travels), a two-story barracks, and a mess hall. Water came from a two-hundred-foot-deep well and was stored in a wooden tank. The ground control for the test flights was a two-way radio and an old recorder set up on the ramp. Transport was provided by two Bell-owned station wagons.[11]

Larry Bell told Robert M. Stanley, Bell Aircraft's chief test pilot, that the company was building a jet aircraft and that he would fly it. This was the first time Stanley had heard of the project. Stanley arrived at North Base on August 20, 1942. He found that progress on the buildings had been slow, and the contractor said there was little chance of completing the work by mid-September. As it turned out, the barracks was completed by the deadline, while the hangar lacked only the floor and electrical wiring. With the prototype aircraft about to arrive, the civilian contractors were sent away, and Stanley and the Bell crew finished the work. They built to last — a half century later, the original XP-59A hangar is still in use at North Base, and is still used for Black airplanes.

The prototype XP-59A was ready to ship in September 1942. It was decided to send the fuselage to Muroc with the two I-A engines in place. This meant there would be no time lost removing the engines, then reinstalling them at Muroc. The problem was that jolts during the long train trip could damage the engines' bearings. It was decided to slowly spin the engines for the whole trip.

The fuselage and wings were wrapped in fabric for the journey. A hole was knocked through the second-story wall, and the packages were lowered by a crane. They were then loaded in two boxcars at 2:00 A.M. on September 12, while army guards patrolled the rail yard. The train set out with three General Electric engineers and five army guards to watch over the plane. A gasoline-powered air compressor was used to keep the engines turning. The compressor's gasoline tank had to be refilled constantly — a difficult job on a moving railroad car. On the second night out, the compressor repeatedly failed due to contaminated gasoline, but the General Electric engineers were able to keep restarting it before the jet engines spun down.

Finally, at 8:00 A.M., September 19, a full six days after leaving Buffalo, the XP-59A arrived at Muroc.

The next week was spent getting the aircraft ready for its planned first flight on October 2. The first engine ground test runs were made on September 26. Both engines made three five-minute runs. The plane was judged ready for taxi tests. On September 30, Stanley made several high-speed taxi runs to check out the handling of the aircraft. Several times, the XP-59A lifted off the lake bed. Based on this, Stanley wanted to press on and make the first flight. It was late in the afternoon, however, and Larry Bell said it would be better to wait until the next morning.


On October 1, 1942, a year to the day after the nonflyable W.1X engine and an incomplete set of drawings were sent to the United States, the XP-59A stood ready to try its wings. Given the technological unknowns, this was a remarkable achievement. It was also an indication of what Black development procedures could accomplish.

On this morning there were the usual last-minute problems. The ignition wires on both engines had to be changed before they could be started. Once they were running, Stanley taxied about three miles downwind onto the lake bed. He then turned the XP-59A and ran up the engines. The first flight reached an altitude of approximately 25 feet, and landing was made using partial power without flaps.

In all, four flights were made. In each case, the landing gear was left down and altitude did not exceed 100 feet.[12] For those who had worked on the project, who knew the secret and understood what had been accomplished, it was a remarkable experience. Ted Rogers, a General Electric engineer wrote, 'What a strange feeling this seemingly giant bird gave us as it approached. There was dead silence as it passed overhead — then a low rumbling like a blowtorch — and it was gone, leaving a smell of kerosene in the air.'[13]

The following day, a second series of test flights was made. Stanley made the first two flights, reaching 6,000 and 10,000 feet. The day's third flight was made by Col. Laurence C. Craigie, chief of the Aircraft Project Section at Wright Field. Stanley told Craigie that the engines had only about a half hour left before they would have to be overhauled, then asked if he would like to fly the plane. Craigie was a program manager and was not even a test pilot. He had come to North Base only as an observer, but Craigie did not have to be asked twice. Later, he recalled, 'I didn't get very high. I didn't go very fast. The most vivid impression I received, after a very long takeoff run, occurred at the moment we broke contact with the ground — it was so quiet.'

