Bell – Innovation in design
Innovation by design
Lawrence ‘Larry’ Bell had a passion for aircraft that drove his entire life. He was not only one of the most remarkable innovators in the histor y of aerospace, he was also one of its greatest exponents; being described by many, including General Charles E Yeager, as a great salesman with a love of aviation. The company he founded was to produce ground breaking fixed wing designs before becoming a pioneer developer of rotary winged flight.
The small town of Mentone lies on the junction of Routes 19 and 25, about halfway between Warsaw and Rochester, roughly in the middle of the Hoosier state, Indiana. There is a rather delightful museum there now, full of memorabilia and much of the private collection of one man who was born in Mentone on April 5, 1894. Lawrence Dale Bell was the youngest of 10 children, growing up in the close knit community surrounded by miles of farmland. His father Issac Evans Bell owned the local lumber mill, while his mother, Harriet Sarber Bell, was a schoolteacher. In 1907, just as Lawrence, universally known as Larry, turned 13, his father decided to sell his mill and retire to California, selecting the coastal town of Santa Monica as the family’s new home. It was here in 1910 that Bell witnessed his first aircraft in flight, when he and his brothers Vaughan and Grover attended the Los Angeles International Air Meet at Dominguez Field near between January 10 and 20.
FIRST US AIR SHOW
The meeting was the first major aviation event in the United States, attracting entrants from France such as Louis Paulhan and Didier Masson as well as aviators and inventors from all over the US including Glenn Curtiss and Lincoln Beachey. Organised by two American pioneer aviators, Charles Willard and Augustus Roy Knabenshue, a total of 43 entrants competed for considerable cash prizes offered for the longest flight, greatest altitude reached and other achievements. The event was dominated by Louis Paulhan in his Farman III biplane, who won over $19,000 of the prize fund. While the heavier than air machines were flying at Dominguez Field, balloons and dirigibles were operating from Huntington Park throughout the week in their own demonstrations and competitions. More than 254,000 tickets were sold, making the airshow profitable as well as popular. Aside from the three Bell brothers, the aviation meeting was to influence many other people and have far reaching
effects on the course of US aviation development. In the crowd was nine-year-old Florence Leontine Lowe, brought to the show by her grandfather, pioneer aeronaut Professor Thaddeus Lowe who had made reconnaissance flights during the US Civil War. She would later become famous as ‘Pancho’ Barnes, a barnstorming and air racing pilot and founder of the motion picture stunt pilots’ union. Didier Masson was to make a number of flights in California over the course of the next year, one of which took place at Santa Barbara. Fascinated by the aircraft and its construction was John Knudsen ‘Jack’ Northrop, who would go on to found his own aircraft company and produce an astounding variety of aircraft including the huge flying wing bombers of the late 1940s. For Larry and Grover Bell, their visit to the Los Angeles meeting was a revelation, imbuing both with a passion for all things aeronautical. On their return home, they began constructing model aircraft and kites, indeed anything that would fly. Grover Bell met Glenn L Martin who was just setting up his aircraft company in Santa Ana in an old church, and asked for a job. Martin not only employed Grover, but taught him to fly, after which he joined Martin and Lincoln Beachey in demonstrating aircraft at exhibitions and meetings across the country. Grover was so delighted with his new work that in early 1912 he asked his younger brother Larry to join the team as his mechanic, as he had a flair for making and fixing things, a talent he had demonstrated in their model aircraft experiments. At that time, Larry Bell was a month away from completing his High School Diploma at the Santa Monica Polytechnic, but managed to take his final exams early and leave school to join his brother. Grover Bell was rapidly becoming one of the most well known aviators in the US, continuing to fly demonstrations for Martin after Lincoln Beachey left the team. Larry Bell settled in quickly to the task and it quickly became apparent he had found his metier.
Life seemed perfect for the two brothers until July 4, 1913, when tragedy struck. Grover was flying a Curtiss Type D pusher biplane in practice for a demonstration flight at Petaluma just north of San Francisco. The Martin Company had been contracted to provide the flying exhibition but Glenn Martin himself could not attend as he was taking part in the Great Lakes Challenge for seaplanes at the time. Kenilworth Park near the centre of the town was being used as an airfield, but when Grover came back in to land there were a herd of horses loose in the area of his landing strip. In trying to avoid the horses, Grover crashed and was killed. Larry Bell was devastated by the loss of his brother; they had been extremely close and were bonded by their mutual love of aviation. He vowed to quit flying altogether after the crash, but his close friend Dave Hunt, who knew how deeply he had been bitten by the flying bug counselled him against leaving. Bell and Hunt formed a short lived team that built seaplane floats, the work rekindling Bell’s love of aeronautical engineering. As the orders for floats were fulfilled, Bell began casting around for a new job, finding one in the Martin Company factory where he began building aircraft for the first time. Bell was a natural engineer, self taught, quickly demonstrating skills and sheer competence that saw him rise to shop foreman at Martin within a few months and would be a defining characteristic of his aviation career. Larry Bell was not a pilot and rarely flew, but had a sound grasp of the fundamentals and thoroughly understood the technology behind flight. This is aptly demonstrated by an event that occurred when Bell was alone in the Martin factory, the owner and other pilots being away at various flying exhibitions. A young Japanese naval officer arrived at the plant with the requisite $500 in cash that Martin demanded for flying tuition. Rather than turn the man away, especially as he was charmingly persistent, Bell found a used engine and fitted it to an old biplane that was languishing behind the factory. With this rather cobbled together contraption, detailed explanation and patient demonstration was carried out seated in the aircraft moving the controls around. This was followed by shouted instruction as the Japanese student taxied about the airfield, before actually taking to the air. Bell had succeeded in clearly explaining how to take off, turn and land with consummate success and without ever leaving the ground himself. The student achieved sufficient flight time to be granted his aviator’s certificate, a remarkable achievement and no small measure of Bell’s clear understanding of the dynamics of flight.
