The Bell P-59A Airacomet was the first American jet fighter to take to the air, making its maiden flight on 1 October 1942. In order to keep the development of the Airacomet secret, the new aircraft was given the designation XP-59A in an attempt to make it look like a development of the aborted XP-59 twin boomed pusher aircraft. Work on the Airacomet proceeded at high speed. Bell were given the contract to produce three XP-59A prototypes on 5 September 1941, and just over one year later the aircraft made its first flight.
One of the reasons for this rapid development was the use of the British-built but General Electric assembled I-A turbojet engine, which provided 1,300lb of thrust. This engine was used in all three of the XP-59As. The first flight, on 1 October 1942, took place with Bell’s chief test pilot Robert M. Stanley at the controls. On the following day, 2 October 1942, Brigadier General Laurence C. Craigie became the first military pilot to fly the machine. The P-59 Airacomet was the fifth type of jet powered aircraft to fly, after the Heinkel He 178, Caproni-Campini N.1 (powered by a piston engined powered jet), Heinkel He 280, Gloster E.28/39 and Messerschmitt Me 262.
The P-59 was a twin-jet mid-wing aircraft, with the jet engines build into the main fuselage. This would cause problems in the later XP-83 where the heat from more powerful jet engines caused the tail to buckle. The XP-59A had a top speed of 409mph, a cruising speed of 375mpg, a ceiling of 46,200 feet and a range of 400 miles. This meant that is was slightly slower than the fastest contemporary piston-driven aircraft, and with a much shorter range. The aircraft also proved to be somewhat unstable in flight. It was to be armed with one 37mm M4 cannon and three .50in machine guns, all in the nose, but the guns were rarely installed.
Later versions of the P-59 were powered by the General Electric I-16 (later the J-31-GE-5), a 2,000lb thrust engine built to British designs. After the three test aircraft Bell produced thirteen service test YP-59As, twenty P-59As and 30 P-59Bs. These last aircraft had been ordered as 80 single-engined aircraft, but Bell did not have the development capacity to carry out this task, and so the project was transferred to Lockheed, where it produced the P-80 Shooting Star, while Bell produced the P-59B as twin-engined aircraft.
Although the P-59 never entered combat, it was used by the 412th Fighter Group as target drones and controllers, and for training pilots to fly jet aircraft. One YP-59A was also sent to the RAF in return for a Gloster Meteor. The P-59 would also lead to the similar but rather larger XP-83, designed as a possible escort fighter.
|Bell P-39 Airacobra, Robert F. Dorr with Jerry C. Scutts (Crowood Aviation). A detailed looked at the development and service history of this controversial American fighter aircraft. The P-39 had a poor reputation amongst British and American pilots, and Dorr examines the reasons why, as well as looking at why the same aircraft was so much more popular in Soviet Service. Scutts provides a chapter on the P-63 Kingcobra, and the book also covers the numerous Bell fighter projects that failed to enter production.|
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