Meet the P-59: The U.S. can claim many firsts in the illustrious history of Jet Age aviation.
Among them was: Chuck Yeager being the first man to break the sound barrier, doing so in the Bell X-1; history’s first jet-to-jet shootdown, though there remains some controversy about whether the feat was pulled off by the U.S. Air Force’s Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star or the U.S. Navy’s Grumman F9F Panther; and the first nighttime jet vs. jet aerial kill, pulled off by U.S. Marine Corps Douglas F3D Skyknight.
However, when it came to getting a jet fighter operational in wartime, America lagged behind Nazi Germany’s Messerschmitt Me 262 “Schwalbe (Swallow),” Great Britain’s Gloster Meteor, and Imperial Japan’s Nakajima Kikka.
In fact, the U.S. didn’t even get her first jet-powered airplane into the war effort at all. Nonetheless, the plane in question is still a piece of history and therefore deserves her moment in the spotlight: the Bell P-59 Airacomet.
Bell P-59 Airacomet Early History and Specifications
The Bell P-59 Airacomet made her maiden flight – in the XP-59A prototype iteration – on October 2, 1942, with chief test pilot Robert M. Stanley (1912-1977) at the controls. She was manufactured by Bell Aircraft, also known for the P-39 Airacobra propeller-driven fighter plane of WWII in addition to the sound barrier-busting X-1, mentioned previously.
The plane’s inception actually dates back to August 28, 1941, when the manufacturer’s founder and president, Lawrence Dale “Larry” Bell (1894-1956), was summoned to Washington, D.C. by U.S. Army Air Forces Commanding General Henry “Hap” Arnold to discuss the possibility of designing a single-seat jet fighter utilizing General Electric’s A-1 centrifugal turbojet engine. Just over a month later, the contract was signed.
The end result was a single-seat, twin-engine fighter. The fuselage length was 38 feet 10 inches, the wingspan was 45 feet 6 inches, the height was 12 feet 4 inches, the empty weight was 8,165 pounds, and the maximum takeoff weight was 13,700 lbs. Max airspeed was 413 miles per hour, service ceiling was 46,200 feet, and maximum range was 950 miles. Armament consisted of either a single 37mm cannon or three Browning M2 “Ma Deuce” .50 caliber machine guns, along with a capacity of 2,000 lbs. worth of bombs or eight 60-lb. rockets.
What Went Wrong, i.e. Too Little, Too Late for WWII
The project was shrouded in secrecy and wasn’t disclosed to the general public until 1943 after a hundred flights were completed. As to why the plane failed to make the final cut for operational service with the USAAF, the Aviation History Online Museum sums it up quite succinctly:
“Flight evaluation uncovered a multitude of problems as the XP-59A tended to yaw and sway. Other problems were poor engine response and insufficient lateral stability during rolls … While the performance of the Airacomet was not spectacular, one YP-59A did establish a new unofficial altitude record of 47,600 feet … Mock combat sorties were conducted against the P-59 with a Lockheed P-38 Lightning and Republic P-47 Thunderbolt and in March 1945 against a captured Mitsubishi Zero. It was discovered that the P-59 was outclassed by the current piston-engine fighters and it offered no appreciable advantage over conventional aircraft.”
The P59s were relegated to jet trainer status and were later modified as drone directors and manned target aircraft, with a second cockpit installed forward of the pilot’s cockpit. Nonetheless, to quote the Aviation History Online Museum again, “It was a window into the future of outstanding American jet aircraft that were just on the horizon.”
Where Are They Now?
Out of the 66 Airacomets built, six survive today. Arguably the most noteworthy specimen is the one undergoing restoration at the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino, California, as can be gleaned from the museum’s info page: “Of the 66 P-59As manufactured, Planes of Fame Air Museum’s YP-59A was the seventh production model, which was used in early experimental testing and now is the oldest surviving Airacomet. When restored to flight, it will be the only flyable P-59 in the world.”
You can see a P-59 on display in a handful of locations: the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC; March Field Air Museum in Riverside, California; the Flight Test Museum at Edwards AFB, Calif; Pioneer Village in Minden, Nebraska; and the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB in the vicinity of Dayton, Ohio.
Christian D. Orr is a former U.S. Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS).
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