EARLY COMBAT AIRCRAFT
With his promotion to shop foreman, Bell also became more involved with the demonstration and exhibition flying that the Martin Company was carrying out all over the United States. He remembered the success of the first great air show he attended in Los Angeles, the size and range of the spectacle on offer attracting large crowds and delivering financial success. In 1914, he convinced Martin to better any air show spectacle previously attempted with the April 1914 ‘Battle of the Clouds’ exhibition, featuring as its climax a live bombing demonstration by Martin aircraft. Held over two days at the site of the motor speedway then under construction on the north side of the Ganesha Hills in Pomona, the show included a parachute jump by 18year-old Georgia ‘Tiny’ Broadwick, the first woman to make a free fall parachute jump from an aircraft only three months earlier. There was also a range of demonstration flying, including one of the first radio transmissions made from an aircraft, and a mock wooden fort painted to look like stone, defended by a fake cannon and Martin employees dressed as soldiers with blank firing rifles. The aircraft attacked ‘Fort Sham’ as it was known, dropping bombs, which were in fact oranges to make them easy to see! As they struck their targets, Bell choreographed the detonation of dynamite and black powder charges on the ground which simulated the bomb impact rather well. Rather too well in fact, as the fake cannon caught fire and as the ‘battle’ raged it looked like the entire place would burn to the ground. The ruins were then charged by ‘D’ Company of the local National Guard unit to finally ‘take’ the fort. Eventually, the action ceased and the smoke and dust slowly settled, at which point the capacity crowd went wild with excitement, cheering and applauding. Such an incredible spectacle had never been seen before and it was the talk of the whole of the US for many weeks. Bell had created a tremendous financial success and a publicity triumph, Martin’s faith in him as an engineer and now as a businessman had reached a new peak. The financial and public relations successes of the ‘Battle of the Clouds’ were not its only triumphs. In the crowd watching the demonstration were two Mexican brothers, Jan and Pedro Alcadez. They were representatives of the revolutionary Mexican General José Doroteo Arango Arámbula, better known as Francisco or ‘Pancho’ Villa. Bomber aircraft had already begun to shift the balance of power in the fighting in Mexico, so they asked Martin how much such a machine would cost. On hearing the reply of $10,000, they simply opened a suitcase full of money, on seeing which, Martin was apparently quick to add, “plus bombs”! There seems to be a great deal of confusion about this period, as the French pilot Didier Masson had been operating a Martin pusher in Mexico since 1913. This aircraft, named Sonora, had carried out the first air to ship attacks in history in May of that year, striking at the gunboats moored in Guaymas harbour. This, and other aircraft, went on to be used for a variety of reconnaissance and bombing missions during the civil war by both sides, a situation further complicated by the divided nature of the warring factions. Many of these aircraft were flown by mercenaries from around the world, as well as by Mexican pilots who had been trained both at home and in France. General Villa had decided to establish his own air arm to redress the balance of forces, the purchase from Martin being part of this modernisation programme. It is believed that the aircraft purchased, widely believed to be a Martin pusher design similar to the one already being used in the country, was in fact a Martin TT military trainer. This was an advanced conventional tractor three bay biplane design which had made its first flight in 1913 and was sold to the US Army as a military trainer. It is thought that this was the aircraft that Larry Bell had helped to convert into a bomber, which was delivered to Tucson, Arizona in only two weeks then flown in Mexico during 1914 and 15 by an American crew, William Lamkey and Floyd Barlow. However, the situation and the various reports are confusing in the extreme, so if there is anyone who has definitive proof we would be delighted to publish details on the Aviation Classics website.
These events also interested the US Army in the use of aircraft in combat, Martin being asked to provide demonstrations of the capabilities of aerial bombs. This also led to the company supplying a range of training and patrol aircraft to the US Army and Navy, placing Martin on a sound financial footing. At this point in late 1914, the post of company superintendent was vacant at Martin Aircraft, and Larry Bell asked for the position. Glenn Martin was dismissive of the idea, claiming that Bell’s lack of formal training as an engineer and relative youth at only 20 years old precluded him from selection for the post. However, he did give Bell the task of interviewing the candidates for the job, allowing Bell to select the man he would be working directly under in his current role of shop foreman at the Griffith Park factory. To this end he contacted the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who recommended a recent graduate from their first ever aeronautical engineering course, Donald Douglas. Douglas so impressed Bell in an interview that he introduced him to Martin, feeling that he was the right man for the job. The following day Martin announced that Douglas would become chief engineer, while Bell was promoted to superintendent of the company after all. It was a test the young man had passed brilliantly by finding exactly the calibre of engineer Martin needed. Alongside his responsibilities for overseeing the day to day running of Martin Aircraft, Bell was also the company contract writer, purchasing agent and head salesman. There was not a part of the company’s operations he did not manage or directly control. All of this experience was to be put to good use later in his career, and it shaped the young man into a competent business leader alongside his skills as an engineer. There was also a change in personal circumstances for Bell in 1915 as he had met and courted one of the secretaries at Martin, Lucille Mainwaring, who he married later that year. Donald Douglas, now 23 and only just two years older than Bell, moved to join the company in Los Angeles in August 1915 and immediately began work on refining the Martin TT trainer design. This led to his first aircraft, the Martin Model S, of which two were acquired by the US Navy and a further six by the US Army’s Signal Corps, who used them as the first US Military aircraft to be based overseas in March 1916. They were assigned to the 1st Company, 2nd Aero Squadron at Fort Mills on Corregidor in the Philippines, where, equipped with radios, they assisted the coastal artillery to adjust their fire by reporting the fall of shot. Douglas’s first aircraft design proved to be a winner, not just in the sales it generated for Martin, but in setting three world altitude and an endurance record in 1916, the latter of which was to stand for three years.
With the First World War raging in Europe, military contracts for aircraft and engines were causing a rapid expansion of America’s still relatively small aviation industry. In order to better deal with their backlog, especially for aero engines, the Martin and Wright Aircraft Companies amalgamated in August 1916, Larry Bell being instrumental in ensuring the business processes were smoothly orchestrated. Wright-martin produced one notable type of aircraft in its short existence, the Model V, which was a two seat biplane intended as a reconnaissance and training aircraft, looking for all the world like a streamlined Curtiss JN-4 in appearance. Donald Douglas resigned from WrightMartin in November, a move caused directly by his success with the Model S. The US Army Signal Corps offered him the post of chief civilian aeronautical engineer, a tremendous vote of confidence in his capabilities as an engineer. This was not to be a long employment, as Douglas quickly discovered the frustrations of working within government administration, particularly one that remained unconvinced as to the viability of aviation. Friction between Wright and Martin steadily built up over the first year of the amalgamation to the point where Glenn Martin resigned from his own company on September 10, 1917. Larry Bell also left, travelling with Martin to Cleveland in Ohio, where a new Glenn L Martin Company was formed to resume independent aircraft design and construction. Larry Bell resumed his role of company superintendent and oversaw the development and equipping of the new factory Donald Douglas also returned as chief engineer, leaving his post with the US Army with some relief and plunging straight into the new project.
