The first U.S. jet-propelled aircraft was the Bell P-59 Airacomet. It was flown by hundreds of U.S. Army Air Forces and Navy pilots. Several of the first Navy pilots who flew the plane went on to become admirals—including Frederick Trapnell, John Pearson, Paul Ramsey, and John Hayward—and one subsequently held top U.S. government civilian positions.
Germany and Great Britain already had jet aircraft efforts underway when the U.S. program was initiated in 1941. The P-59 program grew out of a meeting between General Henry “Hap” Arnold, commanding the Army Air Forces, and Lawrence Bell, president of the Bell Aircraft Company, to discuss developing a jet fighter using the General Electric centrifugal turbojet engine. The GE engine was an American version of the Power Jets W.1 turbojet that was being used to power Britain’s Gloster E.28/39 fighter.1
Bell was selected for the project because of its history of innovation and work on advanced aircraft designs, as well as its relative proximity to General Electric manufacturing facilities. At the time, Bell was working on a new fighter for the Army with contra-rotating propellers in a pusher, twin-boom configuration—the XP-59. That project would be canceled, but to help maintain the secrecy of the jet fighter project, it was given that designation. The jet-propelled XP-59 design was approved in January 1942, and work began on three prototype aircraft.
The Bell engineers moved to a former Pierce-Arrow automobile factory in Buffalo, New York. Later, production was moved to the second story of an old Ford automobile plant. The building’s windows were welded shut and their glass painted over, and guards were placed around the building.
The Airacomet design had the Bell trademark nose-wheel, tricycle landing gear—found on the firm’s P-39 Airacobra and P-63 Kingcobra piston-engine fighters—a straight midwing of relatively low aspect ratio, and a conventionally configured tail.2 The fuselage was of “flush-riveted monocoque construction.” The aircraft featured electric flaps, fabric-covered control surfaces, and a pressurized and heated cockpit.
General Electric delivered the first jet engine to Bell in August 1942, and the first XP-59A was completed a month later.
Workmen had to knock a hole in the side of the building to get the plane out, then the three huge crates containing the first XP-59A components were lowered onto waiting railroad cars. To protect the engine bearings from being damaged by vibrations during the move, an air compressor was used to rotate the turbines.
The XP-59A was delivered to the Army’s Muroc airfield in California, where it was flown for the first time on 2 October 1942 by Robert M. Stanley, Bell’s chief test pilot. The flight revealed multiple problems: The aircraft tended to yaw and sway, and it had poor engine response and inadequate lateral stability during rolls.
Still, on 26 March 1943, the United States ordered 13 preproduction YP-59As. Those aircraft would differ from the three X models in having a more powerful engine and a sliding rather than hinged canopy. The first two were delivered to Muroc in June 1943. The third was transferred to the British in exchange for the first production Gloster Meteor I jet fighter. However, British pilots found the YP-59A’s performance unsatisfactory when compared to the Meteor, and that aircraft flew only 11 times before it was returned to the United States in early 1945. Two of the YP-59s were delivered to the Navy in late 1943.
On 11 March 1944, Bell received a contract for 100 production P-59As, with a further 250 being planned. The production model featured a shortened wing, strengthened fuselage, and redesigned tail incorporating a ventral fin. The contract was canceled with only 39 aircraft delivered and 11 on the assembly line—20 P-59As and 30 P-59Bs. The B model had the addition of 66-gallon wing tanks. Three of the P-59B variants went to the Navy in 1945–46; they were phased out in 1948–49. Some contemporary documents listed the Navy aircraft with the designation YF2L-1.
The aircraft production totaled:
- 3 XP-59A
- 13 YP-59A
- 20 P-59A
- 30 P-59B
Although a YP-59A did establish an unofficial altitude record of 47,600 feet, the Airacomet’s performance was disappointing. In mock combat trials against a Lockheed P-38 Lightning, Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, and a captured Mitsubishi A6M Zero, the P-59 was outclassed by all those piston-engine fighters. It offered no appreciable advantage over conventional aircraft.
The P-59s were useful as test vehicles and jet trainers. A few later were modified as drone controllers, with a second cockpit installed ahead of the of the pilot’s cockpit. The gun bays forward of the pilot were removed, and a 20-inch-diameter hole was cut in the upper fuselage skin to mount a seat, small windscreen, and instrument panel in that cramped “cavity.”
Thus, the first American jet aircraft was useful in research, experimentation, and training roles, but the Airacomet never flew in combat.
1. The E.28/39’s first flight occurred on 15 May 1941.
2. The Navy XFL-1 Airbonita was developed from the P-39 and intended as a carrier-based fighter. A single prototype was built.