Colorful Cobras

P-39 Colors and Markings in VVS Service 
Part I

The recent release of two outstanding P-39 kits - one in 1:72 scale from Academy, and the second in 1:48 scale from Eduard - has rekindled an interest in the appearance of this famous fighter in service with the Soviet Air Forces of the Patriotic War. In this article, we will explore some of the markings and coloration of these fighters, and attend to some of the outstanding questions of the type's camouflage.
This article has been updated with new research. The original text will be left "as-is". This helps to track the progress of newer and better information, discoveries, and thoughts about VVS camouflage. Also it is fascinating to see how, or if, perceptions evolve. The updated text will appear in a box like this, and this should be seen when in contradiction to the original to be the correct current interpretation, supplanting the former.

Airacobras to the USSR

Largely rejected for service in Europe by the British and Americans, the P-39 was to serve in Russia with some distinction, and in significant numbers. In all, 4952 Airacobras were delivered to the VVS via the Lend-Lease programme, whether directly from the Bell factories or from the inventories of the RAF and USAAF. These were joined by some 300 machines voluntarily seconded to the Soviets from RAF units, or removed from the inventory and replaced into VVS care.

These various methods of introduction of the P-39 to the VVS inventory had much to do with the extremely varied coloration of the type in Soviet service. Aircraft that were handed over to the USSR from RAF or USAAF units obviously arrived in camouflage and markings appropriate for use within those organizations, and these schemes were then modified either at the reception park, or in the field by the receiving units. Typically, the British or American national insignia were painted out using VVS colors of similar shade, and then Soviet markings applied over that in the current fashion. Serial numbers and other codes were either painted out, or not, depending on the preference or thoroughness of the job at hand.

Later on, P-39s began to be delivered to the USSR straight from the Bell factories, especially in Buffalo, where these aircraft were being manufactured expressly to fill the Lend-Lease contract. In 1942 the Soviet Joint Purchasing Commission was asked to specify the manner in which their Lend-Lease aircraft were to be finished. The Commission's specifications were rather straightforward, and for the P-39 agreed upon retaining the standard USAAF camouflage finish of Army Olive Drab over Neutral Grey. The national insignia were to be finished as "a red star with a white border", and in six locations (lower wing surface, fuselage, fin/rudder) as per the usual VVS practice. However, for some reason US manufacturers had considerable difficulties following these directions. Perhaps old habits died hard, for many L-L machines were finished with VVS markings applied in the wrong places, usually a la' the USAAF style (with upper wing port surface, lower wing starboard surface, and fuselage) or with markings on the wing upper surfaces and not on the fin. At the Buffalo plant, these instructions were bungled still further when the request for a white border somehow transmuted into a white surround (also as on USAAF aircraft). Thus, a very large number of P-39s were delivered to the USSR with national markings consisting of a red star on a white disc.
Indeed, the vast majority of P-39s delieverd to the USSR were completed in this fashion, with a red star on a white disc. This was the standard finishing practice at Bell's Buffalo plant until 1944. Less than 100 P-39s were delivered from USAAF service to the USSR.

The Mysterious Disc

Needless to say, the VVS was none too thrilled to receive L-L fighters with a "large white bulls-eye" painted all over the machine. As a result, the white disc was painted out, usually at the ALSIB airpark depots in Magadan and Kamchatskiy, though not always. Indeed, supplies and/or urgency not permitting, a number of P-39s (especially during 1944) reached VVS Regiments in the field still wearing their white discs. These were also usually painted out, but in a less 'regular' fashion than might be done otherwise. Fewer still actually retained these white disc markings, as is clear in Soviet Wartime photography.

For so many years, the debate as to the color utilized to blank out these white discs has been a matter of protracted discussion and debate. It is a curious affair, too, because the color(s) used in this role have never seriously been in doubt. Both the photographic and surviving physical record demonstrate that the vast majority of white discs were over-painted with VVS AMT-4 green. This color was widely available, it was of excellent multi-purpose use (A-24m did not tend to adhere well over other paints), and it was somewhat similar to the US O.D.; or, at least close enough not to look strikingly obvious. All four Airacobras retrieved from Russia and Finland during the last 10 years demonstrate this practice, as do both P-39s surviving in Russian collections. As well, a simple Greyscale excersize demonstrates that a dark blue US style disk (as so often speculated) would look quite distinctive on B/W film, easily standing out from AMT-4 Green.
This observation remains as valid as before. However, on-going research has revealed that in cases a number of lacquers were used to obscure the white discs on the aircraft. On the upper surfaces I suspect that AMT-4 was quite common, in fact, but also examples using the other major green lacquers would be seen-- AII Green and A-24m. Many new photographs of Soviet Airacobras have emerged since the original time of writing, and a host of appearances may be seen in them. All of these, however, correspond well to different combinations of green Soviet aero-lacquer over varyingly dark examples of US O.D. paint. The idea that these painted out discs were blue is quite silly, as is demonstrated by the following observation: since the Bell plant did not apply blue US discs to these aircraft, and they did not come from USAAF stocks, then the assumption must be that the VVS applied US blue insignia to P-39s themselves ! Not terribly likely....