The US Army’s Air Service was looking to acquire a twin engined bomber with a performance and payload superior to that of the British Handley Page 0/400, and Martin had responded when the Army issued its official requirement. Douglas’s first task was the design of this, his largest aircraft to date with a wingspan of 71ft 5in (21.77m). The MB-1, as it was known inside the company, quickly took shape around a pair of 400hp Liberty 12A engines, making its first flight on August 17, 1918. It was a conventional twin engined biplane, with the crew of three housed in open cockpits. For such a large aircraft, its handling was described as sprightly, the bomber being docile and stable, but with a quick response to the controls. The MB-1 had a maximum speed of 105mph (169kph) and could carry a load of 1040lb of bombs (472kg) over a range of 390 miles (628km). The rear gunner and the bombardier’s positions were both armed with .30 cal machine guns on flexible mounts for defence. Given his recent employment history, Donald Douglas knew the requirement and the people running the project office, so was able to ensure his aircraft met or exceeded all of the planned targets for the bomber. After trials, the air service accepted the MB-1, known as the GMB or Glenn Martin Bomber, in October 1918. An order for six was quickly filled, the first four being configured for reconnaissance, the last two as bombers. Four more were built by the end of the First World War, at which point all further contracts were cancelled. While the last four aircraft were being built, it was decided to produce the final three in experimental configurations. The first was the GMT or Glenn Martin Transcontinental, a long range version of the bomber with additional fuel tanks that gave it a 1500 mile (2400km) endurance. The second was the GMC, with the C standing for Cannon, which mounted a 37mm cannon in the front cockpit. The third version was the GMP, or Passenger, with an enclosed cockpit for the crew and 10 passengers, which later became known as the T-1. It was the design and production of this aircraft that convinced Donald Douglas that commercial aviation was the way of the future. Military contacts may come and go, but transport aircraft would always be needed.
For Glenn Martin, the MB series was a great success, 10 more being built for the US Navy and Marine Corps, two MTB and eight TM-1 torpedo bomber versions between 1921 and 1922. Six of the Army’s GMBS were later modified for use by the United States Postal Service, and the bomber was developed into the MB-2, of which 130 were built between 1920 and 1923. Larry Bell was the liaison between Martin and Army over the MB-2 specification, working particularly with General Billy Mitchell, the strategic bombing pioneer. The aircraft allowed the Glenn Martin Company to survive the cancellation of their wartime contracts, an event which drove many small aircraft manufacturers into closure at that time. The design of these new versions was materially assisted by the arrival of a new chief draughtsman in early 1920, another name who would become a legend of US aviation, James H ‘Dutch’ Kindleberger who would later work on the DC-1 and DC-2 transport aircraft for Donald Douglas. By this time, there was a great deal of tension between Larry Bell and Donald Douglas. The latter had three ambitions, to
return to the pleasant climate of California, to develop commercial aviation and to found his own company to further his aims. In January 1920, with only $600 to his name, he moved his wife and two sons back to Los Angeles, Douglas following in March after he had finished the design on the MTB. Here he later founded the Douglas Aircraft Company and an entirely new chapter of US aviation history began. Larry Bell continued with his management work at Martin, but also developed a reputation as an inspiring speaker and a tireless promoter of aviation in speeches to industry and government bodies alike. He was promoted again, this time to general manager and vice-president of Martin, but the relationship between Martin and Bell was beginning to sour. Bell had managed the entire business for Martin and believed his work in building up the company had earned him a share as a joint owner rather than just as an employee. Martin disagreed, so on January 18, 1925, Larry Bell resigned from the company.
For the next three years Bell stayed out of aviation, finding himself a variety of jobs from selling machine tools to becoming involved in the hunt for a lost gold mine in Arizona. By 1928, he was back near home, selling secondhand goods in Los Angeles. His sterling reputation as a salesman, manager and promoter of aviation meant that he was contacted by Reuben H Fleet of Consolidated Aircraft in Buffalo, New York. Initially, Bell joined Consolidated as vicepresident in charge of sales, but with an interest in the company agreed with Fleet. Soon after he joined Consolidated, Bell was made president of Fleet Aircraft, a subsidiary company that Reuben Fleet had set up in Fort Erie, Ontario, Canada, just over the Niagara River from Buffalo. In 1928 this company was concentrating on building the Consolidated Model 14 Husky Junior, now known as the Fleet Model 1, which became a great success as a civil sports and touring aircraft, over 300 being produced in its first year of production alone. It was to serve with the Canadian, Mexican and Turkish Air Forces as a military trainer, becoming famous as the Fleet Fawn and Fleet Finch in Canada who used nearly 700 examples throughout the Second World War. At the time, Consolidated was building a variety of aircraft, including the PT-1 Trusty and PT-3 trainers for the US Army and the US navy equivalent, the NY-1. It had also built the prototype XPY-1 Admiral flying boat, but lost the production contract for the US Navy to Martin. This was to lead to the P2Y Commodore flying boat and eventually to the world famous PBY Catalina. Most importantly for Bell was the Fleetster eight seat single engined light transport aircraft. This was the first aircraft to be produced in the US with an all metal monocoque fuselage, which gave Bell useful experience of working with this type of construction. The advantages of the techniques in terms of performance and structural strength made Bell a strong advocate of all metal stressed skin construction and shaped his thinking on future projects. The Fleetster also was the first design with a ‘wet wing’, fuel tanks integral to the wing structure, and was to be purchased by airlines and the US Army as a transport, while a single example was evaluated by the US Navy as a carrier based dive bomber. Reuben Fleet was badly injured in a flying accident on September 13, 1929, which also caused the death of his secretary. While he recovered, Fleet promoted Bell to general manager of Consolidated; Bell assuming responsibility for the day to day running of the entire business on both sides of the Niagara.
In order to explain Larry Bell’s next move at Consolidated, which was to have far reaching consequences for him, we need to leave the main narrative for a moment and look at the history of two other companies, the Detroit Aircraft Corporation (DAC) and Lockheed Aircraft Corporation. Lockheed had been enjoying tremendous success with a range of high performance monoplanes designed by John Knudsen ‘Jack’ Northrop. This success attracted the attention of the Detroit Aircraft Corporation (DAC), and in July 1929 it convinced Fred Keeler, the investor behind the Lockheed company and the 51% majority shareholder, to sell his shares and the company assets to DAC, which at the time was acquiring aviation companies across the US. Allan Loughead was against the sale to DAC from the start, but was outvoted by the board members. He had no choice but to resign from his own company on June 3, 1931, selling his DAC stock for the going rate of $23 a share.