Thus, quite by chance, Craigie became the first U.S. military pilot to make a jet flight.[14] Stanley made the day's final flight.

The two days of flights indicated the igniter wires, landing gear, and oil pressure gauges all needed modification. The two I-A engines were also replaced. All early jet engines had very low operating lifetimes — in the case of the I-A, a mere five hours.[15]

The test procedures did not match XP-59A's sophistication. The test pilot would radio instrument readings to the ground or jot down notes on a knee board. Control stick forces were measured with a fish scale. The engine thrust was measured with an industrial spring scale attached to the landing gear and anchored to the ground. Testing the pressurized cockpit (the first on a U.S. fighter) was a constant problem. The cabin seals had to be checked and replaced frequently. To check them, Angus McEahem, a General Electric technician, would close the canopy, start up the engine, and pressurize the cockpit. He would then light up a cigar. The smoke would show any leaks.

It was clear from the start that the XP-59A required a new level of flight test data. As an interim solution, an observer's position was fitted into the nose section. A twenty-inch hole was cut in the upper fuselage, and a seat and instrument panel were fitted into the empty gun compartment. It resembled a World War I biplane cockpit. The XP-59A thus became the first two-seat jet (and the first open-cockpit jet aircraft). When test flights resumed on October 30, the observer's position proved highly successful. The first observer was E. P. Rhodes, Bell project engineer for the XP-59A.[16]

Test flights of the XP-59A continued at a slow pace, due, in part, to the maintenance and modifications required of all new aircraft. The main problem was the I-A engines. They needed constant inspection and trouble- shooting. This was aggravated by slow engine production at General Electric. Delays in engine deliveries were a constant problem. Because of the short lifetime of each engine, the shortage interfered with early flight operations. What test flights were made indicated the engine bearings were overheating.

The engine delivery problems also affected the second and third XP-59A prototypes. The second aircraft was sent to Muroc without engines. The wings arrived on December 27, 1942, with the fuselage following on January 4, 1943. Delays in the engine shipments pushed back the first flight until February 15. It was flown by Bell test pilot Frank H. 'Bud' Kelly Jr., who had replaced Stanley in November. At takeoff, the cabin defroster failed, filling the cockpit with smoke. Kelly made a tight turn, cut the engines, and made a dead-stick landing.

The third XP-59A arrived at Muroc on February 21. Again, the engines were not ready, so it was shipped without them. Due to the lack of engines and the press of modifications on the first two aircraft, it was not assembled until April. Adding to the engine delivery problems was the weather. In late January 1943, heavy winter rains flooded Rogers 'Dry' Lake. While waiting for the lake bed to dry, the Bell and General Electric engineers worked on the bearings problem. They found it was caused by excessive tolerances.

With more rain expected, it was decided to shift operations away from North Base temporarily. Hawes Field, near Victorville Field (later George Air Force Base) would be used. On March 10, the second XP-59A was towed thirty-five miles by road to the new site. The XP-59A was still classified Special Secret, however. The solution would create the most lasting image of the first Black airplane. To hide the telltale intakes and exhausts, the fuselage, from the nose to behind the wing's trailing edge, was covered in fabric during the move. Fitted to the nose was a four-bladed 'prop' made by Joe Brown. Although crude, from a distance it would fool a witness. To make sure no one came close enough to see through the camouflage, the road was temporarily closed.

Only one flight was made from Hawes Field before it was decided that the facility had inadequate security. About March 15, the XP-59A was again moved, this time to Harpers Lake. The site was some forty-two miles from North Base, and it soon proved difficult to transport personnel, supplies, and food to the area. By April 7, Rogers Dry Lake was again usable. The plane was flown back to North Base.[17]


April 1943 marked a turning point in the XP-59A program. Up to April 11, the first aircraft had made only thirty flights for a total of fifteen hours fifteen minutes of flight time. The second aircraft totaled twenty-four flights and thirteen hours forty-five minutes in the air, while the third aircraft had yet to fly. During April and May, the pace of flight testing picked up. The third aircraft was flown, and the trio made sixty-seven flights to conduct glide tests,

Добавить отзыв


Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату