How the Bell P-59 Airacomet Became America’s First Jet Fighter


Though the Bell P-59 Airacomet was the US’ first jet airplane, it had been preceded by 5 others—all made in Europe.

There was the German Heinkel He-178, which made its first check flight on August 24, 1939. That was adopted by the Italian Caproni-Campini N.1 a yr later. Then there was the Heinkel He-280, which was airborne in April 1941. The British Gloster E.28/39 took off in Could 1941, and the German Messerschmitt Me-262 in July 1942. The Airacomet didn’t fly till October 1942.

The Airacomet’s historical past started with designs for 2 fighter plane proposed in 1935 by the Bell Plane Company in Buffalo, N.Y. Bell’s engineers started exploring the chances of pusher-propeller plane as interceptors and proposed the single-engine XP-52 and XP-59, each geared up with tricycle gear, twin tail booms and counter-rotating propellers. The XP-52 was anticipated to have a 1,250-hp Continental XIV-1430-5 liquid-cooled pusher engine, attain 435 mph and carry two 20mm and 6 .50-caliber machine weapons. That contract by no means received past the mock-up stage and was canceled. The XP-59, additionally a twin-boom design, was to have a 2,000-hp radial pusher engine and was estimated to succeed in 450 mph.

A wind tunnel mannequin of the dual increase XP-52. (U.S. Air Power)

Because the XP-59 drawings reached some extent at which blueprints ought to start to show into steel, historical past intervened in April 1941. Main Common Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, chief of the Military Air Corps, traveled to England on a fact-finding mission to evaluate British battle manufacturing capabilities. Common Arnold later recalled that an important data he obtained through the journey was on the Royal Air Power’s Cranwell Subject, the place he noticed the primary British jet-propelled plane. It was the Gloster E.28/39, powered by a W.2B turbine engine developed by RAF Commander Frank Whittle, who had been granted the world’s first jet engine patent.

Arnold was fascinated by the Gloster, which he known as “a aircraft similar to I had by no means seen earlier than.” He recalled in his auto­biography World Mission that “so far as I knew, no such system had but superior past the drafting board stage right here in America. In England I noticed this propellerless aircraft taxiing across the air area and making quick flights. I knew then and there I have to get the plans and specs of that jet aircraft again to the US.”

Arnold conferred with William Maxwell Aitken, 1st Baron Beaverbrook, who was accountable for all British battle manufacturing, and with Colonel John T. C. Moore-Brabazon, minister of plane manufacturing, who agreed that he may take the plans and specs that have been prepared house with him, and the remainder would comply with as they have been accomplished. The one restriction was that all the challenge be stored high secret. As John Golley, a Whittle biographer, identified: “Thus America obtained a just about free passport into the sphere of aero fuel generators, solely caused by Whittle’s guts and willpower to convey his challenge to fruition. The take care of America couldn’t have come at a greater time…when America was impartial and Britain, combating alone, desperately wanted American arms.”

Army Air Corps chief, Maj. Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold was fascinated by Britian's advances in Jet technology embodied in the Gloster E.28/39. (IWM CH 1483A)
Military Air Corps chief, Maj. Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold was fascinated by Britian’s advances in Jet expertise embodied within the Gloster E.28/39. (IWM CH 1483A)

Arnold was assured that the Whittle engine confirmed nice promise. The unique Whittle W.1X engine weighed solely 650 kilos, and British experiments indicated that it would propel a aircraft at 300 mph at 40,000 ft. “This was much better efficiency than that of any of the orthodox-type airplanes,” Arnold famous. “The variety of transferring components within the jet-propelled aircraft was reduce right down to about one-fifth the quantity used within the orthodox combustion engine plane. The best drawback of the jet engine was its super consumption of gas. It used about twice the quantity required by an unusual engine. Alternatively, it may burn any form of gas—alcohol, kerosene or diesel oil, or, the RAF swore, gentle and bitter beer!”

Arnold hurried again to Washington, anxious to get plans for America’s first jet underway. He despatched a small group to Britain to judge the technical facets of the Whittle engine and acquire assurance that launch of all data on jet propulsion was forthcoming from the British authorities. When happy that he may proceed, he invited Lawrence D. Bell of the Bell Plane Company in Buffalo and D.R. Shoultz, turbine professional from the Common Electrical Firm at West Lynn, Mass., to fulfill with him in Washington on September 5, 1941.