This was to prove a wise move, as the stock market crash of October 1929 reduced the DAC shares to 12.5 cents and by October 27, 1931, both the DAC and the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, as it was now known, were declared bankrupt and placed in receivership. A skeleton staff produced two more aircraft under the leadership of general manager Carl Squier, but the doors were finally closed on June 16, 1932. Before this financial calamity struck the companies, DAC had begun developing a military version of the Lockheed Model 8D Altair. This was known as the DetroitLockheed XP-900, a two seat fighter and attack aircraft which was later designated the YP-24. Designed by Robert J Woods of DAC, successful trials led to an order for nine prototypes, five fighters and four attack aircraft. An accident with the prototype and the financial crisis meant the contract was cancelled in October 1931, which is where Larry Bell saw his opportunity. He hired Robert Woods to work as a designer at Consolidated, and approached the US Army to resurrect the YP-24 contract, which was developed into the Consolidated Model 25 and designated the Y1P-25. This replaced the original wooden wings of the YP-24 with metal ones and added a larger tailplane for improved handling and stability. The prototype of the fighter variant was delivered to the US Army Air Corps in December 1932, joined by the attack version prototype in January the following year. Both these prototypes were lost in crashes, but despite this, the high performance and promise of the types led to orders for a total of 60 aircraft as the P-30 and P-30A fighters and A-11 attack aircraft. The structure was modified and strengthened in places, with deliveries beginning in January 1934. This was an excellent piece of management by Bell who had not only increased Consolidated’s portfolio of aircraft to include fighters and attack aircraft, but had brought the prodigious design talents of Robert Woods into the company, which would have far reaching effects for Bell himself.
Despite these successes and being given a free hand to manage as he wished by Reuben Fleet, Larry Bell was still aware that this was not his company, that he was still not leading his own organisation. Fate took a hand in matters when Rueben Fleet decided to move Consolidated Aircraft from Buffalo to San Diego in June 1935. A large percentage of Consolidated’s business was involved with seaplanes and flying boats, and Fleet wanted access to a warm water harbour to allow operations to continue all year round. Bell saw his chance to found his own company, especially as Fleet had promised him a great deal of sub-contractor work to help get his new enterprise started. Along with Bell, Consolidated’s assistant general manager Ray Whitman, designer Robert J Woods and Bell’s secretary Irene Bernhardt all elected to form the core staff of the new venture. They resigned from Consolidated on June 20, and on July 10, 1935, the Bell Aircraft Corporation was officially founded. Bell had contacted many of his business associates and friends to raise the necessary $150,000 capital required by September 1 to formalise the company, which he successfully achieved by the middle of August. However, the stress of this hard work caused Bell health problems, including a stomach ulcer, which would affect him for the rest of his life. A number of buildings used by Consolidated in Buffalo were rented and for the first six months the company produced a range of goods including radio masts and exhaust pipes. True to his word, on January 28, 1936, Reuben Fleet delivered a contract for over $870,000 for Bell to build the wing panels for 146 Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boats as Consolidated was at full stretch to meet the US Navy contracts for the type. Along with this sizeable task, the US Army Air Corps (USAAC) also contracted Bell to fit an Allison V-1710 engine into a Consolidated A-11A attack bomber to act as an engine testbed and development aircraft. By the end of 1936, Bell Aircraft had grown to 642 employees and had an order backlog in excess of $2 million. With the financial situation secure, Bell could now concentrate on his own projects and was about to launch a series of innovative and original designs quite unlike the aircraft of any other company.
MODEL 1 – THE AIRACUDA
The first true Bell aircraft design set the stamp on the company’s work in no uncertain terms. It was utterly unconventional in just about every respect and featured entirely new technology, both of which were sadly to be the source of the aircraft’s undoing. The project started with an official requirement issued by the USAAC for a long range escort fighter in 1936, to which Bell and Lockheed responded with twin engined designs. The initial study competition was won by Bell, who received a contract in May 1936 for a single prototype, the aircraft being
designed by Robert Woods with the assistance of the project engineer Art Fornoff. Designated XFM-1 for experimental Fighter Multiplace and named Airacuda after the Barracuda, a fast and well armed fish, the Bell design team had created something truly unique. Firstly, the aircraft was large for a fighter, with a wingspan just 2in shy of 70ft (21.33m), a dimension more fitting for a medium bomber of the time. Power came from a pair of supercharged Allison V-1710-13s which produced 1150hp, mounted in streamlined nacelles in the wing. However, they drove three bladed pusher propellers mounted behind the wings at the end of 64in (1.62m) drive shaft extenders, a feature that was to crop up again in later Bell designs. The front of each nacelle was smoothly glazed and contained a gunner’s position complete with a 37mm M4 cannon and .30 cal (7.62mm) machine gun in each, unprecedented firepower for 1936. The cockpit was streamlined into the rounded nose with seats for the pilot and navigator in tandem, the latter also doubling as the fire control officer using a centralised Sperry ‘Thermionic’ fire control system complete with a gyro-stabilised optical gunsight. The gunners in the nacelles could aim and fire the weapons it is true, but were largely there to reload the cannons as 110 rounds of ammunition were stored in each position. The last crew member was the radio operator who doubled as a defensive gunner, being armed with two .50 cal (12.7mm) machine guns, one in each of two glazed blisters on either side of the fuselage aft of the wing. The fighter was also fitted with small bomb bays in the wings that allowed up to 20 30lb (13.6 kg) fragmentation bombs to be carried to give the aircraft a secondary capability in the fighter-bomber role. Other than the unusual design and armament, the Airacuda was full of innovative design features, such as the intercom between the crew and the hinged steps that emerged from the entry doors in the fuselage and nacelles as you lowered them to board the aircraft. The electrical system was a case in point, this being the first aircraft to be totally reliant on an auxiliary power unit (APU) mounted in the fuselage with its own supercharger. No engine driven generators were fitted, the APU being the only source of electrical power for the Airacuda’s systems.
The prototype took shape at the Buffalo factory and on September 1, 1937, First Lieutenant Benjamin S Kelsey took XFM-1 36351 into the air for the first time. Kelsey was not just a test pilot for the USAAC however, and is a name we shall return to shortly.
