engine, General Arnold said, 'Gentlemen, I give you the Whittle engine — consult all you wish and arrive at any decision yo'u please — just'so long as General Electric accepts a contract to build 15 of them.'

It was also agreed that Bell Aircraft would build three prototype jet fighters. Because of the low thrust of the Whittle engine, it would have to be a twin-engine design. Unlike the experimental E28/39, it would be intended as an operational fighter. Bell was picked for several reasons. Bell's Buffalo, New York, plant was near General Electric's Schenectady and Lynn, Massachuetts engine plants. Bell's engineering and design staff were not overloaded with existing contracts. This was important, as General Arnold had imposed a one-year deadline. Larry Bell, president of the company, had a reputation for undertaking unusual projects and could be counted on to keep close watch on the effort. That evening, Arnold's office contacted Larry Bell and asked that he and his chief engineer, Harland M. Poyer, come to Washington, D.C. On September 5, they were briefed on the jet engine and were asked to build the airplane. They agreed.[5]

On September 22, the British Air Commission told the U.S. Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson, that all information on jet engines would be released. The British provided one engine (the old W.1X used in the taxi tests) and a set of manufacturing drawings for the W.2B, an advanced version of the original W.1 engine. On October 1, 1941, the engine and drawings were loaded on a B-24 at Prestwick, Scotland, and flown west across the Atlantic. The plane arrived the next day at Boiling Field in Washington, B.C.

Then began a standoff; customs agents demanded to inspect the cargo. It took two days before they relented and agreed only to count the three crates, which were sent on, finally, to the General Electric plant in Boston.[6]


When Poyer returned from the September 5 meeting, he selected a small group of engineers and called them to Larry Bell's office. They were sworn to secrecy, then briefed on the project. Larry Bell told them they would design the first U.S. jet fighter. The group, quickly dubbed the 'Secret Six,' were Poyer, Robert Wolf, E. P. Rhodes, Jim Limage, H. L. Bowers, and Brian Sparks. This established the pattern for later Black airplanes — they were developed by a very small group, using streamlined procedures and working on a tight schedule.

The project was protected by layers of secrecy and deception, far beyond the normal secrecy involved in building a new aircraft. All information on jet technology was classified 'Special Secret.' This was the predecessor to today's 'Top Secret (Codeword)' and 'Special Access' classifications. The designation XP-59A was an example of such 'cover.' The original XP-59 was a single-seat, twin-boom pusher fighter. Preliminary design work had been done and a wooden mock-up had been built. By reusing the designation and adding an A, it was made to seem to be only a revised version of the old plane.

The Secret Six had a preliminary proposal and a one-twentieth scale model of the aircraft ready in two weeks. General Arnold approved the design. On September 30, 1941, an eight-month, fixed-fee contract was signed for three XP-59A aircraft, a wind-tunnel model, and data. The total price was $1,644,431. The XP-59As were described only as 'twin engine, single place interceptor pursuit models.' The contract required that General Electric engines be used, but otherwise Bell had a free hand in determining the plane's configuration.

It was clear from the start that the project would have to be done outside Bell's existing development- production facilities. The first drawings were done at an old Fierce-Arrow factory on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo. Before long, the work was moved to a four-story building owned by the Ford Motor Company at Main and Rodney Streets. As the Secret Six moved into the second floor, a Ford dealership was still selling cars on the first floor. The dealership was soon eased out, and the machine shop and storage areas were set up on the first floor. To ensure security, all entrances to the 'Main Street Plant' were guarded, and special passes were required to enter the building. The metal window frames were welded shut, and the first- and second-floor window panes were painted over.[7]

Once again, the XP-59A introduced an aspect of later Black airplane development. The contractor was now split into a 'White' half (which conducted normal production) and a 'Black' half, for secret work. The Black company was a duplicate of the larger White part, with its own design and production facilities. These facilities were isolated — both physically and in terms of secrecy — from the main company.

