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Bell XFM-1 Airacuda Bomber Interceptor / Bomber Destroyer (1940)

Authored By Staff Writer | Last Updated: 9/9/2009

The XFM-1 Airacuda was the Bell Aircraft firms first foray into aircraft design, proving it was a different sort of aircraft maker.

In the same way that the XFM-1 Airacuda was a "different" sort of aircraft, the Bell company itself was "different sort" of aircraft maker. Know more for its unique elements in the P-39 Airacobra piston-engine fighter of World War 2 to the Bell helicopter designs afterwards, the company made a splash onto the aircraft engineering stage with the introduction of their ambitious bomber hunter known as the XFM-1 "Airacuda". The aircraft would mark the company's introduction onto the world stage and - despite the design being a general failure - prove to the world that Bell was revolutionary company putting dreams into practice.

Externally, the XFM-1 featured a cutting-edge approach to design when compared to its contemporaries of the late 1930's. If Bell wanted attention with its first attempt, it definitely got it when unveiling the Airacuda. The aircraft was designed as a type of bomber interceptor or - perhaps more precisely - a bomber destroyer. The system would field a variety of heavy caliber weaponry, be able to carry bombs aloft and accommodate a crew of 5. The design was expected to provide considerable speed, range and firepower to fulfill its bomber-destroying purposes. Being a generally all-new design altogether - nothing in the skies at the time remotely attempted to accomplish what the Airacuda set out to do - the Airacuda became a victim of its own ambition.

Power was derived from a pair of Allison V-1710-41 liquid-cooled supercharged V12 engines delivering a lofty 1,150 horsepower each. Despite the adequate output for these engines, the system was designed as a "pusher" type meaning that the propellers were mounted to the rear of each nacelle and thus "pushed" the plane through the air instead of pushing it like traditional piston engines operated. Pusher type engines have been attempted a whole World War before but the performance was drastically lower than its puller counterparts. Pusher-type engine systems also had a nasty habit of overheating consistently, shortening their operational life and opening the system up to mechanical failures. Initially, Larry Bell envisioned his aircraft to fly 300 miles per hour at about 20,000 feet with turbosupercharged Allison engines. This was drastically cut when the Air Corps ordered a scaled-down Allison to be used instead with the reason being that the turbosupercharger proved quite volatile and explosive in the YFM-1 when tested. This effectively destroyed any performance the Airacuda could achieve, bring the ceiling down to a paltry 12,000 feet and a top speed barely reaching 270 miles per hour.

Design-wise, the Airacuda played every bit the part of revolutionary design. Beyond the crewed nacelles, at least three Airacuda's produced were operating the soon-to-be Bell trademark of tricycle landing gears (though these systems experienced their share of mechanical issues in the development). Wings were rounded at the edges and ran through each nacelle into the wing roots connecting the wing systems onto the forward portion of the fuselage. The nose section had a glazed canopy and the fuselage was streamlined, ending aft with a traditional T-style setup. In all, the Airacuda was most assuredly a different sort of aircraft.

The idea of providing the aircraft with rear-mounted propellers, however, lay in the ability for the forward portion of each nacelle to mount devastating weaponry. In this case, the Airacuda was built around the ability to field a powerful 37mm cannon in each nacelle position, manned by a crewmember. Effectively, the crewmembers assigned to each nacelle were cut off from interaction from their fuselage comrades. Additional weaponry consisted of 2 x 12.7mm heavy caliber air-cooled machine guns and 2 x 7.62mm general purpose machine guns. Armament-wise, the Airacuda had the firepower to contend with any bomber - current or future. The problem with this thinking was in the underperforming engines. Basically, the Airacuda lacked the speed and maneuverability to contend with other enemy fighters. This made the Airacuda a liability unto itself. The system would never have been able to be sent on its own to tackle enemy bombers. Should the need arise to combat the swift new breed of enemy fighters, the Airacuda was nothing more than a sitting duck to enemy fire. Additionally, the slow performing Airacuda could barely keep pace - if at all - with the crop of bombers in service with America. This no doubt sealed the fate of the Airacuda in terms of it becoming a long-term fixture in American military planning.

As formidable as the 37mm cannon armament sounded in theory, in practice it proved to be another matter altogether. It was found that a considerable amount of smoke filled the nacelle crewmembers position when the armament was fired. Additionally, these poor fellows were also at the mercy of the rest of the crew if (and when) it was time to evacuate the aircraft in an emergency as the propeller blades were seated directly behind each nacelle. A procedure was devised to have the pilot feather out each prop and small controlled explosives were provided to jettison the systems as well. The aircraft also proved dangerous to operate on a single engine - something the later (and more "traditional") designs seemed to overcome. The aircraft proved a handful to fly, though not terrible to the core. Pilots reported much work to keep the aircraft pleased and flying properly but landing was less of a chore and quite stable. The electrical internal components were highly complex and dangerous to the extent that a single outage would knock out more than one vital system.

Despite these major shortcomings - and at least two being lost to accidents - the Airacuda nevertheless fielded one entire operational squadron though only operating in 1938 through 1940 and were eventually removed from service in 1942 - used as nothing more than ground crew trainers. Beyond several photo opportunities across the country to drum up support, the Airacuda never fulfilled its purpose of bomber-interceptor and destroyer and never would see combat action in the Second World War. All systems were eventually scrapped with only 1 prototype and 12 production models ever existing.

In many ways a major setback, the Airacuda brought some well-deserved attention to the Bell Aircraft company. The firm would go on to design and produce the more well-known Airacobra and KingCobra - two designs that would serve the Soviets very well in their war with Germany. In the end, the Airacuda would become nothing more than trivia lore in the realm of US military aviation.

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Specifications for the
Bell XFM-1 Airacuda
Bomber Interceptor / Bomber Destroyer

Focus Model: Bell XFM-1 Airacuda
Country of Origin: United States
Manufacturer: Bell Aircraft - USA
Initial Year of Service: 1940
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 "pusher" engines delivering 1,150hp each.

Maximum Speed: 277 mph (446kmh; 241 kts)
Maximum Range: 2,600 miles (4,184km)
Service Ceiling: 30,512 ft (9,300 m; 5.8 miles)
Rate-of-Climb: 0 feet-per-minute (0 m/min)

Hardpoints: 2
Armament Suite:
2 x 12.7mm machine guns
2 x 7.62mm machine guns
1 x 37mm cannon in left engine nacelle
1 x 37mm cannon in right engine nacelle

2 x 300lb conventional drop bombs

Bell Model 1 - Bell Project Model Designation

XFM-1 - Prototype Model Designation

YFM-1A - "Updated" XFM-1 sans side blister positions; external turbo-supercharges and radiators.

YFM-1B - Final Production Model; powered tricycle landing gear arrangement; redesign canopy; ventral rear-facing gun turret added; 3 examples produced.

the United States of America