The advanced design and its extensive use of new technology were to be the Achilles’ heel of the XFM-1. The pusher propellers and their shaft drives proved to be sound, but the engines were prone to overheating as they had no additional cooling systems. The XFM-1 had trial superchargers fitted whereas the development aircraft, designated YFM-1, had the production version. These were plagued with problems which caused backfires and in one case an engine explosion. An engine problem on the first flight and an undercarriage collapse on the second delayed the testing of the XFM-1, with maintenance problems of the complex systems causing further headaches for the USAAC engineers after the Airacuda was transferred for service trials on October 21, 1937. By May 20, 1938, sufficient promise had been shown for the USAAC to order 13 of the YFM-1 development aircraft, which featured a number of changes. The superchargers were built into the nacelles which had modified engine cowlings for improved cooling. Added to this the radiator air intakes were moved from the top of the nacelles to the leading edge of the wing outboard of the engines. The .30 cal machine guns in the nacelles were moved to the nose of the aircraft and the rear side blisters were replaced with hatches, the defensive guns being repositioned in a ventral and dorsal hatch above and below the rear fuselage just aft of the wing. Underwing bomb racks could also be fitted to increase the offensive load in the fighter-bomber role.
The first YFM-1 made its maiden flight on September 28, 1939, but only nine were completed in this guise. The last three were built with a nosewheel undercarriage replacing the original tailwheel design, and were designated YFM-1AS. The superchargers continued to cause problems and attempts were made to fix the recurring engine problems by fitting different versions of the Allison, all to no avail. The fact was that the Airacuda was too big and too slow for a fighter; in fact it was slower than the B-17 then being tested. The lack of performance was matched by a lack of manoeuvrability, in a modern dogfight the aircraft would simply not have survived. The cannon filled the nacelles with smoke when they were fired, and the loss of the APU in flight meant the entire electrical system shut down, including the engines. The technological issues could have been overcome, but by 1940 the original concept of an escort fighter and bomber destroyer had already been far surpassed by other aircraft then in development. In January 1942, the nine remaining airworthy Airacudas of the 13 built were taken to Chanute Field in Illinois and used as instructional airframes, eventually being scrapped three months later. Larry Bell himself admitted that the Airacuda was simply too far advanced for its day; the technologies it relied upon were insufficiently developed to achieve the required performance. However, the experience of solving the problems inherent in the design was not to be wasted, the lessons learned would shape the next generation of Bell aircraft.
A NEW FIGHTER
In 1936, while the Airacuda was in development, the USAAC canvassed aircraft manufacturers for proposals for new single seat fighters. The most recent American fighter to be ordered, the Seversky P-35, was clearly not going to match the performance of the latest designs from other nations and it was considered that a solution had to be found quickly due to the worsening world political climate. Bell was one of the aircraft companies approached, with designer Robert Woods and engineer Harland Poyer beginning work on two different models of an unusual single seat fighter design. This initial approach was followed on March 19, 1937, by the official issue of USAAC Circular Proposal X-608 and X-609, the former for a single-seat, twin- engined fighter that would lead to the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, the latter for a single-seat single-engined type. Mention must be made at this point of two remarkable men responsible for the proposals issued from the Wright Field Pursuit Projects Office of the US Army Air Corps. Wright Field at the time was the centre for testing aviation technology and development of new military aircraft, fulfilling a similar role to Martlesham Heath in the UK or Rechlin in Germany. The two men were lieutenants at the time, Gordon Phillip Saville, who would end his distinguished career as a major general, and Benjamin Scovill Kelsey, who would become a brigadier general. Both were keenly aware of the shortcomings of both the doctrine and the aircraft in US service at the time, particularly in comparison to those entering service in Germany, Japan and the UK. This awareness also extended to the limitations of the official Army Air Corps rules and regulations that governed the acquisition of new aircraft, rules that were the inevitable result of decades of inter-service rivalry and distrust of aviation as a viable arm of the US forces. Both men became adept at finding necessary loopholes in the rules to draw up
recommendations and proposals in order to develop and acquire the kind of systems and high performance aircraft they foresaw would be required in the near future. In this case, they avoided the rules regarding fighters and pursuit aircraft by referring to the project only as an interceptor, a new term that had no limiting regulation. They may be said to be as responsible for the development of US fighter aircraft as any of the designers and engineers, but often only receive a mention as the architects of the proposals. Woods and Poyer began the design of the new fighter with another Bell design first, in as much as they designed the aircraft around its armament. Their contention that a modern fighter required tremendous firepower led to the selection of either a 25mm or 37mm cannon as the prime weapon, with two .50 cal and a single .30 cal machine guns in support, all mounted in the nose to concentrate the fire and simplify aiming. Since both the cannons under consideration were large, the engine had to move backwards to almost the centre of the fuselage with the propeller driven by an extension shaft, a technique already successfully tested on the Airacuda. Two designs emerged. The Model 3 had the cockpit aft of the engine, but this limited the pilot’s downward view from the cockpit. The Model 4 had the engine further aft, with the cockpit ahead of it so the pilot was sitting over the wing’s leading edge giving excellent visibility in all directions. This also moved the engine near the centre of gravity which would theoretically improve the manoeuvrability, while the tapered and streamlined nose section of this design decreased drag. Again in a departure from the common practice of the day, both of these designs were fitted with tricycle undercarriages, the nosewheel retracting aft under the armament. On October 7, 1937, a contract was issued for
the construction of a single prototype fitted with a turbo-supercharged 1150hp Allison V1710-17 in the centre fuselage. The new fighter was given the designation XP-39 and later named Airacobra. The prototype was completed and ground tested at Buffalo, then taken to Wright Field where it made its first flight on April 6, 1938, in the hands of James Taylor. The performance was immediately impressive, with the aircraft reaching 390mph (627.6kph) and climbing to 20,000ft (6096m) in just five minutes. At this point, while the flight tests were ongoing, Larry Bell was called away at the request of the US Government.
