Bell – In­no­va­tion in de­sign

In­no­va­tion by de­sign

Aviation Classics - - CONTENTS - 9

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Lawrence D Bell Avi­a­tion Mu­seum

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.

San Diego Air and Space Mu­seum

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.

Edi­tor’s col­lec­tion

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.

San Diego Air and Space Mu­seum

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.

Pomona Ar­chive

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’.

San Diego Air and Space Mu­seum

Edi­tor’s col­lec­tion

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.

USAF Edi­tor’s col­lec­tion

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.

US Navy

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.

Edi­tor’s col­lec­tion

Tom Hil­dreth

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.

San Diego Air and Space Mu­seum

Con­stance Red­grave

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.

Ju­lian Humphries

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.

Bell Bell

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.

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