It has also been alleged by some that quantities of US Olive Drab paint were delivered to the Soviet Union for this purpose, however there is neither photographic nor written evidence for its employment. In support of this theory fingers have been pointed at P-39s where there appear to be no repainting of the fuselage underneath the Soviet markings. This effect, however, is really just that-- an appearance. Upon examination, the photographs invariably demonstrate disparate coloration; albeit, subtle, and hard to make out at times. This is true due to a quirk of the human eye and brain, in which so much of what we "see" is in fact information that is 'filled in' by the brain to complete a visual image. When the AMT-4 coloration appears in a defined shape, such as a circle, it is easy to spot.

It is also obvious when applied in an irregular manner, as with a spray gun in a less than careful way, or via crude strokes or 'blobs' onto the existing surface.

However, when applied carefully, following various panel lines and other obvious features, the difference is quite subtle, as in this artwork. Exactly the same colors were used in each, but note how in this drawing it is quite easy to miss the AMT shade.

This subtlety, moreover, is exacerbated by the use of B/W photography.

Machines of Color

It is indeed true that the VVS sported some of the most colorful aircraft of any of the combatants of WWII. But, even that said, the P-39 Airacobra wore some schemes that were remarkable even in Soviet service. Colorful machines such as those flown by Rechkalov, Stroykov, Babak, Gaydenko, Ahmet-Khan, and so on, are well known. However, in this series of articles we would like to present some of the lesser known examples of these colorful schemes, hopefully most of which have not been seen by most Western modelers before. If one were under the impression that all the colorful P-39 jobs had been represented in decal form already, one might wish to think that idea over again....

P-39D-2 "White 39"
Pilot u/k
ca. Oct. 1942

This colorful P-39D was photographed adjacent to HSU V.I. Fadeev's "White 37" [s/n 138428], and the photo caption indicates that it may be the aircraft of Fadeev's wingman. These aircraft are remarkable in that they represent rather 'the exception that proves the rule', so to speak [indeed, one wonders if these early machines were not the inspiration of the misconception that the discs were blue throughout?]. Both feature very dark discs beneath the red national star, clearly a case of dark blue. This is altogether logical, as both aircraft were handed over to Soviet service in Abadan in Sep. 1942, having just been in service with the USAAF at Selfridge Field. In fact, "39" still wears the text "U.S. ARMY" on the wing undersurface, so recently was it turned over. As such, both machines would have been wearing the standard USAAF markings of the time, i.e. O.D. uppers with Neutral Grey unders, white stars on blue discs, chrome yellow serial numbers, and possibly stars on both upper and lower surfaces. Alas, no photo exists of "39" to show this view. Since they were not manufactured with white discs, as were later machines, and since the dark blue color would have been fairly innocuous, it is reasonable to assume that these were not painted over. As well, the Soviet star was completed with a thin black border (as was then still in vogue in the VVS), showing the earlier execution.
"39" indeed shows us the precise features that would be required to believe that the discs were blue. The aircraft was removed from the USAAF inventory for whom it was completed; the red star is exactly the right size and dimension to cover the original white star, with the border over-lapping; there looks to have been two national markings on the wing upper and lower surfaces, in keeping with 1941 USAAF practice.


Airacobra I (P-400) "White 34"
pilot u/k
ca. Dec. 1942

This ex-RAF Airacobra I is thought to be s/n AH619 (hard to see all of the code in the photo), and was photographed at Murmansk during the Winter of 1942. The rear fuselage has been mostly over-painted with a dark-ish grey color, perhaps Wood Use Aerolak as shown here. The RAF roundels on the under wing undersurface have been given a similar treatment, and although no view exists of the upper wing surfaces it seems safe assume the same for them, as well. "34" wears a standard RAF scheme of the time with Green over Sea Grey, and the spinner appears to have remained Sky-S color.
I have subsequently given much attention to these ex-RAF Airacobras. This example, "34", does still seem in my mind to have been finished in the RAF's Temperate Sea colouration. The rear fuselage is consistent with areas of Wood Aehrolak, and possibly other choices, but I have chosen to draw it with the former. Noting the wide-spread use of the colour on the machine, I have also speculated here that the underside roundels were similarly obscured. After consideration, I belivev that the spinner was more likely to have been white.