During 1938 President Roosevelt sent a party of 45 leaders of the American aircraft industry, Larry Bell among them, to Europe to conduct a liaison and fact finding tour. This was in fact a thin disguise to see what the German aircraft industry was up to and what could be gleaned of their technological advances and future intent, as well as assessing the preparedness of France and the UK to meet the challenge of a resurgent Germany. In what could be described as state sponsored spying, Larry and his wife Lucille sailed for Europe on July 15 and met with Ernst Udet, who arranged a tour of various factories in Germany including those of Messerschmitt, Heinkel and Focke-wulf. A former colleague of Bell’s from his time at the Martin Aircraft Company, Dr Georg Madelung, was back in Germany and was Willy Messerschmitt’s brother in law, a relationship which smoothed the way for a full inspection of Messerschmitt’s facilities. The speed and efficiency of the German production lines impressed Bell, so much so that when he later built a new production line he modelled it on the Heinkel factory he had toured. Bell was less impressed by the Italian aircraft industry, which he considered inferior to that of Germany, whereas the French industry was disorganised and the British was unprepared for rapid expansion, although it did have some excellent designs in production. On his return to the US, Bell wrote extensive reports on his findings and presented them to official audiences in Government and the armed forces. Bell faced some criticism of these reports, which pacifists in Government saw as unnecessarily alarmist regarding the Nazi regime in order to increase military aircraft budgets for his own ends. Less than a year later, the critics were silenced in the wake of the invasion of Poland. One other thing happened while Bell was in Germany which was to have a far reaching effect on the future of his company. Heinrich Focke had been ousted from his own company Focke-wulf, yet had been encouraged to set up another company with Gerd Achgelis known as Focke-achgelis to develop a new type of aircraft. Focke-wulf had produced what is generally considered to be the world’s first practical helicopter, the Fw61, which was developed further by the new company so is often referred to as the Fa-61. This first flew on June 26, 1936, and was demonstrated inside the Deutschland Halle in Berlin by Hanna Reitsch in 1938 before going on to set a range of performance records for helicopters. Bell considered that the Fa-61 was the most interesting aircraft he had seen in Europe and it set a seed in his mind that would grow into the company we know today.
AIRACOBRA TO KINGCOBRA
To return to the activities of the company, the impressive initial tests of the XP-39 led to an order for 13 YP-39 development aircraft in April 1939, the first of which flew on September 13, 1940. These had the full armament and armour plate fitted along with a larger fin and rudder to improve directional stability and control. However, for a variety of complex reasons, the turbo-supercharger had been removed which was to severely limit the high altitude performance of the fighter. One of the reasons was that with the failure of the Airacuda, the financial position of Bell Aircraft was precarious at this time, Larry Bell agreeing to the removal of the turbo system to simply get the aircraft into production. In this he was successful as the USAAC ordered 80 Bell P-39CS on August 10, 1939, only 20 of which would be delivered, the rest being built as P-39DS with armour plate and self sealing fuel tanks, all lessons from the combat experience being gained in Europe. Bell also secured a $9 million order for 200 P400s, the export model of the P-39, from the French Government, a deal signed in March 1940 with deliveries due to begin in October. Of course, events in France precluded delivery, but a British order for 675 P-39DS signed in April 1940 was augmented by the aircraft intended for France. Altogether 9588 Bell P-39 Airacobras were built in 10 major
variants until production ended in August 1944, 4773 being used by the Soviet Air Force through the Lend-lease programme. Many myths have built up around this aircraft, several of which are simply not true. Legend has it that the Airacobra was easy meat for the Japanese fighter forces in the Pacific, whereas the figures show they clearly held their own in terms of numbers shot down against the aerial victories P-39 pilots achieved. It is also widely believed that the P-39 was used as a ground attack aircraft by the Soviet Air Force due to its heavy M4 37mm cannon making it an ideal anti-tank aircraft. This is utterly untrue; the majority of the P-39s were used in air-to-air combat, the low level nature of combat conditions on the Eastern Front playing to the Airacobra’s strengths and making it one of the most successful fighters in the theatre. The myth appears to have grown up around a mistranslation of the Russian phrase used to describe the mission of the P-39 as ground attack, whereas it actually means to cover ground forces or act as air support to prevent friendly ground forces coming under attack by enemy aircraft. The full story of this remarkable machine and its development will be told in a future issue of Aviation Classics. The success of the P-39 despite its deficient high altitude performance led to the development of its replacement on the Bell production lines, the P-63 Kingcobra. This was essentially an enlarged P-39 with the same armament, but a more powerful version of the Allison engine with a secondary supercharger
which returned the high altitude performance of the P-39 prototype. The first P-63 flew on December 7, 1942, and entered production in October the following year. The Soviet Air Force was the major customer for the type, the USAAF being committed to the P-51 Mustang by that time. A great deal of Soviet combat experience went into the design of the P-63, refining the aircraft into exactly what was required to meet the conditions on the Eastern Front where it was as successful as the earlier P-39. A total of 3303 Kingcobras were built before production ended in 1945, 114 being supplied to France at the end of the Second World War, later being used in combat in Indochina in 1950 and 1951. Two unusual uses of the P-63 must be mentioned, firstly that of manned aerial gunnery target. The armament was removed and over a ton of additional armour was added to allow the ‘Pinball’ P-63s to be shot at safely by trainee air gunners. The trainees used a frangible round made of lead mixed with bakelite which broke up on impact, any hits which were scored on the P-63 being detected by a sensor system which caused a light in the nose to flash. Two more P63Cs were modified by Bell for the US Navy in 1946 and fitted with 35º swept wings investigate the low speed and stall characteristics of these. Leading edge slats and trailing edge flaps were also fitted to gather data on their aerodynamic effects. One of these aircraft will return to our story shortly.
The mass production of nearly 10,000 of only its second aircraft design had a tremendous effect on Bell Aircraft. In late 1940 Larry Bell had been allowed to build a massive new factory near the airport at Niagara Falls, just north of Buffalo, to meet the demand for his new fighter. A separate modification centre was also built at Niagara Falls to prepare aircraft for shipment overseas, especially to Russia. Bell also expanded into building gun mounts for the US Army and Navy at a new factory in Burlington, Vermont, which opened in the first quarter of 1943. Known as the Ordnance Division, this facility would also produce parts for the Boeing B-29 Superfortresses that Bell built under licence in the Government owned aircraft factory at Atlanta, Georgia. The company grew from 1170 employees in 1940 to 50,764 in 1944, but rapid as this expansion was, the reverse was also true at the end of the war which saw the Atlanta
plant closed and the number of employees fall to just over 5300 by June 1945 as military contracts were cancelled. Before this massive contraction, a number of other projects were started, several of which would lead the company to thrive in future years.
