Bell Aircraft Corporation
The Bell Aircraft Corporation was an aircraft manufacturer of the United States, a builder of several types of fighter aircraft for World War II but most famous for the Bell X-1, the first supersonic aircraft, and for the development and production of many important civilian and military helicopters. Bell also developed the Reaction Control System for the Project Mercury Spacecraft and the Bell Rocket Belt. The company was purchased in 1960 by Textron, and lives on today as Bell Helicopter Textron.
The company was founded by Lawrence Bell, who was an early employee and later general manager of the Glenn L. Martin Company, then a manager of the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation. When Consolidated moved to San Diego in 1935, Bell stayed behind and formed the "Bell Aircraft Corporation" on 10 July 1935, headquartered in Buffalo, New York.
Bell's first military contract followed in 1937 with the development of the ill-fated YFM-1 Airacuda, an unconventional bomber destroyer powered by two Allison-powered pusher propellers. Only 13 Airacudas would be produced, and they would serve in the USAAF for only three years.
Bell would enjoy far greater success the following year with the development of the single engine P-39. Putting their previous experience with Allison engines to good use, the P-39 placed the engine in the center of the aircraft, with the propellor driven by a long shaft through which a cannon was also mounted that could fire directly out of the propellor's spinner. Lacking a supercharger or turbocharger, the P-39 performed poorly at higher altitudes compared to other fighters of the time, though many P-39s would find their way into the Soviet Air Force under the Lend Lease Act, where they proved themselves to be an excellent ground attack aircraft; this was also demonstrated by the Cactus Air Force.
A slightly larger and more powerful version of the P-39 would arrive shortly before the end of WWII. Called the P-63 Kingcobra, it would address many of the P-39's shortcomings, though it arrived too late to make any contribution to the War effort. Although Bell would design several advanced fighter designs during and after WWII, none would become operational. The P-59 Airacomet was the first US jet fighter to fly. The XP-77 was a small fighter using non-strategic materials; it was not successful. The XP-83 was a jet escort fighter similar in layout to the P-59 that was cancelled. The Bell XF-109 was a supersonic vertical takeoff supersonic fighter that was cancelled in 1961.
Perhaps Bell Aircraft's most important contribution to the history of fixed wing aircraft development would be the X-1, the first aircraft to break the sound barrier. Bell would go on to produce a line of experimental aircraft throughout the 1950's, helping the Air Force explore the boundaries of aircraft design, and paving the way for the space race.
Helicopter development began in 1941, with the company's first, the Bell Model 30 making its maiden flight in 1943. The division would become the only part which produced aircraft when it was purchased by Textron. It is now known today as Bell Helicopter Textron. After a series of successful helicopter designs, the UH-1 Iroquois became the most famous helicopter of the Vietnam War, and Bell still designs and manufactures helicopters today.
Lawrence Bell died in 1956, and for several years afterwards the company was in financial difficulty.
After the Textron purchase, the company was organized as a subsidiary Bell Aerospace Corporation with three divisions. See Bell Helicopter Textron for further history. See Harvey Gaylord for biographical information on a key executive.
Fixed-wing aircraft, in order of development:
See Bell Helicopter for helicopters.
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