Bell XP-59A Airacomet

The end of World War Two was the dawn of the jet age.  Every major nation was working on these next generation aircraft.

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After the jump, a look at the United States first attempt at a jet fighter.

Let me start with the obvious, this was not a successful aircraft.  But that doesn’t mean unimportant or uninteresting.  In 1941 the British and Germans were both well along in jet engine development.  So the head of the US Army Air Force, General Hap Arnold, arranged for a British W.1 jet engine to be delivered to the General Electric Company in the US to serve as a prototype for American production.  He also order Bell Aircraft to begin design on an aircraft to use that engine.  Because the new project was very secret, an old designation was recycled; the previously cancelled Bell P-59 would provide cover for the brand new P-59A.

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No doubt the Airacomet has clean lines.  Especially this early prototype with no armament.

No doubt the Airacomet has clean lines. Especially this early prototype with no armament.

Secrecy remained high when the new airframe was transported cross country to Muroc (later Edwards AFB) for flight testing and a fake propeller was attached to the aircraft.  The new fighter was unremarkable structurally and aerodynamically, except it was the first production jet to have the engines buried in the fuselage.  In theory, this should reduce drag and simplify handling in the event of a power failure in one engine.  Unfortunately the flight testing was disappointing.  The aircraft was actually slower than the Thunderbolt and the later Mustang.

An early Airacomet being towed by a Cletrac. Fake propeller in place.

The good news was that this was quickly recognized.  The type was ordered in to limited production and used for training while studying the issues the new technology would bring to an operational environment.  The “B” model of the Airacomet had many improvements, including a more powerful engine that allowed it to top 400 mph.  Still behind the British Meteor, but fast enough for some valuable training and testing.  Lockheed was at work on a much more sophisticated jet that would eventually become the P-80 Shooting Star (very competitive with other country’s first generation jets).

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The real thing at Muroc.

This subject is from the Hobbycraft kit with Cutting Edge decals.  It represents one of three XP-59As built that started test flights in late 1942 (with no serial number displayed it is impossible to tell them apart!).

Early jet power.  The Me262 was the most aerodynamically advanced; while the Meteor was the most refined and dependable.

Early jet power. The Me262 was the most aerodynamically advanced; while the Meteor was the most refined and dependable.

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About atcDave

I'm 54 years old and live in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I'm happily married to Jodie. I've been an air traffic controller for 31 years; grew up in the Chicago area, and am still a fanatic for pizza and the Chicago Bears. My main interest is military history, and my related hobbies include scale model building and strategy games.
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6 Responses to Bell XP-59A Airacomet

  1. shortfinals says:

    When I was at RAF Finningley, I became an Honorary Member of No. 616 Sqn Association, the unit that was the first Allied squadron into combat with jet aircraft (Meteor I). I had the great good fortune to chat several times with Flying Officer D. ‘Dixie’ Dean, who made the first Allied jet kill by tipping over a V-1 after his guns had jammed, on 4th August, 1944

  2. The Gloster Whittle and the Heinkel 280 and to some extent, the MiG 9 were ‘lauded’ in Europe, yet, the Bell P-59 set an unofficial altitude record of 47,600 feet. The aircraft, like its European counterparts did not benefit from the understanding of modern aerodynamics that followed, yet without these pioneers of jet aviation (‘grass-burners’ as I once heard then called, rather unkindly!), jet fighter development could not have moved at the fast pace that it did. Great article Dave, Thankyou. Rich.

    • atcDave says:

      The P-59 sure looks a lot better when it’s compared to those test aircraft and not other production types. Perhaps that’s more appropriate. With about 100 built it was more of a large scale test than an actual combat type. And it sure did lead to a rapid growth of the jet capability!

  3. jfwknifton says:

    You are right! An unsuccessful aircraft doesn’t mean an uninteresting blog post! I had never read anything in any detail about the XP-59A before. I think we should thank our lucky stars that the Germans weren’t as well organised at producing their brilliant jet fighters as we were at making our own rather less glamorous ones. The Me 262 really looks the part!

    • atcDave says:

      The German’s sure had some extraordinary projects at war’s end! And you’re absolutely right, it’s a good thing they weren’t any further ahead.

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