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Bell P-59 Airacomet Jet-Powered Fighter Aircraft (1942)

Authored By Staff Writer | Last Updated: 8/25/2015

The Bell P-59 Airacomet jet-powered fighter was not an outright success - though it helped to lay the foundation for future American jets that followed.

The Bell-produced P-59 Airacomet series is one of those aircraft that becomes more of a study in American jet pioneering than anything else. The aircraft itself was a very average to below average performer, even when compared to the top piston-driven aircraft of the time, but would forever shape the face of American military aviation for generations. The P-59 would become the first American jet-powered fighter in history.

Development of the P-59 stemmed from the successes incurred by the British with their Gloster E.28/39 series of jet aircraft. After garnering the plans for the Gloster's powerplant, American engineers at General Electric set to work to produce their own version of this same powerplant, along with an airframe suitable enough to house them. This part of the development fell to Lawrence Bell and his Bell Aircraft Corporation. Such was the secrecy surrounding the development of the XP-59 that a mock propeller was fitted to the nose of the machine to not arouse any suspicion. The initial flyable version of the Airacobra soon appeared in the middle months of 1942 eith a first official flight coming on October 1, 1942. The following months would begin to unveil very real more potential problems with the design.

Like many of the early turbojet fighters of the time, engines suffered from a high degree of unreliability. This was compounded with the fact that handling suffered from the lack of experienced jet-fighter pilots and engineering skills that would later become crucial to jet-powered development. The initial flights of the P-59 would show all to be true - poor flight handling characteristics and very unreliable powerplants to boot. The original I-A turbojet engine would be superceded by the more effective I-14 and - ultimately - the I-16 series of engines.

Regardless of the outcome of those initial flight tests, the USAAF was quick to place a contract of order for no fewer than 80 P-59s - this even before the 13 preproduction models (YP-59) had become available. Such was the race for nations across the world - particularly in wartime - to produce operational jet-powered aircraft. The Germans, Japanese, Italians, Soviets and British were all working on their own designs - with the Germans and Britons holding the lead with several groundbreaking developments (which, ironically enough for the former, would later help the World War Two victors achieve their own at war's end).

Airacobras were armed with a single 37mm cannon, coupled with a battery of 3 x 12.7mm (.50 caliber) machine guns - all mounted in the nose. The twin powerplants, seated to either side of the fuselage, provided a full 2,800lbs of thrust. Despite the fact that these were, in fact, two turbojet engines, the P-59 still did not contend well in head-to-head match-ups with the propeller-driven, piston-powered North American P-51 Mustangs. Besides the P-59's operated by the United States, Britain received an Airacobra in an even exchange for a Gloster Meteor for research purposes.

Despite this obvious setback in design and coming too late in the Second World War for the P-59 to be of much use, the system was nonetheless a stepping stone design for turbojet technology in America. The P-59 served well as a jet trainer for United States Army Air Force personnel and helped achieve priceless knowledge for its engineers. In the end, the P-59 served as an important development for the future of American jet aircraft leading into the Cold War.

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Specifications for the
Bell P-59 Airacomet
Jet-Powered Fighter Aircraft

Focus Model: Bell P-59A Airacomet
Country of Origin: United States
Manufacturer: Bell Aircraft Corporation - USA
Initial Year of Service: 1942
Production Total: 66

Crew: 1

Length: 38.16 ft (11.63 m)
Width: 45.51 ft (13.87 m)
Height: 12.34ft (3.76 m)
Weight (Empty): 7,937 lb (3,600 kg)
Weight (MTOW): 12,699 lb (5,760 kg)

Powerplant: 2 x General Electric I-A turbojet engines developing 2,800 lb of thrust each.

Maximum Speed: 413 mph (664 kmh; 359 kts)
Maximum Range: 240 miles (386 km)
Service Ceiling: 46,194 ft (14,080 m; 8.7 miles)
Rate-of-Climb: 3,200 feet-per-minute (975 m/min)

Hardpoints: 2
Armament Suite:
1 x 37mm cannon
3 x 12.7mm machine guns

External ordnance load of up to 2,000lbs.

XP-59 - Initial Prototype Designation; None produced; based on the smaller XP-52 pusher-prop design.

XP-59A - Designation of early batch of AAF development platforms; 3 examples produced.

YP-59 - Pre-Production Model Designation

YP-59A - Fitted with more powerful engine; service testing platform; 13 examples produced.

P-59A - Initial Production Model Designation; 20 examples produced for the AAF.

P-59B - Improved P-59A models; 30 examples produced with a further 50 on order eventually cancelled.

YF2L-1 - United States Navy designation for YP-59A evaluation versions.

United Kingdom; United States