Airplanes in My Novels: the Much-Maligned Bell P-39

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Bell P-39 night-firing. Note engine exhausts and air scoop behind the cockpit. Wing guns are .30-cal., the two guns firing through the propeller are .50-cal., and the 37-mm cannon is firing through the prop spinner.

Before I started writing Boxcar Red Leader, I knew there was an airplane called the P-39, that it was built by Bell Aircraft, and was fairly unique among fighter designs of the era in having tricycle landing gear and the engine mounted in the fuselage behind the pilot, to leave room in the nose of the airplane for a 37-mm cannon. The propeller driveshaft passed from the engine behind the cockpit, under the pilot’s seat, and connected to a gearbox that drove the propeller. The P-39 was a contemporary of the far-better-known Curtiss P-40. I also knew the airplane was called the “Iron Dog” and there seemed to be a sizable contingent of former P-39 pilots who actively disliked the airplane. There’s even a verse about it, in the old Air Corps folk song “Give Me Operations:”

Oh, don’t give me a P-39
The engine is mounted behind
She’ll stall and she’ll spin
And she’ll auger you in
Don’t give me a P-39!

Evidently the center of gravity and the center of lift in the P-39 were in a very sensitive relationship, far more so than in other, more conventional airplanes. This resulted in an airplane very sensitive to pitch inputs, such that only very small increments of elevator control were needed to effect pitch change. This goes directly to the “she’ll stall and she’ll spin” verse above. When pulling gee in a tight turn one pulls back on the stick; if not done with skill, the turn will tighten to the point where the g-load exceeds the lift generated by the wings, causing what is known as an “accelerated stall.” Entering a stall from a turn will lead to a spin, and evidently the P-39 had interesting spin characteristics, to the point where many pilots were convinced the airplane would actually tumble end over end.

On the other hand, there were pilots who absolutely loved the Airacobra. Chuck Yeager flew the airplane in training, loved it, and relates in his autobiography a conversation he once had with a Russian pilot who flew the P-39 – successfully! – against the Luftwaffe. Edwards Park flew the P-39 in New Guinea, and his account of that time is written in his book, Nanette: Her Pilot’s Love Story, a narrative I recommend as one of the best books about flying I’ve ever read.

My perception is that much of the dislike directed at the P-39 resulted from the pilots who were thrown into the airplane straight out of flight school and then expected to fly the P-39 against the experienced Zero pilots of the Imperial Japanese Navy in the skies over New Guinea. Most of these pilots had never flown an airplane more powerful or faster than an AT-6 trainer. Later in the war pilots like this would be sent to an OTU, or Operational Training Unit, to encounter the P-39 or P-40 under the relatively benign conditions of a stateside training base. In the Pacific, in 1942, kids fresh out of flying school were put in P-39s and P-40s and sent out against the Japanese. The loss rate, from accidents and combat, was horrendous.

The P-39, like the P-40, was equipped with the Allison V-1710 engine. The V-1710 was a fairly good engine, but in the P-39 and the P-40 it had only a single-stage supercharger, and, as a result, the performance of both airplanes fell off sharply above 17,000 feet. If what you have to defend Port Moresby and Seven-Mile Drome from Jap bombers flying at 23,000 feet is a P-39, you face a difficult tactical problem, one not helped by the fact that the defenders of Seven-Mile rarely had enough warning to climb high enough to intercept Japanese bombers with any hope of success.

Between the high loss rate and the poor performance, compared to the A6M2 Zero fighter the P-39 found itself matched against, it’s no wonder the pilots disliked the airplane.

Still, I kind of like the P-39. I’ll never have a chance to fly one, to see for myself just how sensitive and well-balanced those controls are, or if she really will tumble, but there’s something about the way the airplane looks.

Over and above any of that, the P-39 was one of the two pursuit airplanes the Army Air Forces had at the beginning of World War Two available in significant numbers. It didn’t matter, from that perspective, how the pilots felt about the airplanes. It was what they had.

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One-Week Promotional Deal

Beginning tomorrow, April 17, 2017, Everything We Had and A Snowball’s Chance will be available at Amazon Kindle at discount pricing for one week! Sales for both books start at $0.99 US, so it doesn’t get much cheaper than that. Buy early, because the longer you wait, the more the price rises until at the end of the week I’ll be back to sales at the original cost.