Airacobra I (P-400) No Number
Pavel Kutakhov
ca. Sept. 1942

Pavel S. Kutakhov was one of the outstanding Soviet pilots along the Murmansk front, rising eventually to the command of the 19 GIAP. He flew this Airacobra (thought to be BX228) in several battles before acquiring a new machine in 1943. 'BX228' carries no tactical number, but wears a Guard's Emblem on the starboard door (no view is available to port). The RAF codes and insignia on this grey and green scheme have been partially covered by a lighter grey shade, in this drawing depicted as Medium Grey. The spinner appears to have been Sky-S, as well as the fuselage band, and there is just a hint of Soviet stars on the wing upper surfaces.
This aircraft represents a case where I believe that my previous interpretation was completely incorrect. To be fair, the photograph showing this Airacobra is poor, to say the least. But, upon reflection I think that the rear fuselage did not show a band of Sky-S colour, but in fact the original and bizarre RAF lower colour demarcation on Airacobra Is in this application using this paint. In fact, I now think that this machine wore a Temperate Land scheme with Sky-S lowers, and the forward colour demarcation is clear in the picture, supporting this view. I also feel that the rear fuselage repainting is more likely to be AII Green lacquer, and have speculated AII Blue for use over the lower roundels. The spinner was possibly Sky-S colour.

As for Pavel Kutakhov (a personal favourite of mine), the attribution of this aircraft to him seems to stand. Indeed, it was probably flown by several pilots. Kutakhov flew most usually a P-40 during this time, but as his Regiment was equipped with both types, it is easy to understand where he would have operated an Airacobra also at times. Author M. Momentov has produced a photograph of a P-400 which might be this aircraft in a later guise, belonging to a different pilot; research on that topic will continue.


P-39N "White 50"
Konstantin Sukhov
ca. spring 1945

"50" was one of the 16 GIAP's colorful P-39Ns that retained its Buffalo applied white disc. Indeed, it must have done so for quite some time, as Sukhov was photographed piloting this aircraft in eastern Germany during 1945! The aircraft appears to have remained in its delivered condition, save for a red spinner and flash on the fin/rudder, this trimmed in white. Other P-39Qs of this unit demonstrate stars on white discs applied asymmetrically on the wings in the USAAF fashion, and it seems likely that "50" is also so marked.

P39Q-15 "White 67"
pilot u/k
ca. summer 1944

This delightful P-39Q of the 72 GIAP was photographed during the Winter of 1944-45. The aircraft appears to wear blue trim on the fuselage and spinner, the former neatly trimmed in white. Most of the aft fuselage had been re-painted in AMT-4, but the factory applied serial number remained in place. The outer wing guns and fairings appear to have been removed in the usual VVS fashion. This aircraft was the subject of a delightful restoration project in Russia.

P-39N "White 22"
100 GIAP
Petr Guchek
Spring 1944

Airacobra "White 22" was the first of four P-39s piloted by Petr Guchek before his death in April, 1945. A long serving and faithful wingman to Ivan Babak, Guchek was a fine ace in his own right, racking up no fewer than 20+3 confirmed victories. The rear fuselage of "22" had been repainted in AMT-4 Green, and the same color was also used to blot out the serial number. The spinner and tail flash are yellow, and "22" appears to have carried white bordered stars on the wing upper and lower surfaces. Three victory markings appear on the port fuselage aft of the cockpit.

P-39Q-25 "White 19"
255 IAP
pilot u/k
ca. Winter 1944-45

This late model P-39Q was photographed in service with the 255 IAP during the Winter of 1944-45, and had unusually retained its underwing guns. The machine also appears to have been fitted with a four-bladed propeller. White trim was ubiquitous on this aircraft, flashes appearing on the wing tips and fin, as well as stripes on both wings and rudder. "19" was for years confused with P-39Q "White 15" s/n 21953 (see Red Stars, p.60), which in some ways is very similarly marked, but additional photos of this machine confirm that they are not the same aircraft. Most of the serial number on "19" has been sprayed over, and only a "3" digit remains of this identification.
One could add that the spinner looks to have been polished metal, and an area of AMT-4 can be seen over the nose.


P-39Q "Yellow 31"
unit unknown
pilot u/k
ca. 1944

This curious P-39Q model with a four bladed airscrew was photographed in line-up of other Cobras in Poland during the Fall of 1944. None of the P-39s in the photograph are similarly marked, and one is at loss to explain this conundrum, except perhaps in the case that these machines were all sitting in a STAVKA reserve air park. Further, I am at a loss to explain why that, although the USAAF markings were painted out with great care, a large white disc similar to that which was so neatly covered up was then painted over the exhaust stack. This odd white disc marking, however, is not unique, and it has been seen on other P-39s and some P-63s during 1945; its significance is completely unknown. The spinner and rudder were neatly painted in red, and from the underwing view it seems likely that this aircraft wore asymmetrical USAAF type wing stars, at least on delivery.
It has since been alleged that numerous P-39s in training units wore white discs of this kind. This claim seems to be correct, and probably explains the appearance of "31".

Hopefully these few examples of mostly hitherto unseen Airacobras will spark interest in some of the more colorful examples of this interesting aircraft. Look for more unusual machines upcoming in Part II,