October 21, 2010 — A Bell P-39Q Airacobra that was built in a western New York state factory in 1943 has returned home after resting at the bottom of a Russian lake since 1944. This particular aircraft was part of 4,719 P-39s sent to the Soviet Union under the United States’ Lend-Lease program, which propped up Allied forces with war materiel before and after the U.S. entered World War II. Miss Lend-Lease, as it has been named by the Ira G. Ross/Niagara Aerospace Museum (NAM) that is undertaking the restoration, served in a frontline Soviet Air Force squadron along the border with Finland. The discovery in 2004 is rare since remains of the pilot along with key artifacts, found with the aircraft, have provided insights into the mystery of why the aircraft suddenly broke formation as the squadron repositioned to an airfield closer to the front 66 years ago.
Miss Lend-Lease began as P-39Q-15BE, serial number 44-2911, one of the last of the Q-15 marks of the Airacobra produced at the Bell Aircraft Corporation in Buffalo, New York. The Airacobra (named by the British) was developed as a high-altitude interceptor, but an inadequate supercharger limited its effectiveness above 12,000 feet. The aircraft was designed around its armament, an Oldsmobile T9 37 mm cannon and twin 12 mm machine guns all located in the nose of the aircraft. With all those guns up front the only place for the engine was behind the pilot. A 10-foot, two-part propeller shaft running through the cockpit provided power to the nose, much like a transmission in a car. The P-39 also came with four wing-mounted 7 mm machine guns, but many air forces would often remove them to improve performance.
In summer 2004, the warbird recovery group UK Warbird Finders was diving in lake Mart-Yavr, Russia, looking for another WWII aircraft wreck, when a local fisherman asked “Are you going to get the other airplane out of here?” said Paul Faltyn, vice president of the Niagara Aerospace Museum. The fisherman had noticed the faint outline of the aircraft in the silt in 16 feet of water. It was buried up to the propeller, but was noticeable in the crystal clear water of the lake located along the Arctic Circle.
As the aircraft was raised out of the water a stunning discovery was made: The pilot Lt. Ivan Ivanovich Baranovsky, 22 at the time of the crash, was still in the aircraft. Due to the location of the propeller shaft, the pilot of a P-39 sits much higher in the aircraft and exits from the aircraft through doors much like those found on a car. The roof of the aircraft is fixed and cannot be jettisoned; however, the doors can be. While the raised seat provided excellent visibility, the configuration further complicated emergency egress. Normal procedure in the case of a water ditching called for the doors to be jettisoned before landing, even in the case of landing on ice.
“We found out that two connecting rods in the engine had broken, the engine lost oil pressure, and when he landed on the ice (he was found not wearing his shoulder harnesses), he probably bumped his head on the instrument panel,” Faltyn said. “While he was unconscious the aircraft broke through the ice and sank, and he drowned in the process.”
One amazing discovery that always delights restorers and historians was found in the starboard door. In a leather binder was the aircraft’s maintenance log, which included the entire flight and service history of the aircraft, save for a few water-damaged pages. The wing guns had been removed and the researchers found cans of stew and extra ammunition belts in the ammunition trays. This further confirmed this was the aircraft that had broken formation when 773 IAP was repositioning that day. The cans of stew were made in Massachusetts, which suggests that the lend-lease program also included food.
The British were the first to deploy the P-39, but soon discovered that the aircraft was not suited for the high-altitude escort duties that were required in the western European theater. The Soviet Air Force found the sturdy, heavily armed fighter well suited for ground combat operations along the Eastern front, where brawn, rather than aircraft range, was needed. Miss Lend-Lease was delivered by way of the famous Alaska-Siberia route, which had a midpoint of Fairbanks, Alaska. Soviet Air Force pilots would continue the ferrying of the aircraft westward, where after 7,800 miles from Buffalo it entered service along the Finnish border in June 1944. By this time the aircraft had been repainted in Soviet Air Force markings and named White 23 as part of the 773 IAP 7th Air Army.
White 23 would see action all summer against the Finnish air force until a ceasefire in September; however, operations against German bases continued long into fall as 773 IAP was moved into the Murmansk area. By this time Lt. Baronovsky had been given White 23 to fly and he would record seven enemy kills before he died. Two medals, the Glory Order III Degree and Military Red Banner Order, were found on his uniform. Soon after the discovery, his family was located and he was buried in Murmansk with full military honors.
The aircraft would move onto West Sussex, England, in the care of UK Finders until it was acquired by the NAM in 2008, which wanted it due to the rarity and historical significance of the aircraft. Restoration has begun and the NAM, which now occupies the former factory where the P-39 was built, is seeking donations and spare parts. The NAM plans to display Miss Lend-Lease in the moments after it landed, sitting on top of the thin ice of Lake Mart-Yavr.
The Story of Miss Lend-Lease
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Miss Lend-Lease, designated White 23 when it flew for the Soviet Air Force, emerges from Lake Mart-Yavr, Russia, along the Arctic Circle. The initial ditching was successful but the aircraft eventually broke through the still thin ice in November 1944
The Bell P-39 Airacobra was a tricycle gear, single-engine fighter initially built for escort duties, but was found to be more suited to air support roles. The Soviet Air Force was particularly fond of the aircraft and deployed them extensively in WWII.
Lt. Ivan Ivanovich Baranovsky was an experienced and decorated pilot. It is assumed he was knocked unconscious and later drowned after ditching White 23 on Lake Mart-Yavr in Russia in 1944
Miss Lend-Lease is undergoing restoration at the same facility where it was born in 1943.