The first of these started in a former Ford Motor Company toolshop in Main Street, Buffalo, and had begun when General Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold approached Bell Aircraft on September 5, 1941, and asked if the company could design and build the first American jet powered aircraft. Bell was chosen for a number of reasons, not least of which was its proximity to the General Electric plants at Syracuse, New York and Lynn, Massachusetts, which would be building development copies of the British Power Jets W.2B engine designed by Frank Whittle. General Arnold had witnessed a test flight of the Gloster E.28/39 powered by a Power Jets W.1 engine while he was in the UK and had been impressed. General Electric began developing the engine as the I-A to I-16 models, until standard designation for jet engines was introduced and the powerplant became known as the J31. The early I-A engines only produced 1300lb (590kg) of thrust, so Bell did not have a great deal of power to work with. For this reason the new fighter design took shape around a pair of the engines, mounted side by side in the lower fuselage with air intake just forward and below the leading edges of the wing and exhausts just aft of the trailing edge. The early jet engines needed short tailpipes to prevent a loss of thrust, limiting the design still further, but other than the engines, the aircraft was remarkably conventional for a Bell design. Secrecy was considered vital; hence Bell’s use of the Ford building in town and the fact the prototype was fitted with a dummy propeller whenever it was on the ground. The first American jet aircraft was named Airacomet and designated XP-59A, again in the interests of secrecy as the original P-59 was a Bell fighter project that had been cancelled. Only one year and one week after the
approach had been made to Bell, the first XP59A was crated up in sections and sent to the Muroc Desert in California for flight testing on September 12, 1942. The first flight was made unintentionally by Bell test pilot Robert Stanley on October 1, the aircraft becoming airborne during high speed taxy trials. Three XP-59AS were built, followed by 13 YP-59A test and development aircraft. The poor performance of the early jet engines, including the slow throttle response and some major reliability issues, hampered the test flying programme, but it soon became evident the airframe needed modifications as well, as the directional stability and spin recovery performance of the aircraft were in need of improvement. The fin and rudder were increased in area and a fin fillet added to cure both of these problems. In addition, the wingtips were squared off to improve the roll response. On March 11, 1944, the USAAF ordered 150 P59As, but due to protracted development problems with the engines, only 50 would be built, all of which were delivered by August 1945. Of the 50 examples, 20 were built as P-59AS, the remainder as P-59BS with additional fuel tanks in the outer wing panels. All 50 were armed with a single M4 37mm cannon and three .50 Cal Browning machine guns, but their only operational use came when a mixed batch of P-59AS and Bs were issued to the 412th Fighter Group of the 4th Air Force for service evaluation before being replaced by the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star within a year. The remainder of the production run was used by trials units to gain experience with jet aircraft, but by 1950 the last Airacomet had ceased flying. Short lived it may have been, but America’s first jet aircraft had served its purpose of bringing the new propulsion method into the USAAF and giving air and ground personnel vital experience of working with the new engines.
Bell did produce two more fighters during the Second World War, the ultra lightweight XP-77 of which two were built, first flying on April 1 1944; and the XP-83, a larger development of
the P-59A which first flew on February 25, 1945, and was intended as a long range escort jet fighter. Again, only two were built, both projects being dropped due to performance and protracted development issues. The most famous Bell Aircraft of the immediate postwar years were the experimental aircraft aimed at breaking the sound barrier and exploring supersonic flight on behalf of the USAAF and NACA, the forerunner of NASA. The first of these, the X-1, was the first aircraft to exceed the speed of sound and was based on the design of the Browning .50 cal bullet, which designer Robert Woods knew to be stable in supersonic flight. A contract had been issued jointly by the USAAF and NACA on March 16, 1945, for three XS-1S as they were originally known. Rocket powered and intended for launch from the bomb bay of a B29 ‘mothership’, the X-1 made its first gliding flight on January 19, 1946, in the hands of Jack Woolams at Pinecastle Field in Florida. Powered flights began in September at Muroc in California, the USAAF taking over the programme in June 1947. On October 14 that year, just a month after the USAAF had become the US Air Force, Captain Charles ‘Chuck’ Yeager ushered in the supersonic era with a flight that reached Mach 1.06. Testing continued apace from that moment, and a number of developments of the X-1 were ordered, the A through E models that pushed the maximum speed reached up to Mach 2.44. The success of the X-1 programme led to the swept wing X-2 of 1952, Bell test pilot Jean ‘Skip’ Ziegler making the first glide flight on June 27 of that year. The second of the swept wing P-63 Kingcobra aircraft was used to test the 40º swept wing design for the X-2, the aircraft being extensively modified in the process. The X-2 was to reach Mach 3.2 on September 27, 1956, but was to be lost along with pilot Captain Milburn ‘Mel’ Apt when the aircraft went out of control in a turn at high speed. Two other experimental fixed wing aircraft were produced by Bell in the X series. The X-5 was intended as a variable geometry technology demonstrator with wings that could be swept to 20, 40 or 60 degrees in fight.
The first flight of the two X-5s built took place on June 20, 1951, but the stall spin characteristics were extremely poor, causing the loss of the second aircraft in a crash on October 14, 1953, which also killed the pilot Captain Ray Popson. The first X-5 continued to be used as a chase and test aircraft up until 1958, proving the viability of the variable geometry concept in producing aircraft with a high maximum speed and low landing speed. The X-14 was a vertical take off technology demonstrator based on the wings of a Beech Bonanza light aircraft and the rear fuselage and tailplane of a Beech T-34 Mentor military trainer. Two small turbojets, initially Bristol Siddeley Vipers but later General Electric J85s, were mounted in the nose, the thrust from which was directed through moveable nozzles to allow transition from vertical to horizontal flight to take place. The X-14 first flew on February 19, 1957, and was used to explore the problems of vertical take off and landing aircraft. The Hawker pilots that were engaged in the P.1127 project, the forerunner of the Harrier, flew the X-14, as did many of the Apollo astronauts as its control system was adapted to mimic that of the lunar lander. Incredibly, the X-14 flew without major incident until it was damaged in a landing accident on May 29, 1981, completing 24 years of test flying. It is now under restoration by a private owner in Indiana. Immediately after the Second World War, Bell had been forced to diversify into producing two-stroke motors and a motorised wheelbarrow known as the Bell Prime Mover to keep the factories open and the workforce employed. During the late 1940s through to the 1960s, Bell produced a range of projects beyond those listed here, including the ASMA-1 Tarzon 13,000lb guided bomb that was used against pinpoint targets in the Korean War and a range of test rocket and guided missile programmes. It also produced the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle, a vertical take off jet powered Lunar Module simulator to train Apollo astronauts. However, in 1941, Larry Bell had backed a talented engineer called Arthur Middleton Young, who had been experimenting with model helicopters. His story led to a completely separate division of Bell Aircraft, and is told in the next article in this issue.
The excellent Lawrence D Bell Aviation Museum is on South Oak Street in Mentone Indiana and features, appropriately, a UH-1 on display in front of the buildings.