Enjoy the books!

Note: Boxcar Red Leader is in final draft review form. I won’t say when it will be available, but it won’t be long. Read the first two books now so you’ll be ready when it comes out!

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J’ai un ami en France

I have a friend in France, and I don’t know their name. If they should happen to read this, I want to say, merci, merci beaucoups mon cher ami!

This person is my friend because last year they bought my first book, Everything We Had, and some time this last week, they bought my second book, A Snowball’s Chance.

It is wonderful to me that I have even a handful of people willing to follow my work. Now I see there is also someone in Italy who bought Everything We Had, and a few people in England who are repeat customers.

Thank you, all of you! And remember, there’s a third novel, Boxcar Red Leader, coming this spring. Two other novels, Thanks for the Memories and The New Boys, are in preparation.

I hope you’ll enjoy them!

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Finally – A Snowball’s Chance

Yesterday, January 16, 2017, I finally sent A Snowball’s Chance to Kindle as an ebook. My very first sale of the book followed — to some wonderfully perspicacious reader in the United Kingdom! Say, partner, stay tuned, ’cause the Davis boys are coming to England soon, courtesy of the 8th Air Force!

Today I noticed five copies of Snowball sold. It’s a good start. Further, I finished formatting and reviewing the paperback version of Snowball, which will be available from CreateSpace and Kindle within the next two weeks.

So, now, I’m dusting off Boxcar Red Leader, which needs a few tweaks and revisions, and prepping that one for sale as well. The spoiler-free teaser for Boxcar is that it portrays the pilots flying P-39 Airacobras against the Japanese during May and June, 1942. Charlie Davis and his crew will make an appearance, and so will the 22nd Bomb Group, at that time flying B-26 Marauders.

Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!

 

 

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Slogging on with A Snowball’s Chance

Folks, under the “no kidding” category, I’ve missed my own deadline (last summer!) for publishing the second novel in the series. I’m working hard on A Snowball’s Chance, but it has proven to be far more of a challenge than I anticipated.

To cap it all off, before I realized that Snowball would be so tough to write, I agreed to help a friend during NaNoWriMo this year, and that’s coming up in two days. Truth is that I’m looking forward to doing something completely different for a month during November. I’ve been fighting World War II in my mind since November of 2010, when I wrote the first draft of Boxcar Red Leader (I called it The Sluggers and the Palookas back then, and if you ask nicely, I’ll explain why!) and kicked off this whole adventure.

Some of you know this story, but for those of you who don’t, Boxcar Red Leader was originally written for NaNoWriMo 2010. It was not, however, the story I began writing that year. My original idea was to write a story I still (someday!) want to finish, a sci-fi-fantasy novel set in the far future titled The Once and Future Grail. I wrote 7000 words or so in the first three days…and something sort of unprecedented for me happened.

The words dried up. Whatever pipeline I had into that story, it was gone, and when it didn’t come back by that weekend, I was worried. To be a NaNo finalist, you have to write 1667 words per day, and I usually shoot for 1700. So by that Saturday I was six days into the contest with 7000 words written when I should have been over 10,000.

Not insoluble, but worrisome, definitely. So I asked my subconscious, what’s going on? I know you don’t want to write the Grail story, so what DO you want to write?

Turns out what I really wanted to write was the story of our pilots in the SW Pacific in early World War Two. Never mind that I hadn’t done a tenth of the research I thought necessary, never mind that I didn’t have a clear idea in my head of the plot or the characters, evidently on some level I made the decision to just start the damn story already!

So I did. By then I had 24 days instead of 30 to write 50,000 words on a story I had neither plan nor intention of writing. That, my friends, is perhaps the epitome of “pantsing.” I finished by November 30 — a day or two before, actually, with over 50,000 words — and after going through several revisions, changed the title twice (from The Sluggers and the Palookas to I Wanted Wings and finally to Boxcar Red Leader) and finally came up with what I think of as a finished product.

However, somewhere during that process I realized that, in Boxcar, Jack Davis alludes to previous service in the Philippines and Java.

