Russian Planes and Pilots

Alexandr Pokryshkin, top Russian P-39 ace

Soviet P-39 Aces

Russian Pilots who flew the Bell Airacobra

By , Nov. 2002. Updated January 26, 2012.

Russian pilots flew the P-39 Airacobra as "air superiority fighters," and at the low to medium altitudes of air combat on the Eastern Front, they did so with considerable success, against German Fw 190s and Bf 109s. The 216th Fighter Division (later 9th Guards Fighter Division) flew Airacobras from August, 1942 to the end of the war in May, 1945 and counted 28 aces with at least 15 victories.

Flying the Lend-Lease equipment, for which every bullet was imported from the United States. the Aircobras followed one of two long paths from upstate New York to the 9th GFD in southern Russia. One, through Canada, along the Alcan Highway and then across Siberia. Or two, by ship to Iran, and over the Caucasus. Flying American equipment was a mixed blessing. The airplanes were as good (or better) as any Russian-made, but in the Stalinist era, carried a certain stigma. The leading Airacobra ace, Alexandr Pokryshkin, who finished the war with 59 aerial victories, was once denied a third award of the Hero of the Soviet Union, because that would have glorified foreign manufacturing.

In reading Attack of the Airacobras, one is struck by several aspects. First, a "can do" spirit that rivaled anything the Seabees did in the South Pacific, as Russian mechanics did their best to keep the American-made machines flying, thousands of miles from a supply of spare parts. Second, a somewhat stilted, Stalinist vocabulary and outlook, as when the author, Dmitriy Loza, described the "pilots' fervent desire to defeat the hated Fascists in the same way that the brave Soviet soldiers had at Stalingrad." Third, the pivotal role of Alexandr Pokryshkin himself, not just a high-scoring ace, but a division leader, aerial tactician, fighter pilot advocate in the dangerous councils of the wartime Soviet military.

Another unique practice of the Soviet Air Forces (VVS - Voyenno Vozdushnye Sily) was the renumbering and renaming of units with honorific titles. Thus the 216th Fighter Division (216 IAD) was renamed the 9th Guards Fighter Division in 1943, to honor their military successes. to this were later added the titles "Mariupol" and "Berlin." The three Fighter Regiments (IAP - Istrebitelnyj Avia Polk) of the 9th GFD included:

Leading Soviet Airacobra Aces
Pilot Victories P-39 Victories Regiment
Aleksandr I. Pokryshkin 59 48 9 GFD
Nikolay Gulaev 57 41 129 GFR
Grigori A. Rechkalov 56 50 16 GFR
Dimitriy B. Glinka 50 41 100 GFR
Vladimir I. Bobrov 43 * 104 GFR
Aleksey Smirnov 34 30 153 FR
Ivan I. Babak 33 32 16 GFR
Mikhail S. Komelkov 32 32 104 GFR
A. Klubov 31 27 16 GFR
Boris B. Glinka 31 31 16 GFR
A. Fedorov 24 * 16 GFR
V. Semenishin 23 * 104 GFR
K. Sukhov 22 * 16 GFR
P. Eremin 22 * 16 GFR
P. Kryukov 22 * 16 GFR
N. Chistov 19 * 16 GFR
* - not identified, but likely most of their totals were scored in Airacobras

The book traces the combat history of the 216th GFD, from the air battles over the Kuban in late 1942 - early 1943, operations around the Sea of Azov and the Crimea in late 1943, and the drive into Germany in 1944 and 1945.

Tank-Busting Myth

Numerous sources in aviation history describe the Soviet use of the P-39 as a tank-buster. Since this did not happen (except perhaps on occasion, as when one of the Tuskegee Airmen shot up a destroyer with his P-47), how did the myth get started? Certainly that big cannon firing through the propeller suggested the possibility of such use, although typical anti-tank guns were of much larger caliber. In the prologue, James Gebhardt persuasively suggests that poor translations may have contributed to the confusion. A common Russian air operation of the war was "prikrytiye sukhoputnykh voysk," literally translated "coverage of ground forces." To Western readers, such words implied close air support, i.e. trooop-strafing, tank-busting, and other direct support of the infantry. But on reading the extensive, and readily available, Russian sources, it is clear that "prikrytiye sukhoputnykh voysk" meant establishing air superiority in an area, protecting the ground pounders from bombing and strafing by German airplanes.

Aleksandr Pokryshkin

A leading Soviet ace and CO of the 9th GFD, Pokryshkin changed Soviet fighter tactics - quite an accomplishment in the rigidly-controlled Stalinist forces. The prevailing doctrine called for Soviet pilots to circle over their assigned area at low speed, which made them sitting ducks for German fighters. Pokryshkin recognized this problem and pushed for another approach, emphasizing "speed, altitude, maneuver, and fire." His more dynamic and less predictable methods led to greatly improved Soviet fighter performance.

Nikolay Gulaev

Among these top Soviet Airacobra aces, the most "efficient" has to be Nikolay Gulaev. He flew his first P-39 combat mission on 9 August 1943 and his last mission on 14 August 1944. In 12 months and five days he shot down 41 German aircraft while flying the P-39. No other Soviet pilot scored so effectively.

By the way, Gulaev was the number 3 Soviet ace with 57 individual and 3 shared kills by war's end. He went on to command high-level Soviet Air Force units, his last being the 10th Air Army headquartered in Archangelsk. He was relieved of this command in 1974 when his subordinates were observed to be shooting polar bears with their aircraft cannon. He died in 1985. The book's author, Dmitriy Loza, knew him personally, having lived several years in the same apartment building in Moscow. Loza indicated that Gulaev never recovered from the personal shame of having been relieved of command in this manner and died a broken-hearted man.