speed-power calibrations, landing gear tests, and performance checks.

All those who flew the XP-59A noted its smooth and quiet ride. In fact the instruments often stuck due to the lack of vibration. To solve that problem, a two-dollar doorbell ringer was mounted on the instrument panel to provide the necessary vibration.

The circle of those with jet flight experience was expanding. On April 21, Capt. Frederick M. Trapnell, chief of flight test for the Bureau of Aeronautics, became the first navy jet pilot. Trapnell, who retired as an admiral, had mixed feelings about his flight in the first XP-59A. Many years later he recalled:

In ground run-ups the jet was very impressive for its unusual nose and the 'blow-torch' slipstream, but the aircraft was obviously a very gentle type of high-altitude fighter with low wing-loading. It was a great surprise to find that the thing was very quiet and smooth from the pilot's point of view. During takeoff the rattling of the landing gear was audible and the general impression was that of a glider. The XP-59A was comparatively low- powered and this was apparent from the shallow climb-out. Its performance was, at first, distinctly unimpressive — long takeoff and slow rate of climb.

The Bell test pilots also underwent changes — Kelly left North Base and was replaced by Jack Woolams as chief pilot. Woolams set an altitude record of 45,765 feet on July 14, 1943. He broke his own record on December 15, reaching 47,600 feet. In September 1943, Alvin M. 'Tex' Johnston joined the program. Tex Johnston took over as chief pilot at the end of the year. Soon after, R. J. O'Gorman was added to the flight test effort. One famous pilot who did not get a chance to fly the plane was Howard Hughes.

He came to North Base to fly the XP-59A, but the crew faked an engine problem — they did not want him flying 'their' plane just for fun.

The number of aircraft was also growing. On March 26, 1942, a contract had been approved to deliver thirteen YP-59A service test aircraft. These were preproduction aircraft, more similar to operational aircraft. Unlike the three XP-59As, these aircraft would be armed with either two 37mm cannons or one 37mm cannon and three.50-caliber machine guns. The first two YP-59As arrived at North Base in June 1943, but problems delayed their first flights until August and September. Initially, they had to use the original I-A engines, as the more powerful I-16 engines were delayed. By the end of the year, more YP-59As had been delivered, and the airplane had been given its official name of 'Airacomet,' which had been selected from crew suggestions.


To enter the world of Black airplanes is to embark on a strange adventure. Tex Johnston was asked only if he wanted to be project test pilot on a secret airplane. He drove from Buffalo to North Base, arriving at lunchtime.

He was about to sit down in the mess hall (called the 'Desert Rat Hotel') when 'there was a sudden swish and a roar overhead.' He asked, 'What the hell was that?' He went outside and, as he wrote later: 'I spotted the plane coming in for another pass. As it swooshed by, I understood. No prop. I had just witnessed my first jet- propelled airplane.'

The XP-59A personnel (and their counterparts on later Black airplanes) were doing things no others had the chance to do or would even dream possible. But they could not tell any one about it. Captain Trapnell later gave a firsthand example of this: 'I found myself in a group discussing rumors then emanating from Europe, of a weird and wonderful means of propulsion — without a propeller. The discussion became quite intense and very inaccurate, to say the least. I was supposed to be the most knowledgeable of those present but I had to sit silent and act dumb. I couldn't say that I not only knew about it but had flown one. I was forbidden to say a word.'

Life at North Base was rugged — the hours were long, living quarters spartan, and the weather ranged from extreme heat during the day to freezing cold at night. Such shared hardship creates a unity that people in nine to five jobs can never know. Such a brotherhood of experience finds expression in symbols. Woolams returned from a trip to Hollywood with several dozen black derby hats and some fake mustaches. He gave them out to the Bell personnel. The 'Bell Bowlers' would wear the hats as symbols of jet service while drinking in bars such as Juanita's in nearby Rosamond. The army air forces personnel removed the propeller from their collar insignia. To those who were part of the group, the meaning was understood. To those outside the secret club, the symbols were meaningless.

The airspace over North Base was restricted, and pilots training at South Base were told never to approach it. Being human, they sometimes tried to sneak a peek. In mid-June 1943, Lt. Royal D. Frey was flying near North Base when he saw a plane take off. It was silhouetted against the lake bed, and he noticed the shadow of a smoke trail from the aircraft. A few minutes later, the plane passed his P-38 in a steep rolling climb. During the brief

'sighting,' he saw it had no propeller. When he landed, Frey told the other student pilots but was disbelieved. After all, an airplane could not fly without a propeller.

Frey was more fortunate than another group of Muroc pilots. They were flying in formation when an XP-59 pulled up alongside. Their shock at seeing an airplane flying without a propeller was considerable. A bigger shock came when they saw the pilot was a gorilla wearing a black derby hat and waving a cigar! It was Jack Woolams in a Halloween mask and the Bell trademark hat. The 'pilot' then tipped his hat and peeled off. It is reported that throttles were bent and vows of abstinence taken by several pilots in that fall of 1943.'

But sometimes the secrecy of a Black airplane asked a great deal. On September 24, 1943, Woolams was flying a photo mission with another airplane. After they took off, a sandstorm swept in, covering North Base with a blanket of blowing dust. The chase plane flew on to Burbank for a landing. Woolams did not have that option — he had to land at North Base.

Whatever the circumstances, the XP-59A could not be seen. Woolams made a risky instrument landing in the midst of the storm.[18]


It was not until January 6, 1944, that the existence of the P-59 program was revealed. The joint U.S. Army Air Forces-Royal Air Force announcement gave a brief history of jet propulsion and limited details such as the date of the first flight. It did not say where the test flights were made, the name of the aircraft, or did it include a picture. This set the pattern for later announcements.

The lack of official information did not stop the press from speculating, however. Typical quotes included, 'Speed of the plane was placed at between 500 and 600 mph,' and 'Its top speed has been estimated by ground observers to exceed 500 mph.' This, too, would become typical of later Dark Eagles.

In February 1944, operational tests were conducted at Muroc by army air forces test pilots to determine the production YP-59's tactical suitability.

Three YP-59As with the more powerful I-16 engines were used. The results were disappointing — in mock dogfights with P-47Ds and P-38Js, the YP-59As were outclassed in both performance and maneuverability. The P- 47s and P-38s could break off combat at will by either diving away or going into a full-power climb.

As the suitability tests were being conducted, Bell's North Base operations were being brought to an end. The final days were spent giving rides to Bell mechanics in the observer's cockpit of the first XP-59A. By February 18, 1944, the aircraft and equipment were turned over to the army air forces. On February 27, Bell flight operations at North Base were formally closed. The three XP-59As and six YP-59As had put in 242 hours and 30 minutes of flight time without a mishap.

The shortcomings of the P-59 were reinforced in April 1944 when a YP-59A underwent gunnery tests. Using its three.50-caliber machine guns, the plane made firing runs at speeds between 220 and 340 mph. The tests showed poor directional stability at speeds above 290 mph. The army air forces concluded'… it is not believed that the P-59 airplane is operationally or tactically suited for combat nor is it believed that any modification to this aircraft, short of a completely new design, would improve its combat suitability…'

It was still felt the P-59A had a useful role:

… although the aircraft is not suitable for combat, there is a requirement for a limited number of subject aircraft to be utilized for jet training and for general Air Force familiarization. The Army Air Forces Board is further of the opinion that use of jet propelled aircraft will become widespread in the immediate future and that the P- 59

… is an excellent aircraft for purposes of conducting research on jet power plants and pressure cabins. The P-59 will also make an excellent training ship in that its low wing-loading makes the airplane very safe for transition

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