The Secret Six were embarking on an unknown sea. They were about to reinvent the airplane, yet the only information they had initially on the jet engine was a single, freehand one-twentieth scale sketch. There was nothing about the specific dimensions, weight, thrust, attachment points, accessories, cooling, inflow and outflow — just a drawing the size of a cigarette pack.

Another difficulty was the expectation that the XP-59A could be directly converted into an operational fighter, skipping the test aircraft step. This was made more difficult by the low thrust of the jet engines. The XP-59A's thrust-to-aircraft-weight ratio was lower than contemporary fighters.

The secrecy of the program also complicated development. Outside wind tunnels could not be used. (The one exception was the use of the Wright Field low-speed tunnel to refine the engine inlet design.) The Secret Six could not consult with outside technical experts or contractors. They had to either build equipment in-house or use off- the-shelf hardware.

The secrecy problems became more complex once fabrication of the first XP-59A began on January 9, 1942. Much of the work was done in the machine shop at the Main Street Plant. However, large parts had to be made at the main Bell plant. The drawings were purposely mislabeled — the engine exhaust pipes, for example, were 'heater ducts' (a full fourteen inches in diameter).

As construction of the prototype continued in March and April 1942, more man power was needed. People began to 'disappear.' Desks and drawing boards were now empty. When the 'lost ones' met their ex-co-workers at social events and meetings, they were asked what they were doing. It reached the point that the XP-59A personnel were discouraged from attending such outside activities.[8]

As the Secret Six worked on the prototype, General Electric was producing the engine. Once the W.1X was delivered to Boston, General Electric constructed a special test cell in Building 34 North at the River Works Plant. Dubbed 'Fort Knox,' it was constructed of reinforced concrete and had a heavy steel door. The engine was viewed through a small slit. The exhaust was vented out a sixty-four-foot unused chimney. The W.1X was ignited for the first time on October 16, 1941.

General Electric then began building the production W.2B engines. As with the XP-59A, cover designations were used. The engine was called 'I-A turbosupercharger.' General Electric was then producing aircraft superchargers in the A through F series; calling it the 'I-A' made it seem to be the eighth in this series. General Electric found that the drawings were not complete. They also suggested changes in the gear train and accessories, a new alloy, and modified compressor blades. Even so, it was still a copy of the W.2B. The first test I-A engine made a brief run on March 18, 1942.[9] It was another thirty days before the problems were ironed out and the engine reached 1,250 pounds of thrust. To help work out the problems, Whittle, now an RAF wing commander, came to the United States in early June and remained until the first week of August. By that time, the first two production I-A jet engines were shipped to Bell. They were installed in the prototype XP-59A and final assembly began.[10]


Having gone to these extraordinary lengths to keep the XP-59A secret, it was clear the plane could not be test flown from the Bell plant in Buffalo. An isolated site would be needed to ensure secrecy during the highly visible test flights. In early 1942, Lt. Col. Benjamin W. Chidlaw and Maj.

Ralph R. Swofford Jr. made a tour of possible sites. They selected the Muroc Bombing and Gunnery Range on Rogers Dry Lake, in the Mojave Desert of California.

Rogers Dry Lake is a flat expanse some sixty-five square miles in area.

The site was originally settled by Clifford and Effie Corum in 1910. The little desert community that soon grew on the edge of the lake bed was named Muroc (Corum spelled backward). In September 1933, the army air corps set up a gunnery range on the lake bed. With the attack on Pearl Harbor, a base was built at the south end of the lake bed to train B-24, B-25, and P-38 crews. Out on the lake bed the 'Muroc Maru' was built — a false-front mock-up of a Japanese Mogam/n'-class heavy cruiser — to act as a bombing target.'The site was isolated, far from any major city.

In mid-May 1942, Bell was told Muroc would be the test site. The flight test facility was constructed on the north end of the lake bed, about five miles from Muroc Field. In later years, the two areas would become known as 'North Base' and 'South Base.' North Base consisted of a large portable hangar (which had lost many parts in its

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