1967. The last Airworthiness Certificate for this aircraft was issued on June 5, 1975, and at the time Mr. Rodgers was quite ill and wished to donate the aircraft to the CAF, but he passed away before the paperwork was complete. However, his wish was well-known, so on October 5, 1975 Colonel “Lefty” Gardner flew the aircraft from Mississippi to Harlingen on what was its last known flight.
Over the next two decades the aircraft was the center of a legal battle and then in 1995, having been adopted by the Missouri Wing the aircraft was damaged and several parts lost when the Mississippi River overflowed its banks. Shortly thereafter the Dixie Wing adopted the stricken P-63, which was trucked to Georgia in December 1996. The restoration, which began in 1999, proceeded slowly and steadily and was often hampered by lack of parts, which had to be salvaged from other aircraft or hand-made to the original specifications.
It was a long road but thanks to the tireless efforts of dedicated volunteers, this rare piece of aviation history has once again taken to the sky because unlike many of today’s warbirds that led rather ordinary lives during their military careers, this Kingcobra has a significant history in flight test. It rolled out of the Bell plant in Niagara Falls on February 24, 1944, where it was formally accepted by the United States Army Air Force as 42-68941. However, it was retained by Bell as a test aircraft and allegedly used to test modifications that were found on later Kingcobra models. When its service with Bell was completed in January 1945, the aircraft was transferred to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) Ames Research Center at Moffett Field in Mountain View, California. The Dixie Wing P-63 was one of two Kingcobras assigned to Ames and it was used on several research programs.
Most importantly the Wing has obtained a very important period photo from its NACA days, which shows exactly how the Kingcobra appeared during its flight test days at Ames. This presents the Dixie Wing with a unique opportunity like no other in the CAF; to honor the dedication and sacrifice of the hundreds of nameless test pilots that put their hides out on the line everyday to push the outside edge of the envelope.