Meaning there were two books existing prior to Boxcar.

They just weren’t written yet. Oh, dear.

And, as the members of my writers’ group pointed out with a certain sadistic glee, since I’m not George Lucas I can’t release books out of order.

So Boxcar Red Leader has languished on the shelf while I wrote Everything We Had (finally!) and finished A Snowball’s Chance.

The good news is that Boxcar Red Leader will only require relatively minor tweaks and updates to reflect the narrative in the two preceding novels.

But I won’t sacrifice quality just to get something out there. These novels, at least in part, are in homage to the people who were there and lived through it.

I owe them, and you, gentle reader, my best effort, and that is what you shall have.

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New Review of Everything We Had

Mark Lardas, writing in the Daily News of Galveston County, has posted a new review of Everything We Had. Mark’s byline notes that he is “…an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.”

Mark writes, among other things, that Everything We Had “…feels like a book which could have been written in the 1950s or 1960s by a veteran of the Pacific War.” That is one of the things I aimed for in writing the story, and something I’ll continue to do in the rest of the series.

You may read the full review here:

http://www.galvnews.com/books/article_ac3ceb49-398a-5670-82ff-2973e003c961.html

I noted with interest that the Daily News of Galveston County is the oldest newspaper in Texas, publishing since 1842.

Thanks, Mark!

 

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Airplanes In My Novels: the Curtiss P-40

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Curtiss P-40E pursuits peel off after a target below. USAF photo in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Jack Davis flies the Curtiss P-40E in both Everything We Had and the second novel in the series, A Snowball’s Chance, under production as I write this post.

The Curtiss P-40 was America’s front-line pursuit airplane in 1941. It wasn’t as fast or glamorous as the RAF’s Supermarine Spitfire or the Luftwaffe’s Bf-109E. Development of those two airplanes kept them operationally viable through 1945, but the P-40’s performance remained more or less the same from the P-40B through the P-40N. Even changing the Allison V-1710 engine for the Rolls-Royce Merlin in the P-40F didn’t improve that performance. A nearly complete redesign of the P-40, the P-40Q, resulted in an airplane with a top speed of 400 mph, but by then the war was nearly over and the other pursuit types in USAAF service – the P-38, P-47 and P-51, not to mention the first generation of jet fighters like the Lockheed P-80A Shooting Star – were superior in almost every way.

20th_Pursuit_Squadron_Curtiss_P-40B_Warhawks_Nichols_Field,_Luzon,_Philippines (1)

Curtiss P-40B pursuits of the 20th Pursuit Squadron at Nichols Field in the Philippines before the beginning of the war. USAF photo in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The P-40 had two major virtues for a pursuit airplane in 1941 and 1942: first, it was competitive with the Japanese Zero, and second, maybe more important, it was what we had in quantity to equip our own pursuit groups and send overseas to our Allies. In North Africa, the P-40 was used extensively and successfully as a fighter-bomber. In China, the record of the American Volunteer Group (better known as the Flying Tigers) was compiled using a handful of obsolescent P-40B models, the same airplane that equipped the 20th Pursuit Squadron in the Philippines.

The P-40E equipped most of the USAAF pursuit squadrons sent to the Southwest Pacific in 1941 and 1942. For fighting Zeros it was adequate, being as fast as the Zero in level flight and able to break off combat with the Zero by diving away. The Zero wasn’t known for being sturdy, and would come apart under punishment that the P-40, or any other American combat airplane, would simply shrug off.

At the time of Everything We Had, the P-38 was only beginning to become available, and was still overcoming problems associated with compressibility issues at high speeds. The P-38 was the first airplane to encounter Mach buffet, a phenomenon poorly understood in 1941 or for some years afterward. The Republic P-47 Thunderbolt was in development but wouldn’t be available in any numbers until 1943. The P-51 Mustang was originally designed for the RAF as a substitute for the P-40, and was also still in development.

So the P-40 was the only pursuit, other than the Bell P-39 Airacobra, available in any numbers to equip the USAAF. As for the P-39, stay tuned. I’ll talk about that airplane sometime before Christmas, when Boxcar Red Leader, the third book in the series, comes out.

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