In many ways the P-39 Airacobra (pictured) was a very odd airplane. It used tricycle landing gear in a day when every other fighter had a tail wheel. Rather than being designed around the engine, as was the usual practice, the Airacobra was built around a 37mm gun mounted to fire directly through the propeller shaft. So the engine had to be placed mid-fuselage. Even the cockpit arrangement was strange. The pilot entered on the starboard side, rather than the usual port, through a car-like door with roll-down windows!

The plane in American and British service was expected to perform in high-level aerial combat, for which it proved disappointing and unsuccessful. This was mainly due to the lack of a supercharger (removed as an “improvement” early in the P-39’s design life) on the Allison engine. (The same problem plagued early P-51s.) Also, the engine was extremely difficult to service due to its placement.

Through Lend-Lease, the Russians acquired about half of the roughly 9500 planes produced and put them to use as tank busters and ground-attack platforms. In that role, the P-39 performed with distinction. The Soviets recognized that the plane had strengths for their situation and found a niche to use them to best effect. (Source:

Sometimes odd, different people are treated like the unusual P-39 was by the USAAF and the British. They are looked on with disdain and cast off because they can’t be easily categorized; they see things differently. They have gifts, but it takes the right situation provided by, and a bit of imagination from, busy parents, leaders, and employers for them to blossom and demonstrate their potential.

A currently-running commercial for an online job service has an extremely tall man walking through a village to a spot where he takes an elevator at high speed to the center of the earth. There he mounts a cycle inside a gyroscope. In the moment it takes him to get started pedaling after relieving the man before him, the whole earth goes off balance. But because he is faithful to the work he has found in his niche, soon everything is back as it should be.

Two weeks remain in this season of Lent. A worthwhile discipline for these days may be to try to recognize and use the unique gifts of someone you had written off. Maybe they’re not much good at dogfighting, as it were, but they can blast the heck out of column of Panzers.

© 2008 by Tom Cheatham