24 December, 2023

Profile 171: Bell P-39Q as flown by a great American.


Ever wonder what it means for someone/thing to be "great"?

Around where I live, "great" has some cultural implications — "great" is great unless it's too great, then it needs to be knocked down a notch; this is the upper-midwest way of keeping people from getting too big for their britches.  Keeping ego's in check is good.  But as a regular practice, this aspect of "Minnesota Nice" can also be castrating.

Maybe 'great' means something from the past — acts and behaviors of legend; this kind of greatness has emotional truthiness to it, but as all history is comprised of people, as the wife of one highly decorated warrior warned me, "Be careful of your heroes.  They're all people and they all have people problems. Sometimes you don't want to know."

(Another topic for another day).

Maybe 'great' is a hope for someone better to come along — someone who represents the filling of present deficits and the ability to elevate the rest.  Gentle reminder (in the spirit of this Christmas Eve) — "the last perfect person was nailed to a cross."

As a history geek, I've become very careful of any use of the word, "great."  

Have a look above — it's the beginning of a Bell P-39Q "Airacobra." 

For the uninformed, the Airacobra is an airplane of mixed reputation.  Very few aviation buffs will call the P-39 a 'great' combat aircraft.  True enough, the airplane had a narrow envelope of success — down low (under 10,000ft), with lots of physical energy (i.e. speed), the P-39 could bring its terrific firepower (4 x .50 cal + 1 x 37mm) to bear and be utterly devastating to an unfortunately placed ground or aerial foe.  Outside of that precisely prescribed envelope, the P-39 was bested by more maneuverable, more powerful and more dynamically optioned enemies.

Nope.  The P-39 was not great.

But that didn't stop a WWII pilot from using it to learn his craft, excel in work, triumph in leadership, prove his character over time... and thus inspire many, many thousands to be better

That's pretty great, don't you think?

Stay tuned.*

Oh... and I'm going to ask him one more question, too.

OH!  And if you're piqued by the lack of information on why the P-39 wasn't so 'great,' please.  Click Here and read WWII Veteran, USAAF Master Sgt and fantastic writer, Merle Olmstead's review.

P-39s in training, in flight.  Photo: Stubby Gambill, courtesy "To Fly and Fight."

*(from one reader). "Geez, John You have so many stay-tuned stories, when are you going to finish them?!" In time.  And it'll be great, too)