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Bell XFM Airacuda Bomber Interceptor / Bomber Destroyer / Heavy Fighter (1937)

Authored By Staff Writer | Last Updated: 12/23/2014

The Bell XFM Airacuda bomber destroyer became a failed design for the new company but set the stage for more promising ventures to follow.

The XFM "Airacuda" was Bell Aircraft's first foray into military aircraft design. With this unique bomber destroyer attempt, the product signaled Bell as a different sort of aircraft maker - the company would eventually go on to deliver the World War 2-era P-39 "Airacobra" to Allied forces featuring a rear-mounted engine and tricycle undercarriage during a time when front-mounted engines and "tail-dragger" designs were the norm. While the Airacuda ultimately became an abandoned, largely forgotten, venture for Bell it provided the company with much know-how into the design and development process of military aircraft when attempting to garner potentially lucrative government deals.

The Bell Airacuda began as a pre-war design attempting to fulfill a United States Army Air Corps (USAAC) requirement for a new, twin-engine, multi-purpose platform. As such, the type was expected to fulfill a variety of battlefield roles including that of bomber destroyer, bomber escort, and ground attack. Designs such as this already existed in some air services of the world - the Germans developed their Messerschmitt Bf 110 for this same purpose.

The new design would require inherent long-range capabilities to take the fight to the enemy and structural tolerances to withstand quick, fighter-like movements and diving. Two engines offered the necessary performance power over a single installation and increased crew and aircraft survivability over enemy terrain. The workload would be spread about two or more crew members. Bell engineers understood the design was to fulfill performance specifications that included a 300 mile per hour maximum speed, a 30,000 foot service ceiling, and a 3,000 inherent operational range. Climb to 15,000 feet was to take 10 minutes or less.

Work on the Airacuda product began in 1936 and the bomber destroyer / bomber escort essentially evolved to what was termed a "heavy fighter" in World War 2 aircraft terms. As the USAAC was soon to adopt the Boeing B-17 "Flying Fortress" heavy bomber (1938), it sought to acquire an aircraft suitable for defending large fleets of these new heavies over enemy airspace by escorting them. While the bomber carried defensive armament all its own, the weaponry truly only allowed a limited defensive net in which to harass incoming interceptors launched by the enemy. An accompanying escort fighter could break from the bomber formation and directly tangle with these harassers while the bombers continued to their target. For the bomber destroyer role, heavy cannon armament would be brought to bear to bring these structurally large targets down with a few well-placed hits to their vital engine components or critical frame areas. Additionally, the practice of dropping bombs over enemy bomber formations was taken into consideration for the new aircraft.

Engineers elected for a traditional twin-engine arrangement in which the engine pair was held outboard of the fuselage in individual nacelles built into the wing mainplane elements. However, the design decision was made to utilize the engines in a "pusher" arrangement in which the engines drove their respective propellers aft of the wing trailing edges - "pushing" the aircraft through the skies. This was the opposite of the more traditional approach which saw front-mounted engine driving a forward-set propeller unit in a "puller" arrangement - "pulling" the aircraft through the skies. The fuselage made up the center portion of the aircraft and contained the primary crew areas, bomb bay, and various systems and subsystems. A single vertical tail fin was affixed at the empennage . The front section of the fuselage housed a glazed-over nose for the cockpit crew. The total crew complement numbered five and would consist of the pilot, a co-pilot (doubling as the navigator), a radio operator (doubling as a fuselage/waist/beam machine gunner, and two dedicated gunners.

The mention of the two dedicated gunners were of particular note for their positions were not in the fuselage proper. Instead, their workspace was arranged at the frontal section of each engine nacelle - the engine residing aft of them. Each man managed a single 37mm M4 cannon installation fitted to the front of each nacelle and to this was added coaxial 0.30 M1919 Browning machine guns firing tracer rounds for aiming. The M4 cannons were installed in hydraulically-assisted mounts for some trainable fire and fed by way of five-round clips. For vision, the lead sections of each engine nacelle was glazed over. 119 x M4 cannon rounds were carried per cannon. Access to the fuselage was by way of a tunnel running from fuselage to engine nacelle.

To drive the aircraft, the initial powerplant of choice became an Allison V-1710-9 outputting at 1,090 horsepower. Each was turbosupercharged and drove three-bladed propeller units through a 5-foot, 3-inch extension shaft. As stated, the engine installations took up the aft portion of each nacelle assembly.


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Specifications for the
Bell XFM Airacuda
Bomber Interceptor / Bomber Destroyer / Heavy Fighter


Focus Model: Bell XFM-1 Airacuda
Country of Origin: United States
Manufacturer: Bell Aircraft - USA
Initial Year of Service: 1937
Production: 13


Crew: 5


Length: 44.85 ft (13.67 m)
Width: 69.85 ft (21.29 m)
Height: 13.58ft (4.14 m)
Weight (Empty): 13,375 lb (6,067 kg)
Weight (MTOW): 17,333 lb (7,862 kg)


Powerplant: 2 x Allison V-1710-41 liquid-cooled supercharged V12 engines developing 1,150 horsepower each.


Maximum Speed: 277 mph (446 kmh; 241 kts)
Maximum Range: 2,600 miles (4,184 km)
Service Ceiling: 30,512 ft (9,300 m; 5.8 miles)
Rate-of-Climb: 1,480 feet-per-minute (451 m/min)


Hardpoints: 2
Armament Suite:
STANDARD.
1 x 37mm M4 cannon in left engine nacelle with 1 x 7.62mm tracer machine gun.
1 x 37mm cannon in right engine nacelle with 1 x 7.62mm tracer machine gun.
1 x 0.50 caliber M2 Browning heavy machine gun in left waist position.
1 x 0.50 caliber M2 Browning heavy machine gun in right waist position.

LATER (added to existing):
1 x 0.30 caliber M1919 Browning machine gun in retractable dorsal turret.
1 x 0.30 caliber M1919 Browning machine gun in ventral tunnel position.

OPTIONAL:
Up to 600 lb of conventional drop bombs for bomber destroyer role.


Variants:
Bell Model 1 - Internal Bell Project Model Designation


XFM-1 (Model 1) - Initial prototype model; one example; Allison V-1710-9 engines of 1,090 horsepower - later model was upgraded to Allison V-1713 engines of 1,150 horsepower with enlarged tail fin and other slight changes.

YFM-1 (Model 7) - Service test aircraft; fitted with Allision V-1710-23 engines of 1,150 horsepower; flush riveting; retractable dorsal turret and ventral machine gun tunnel added; nine aircarft built from the intended thirteen contracted for.

YFM-1A (Model 8) - Tricycle undercarriage; three examples

YFM-1B (Model 7B) - Two existing YFM-1 aircraft outfitted with Allision V-1710-41 engines of 1,090 horsepower sans turbosuperchargers.


Operators:
United States