Flying The P-39

p39After the United States entered World War II, P-39 fighters were purchased from England to be used in the North African theater. These planes, built by Bell Aircraft, had been rejected by the RAF as not combat ready. Twelve pilots were selected to fly twelve of the unarmed fighters 600 miles, without navigation equipment, even though this airplane’s range was 550 miles. (They were counting on a strong tail wind.) An armed B-25 bomber was the navigation escort for them, but it would be downed halfway there by a German reconnaissance bomber, as they were west of France. The German plane expended all its ammunition on the B-25 and flew away without further incident.

These pilots had no idea where they were, so they headed east to find land and eventually landed in Portugal. Twelve replacement pilots were assigned to fly these P-39’s the last half of the way to Africa. Jack Ogilvie was one of these twelve and he would become an expert at low level flying in this aircraft. He says, “I flew more at less than 50 feet than I did above it. I learned to be an expert at it. That’s what I did. I flew low.”


The German Messerschmidt and Focke-Wulf easily flew at 36,000 feet. Even though the P-39 was rated to fly at an altitude of over 35,000 feet, Jack says, “You couldn’t get out and push it higher than 25,000 feet.” (This was because the turbo-supercharger that was required for high altitude flying was left out of the design.) The Germans were adept at “yo-yoing” through the American fighters because of their speed and altitude capabilities. Up and down through the formations, they were regularly taking out the inferior P-39 fighters. They just could not compete.

So Jack developed, perfected and taught his squadron a method to fly low, down where the Germans could not fly. Jack said, “We found that this plane was better than any other plane at 50 feet… It’s different flying low. Things happen a lot quicker!” These German pilots were seasoned combat veterans with 4 years or more experience. The American pilots were 18-20 years old and inexperienced. To have a chance against them with the P-39 required wisdom, training and dedication.

High_SchoolJack remembers, “I started in this plane as an 18-year-old. Before the war I was the leader of a rough gang in Dallas called The Lakewood Rats. It was a big deal back then to have bare knuckle fights at night. We would circle the cars to have lights, and the two fighters would go to it. I was very successful and was in good shape, working in a paper warehouse. I did that ‘just for the heck of it.’ Ten months later I was flying planes in North Africa.” These young men had to grow up quick. (Fourteen of the eighteen Lakewood Rats passed the induction physical and went to war. Sadly, only Jack and one other would return.)

Jack also developed the fastest way to descend from 20,000 feet to pinpoint bomb a particular target. He said that he learned to fly upside down. The P-39’s bubble cockpit was perfect for this maneuver. He could look up, as it were, and clearly see the target as he approached, upside down.

He says the P-39 was a “strange airplane.” The engine was behind the cockpit and a drive shaft traveled between the pilot’s legs to the propeller. The armament consisted of a 37mm cannon which fired through the nose of the propeller, a machine gun on the fuselage and two on each wing. But it was good at low levels because the ground could be seen more easily with the forward cockpit.


Jack picked up a model of the P-39 and demonstrated his maneuver to get from high altitude to low altitude quickly. He said, “I could get from 25,000 feet to 50 feet quick!” Flying upside down was challenging because the lift and thrust of the airplane was shoving the aircraft to the ground instead of up. But practice makes perfect and he practiced until he had his combat moves perfected.

On bombing runs, Jack would fall out of the sky inverted, spot his target and at the perfect instant, right the plane, release the bomb and pull up and out of the area. I asked him how far out he would be when he pulled out of his dive. He said that he used his machine guns. He had his wing machine guns set to intersect each other’s bullets at 175 yards. “When I see that, I gotta get outa there!” In other words, as he is looking up at the approaching scene with his bomb target, he is also watching for those bullets to intersect. Then a lot has to happen in a hurry – flip over, release the bomb at the arch as he pulls the airplane up to safety.

But it’s not over at that point. Jack said that every time he performed this, he would experience a force of 14 G’s as he climbed out of the dive. This would cause a blackout while taking on hostile fire from the ground. It would not be immediate, but he would begin to fade out. This meant that he would have to get his plane level so it could fly itself for the next minute and a half to three minutes because he would be out for that long.

Many times his P-39 would be riddled with machine gun bullet holes after these runs. I said, “And you wouldn’t know anything about it while it was happening?” With a big laugh he replied, “That’s right!” I asked him how many of these runs he made like this and he said, “O maybe twenty-five to thirty times.” 

 Jack, being the squadron leader, would be the first to begin attacking the target on a bombing run. The other seven would circle and watch him, see his bomb blast and then zero in on that spot. They would come from different angles, trying to avoid the incoming fire. They would experience blackouts also each time.

The first run Jack’s squadron made was in the traditional way, not the upside down maneuver that he would develop. He lost three pilots that day. The rule that the Air Corps had was that if you lost more than two it was too dangerous. So Jack talked his commanders into believing in his upside down approach and they had great success as they moved forward.

P-39.2It was certainly dangerous business to be involved in. We should all be thankful for these brave and innovative young men that contributed to the Allies’ victory over Nazi aggression. I am thankful we do not speak German today because of men like Jack Ogilvie.