Arnold was properly acquainted with Bell’s private drive and enthusiasm for analysis and improvement. His earlier plane designs, such because the XFM-1 Airacuda, the one twin-engine pusher fighter in-built the US, and the P-39 Aira­cobra, the primary manufacturing warplane with tricycle touchdown gear, had not been profitable however displayed an modern aptitude with a watch on the longer term.

Arnold additionally knew of Common Electrical’s lengthy historical past of labor with steam, water and turbine air compressors, plus turbosuper­chargers for plane engines and expertise with heat-resistant alloys utilized in high-speed turbine blades. The corporate’s experi­ence with turbine engines dated again to 1903, when Sanford Moss developed a crude gas-turbine engine with an exhaust-gas-operated air compressor. Throughout World Battle I, Moss developed a turbosupercharger utilizing exhaust fuel to drive a compressor supplying air to an plane engine consumption. In 1919 his turbosupercharger was put in on a Packard-LePere biplane that set high-altitude information. He additionally was the primary to efficiently burn gas constantly in a chamber below strain.

Arnold was assured that the Bell-GE mixture was an excellent match. The rela­tive proximity between the 2 manufacturing services wouldn’t solely facilitate communication between the engineers concerned however would additionally assist to take care of the challenge’s safety.

It was agreed that Bell would design and construct three airframes, and Common Electrical would provide 15 variations of the British engine design. Each precaution was to be taken towards leakage of the challenge’s particulars, and it was initially assigned an uncommon “Particular Secret” safety classification.

Prior to its first test flights, every effort was made to keep the XP-59A’s identity “Special Secret,” including fitting it with a dummy propeller. The Germans eventually learned of the P-59, but its performance compared to that of the Messerschmitt Me-262A gave them little cause for concern. (Courtesy of C.V. Glines)
Previous to its first check flights, each effort was made to maintain the XP-59A’s id “Particular Secret,” together with becoming it with a dummy propeller. The Germans finally discovered of the P-59, however its efficiency in comparison with that of the Messerschmitt Me-262A gave them little trigger for concern. (Courtesy of C.V. Glines)

A $1.6 million contract with Bell, signed on September 30, 1941, referred to as for the primary plane to be delivered eight months later. The aircraft was designated the XP-59A—so it could look like a continuation of Bell’s prop-driven XP-59 design, which might be cancelled in December 1941. Bell assembled a workforce to design and construct the prototypes and impressed upon it the necessity for absolute secrecy. The engineers have been moved to a former Pierce-Arrow car manufacturing facility in downtown Buffalo. In a while, manufacturing was moved to the second ground of a three-story constructing, the place a machine store took the place of a Ford automobile company. The constructing’s home windows have been welded shut and the glass painted over. Guards have been positioned across the constructing on 24-hour watch.

The Bell engineers got free rein within the plane’s design with the proviso that it needed to accommodate the dual jet engines that GE’s engineers would finally present. In the meantime, Whittle’s W.1X engine was delivered to the GE plant in West Lynn, and a particular engine check cell was constructed. The primary check run was made on November 1, 1941, however GE’s engineers discovered some omissions and discrepancies within the drawings that accompanied the engine and made adjustments that resulted within the first GE mannequin, designated the I-A. Its first check run was made in March 1942. Whittle arrived from England in June 1942 to assist resolve extreme fuel temperature issues.

A mockup of the XP-59 in the wind tunnel at Wright Field. (NASA)
A mockup of the XP-59 within the wind tunnel at Wright Subject. (NASA)

It had been determined from the start that the XP-59A would finally be a manufacturing fighter, not simply an experimental aircraft with no fight mission. The unique armament specification referred to as for 2 37mm cannons within the nostril compartment. A 1/16-scale mannequin was examined secretly in a wind tunnel at Wright Subject, Ohio, because the aircraft’s form was outlined.

Work on the primary aircraft started on January 9, 1942. Fabrication of its element components needed to be farmed out to Bell’s fundamental manufacturing facility, the place the drawings have been disguised with false labels. A month later, Bell was requested to submit an estimate to provide 13 YP-59As for service assessments, plus a aircraft for static assessments, wind tunnel fashions and spare components. These plane have been to be primarily the identical because the three X fashions, besides that they’d have a sliding cover as an alternative of a hinged cover that was raised over the pilot’s head.

