The very first aircraft in the United States powered by a jet engine was the Bell Aircraft Corporation P-59 Airacomet.

In June 1941 the US government and the chief of the US Army Air Force, General "Hap" Arnold, got word of Frank Whittle's centrifugal turbojet engine. Two weeks earlier Britain had successfully flown the Gloster E.28/39 utilizing Whittles jet engine for propulsion, and the USAAF was naturally eager to get work underway to build their own jet powered fighter.

The official request to build a jet aircraft arrived at Bell's headquarters in Buffalo, New York on September 5, 1941. In the following month a Whittle turbojet, a complete set of engineering drawings and an engineering team from Power Jets Ltd arrived to get Bell started.

Whittle's centrifugal turbojet (a design now more or less abandoned in favour of the axial flow turbojet) was built as the General Electric I-A, yielding 1,100lb of thrust. Two of these engines were installed on the YP-59A airframe, one under each wing. Development of the aircraft took one year, and on October 1, 1942, the Airacomet took off from Muroc Field (now Edwards AFB) outside Los Angeles, California. One month later Bell flew a two-seat Airacomet. The flight development went ahead without any hiccups, and in 1944 USAF had 12 YP-59A prototypes with upgraded General Electric J31 engines delivered for service trials.

It soon became evident that the Airacomet would not fulfill its intended role as a front line fighter. It was actually outperformed by the P-51D Mustang in many flight regimes, so the USAAF classed it as a fighter-trainer instead.

According to testimonials from test pilots, the Airacomet was a pleasure to fly, but the aircraft's size coupled with the less-than-powerful engines saw to its lacklustre performance.

Despite the remarkable achievment of building a jet aircraft from scratch and with no prior experience, the Airacomet was a disappointment. Some valuable lessons had however been learnt by Bell Aircraft Corporation, something the world would learn of in 1947 when the Bell X-1 flew through the wall of sound for the first time in history.

Technical data

  • Dimensions: Wingspan: 13.87m/45ft 6in, Length: 11.63m/38ft 1in
  • Max weight: 6,214kg/13,700lb
  • Max speed: 671km/h/413mph
  • Ceiling: 46,200ft

A total of 66 Airacomets were delivered to the US Navy and USAAF as variants P-59A (36), P-59B (30) and XF2L-1 (3, US Navy). A non-flying P-59A Airacomet is presently on display outside Edwards AFB.