Problems in Attributing Ace's Aircraft-- G.A. Rechkalov

There have been many cases involving the misattribution of various aircraft to specific pilots-- usually to the higher scoring aces-- over the years. By now, most VVS enthusiasts are familiar with the better publicised cases: I-16 "11" to Safonov, Yak-1 "44" to Litvyak, and so forth. However, these types of cases continue to be a problem, despite the fact that Regimental records often do record the tactical numbers, and such details, of the pilots' aircraft. In this series, we will look to examine some of the more problematic examples of such misattribution and see what, if any, sense can be made of the actual historical situation.

Grigoriy Andreevich Rechkalov was born in 1920 in the Sverdlovsk area, and enetered the VVS in 1938. Rechkalov was a keen pilot and determined to qualitfy on fighter aircraft, and
despite early medical trouble he indeed went into action on June 22 1941 flying an I-153. Regimental records of the 55 IAP show that this Chaika wore tactical number "13" ["Bad luck for the Fascists", as Pokrishkin later quipped]. Rechkalov then moved onto an I-16 (Type and tactical number unknown), in which he was shot down and seriously wounded on 26 July.

Having recovered in hospital, he returned to the 55 IAP and successfully piloted a Yak-1 (unknown again). During the summer of 1942 the 55 IAP was re-christened the 16 GvIAP for outstanding service, and in early 1943 began to transition to the P-39 Airacobra. Rechkalov was assigned P-39D-2 s/n 41-38547 bearing the tactical number "White 40". At the time of writing, only one blurred and partial image is known of this aircraft, and no useful details are evident as regards personal markings.

During the summer of 1943 Rechkalov received his iconic P-39N-0 s/n 42-8747. This aircraft is legendary in the photographic record, having been adorned with copious 'kill stars' on the nose. Indeed, the smart appearance of this machine has led to multiple problems, as virtually every pilot in the Regiment was photographed standing in front of this Airacobra, and thereby it has been wrongly attributed to them, as well. The most frequently encountered spurious attribution of this aircraft is to Aleksandr Pokrishkin, who was widely photographed standing in front of 42-8747 by famous journalist G.N. Bey. Despite also being a similar N-0 model, Pokrishkin's P-39 was s/n 42-9004
and carried the tactical number "White 100".

As an N-0 model, Rechkalov's 42-8747 was equipped with two .30 cal guns in the wings, as is apparent in the series of photographs showing Pokrishkin writing documents on the wing surface. The aircraft was delieverd in the usual appearance for 1942, having been completed in Olive Drab over Neutral Grey at the plant in Buffalo where it was built. However, the type of national markings this aircraft might have had applied at the time of construction are not clear. Aircraft completed to Lend-Lease contracts were finished with the curious factory applied markings of a red star within a white circle [1].

These -Q models were built towards the middle of 1944 and still bear the odd red star in white circle L-L insignia.

42-8747 was originally ordered as a P-39G model, of which none were completed, and thus it might well have been manufactured on an USAAF contact; if so, it would have been finished with the service's white star within a blue circle. Photographs of 42-8747 seem to be in agreement with this possibility. The port wing upper surface carries a star marking (in agreement with USAAF practices) in the famous 16 GvIAP photos, and the dark colour of the disc is consistent mainly with either the US Insignia Blue colour, or possibly with A-24m Green, which at the time did not yet exist. The disc itself is also perfectly round, showing no hand application, over-painting or such like. Given this evidence, one can then speculate that it must likely have been blue.

Perhaps most importantly-- and surely most frsutratingly-- the Regiemental records of the 16 GvIAP do not mention the tactical number carried by 42-8747. Is one to assume, then, that it did not feature one? Aircraft in VVS service were seen without a tactical number, but such cases were rare.

Rechkalov's last Airacobra was a P-39N-2 model, s/n 42-2547 and this carried-- as confirmed by Regimental documents-- the most curious "tactical number" of "White RGA". RGA, of course, stood for Rechkalov's initials (it is usual in Russian to list the surname first, followed by the first names, as in 'Rechkalov G.A.'), and as such it would have been a very strange device, indeed. This aircraft retained its wing guns and would have been delieverd on a Lend-Lease contract, meaning that it should have been painted with the red-star-in-white-disc markings.

Now, this much we know much from the documentary evidence. Wherein lie the problems with the recreated appearances of Rechkalov's P-39s?

Firstly, in my own view, the appearance of 42-8747 and 44-2547 have become confused and inter-mixed without any real need for such confusion. A cursory glance at the various photographs of the nose of the Rechkalov's Airacobra show, quite clearly, that all of the images depict P-39N-0 42-8747. At the time of writing there are no known exceptions. In most cases the serial number is clearly visible below the cockpit on the US Army stencil. To miss such obvious and definitive evidence as this merely shows a lack of attention, and such is obviously not acceptable. Moreover, in cases where the serial is not clearly in view, the various details of the painting of these 'kill stars' should by themselves be sufficient evidence. It is possible that the general style, or even the same number, of such star artwork could be replicated on another aircraft. But, to render an exact replica of these markings-- with every tiny deviation, crooked star and minute detail-- is simply not possible. When such details are identical, one is looking at the same aircraft. Full stop.