Whereas the primary planes have been being manufactured, a search was underway for a safe location for check flights, which couldn’t be carried out close to Buffalo. The placement chosen was the Military Air Forces bombing and gunnery vary on Rogers Dry Lake within the Mojave Desert space of California. The dry lake mattress lined about 65 sq. miles with no obstructions, making it very best for testing plane that may want a lot takeoff and touchdown house.

The primary jet engine arrived in Buffalo on August 4, 1942, and the primary XP-59A was prepared for cargo on September 10. To offer entry for the aircraft, workmen needed to knock a big gap within the facet of the brick constructing, after which three giant crates have been lowered onto two railroad flat vehicles. To guarantee that the excessive precision bearings within the engines wouldn’t be broken by the pounding of the rails, a small door was reduce into the facet of the fuselage crate and an air compressor was attached with a versatile pipe to pump air to the engines and preserve the turbine blades rotating. An officer and 5 enlisted males plus three GE mechanics have been assigned to the tools to make certain the generators can be turning frequently for all the journey. One veteran trainman, puzzled concerning the compressor blasting away day and night time, stated to one of many GE males, “Hey, ship me a telegram acquire when the battle’s over and inform me what’s in these crates.”

Larry Bell, in the meantime, selected chief check pilot Robert M. Stanley to ascertain and run the preliminary flight check program. Stanley’s expertise with plane dated again to 1931, when he labored for the Douglas Plane Firm, then graduated from the California Institute of Expertise with a level in aeronautical engineering and joined the Navy for a four-year tour as a pilot. He began working for Bell in 1940.

Bell test pilot Robert M. Stanley took the XP-59A for its first two flights on October 2, 1942. (University of Texas at Dallas)
Bell check pilot Robert M. Stanley took the XP-59A for its first two flights on October 2, 1942. (College of Texas at Dallas)

Stanley familiarized himself with the plane and the opera­tion of the jet engine earlier than departing for California. He was not happy when he arrived to search out that little had been achieved to accommodate the lads who can be conducting the assessments and meet the October 2, 1942, date that had been designated for the primary official flight. He shortly made preparations with a contractor to assemble a brand new base on the north facet of Rogers Lake, away from prying eyes. There was some resistance from the bottom commander, who didn’t concur with the urgency of his calls for, however Stanley was decided to have barracks and a hangar erected by the point the primary aircraft arrived. When the date neared, he ordered the civilian staff out, and the work on the power was accomplished by a dozen Bell staff from Buffalo.

The fuselage and wings have been unloaded on the Muroc Military Air Subject and trucked below wraps to the Bell hangar on September 20. The fuselage and engine mating was accomplished on the twenty sixth, and engine run-ups have been carried out. Larry Bell arrived on the thirtieth to witness Bob Stanley’s preliminary taxi assessments. That day, Stanley made what he referred to as “excessive taxis” when he roared down the lake mattress and lifted off a foot or two earlier than reducing the engines and taxiing again.

On October 1, Stanley cautiously ventured larger. The log stored by Ed Rhodes, Bell’s challenge engineer, learn: “4 flights simply off the bottom have been made, wheels down. Nostril wheel shimmied some. Adjusted. Then OK. Takeoff distance about 2,000 ft, 80–90 mph, various heights, 25 to 100 ft. Important temperatures OK. Gasoline cross movement OK.” Stanley’s check log for the primary flight acknowledged: “Length of flight: thirty minutes. Throttle was utilized promptly and acceleration throughout takeoff appeared fairly passable….The primary flight reached an altitude of roughly twenty-five ft.”

The XP-59A, America’s first turbojet-powered airplane takes to the sky for the primary time after a ultimate collection of high-speed taxi assessments. The thirty minute flight the brand new jet appeared promising. (U.S. Air Power/courtesy AFFTC Historical past Workplace)

A complete of 4 official flights have been made as scheduled on October 2, earlier than a small group of presidency, GE and Bell civilians and Military Air Forces officers. Stanley climbed to six,000 ft on the primary flight and 10,000 ft on the second. The third flight was made by Military Air Forces Colonel (later Lt. Gen.) Laurence C. Craigie, chief of the Plane Tasks Department at Wright Subject, Ohio, who thus grew to become the primary American navy pilot to fly a jet.

