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P-59 / F-83 Airacomet

The beginning of the "black" projects came in September 1941, with the decision to build the first operational jet fighter, the XP59A, using the British Whittle engine. Wartime security demands by the British and American governments wrapped the project in the kind of secrecy and deception that was to be a model for later such projects.

In March 1942, project officers for a top secret program selected a site along the north shore of Rogers Dry Lake for tests involving a new technology which would completely transform aviation in this country.

That summer, facilities for a small U.S. Army Air Forces (AAF) Materiel Center Test Base were constructed at the site which was about seven miles across the lakebed from Muroc Army Air Base (later Edwards Air Force Base) and, on Oct. 2, the U.S. belatedly entered the jet age as test pilot Bob Stanley completed the first "official" flight of the Bell XP-59A (photo) Airacomet (it had actually first lifted off the day before during high-speed taxi tests).

It was an age when flight test was still in its infancy. The airplanes were never instrumented for more than about 20 different parameters and the instrumentation was often primitive, to say the least. Stick forces, for example, were measured with a modified fish scale and the static thrust of the engines with an industrial spring scale. There was no telemetry and the automatic observer, an instrument panel in the gun bay photographed by a camera activated by the pilot, still represented the state of the art in data recording systems.

Though the instrumentation was sparse and the facilities at Muroc truly Spartan, the wisdom of its selection as the test site for the radical new technology was borne out by experience. The early jet engines, for example, were subject to frequent flameouts and, when pilots were unable to restart them, their only hope was close proximity to a landing field where they could attempt dead-stick landings. With miles and miles of available runways extending in every direction, Rogers Dry Lake provided this luxury and, remarkably, the entire experimental test program was conducted without a single serious mishap--a fact that was not lost on AAF research and development officials at Wright Field, Ohio.

The three XP-59As were powered by a pair of General Electric I-A centrifugal-flow turbojets rated at 1250 pounds of static thrust. The I-A engine was an American adaptation of the British Whittle W-1B engine and subsequent models of it, such as the I-14 (1400 pounds of static thrust) and the I-16 (1650 pounds) powered the YP-59A preproduction test aircraft that were evaluated at Muroc in late 1943 and early 1944.

The General Electric J31 turbojet engine was developed beginning in 1943. Its design grew out of the first American-built turbojet engine, the General Electric I-A, which was a copy of the original turbojet prototype created by British designer Sir Frank Whittle. The J31 was the first turbojet engine produced in quantity in the United States (241 were produced between 1943 and 1945). It weighed 850 pounds and produced 1,650 pounds of thrust. The engine powered the Bell P-59 "Airacomet," the first American jet aircraft.

The performance of these airplanes, which were representative of the projected production models, was disappointing. Overweight and underpowered, they achieved a top speed, for example, of only 409 mph which was no better than the best prop-driven fighters of the day. And, indeed, in operational suitability tests during which it was flown in mock combat against P-38s, P-47s, and P-51s, it was outclassed in virtually every category by the conventional fighters. Judged not suitable for combat, the 50 production model P-59A and -B aircraft that came off the Bell assembly line were used to train America's first cadre of jet pilots. Although the performance of the Airacomet proved to be disappointing, it nevertheless served as a useful test bed to explore the potential advantages of a radical new technology and it represented a start--the first of a long series of aircraft that would make Muroc (and later Edwards Air Force Base) synonymous with the turbojet revolution in America.

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