Here is the earliest view we have of 42-8747. The beginning of the Army stencil is in view and clearly states, "P-39N0-..." [the entire stencil would read on that line, P-39N0-BE SERIAL NO. AAF42-8747]. In this image there are 48 stars present, occupying most of the port gun bay cover. Note the exact position and deformation of the individual 'kill' marks, and the large metal flake missing on the exit fairing.

Here is an intermediate view with 54 stars, the last six of which do not feature a white border outline. The serial number is not in view, but the large metal flake is present, exactly as before, as are all of the white outlined kill markings, to include every nuance of position and deformity. This aircraft is unquestionably also 42-8747.

And, finally, the last known appearance of Rechkalov's 'Cobra' nose. All of the now 55 stars have a white trim/outline. Once again, the type identification in the Army stencil is patently clear: "P-39N0-BE...." How it is possible that this machine is persistently captioned as P-39Q-15 s/n 44-2547 is beyond my understanding. The same metal flake is present, and the precise nature of all the star markings are identical; that this aircraft is obviously 42-8747 should pass without comment.

Sadly, although the nose of 42-8747 was widely photographed, I am aware at the time of writing of no clear view which shows the rear fuselage of this machine. We can speculate that it would have carried an original USAAF national insignia on the fuselage, likely over-painted with a white bordered star as had been done with the port upper wing marking. The serial number would likely have appeared on the fin/rudder in the usual way. There is no Regimental record of the tactical number, and no known photograph which shows this.

Some authors have suggested that 42-8747 also carried the "RGA" fuselage marking. I find this hypothesis to be extremely unlikely. When Rechkalov received this aircraft he was a minor ace within the 16 GvIAP, and would have been unknown to virtually anyone outside of the Regiment. It is certainly true that he later showed a vanity, ego and thirst for personal attention which rankled many of his comrades (Pokrishkin most notably), but at the time (when this -N0 model arrived) it would have been spectacular, to say the least, to see him paint his initials on his aircraft. When he later obtained anoither P-39N this was at the very same time that Rechkalov was promoted to Regimental Commander of the 16 GvIAP. In this role he would have the freedom to paint anything he liked, and the stature to be seen often having done it. Small wonder the Regimental records confirm the tactical number of "White RGA" for his 42547.

There does exist some 16mm cine film of one of Rechkalov's P-39s wearing the 'tactical code' "RGA". The three stills, above, are taken from that material. A new view from the same cine material confirms the stripe features on the fin [image courtesy of Flavio Silvestri] and the serial number 42547. This is indeed Reckalov's P-39N-2. The nature of the dark area below the national star appears to be oblong and hand applied, with a suitably low-contrast appearance which one would expect for lacquer A-24m over Olive Drab. This detail agrees with the supposition that the aircraft was finished at the factory in Lend-Lease type markings.

A fair number of the 16 GvIAP's Airacobras seem to have sported a red spinner in various photographs dating from 1945. There is the mildest hint in the above cine film (in another view) of such features possibly being present on "RGA". However, these same decorations are often depicted on 42-8747, and this was certainly not the case; the spinner, at least, is shown in several images and it is clearly O.D. colour.

Therefore, with respect to Rechkalov's three known P-39 fighters, where does this leave us?

This profile depicts what we know of Rechkalov's P-39D-2 s/n 41-38547. As all D-2 models were built on a Lend-Lease contract, the "painting out" method has been supposed here with regards to the national insignia (in this case using AMT-4 Green). No other details are currently available for this machine at the time of writing.

The appearance of Rechkalov's P-39N-0 s/n 42-8747 is better understood, but still incomplete. This view shows the ultimate appearance with all 55 'kill stars'. The original USAAF blue disc is evident on the fuselage, as seen elsewhere on the port wing upper surface. No tactical number is shown as no data exists at this time regarding such an item. Pokrishkin's "White 100" was another N-0 model and it did not feature a radio mast; consequently, with no proper photograph available, the profile of 42-8747 lacks this item as well.

A close-up view of 42-8747's nose showing 48 stars.

A close-up view of 42-8747's nose showing 54 stars.

A new and excellent photograph of Rechkalov's P-39 s/n 42547 has emerged.  To our surprise, we find that RGA was in fact a P-39N-2 model, and that it carries all 55 claim stars! For ever most observers had assumed that this must be a later aircraft due to its odd 'name intitials' marking. Not so... Another warning, should we need any, that assumptions are dangerous and liable to be proved wrong.

1. The translation of the Soviet markings requirement as supplied to the Lend-Lease Commission was for a national insignia consisting of a, " star with a white surround...." This instruction was universally misunderstood at the various American aviation factories to mean a red star within a white disc (as was used on their own national markings). The Soviet Purchasing Commission had meant to request a white border to the star. As a result, VVS units routinely (but not always) painted out this white disc with a suitable lacquer to hand, most typically AMT-4 or A-24m Green. When earlier examples of the P-39 arrived from USAAF stocks (or manufactured contracts) with the current USA insignia of a white star on a dark blue disc, these were generally left in place and a red star added over the existing white star.