On Stanley’s ultimate flight that day, he deliberate to climb above 10,000 ft, however the gear vibrated on takeoff and retracted solely midway. Upset however not eager to push his luck, he lowered the gear and landed.

“However you bought to 10,000 ft!” Bell stated, shaking his hand, as Stanley dismounted. “That makes it a good day, throughout. We’ve received an airplane, and also you proved it!”

Airplane No. 1 didn’t fly once more for a month. The touchdown gear was repaired, and an observer’s cockpit, with an ordinary seat and an instrument panel, was put in within the house in entrance of the pilot’s cockpit. Thus, the XP-59A grew to become the world’s first two-seat jet plane. Ed Rhodes, whose project was to make notes throughout check flights, had the consideration of being the primary jet passenger.

Take a look at flights continued, and different pilots checked out because the second aircraft arrived from Buffalo. It had the desired armament put in, whereas the primary XP-59A didn’t. A number of pilots complained that that they had to make use of extreme pressure on the rudder. Stanley took Airplane No. 2 up, checked it out and returned in a huff. He received out of the cockpit, referred to as for a hacksaw, received up on a ladder, reduce just a few inches off the highest of the rudder and smoothed the sides. He threw the items away, jumped into the cockpit, taxied out and took off. When he returned, all he stated was, “Works significantly better that method.”

On reflection, after extra check flights, Stanley stated, “I had much less hassle and fewer mechanical interruptions than with another prototype I’d ever flown.” Jack Woolams took over as check pilot on the desert website and made quite a lot of flights in one of many XPs. On July 14, 1943, he was in a position to coax it to an unofficial report excessive altitude of 45,765 ft.

The check program needed to decelerate at that time due to the unsatisfactory efficiency of the engines. One main downside was overheating of the engine bearings. These engines, copied from a more recent British W.2B engine, may by no means attain the anticipated stage of thrust, and the British demand for strict secrecy prevented passable assessments being carried out on the XP-59A’s consumption duct design. The GE I-A engine was improved in successive fashions. Bell was forbidden to make use of any services besides these of the navy, so these of the Nationwide Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and trade distributors weren’t made out there. The perfect wind tunnel at Wright Subject was incapable of correctly measuring excessive engine thrust.

Bell test pilot Jack Woolams, established an unofficial U.S. altitude record when he took a YP-59A to 47,600 feet on December 15, 1943. (U.S. Air Force)
Bell check pilot Jack Woolams, established an unofficial U.S. altitude report when he took a YP-59A to 47,600 ft on December 15, 1943. (U.S. Air Power)

Manufacturing of the YP-59As continued on the Bell manufacturing facility, with the primary one arriving on the check website in June 1943. There have been additional delays due to the cover change and issue with the ailerons. The primary flight of a YP-59A was in August 1943. In subsequent flights, one reached an altitude of 35,160 ft and a real air pace of 389 mph. In December, Woolams raised his unofficial U.S. altitude report for single-engine plane to 47,600 ft flying a YP-59A.

Modifications have been made in a number of YPs as they grew to become out there over the subsequent few months. The final of them had a second cockpit with flight controls added, for use as a drone “mom ship” and to take floor personnel on quick hops to reward them for his or her work. It additionally had the excellence of being the primary U.S. jet plane to hold mail and make firing assessments of .50-caliber nostril weapons.

The U.S. Navy grew to become fascinated about how the P-59 is likely to be tailored to fleet operations. The primary Navy pilot to take a look at in a jet was Captain (later Admiral) Frederick M. Trapnell, chief of flight check for the Bureau of Aeronautics, who was airborne on April 21, 1943.

Trapnell later recalled that “the plane was clearly a really light kind of high-altitude fighter with low wing loading. It was a terrific shock to search out that the factor was very quiet and clean from the pilot’s standpoint. Throughout takeoff the rattling of the touchdown gear was audible and the overall impression was that of a glider. The XP-59 was comparatively low powered and this was obvious from the shallow climb-out. Its efficiency was, at first, distinctly unimpressive—lengthy takeoff and sluggish charge of climb.”

