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The Rarest of the Rare

The Ghost Squadron's P-63F is one of only two built

by Bill Coombes

Copyright 1998 by the Confederate Air Force and Bill Coombes. All rights reserved.

Originally published in The Dispatch magazine, Volume 23, Number 4, Winter, 1998 edition. If you are interested in subscribing to The Dispatch please write to The Commemorative Air Force, ATTN: Dispatch Editor, PO Box 62000, Midland, TX 79711-2000 or call (432) 563-1000. Reproduced with permission.

The Confederate Air Force is fortunate indeed to own and operate many of the rarest warbirds of World War II, in spite of the tremendous obstacles this represents. The B-29 Fifi, is well-known to thousands of airshow visitors, many of whom do not realize the problems inherent in operating the last flyable B-29 in the world. Likewise the SB2C Helldiver has a unique place among warbirds flying today, but spares for Helldivers are almost impossible to locate. At the same time, the CAF’s Bell P-63 Kingcobra, N6763, must rank as the most rare warbird flying today, simply because she is one of only two of her type ever produced. Almost 4,000 B-29s were built, and more than 7,000 SB2Cs, but only two P-63Fs (out of a total production of 3,303 P-63s of all variants) were ever manufactured, making N6763 one of the most improbable warbirds to survive the war, let alone remain in flying condition.

The saga of 6367 is truly a notable one, beginning with the test pilot at Bell Aircraft who flew the airplane on its delivery flight to the Army Air Forces. Chalmers "Slick" Goodlin, a test pilot who would later do the early flights of the Bell X-1, flew the CAF’s P-63, AAF serial number 43-11719, on Sept. 13, 1945. Lt. E.W. Cook would accept the airplane for the Army that same day, though he noted a leaking right brake after his flight. The Form 41-B shows minor squawks like the weeping brake cylinder, but nothing unusual for a newly-minted fighter. Apparently, the other P-63F was accepted much earlier, in April 1945, but neither F model Kingcobra saw much service with the Army Air Forces. With only 24.1 hours total time, 11719 was sold off early in 1946 to a Mr. H.L. Pemberton.

Pemberton went air racing, placing tenth in the 1946 Thompson Trophy Race in Cleveland, Ohio, at an average speed of 304.41 mph. "Tex" Johnston won that year’s Thompson in a P-39Q, Cobra IL the first year after the war for the National Air Races. P-39s and P-63s were a popular early choice for racing at the Thompson, as they were cheaper to buy from the War Assets people than a Mustang, P-38 or Corsair, a good one going for $1,000. One could be adventurous with "modifications" to the engine as well, surplus Allisons being available for $75 new in the can.

P-63s also looked fast, with their slim fuselage cross-section and laminar flow wing. In this case looks are not deceiving, as only the P-51 had less drag area at 4.63 square feet compared to the P-63 with 5.03 square feet of "flat plate area." Most P-63s were not heavily modified for racing (the CAF’s never was), but one P-63 became the most highly modified P-63 of them all, this being the infamous Tucker Special. A P-63C that Charlie Tucker (with his teenage brother’s assistance) modified by clipping 13 feet off the wingspan in a quest for the fastest Thompson racer, race number 28 looked faster than anything else in the air. Of course, it did land at more than 130 mph, at cruise power, and Tucker never used more than 60 inches of manifold pressure on take-off, so as to avoid an uncontrollable torque roll. Additionally, whatever the gain in speed on the straights was lost by the incredible drag generated in the wide radius turns around the pylons Tucker was forced to make. Tucker later admitted that the radical wing surgery was probably not really effective, but it did look impressive.

Going through several owners, 11719 moved about the country from Indiana to Florida, and then to Georgia. While based in Georgia, another rather famous pilot flew 11719, that being Mr. R.A. "Bob" Hoover, who, on May 30, 1971, put 15 minutes on the airplane at an airshow in Alton, Ill. The Cobra’s racing career was not quite over, however, as, wearing race number four, 11719 flew in the 1976 Reno Air Races, being owned at that time by Jack Flaherty of Hollister, Calif. Bill and Don Whittington of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., became the owners of 11710 shortly thereafter and chose to donate it to the Confederate Air Force. Outside of an unscheduled stop for orientation and fuel in Mexico, 6763’s ferry flight from Florida went off without a hitch, and the Kingcobra joined the fleet in 1981.

Major airframe problems manifested themselves rather quickly, however, and N6763 would undergo major structural repairs to the spar in the right wing, and, later, extensive repair to the door framework. By August 1983 the Cobra was declared airworthy once more, but in need of more sponsors to properly fly and maintain her. Col John Kohlhaus had been a major sponsor of the airplane, and he would be joined later by Col Mike Collier in 1984. Col Collier remains a sponsor of the airplane today, being joined by Cols Scott Rozzell and John Stofer.

Designed as a follow-on to the P-39 Airacobra, the P-63 became the most produced fighter plane of World War II to never see combat with the U.S. Army Air Force. The reasons for this come down primarily were two: it was extremely short-ranged (internal fuel supply was only 122 gallons, enough to fly into combat perhaps, but not enough to return) and its performance was not superior to the P-51 Mustang that was already in production and operational. What the Air Force needed was a long-ranged escort fighter with the speed and maneuverability to defeat the Luftwaffe; in other words, the P-51. The P-63, for all of its sensuous curves, was simply a relatively fast-climbing point interceptor, cramped, expensive to build, with an engine supercharger that wasn’t overly reliable, and demanding of more maintenance than either the P-51 or P-47. In May 1944, an Air Force report from Eglen Field concluded that the "P-63 in its current form cannot be an operationally suitable front-line fighter." Thus, almost all P-63s were sent to Russia, with 300 being given to the Free French. In U.S. service, the P-63 was utilized as a "target" in the live-firing Pinball project, hardly an auspicious occupation for a beautiful airplane.

Notwithstanding this rather lackluster combat history, today the P-63 is an impressive airshow performer. Minus all the military equipment formerly carried, it can easily run with Mustangs and Sea Furies, and Cols Collier, Stofer, and Rozzell do a fine job demonstrating its ability as a low-level "tank buster." With less than 900 hours of airframe time, the Confederate Air Force’s P-63F should continue to fly for many more years, showing the public one of the truly unique airplanes of World War II.

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