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High Desert Hangar Stories Pinball Wizards Part 2: World War II “Operation Pinball”

In the last issue of Aerotech News, I began the story of Operation Pinball, the United States Army Air Force manned aerial gunnery training program during World War II. (To read Part 1, visit https://www.aerotechnews.com/blog/2022/01/18/world-war-ii-operation-pinball-how-to-shoot-down-a-perfectly-good-aircraft/)

This time out, I will finish up this amazing story and share some of the operational challenges, as well as reflections of the pilots who would fly a perfectly good airplane at bomber aircraft and let the gunners fire live rounds at them.

U.S. Army Air Force pilots stand with their RP-63 Cobra aircraft that were part of Operation Pinball. (Courtesy photograph)

It’s amazing to think that more than 300 Bell Aircraft RP-63 Cobra “Pinballs” were produced during World War II — which means that an equivalent number of pilots, along with ground crews, were needed to support this bold program. These personnel had to get up to speed not in the classroom, but by manning the guns and flying the airplanes that served as moving targets for live gunnery practice. Many a pilot reassigned to stateside duty — some returning from the war-torn skies of Europe — looked forward to projects that kept them in the cockpit, but many of those reassignments were not overjoyed at the prospect of becoming live bait for novice gunners on bombers.

Many of the stories of those fighter pilots reflected on how the training missions became a dance between a novice partner and the skilled pilot attempting to give the gunner the best target possible, without actually getting shot down.

A few stories were shared of pilots whose planes were not registering any hits from the gunners-in-training, who would attempt to fly a bit closer in a less aggressive manner to give the gunner a better chance. As the pilot and the gunner were in radio contact with each other, one frustrated Cobra/Pinball pilot flew up alongside the bomber, matching its speed, and said, “Do you think you can hit me now?” That said, his plane was immediately ravaged by gun fire and, being that the armored protection of the RP-63 Cobra was designed for head-on attacks and breakaways, he soon realized his mistake! As shells hit all around the cockpit, he broke away, never again attempting to make himself “an easy target.”

Some of the pilots who lost their RP-63 Cobras would tell of the lucky shots that found the smallest openings in the air ducts that were designed to prevent penetration by the special ceramic “frangible” bullets (refer to my first story installment for details), and end up taking out coolant line, oil lines and radiators. Many pilots after flying a pass would make a break up, as they were not allowed to pass under an aircraft, and suddenly find themselves in a world of leaking coolant and rising temperature gauges, with only moments to figure out where to land a wounded bird that no longer wanted to fly. Luckily, most of this gunnery training took place in the desert southwest. The desert landscape, dotted with dry lake beds, was a happy sight as a pilot glided down to a safe landing in a dead aircraft.

One of the other unnerving aspects for pilots of these missions was those live rounds hitting the over-engineered, bulletproof cockpit glass that surrounded them. Many pilots recalled they could never get used to the violent sound and smoke erupting just inches from their heads, when those rounds exploded on that plexiglass. Sometimes when a few rounds would hit the glass, it would shatter it so badly it made flying back an almost instrument-only affair. Over the life of the program, the bulletproof plexiglass was the greatest casualty on these airplanes (not counting the nerves of the pilot.)

The red flashing light in place of the original cannon that indicates to the student gunner of hits on the aircraft. (Courtesy photograph)

Another aspect of the RP-63 Cobra Pinball was that the plane was overly burdened with the extra weight of thicker armor plating that affected its performance. It took a skilled pilot to deal with issues such as overheating, longer take off rolls and the constant adjustment of power to compensate for the added weight when performing mock attacks on the bombers. Luckily, the King Cobra P-63 model Pinballs boasted a marked increase in performance over its predecessor, the P-39 Air Cobra, and made the airplane more manageable.

The program numbers that were tallied up at the end of World War II in August 1945 are really amazing and it’s a bit baffling that this story of aerial combat gunnery training is not very well known. To add it up and see the investment and the involvement leaves one to wonder why the program was such a mystery.

  • In August 1945, frangible bullet production had reached 40 to 45 million shells per month.
  • 300 armored RP-63 Cobra target planes were produced for training by the spring of 1945.
  • The program totaled over 11,000 bomber missions in which some 12 million rounds of frangible bullet ammunition were fired by student gunners, flown in seven gunnery training schools in the United States.

The program was such a success that, just prior to VJ Day, it was stated that from that point on all the air gunnery programs of the training command would thereafter be with specially designed aircraft and frangible bullets.

Initially passed over as folly, the vision of Maj. Cameron D. Fairchild and his supporters from Duke University, Paul Gross and Marcus Hobbs, the program became one of the unsung success stories of World War II.

What would finally bring the entire program to an end was the advent of the jet age. When the war came to an end and jet-powered aircraft came on the scene, the procedure of attacking bombers found that jet aircraft and the speeds they flew would never again have a man at a gun firing at an attacker, at speeds that only a computer and a heads-up display could attempt. Thus, the need to carry on the mission of Operation Pinball became just another aspect to find its way into a book on a shelf, becoming just another footnote in history.

The indicator in the Pinball Aircraft that would let the pilot know how many hits his aircraft had received. (Courtesy photograph)

To wrap up this second installment of the RP-63 Cobra Operation Pinball missions of World War II, we think of the great accomplishments of the World War II generation and what they did in just a handful of years, with such basic evolving technology. I got to thinking about one Operation Pinball pilot who was sharing his memories and it summed it all up. A B-17 pilot asked him to fly up to see if a fuel cap had come loose on the wing of his aircraft and if it was leaking. As he closed in tight on the bomber, he realized too late that the bomber pilot had failed to inform his students of the maneuver. To the pilot’s horror, his Pinball lit up with a barrage of bullet strikes and he peeled off and did his own assault over the radio waves, stating that he had a mind to come back and shoot him down — and pray that in the future we would no longer need to shoot at people to learn how to shoot at people!

Thanks for taking the time to read along. If you want more information on Operation Pinball, there are plenty more stories and information around that tell about this amazing, little-known program that became a big deal at the end of World War II.

Until next time, Bob out!

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