The Navy obtained its first jets when two YP-59As arrived on the Naval Air Station at Patuxent River, Md., for testing in November 1943. The Navy acquired three extra P-59Bs, which it designated XF2L-1s, in late 1945, and the final one remained in service till November 30, 1949.

A YP-59A being inspected by U.S. Navy personel. On April 21, 1943, Captain Frederick M. Trapnell became the first U.S. Navy pilot to fly the jet. Three of the 66 Airacomets were purchased by the Navy as XF2L-1s, but the Navy did not adopt a pure jet fighter until 1946. (National Archives)
A YP-59A being inspected by U.S. Navy personel. On April 21, 1943, Captain Frederick M. Trapnell grew to become the primary U.S. Navy pilot to fly the jet. Three of the 66 Airacomets have been bought by the Navy as XF2L-1s, however the Navy didn’t undertake a pure jet fighter till 1946. (Nationwide Archives)

As extra personnel grew to become acquainted with jet operations, it grew to become apparent there needed to be new security guidelines throughout floor operations. The rationale was present in a Bell flight check log dated February 10, 1944: “On this date, Bell inspector, E.F. Fisher, weighing 200 kilos, walked into the jet roughly 4 ft behind the nozzle whereas the plane was working at rated energy. It lifted him roughly three ft within the air, tumbled him finish over finish roughly 3 times, and he made a face-down touchdown on the concrete floor.” Thankfully, Fisher suffered no substantial accidents.

Over the time of the service testing, main modifications have been made on the YP-59As to extend efficiency. These included squaring off the rounded wingtips, vertical stabilizer and ventral fin; energy­en­ing the aft fu­selage; changing the fabric-covered flaps and ailerons with steel; and offering the pilot with fundamental touchdown gear up-locks. Whereas these adjustments have been needed and improved the aircraft’s capabilities, a significant query nonetheless to be answered involved its potential as a fighter. Sadly for the P-59A, in air-to-air fight assessments in February 1944, it proved unstable as a gun platform. The Airacomet was outclassed in dogfights towards Republic P-47D and Lockheed P-38J fighters, and dive assessments led to hurry restrictions for the brand new jet.

Through the lifespan of the P-59 program, a number of totally different engines have been put in, starting with the Common Electrical I-A, rated at 1,250 kilos of thrust. Later fashions—the I-14 and I-16 (later designated the J-31)—boosted the facility to 1,400 kilos of thrust, to present the Airacomet speeds solely barely quicker than the piston-engine fighters of that day. The perfect pace attained by an XP-59A was 389 mph, and a YP-59A reached a high pace of 414 mph. They have been outmatched by the German Messerschmitt Me-262 and the Heinkel He-280, which have been designed for speeds exceeding 500 mph and thus have been markedly su­perior to all Allied fighters.

The outcomes of the YP-59A assessments have been studied by an analysis board of the Materiel Command Service Take a look at Company in mid-1944. The board’s report acknowledged, “it’s not believed that the P-59 airplane is operationally or tactically suited to fight neither is it believed that any modifications to this plane, wanting a totally new design, would enhance its fight suitability.”

The board concluded, “though the plane isn’t appropriate for fight, there’s a requirement for a restricted variety of topic airplanes to be utilized for jet coaching and for normal Air Power familiarization….The P-59 will make a wonderful coaching ship in that its low wing loading makes the airplane very protected for transition flying and the truth that it has two engines is an added security issue.” Manufacturing of the P-59 would proceed.

The P-59B-1 featured more powerful engines, squared off wingtips and control surfaces, and the replacement of the original fabric-covered flaps and alerons with metal covered ones. Only 30 were built. (University of Texas at Dallas)
The P-59B-1 featured extra highly effective engines, squared off wingtips and management surfaces, and the alternative of the unique fabric-covered flaps and alerons with steel lined ones. Solely 30 have been constructed. (College of Texas at Dallas)

Bell proposed in 1943 to construct 300 P-59s, however since such an order would hamper the manufacturing of P-63 fighters and GE couldn’t end up sufficient of its I-16 engines, the order was decreased to 100, then to 50 (20 P-59As and 30 P-59Bs), at a value of $123,500 every. A complete of 66 P-59s have been produced.

