Bell P-59 Airacomet History
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The first aeroplane to be designed in the US to acquire experience of the Whittle-type gas turbine engine, the Bell P-59 Airacomet project was initiated in the autumn of 1941, the first of three XP-59A prototype being flown on 1 October 1942. America’s first jet fighter was a single-seat midwing monoplane powered by two I-A engines of 1,400 pounds/thrust each. A top speed of 404 mph at 25,000 feet was demonstrated, disappointing given that later P-47s and P-51s could easily best it by 20–30 mph. Nevertheless, 13 service-test and 100 production models were ordered, with the third going to Britain in exchange for a Gloster Meteor prototype, and two YP-59As going to the U.S.Navy for evaluation.
On 15 May 1941, the British Gloster E28/39 made its first flight. General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold had seen the aircraft during a visit to Britain the previous month, and when he returned home he asked General Electric to manufacture copies of the Whittle engine under the I-A designation. Because of its close proximity to the General Electric plant, Bell Aircraft was ordered to build an airframe to accommodate two of the new jet engines. These were designated XP-59A as an attempt to disguise them as a version of the now cancelled XP-59 (no “A”) pusher-propeller fighter. The first XP-59A was secretly shipped by train from Buffalo to the West Coast.
In addition to operating problems encountered with the early jet engines, the Airacomet’s performance and stability were also below expectations. It was also judged unsatisfactory as a gunnery platform. As a result, the original production order for one hundred Bell P-59 Airacomet aircraft was cut in half on 30 October 1943, and most of those built were employed for training, engine development and other non-operational duties. Twenty P-59As were built with J31-GE-3 engines, and thirty P-59Bs with J31-GE-5s additional internal fuel capacity and detail airframe modifications.
Although it took no active part in World War Two, the Bell P-59 Airacomet served the primary purpose of establishing the jet fighter concept, paving the way for the fighters with the new form of propulsion. Surprisingly, given the pioneering nature of its power plant, none of the service-test models were lost. The P-59 proved useful in training pilots destined for the Lockheed P-80 “Shooting Star.” The shortcomings of the Bell P-59 Airacomet became even more obvious after the Air Force had a chance to examine the German Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter toward the end of the war in Europe.
|Bell P-59 Airacomet Specifications
|wingspan: 45 ft, 6 in
|length: 38 ft, 2 in
|height: 12 ft, 4 in
|empty: 7,320 lb
|gross: 12,562 lb
|1 × 1,250 lb thrust General Electric I-A turbojet engine
|maximum speed: 413 mph
|ceiling: 45,756 ft
|maximum range: 525 mi
|4 × 0.50 in calibre machine guns
|1 × 37 mm calibre cannon