When the Bell XP-59A Airacomet came on the scene during World War II it was shrouded in secrecy and surrounded by armed guards.
The XP-59A was the first American aircraft to be powered by a turbojet engine.
Despite the secrecy, the XP-59A wasn’t really a good candidate to sweep the sky clean of Messerschmitts and Mitsubishis. The Bell Aircraft design team in Buffalo, N.Y., produced a jet that flew well but offered little performance advantage over propeller-driven fighters.
“Spare Part” Secret
On July 22, 1941 – before U.S. entry into the war– a secret meeting took place in the Ministry of Aircraft Production in London. American officials, including a representative of Army Air Forces commanding general Maj. Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, met with the brilliant British engineer Frank Whittle and visited the Gloster factory where Britain’s first jet, the E.28/39, was taking shape.
To help foil German and Japanese intelligence, every component of the American project that emerged from the meeting was given a label to disguise its real purpose. General Electric identified the engine it was developing with help from Whittle as a “spare part.” The P-59 designation had previously been assigned to an aircraft that was never built; re-using the number with an “A” suffix was a ploy to avoid attracting attention.
Germany flew its bantam-sized Heinkel He 178 using an S-3b turbojet designed by Hans von Ohain on Aug. 27, 1939. Italy flew its cigar-shaped Caproni-Campini CC.2, with a ducted-fan powerplant rather than a true turbojet, on Aug. 17, 1940. Britain’s Gloster E.29/38, using Whittle’s W.1 turbojet engine, finally took to the air on May 15, 1941. All were research aircraft.
Bell Aircraft was busily manufacturing 9,529 P-39 Airacobra and 3,303 P-63 Kingcobra prop-driven fighters and wanted its first jet to be a full-fledged combat aircraft.
Two British samples of Whittle’s turbojet engine were secretly transported across the ocean to the GE laboratory in Lynn, Mass., in the bomb bay of a B-24 Liberator. Bell, GE and Whittle collaborated in 1942 on constant changes in the design of the planned fighter.
At General Electric’s humdrum building in Lynn, a sign was posted reading “MISCELLANEOUS,” to discourage interest. The mere “fact” of the XP-59A’s existence was classified “Secret” and required what today would be called a compartmentalized security clearance. Details of the engineering work on the GE engine and the XP-59A were “Top Secret.” When Bell was assembling the first XP-59A, the project was so hush-hush that not even the AAF plant president knew of the project.
In June 1942, Larry Bell chose as XP-59A project manager his chief test pilot, Robert M. Stanley. Stanley made arrangements to ship the first XP-59A to a remote test site he’d never heard of before. It was referred to in some documents as “the secret station.”
Corum in Reverse
The location was Muroc Army Air Field, Calif., located between the San Bernardino and Shadow Mountains and named in reverse for the Corum Brothers who had settled the region. “It was the farthest I’d ever been from a city,” Stanley said. Muroc offered the hard surface of Rodgers Dry Lake for emergency landings.
Germany flew the first operational fighter that was not merely a research craft on March 25, 1942, when the Messerschmitt Me 262 went aloft, albeit with a tailwheel and a piston engine in the nose, a good thing since both jet engines failed on the flight. The XP-59A was not far behind: Stanley took the aircraft (42-108784) on its baptismal flight at Muroc on Oct. 1, 1942 – the 70th anniversary of which we celebrate this month. Britain’s two operational wartime jets, the Gloster Meteor and De Havilland Vampire, made their maiden flights on March 5, 1943 and Sept. 20, 1943.
Even on that fateful Oct. 1, it was obvious that the XP-59A wasn’t going to find its way to the war. Yes, the XP-59A had been conceived as a fighter and not just as a flying guinea pig, but in flight trials it was too slow and unmaneuverable to defeat fighters like the F6F Hellcat and P-51 Mustang.
Early flights showed a need to redesign flaps, the electrically actuated tricycle landing gear, and overheating engine bearings. Not having a propeller up front meant that the Airacomet’s armament of three Browning M2 .50-caliber machine guns and one M10 37 mm cannon could be positioned in the nose to fire straight ahead rather than placed in the wing and positioned to converge. Alas, tests showed the XP-59A to be an unstable gun platform. Stanley reported that the entire aircraft shook when he pulled the trigger.
The second prototype (42-108785, c/n 27-2) joined the test program. The AAF ordered thirteen service-test YP-59As (42-108771/108783). By mid-1943, five XP-59A Airacomets were flying at Muroc and Wright Field, Ohio, and the AAF had placed orders for 300. The first aircraft was modified with an open cockpit in front of the pilot, to enable an observer to monitor and record test flights.
No War Laurels
When it became apparent that the XP-59A would not be doing any fighting, the number of aircraft was reduced to 66, including three XP-59As, thirteen YP-59As, 20 P-59As (44-22609/22628) and 30 P-59Bs 44-22629/22658), all with only minor differences and with progressively improved versions of the GE engine. The Army turned two of them over to the Navy, later transferring a third ship (bureau nos. 64100 and 64108/64109 being assigned to 44-22651 and -22656/22657). These went to Patuxent River, Md., to introduce Navy pilots to jet-powered aircraft.
In 1944, in exchange for a Gloster Meteor, the Pentagon sent a YP-59A (4-108773) to Britain’s test center at Farnborough, England. The aircraft was given Royal Air Force serial number RJ 362/G, with the “G” signaling a need for an armed guard. RAF officers exhibited only a little interest in the Airacomet and evaluated it only briefly. By then, long-range P-51 Mustangs were escorting bombers over Berlin.
Nevertheless, the Airacomet became operational. In June 1945, the AAF stood up the 412th Fighter Group at Muroc. The war ended weeks later and the group was transferred to March Field near Riverside, Calif.
The U.S. Air Force became an independent service branch on Sept. 18, 1947. The following year, in an overhaul of the system for naming aircraft, all “P” for pursuit aircraft acquired an “F” for fighter, so the Airacomet became the XF-59A, YF-59A, F-59A and F-59B. In 1949, the Air Force retired the last example of its first operational jet fighter, which started out amid high hopes and blazed new trails, but ultimately was something of a disappointment.