The 412th Fighter Group, shaped in November 1943, was chosen as the primary unit to transition pilots to the P-59, first at Muroc Military Air Base, then at Palmdale, Bakersfield and Santa Maria in California. There aren’t any reported figures on the variety of pilots who obtained their first jet expertise within the P-59, nor are statistics out there on the accident charge, however one uncommon incident was recorded at Santa Maria. An unidentified pilot eased into the site visitors sample and turned on the ultimate strategy with the wheels retracted. He didn’t heed the tower’s pleas to go round and skidded for about 100 ft on the aircraft’s stomach. He shortly pushed the throttle ahead and had sufficient pace to get airborne once more. He put his gear down on the subsequent strategy and made a traditional touchdown. The stomach of the fu­selage and the 2 engine ducts have been broken, however the aircraft was shortly repaired and put again in service.

In late 1944, with the dive assessments accomplished on the desert website, Jack Woolams returned to the Bell manufacturing facility at Niagara Falls, N.Y., and continued extra check flights with P-59s off the manufacturing line. In 4 successive dives, stress results from the pull-outs have been discovered within the horizontal stabilizer. Repairs have been made, however on the fifth dive, at about 25,000 ft, all the tail part tore off and Woolams was trapped within the cockpit when he couldn’t slide the cover again. He did, nevertheless, handle to interrupt the plexiglass together with his ft and bail out. He parachuted to security, however misplaced his winter flying boots and needed to stroll barefoot practically two miles in deep snow to get to a farmhouse.

A heavier version of the Airacomet, the XP-83 fared no better than it's light weight cousin and the program was cancelled in early 1945 with only two aircraft being built. (U.S. Air Force)
A heavier model of the Airacomet, the XP-83 fared no higher than it’s gentle weight cousin and this system was cancelled in early 1945 with solely two plane being constructed. (U.S. Air Power)

The story of the P-59 didn’t finish when Japan surrendered on August 14, 1945. One P-59A was utilized in a check program in 1948-49 in an try to increase its vary. That plane was towed by a Boeing B-29 on lengthy flights as an experiment to see if a jet fighter may very well be made out there if the bomber have been intercepted. The experiments have been cancelled due to the fighter pilots’ fatigue, issues recovering the P-59 and the impact on the B-29’s efficiency.

One other try to present a jet extra vary was the Bell XP-83, a bigger model of the P-59A with a bubble cover. It had extra gas capability, extra armament (six .50-caliber machine weapons or 4 20mm or 37mm cannons within the nostril) and extra highly effective GE J-33 engines with 3,750 kilos of thrust. An order was positioned for 2 plane on July 31, 1944, and the primary flight befell on February 27, 1945. After temporary flight assessments, the challenge was cancelled when the planes’ efficiency proved disappointing.

Through the months of the Airacomet’s testing, Lockheed Plane Company had been secretly engaged on an alternate design for a jet fighter. On January 8, 1944, solely 143 days after getting the go-ahead, the Lockheed XP-80 Taking pictures Star made its first flight. Subsequently, practically 2,000 P-80s have been constructed. It proved to have outstanding versatility and was the primary U.S. fighter to exceed 500 mph. Its offspring, the T-33, proved to be a wonderful jet coach, and greater than 5,850 have been constructed for the U.S. Air Power, Navy and allied nations.

Though the P-59 shortly pale into historical past upon the arrival of the P-80, it had made a major contribution to American aviation historical past. Begun a number of years behind the German and British developments, it offered American pilots with precious expertise throughout a vital transitional interval in U.S. Air Power historical past.

A ultimate report on the P-59 challenge, dated June 28, 1945, acknowledged, “Although a fight airplane didn’t end result from the event of the X and YP-59A airplanes, it’s thought-about that the event was very worthwhile, because it proved that the precept of jet propulsion for plane was sound and sensible.” 

An award-winning creator, C.V. Glines was an everyday contributor to Aviation Historical past. For additional studying, strive: Jet Pioneers, by Grover Heiman; and Whittle: The True Story, by John Golley.

This characteristic initially appeared within the March 2003 difficulty of Aviation Historical past. Don’t miss a problem, subscribe at the moment!

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