French aviator Louis Paulhan flies his Farman III at the Los Angeles International Air Meet at Dominguez Field in 1910.This display deeply affected the Bell brothers. Lawrence Dale Bell at the controls of his brother’s Glenn Martin pusher biplane. The intensity and passion for aviation in the young Larry Bell is self evident. Bell
A rare photograph of Larry Bell’s older brother, Grover Bell.
Lincoln Beachey, one of the most famous aviators during the early years of flight, a demonstration pilot and pioneer extraordinaire. He encouraged Grover Bell who flew displays with him.
LEFT: Glenn Martin was an aviation pioneer in every respect. He not only developed aircraft but expounded their usefulness, such as here making one of the first newspaper deliveries by air.
A Martin TT tractor biplane of the type I believe was sold to agents of General ‘Pancho’villa of Mexico.
Two views of Lawrence Bell’s extraordinary ‘Battle of the Clouds’ air display at Pomona in 1914. Firstly, aircraft are seen taking off from the newly completed speedway track, then a Martin TT tractor biplane makes an attack on ‘Fort Sham’.
Larry Bell was the liaison between Martin and Army over the MB-2 bomber specification of which 130 examples were built.
The Martin MB-1 or GMB bomber.
Donald Douglas at work at his drawing board at the Martin Company.
The Martin GMP, Douglas’s first passenger transport design. The Martin Model S, Donald Douglas’s first design for Martin.
The extraordinary Reuben Hollis Fleet, founder of the Consolidated and Fleet aircraft companies convinced Larry Bell to return to aviation after his split with Martin.
Bell was made president of Fleet Aircraft, a subsidiary company that Reuben Fleet had set up in Fort Erie in Ontario. In 1928 this company was concentrating on building the Consolidated Model 14 Husky Junior, now known as the Fleet Model 1, seen here in is US Navy guise and designated N2Y-1.
The Finch trainer was a great success for Fleet, with 606 being built, 431 for the Royal Canadian Air Force alone.
The Detroit-lockheed XP-900, a two seat fighter and attack aircraft which was later designated the YP-24 was designed by Robert J Woods who was to become a key figure in Bell Aircraft. Robert Woods moved to Consolidated, bringing the YP-24 design with him where it became the Y1P-25, later to emerge as the P-30A two seat fighter as seen here. The final development of the YP-24 design was the A-11 attack aircraft. Another of the Consolidated military trainers was the US Army Air Corps’ PT-3.
One of the military variants of the Consolidated Fleetster, the Y1C-22 transport.
The Consolidated Fleetster was an important type for Larry Bell, as it gave him experience of working with all metal stressed skin monocoque construction, a method he became a staunch advocate of.
After leaving Consolidated to start Bell Aircraft, Larry Bell received a large order for outer wing panels for the Consolidated PBY Catalina from his old company to help him get started.
A rare colour shot of a Bell YFM-1 Airacuda in flight. Note the rear fuselage blisters have been replaced by hatches, and the intakes are now in the leading edges.
The wind tunnel model of the Bell XFM-1 Airacuda under test. Note the extremely clean profile of the aircraft, unusual for the day.
The first Bell Aircraft factory was a former Consolidated building on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo.
The Bell XFM-1 Airacuda in flight showing the air intakes in the orignal position on top of the nacelles.
Larry Bell, third from right, with the flight test and engineering crew and the prototype XFM-1 Airacuda fighter at Buffalo Airport.
The Bell P-39 Airacobra was incredibly innovative for its day as it was designed around its heavy cannon armament and features a rear mounted engine and tricycle undercarriage.
LEFT: The success of the P-39 in attracting orders meant a massive expansion for Bell Aircraft, with a new plant being opened at Wheatfield north of Buffalo to cope with the demand.
Benjamin Scovill Kelsey in very appropriate pose for a man who lived in the cockpit. A great test pilot and co-author of the proposals that led to the P-39, he was to be instrumental in shaping many important aircraft programmes.
ABOVE: A retouched publicity shot but still a fair indicator of the tremendous firepower grouped in the P-39s nose. On this P-39D the four wing mounted .30 cal machine guns are also fitted.
Gordon Phillip Saville, one of the authors of the proposals that led to the P-39 and one of the architects of modern air power.
A P-39Q of the Fighter Collection comes in to land at Duxford during an air show in 2008.This aircraft is one of the reconnaissance versions of the late Q model of the Airacobra and had two cameras mounted in the rear fuselage.
The Bell production lines were modelled on those of Heinkel and were extremely efficient. Here, the P-63 Kingcobra has begun to replace the P-39 Airacobra in the Buffalo factory, but the two types were produced alongside each other for a few months.
The majority of the Bell P-63 Kingcobras built were supplied to the Soviet Air Force where they excelled as fighters. A Bell P-63 Kingcobra fresh out of the factory over the Niagara Falls.
A line up of the four fighters Bell produced during the Second World War. Furthest away is the XP-77 lightweight fighter prototype, then a P-39, P-63 and finally America’s first jet aircraft, the P-59A Airacomet.
A Bell YP-59A in flight as evinced by the nose armament which was not fitted to the three XP-59A aircraft.
A rare colour shot of two Bell jet fighters in flight, a P-59A in the foreground and a YP-59A behind. Note the different wingtip shapes.
A Bell P-59A Airacomet showing the revised broader fin and rudder and the squared off wingtips of the production version of the type. Captain, now General, Charles ‘Chuck’yeager with the Bell X-1 he named ‘Glamorous Glennis’ for his wife. On October 14, 1947, he made the first supersonic flight in this aircraft. The bullet origins of the Bell X-1 design are perfectly illustrated by this shot of the X-1 in flight with its rocket motor ignited.
The Bell X-1A was a much refined version of the research aircraft featuring a completely revised cockpit layout.
A development of the P-59 programme was the Bell XP-83 intended as a long range escort fighter.the early jet aircraft suffered from short range which the XP-83 dealt with through sheer size and fuel capacity.
In order to conserve the limited rocket fuel, the Bell X-1 was designed to be carried to altitude by a ‘mothership’, in this case a Boeing B-29 Superfortress. USAF
The Bell X-5 had variable geometry wings which could be swept to 20, 40 or 60 degrees in flight to test the viability of building ‘swing-wing’ aircraft.
The Bell X-2 had a 40º swept wing and was carried aloft by the development of the B-29, the Boeing B-50. A Boeing B-29 drops a Bell X-1A on another research flight. Note the North American F-86 Sabre flying as chase plane. Lawrence Dale Bell, seen in the early 1950s before he died after suffering a stroke on October 20, 1956. Overwork may have damaged his health, but it did not dim his passion or his drive one jot.