Tag Archives: Bell Aircraft Corporation

8 October 1954

Captain Arthur W. Murray, U.S. Air Force (1918–2011). Murray is wearing a David Clark Co. T-1 capstan-type partial-pressure suit with K-1 helmet for high altitude flight. (U.S. Air Force)
Captain Arthur W. Murray, U.S. Air Force (1918–2011). Murray is wearing a David Clark Co. T-1 capstan-type partial-pressure suit. (U.S. Air Force)

8 October 1954: After two earlier glide flights flown by test pilot Jack Ridley, Captain Arthur Warren (“Kit”) Murray, U.S. Air Force, made the first powered flight of the Bell Aircraft Corporation X-1B rocket-powered supersonic research aircraft, serial number 48-1385.

Five months earlier, Murray had flown the X-1A to an altitude of 90,440 feet (25,570 meters). He was the first pilot to fly high enough to see the curvature of the Earth and a dark sky at mid day.

The X-1B was the third in a series of experimental X-1 rocketplane variants built by the Bell Aircraft Corporation for the United States Air Force and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), for research into supersonic flight. It was fitted with 300 thermocouples to measure aerodynamic heating. It was the first aircraft equipped with a pilot-controlled reaction control system which allowed for maneuvering the aircraft at high altitudes where normal aerodynamic controls were no longer effective.

NACA 800, a modified Boeing B-29 Superfortress, 45-21800, with the Bell X-1B, at Edwards Air Force Base, 8 April 1958. (NASA)
NACA 800, a modified Boeing B-29 Superfortress, 45-21800, with the Bell X-1B, at Edwards Air Force Base, 9 April 1958. (NASA)

Like the X-1 and X-1A, the X-1B was carried by a modified four-engine B-29 Superfortress heavy bomber (B-29-96-BW 45-21800), before being airdropped at altitudes of 25,000 to 35,000 feet (7,620 to 10,668 meters) near Edwards Air Force Base, California. After its fuel was expended, the pilot would glide for a landing on Rogers Dry Lake.

The X-1B was 35 feet, 7 inches (10.846 meters) long with a wing span of 28 feet (8.53 meters). Its loaded weight was 16,590 pounds (7,520 kilograms). The X-1B was powered by a Reaction Motors XLR11-RM-6 four-chamber rocket engine, fueled with a mixture of water and alcohol with liquid oxygen. It produced 6,000 pounds of thrust (26.689 kilonewtons. The XLR11 was 5 feet, 0 inches (1.524 meters) long, 1 foot, 7 inches (0.483 meters) in diameter, and weighed 210 pounds (95 kilograms). Each of the four thrust chambers were 1 foot, 9¾ inches (0.552 meters) long and 6 inches (0.152 meters) in diameter.

The rocket plane was designed to reach 1,650 miles per hour (2,655 kilometers per hour) and 90,000 feet (27,432 meters).

Bell X-1B (Bell Aircraft Corporation)
Bell X-1B 46-1385 (U.S. Air Force)
Bell X-1B 46-1385 on Rogers Dry Lake (NASA E-2547)
Bell X-1B on Rogers Dry Lake (NASA)
Bell X-1B 46-1385 on Rogers Dry Lake (NASA)

This was Kit Murray’s only flight in the X-1B. After being flown by a number of other Air Force test pilots, including Stuart Childs and Frank Everest, the rocketplane was turned over to NACA for the continued flight test program. NACA research pilots John McKay and Neil Armstrong made those flights.

X-1B 48-1385 made 27 flights. It was retired in January 1958. It is in the collection of the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

Bell X-1B 46-1385 parked on Rogers Dry Lake, 30 July 1958. (NASA)
Bell X-1B 46-1385 parked on Rogers Dry Lake, 30 July 1958. (NASA)
Bell X-1B 46-1385 parked on Rogers Dry Lake, 30 July 1958. (NASA)
Bell X-1B 46-1385 parked on Rogers Dry Lake, 30 July 1958. (NASA)

Arthur Warren Murray was born at Cresson, Cambria County, Pennsylvania, 26 December 1918. He was the first of two children of Charles Chester Murray, a clerk, and Elsie Espy Murray.

Arthur Murray attended Huntingdon High School, Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, graduating 4 June 1936, and then studied Juniata College, also in Huntingdon, 1937–1938.

Kit Murray enlisted in the Field Artillery, Pennsylvania National Guard, 17 November 1939. (Some sources state that he served in the U.S. Cavalry.) Murray had brown hair and blue eyes, was 5 feet, 10 inches (1.78 meters) tall and weighed 150 pounds (68 kilograms). Following the United States’ entry into World War II, Sergeant Murray requested to be trained as a pilot. He was appointed a flight officer (a warrant officer rank), Army of the United States, on 5 December 1942. On 15 October 1943 Flight Officer Murray received a battlefield promotion to the commissioned rank of second lieutenant, A.U.S.

Between 6 January and 22 October 1943, Murray flew over 50 combat missions in the Curtiss-Wright P-40 Warhawk across North Africa. After about ten months in the Mediterranean Theater, he returned to the United States, assigned as an instructor flying the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt fighter bomber, stationed at Bradley Field, Hartford, Connecticut.

Lieutenant Murray married Miss Elizabeth Anne Strelic, who had immigrated from Czechoslovakia with her family as an infant, at Atlantic City, New Jersey, 29 December 1943. They would have six children, and foster a seventh. They later divorced. (Mrs. Murray died in 1980.)

Murray was promoted to 1st lieutenant, A.U.S., 8 August 1944. His next assignment was as a maintenance officer. He was sent to Maintenance Engineering School at Chanute Field, Rantoul, Illinois, and from there to the Flight Test School at Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio.

Murray was the first test pilot to be permanently assigned to Muroc Army Air Field (later, Edwards Air Force Base). Other test pilots, such as Captain Chuck Yeager, were assigned to Wright Field and traveled to Muroc as necessary.

Murray’s A.U.S. commission was converted to first lieutenant, Air Corps, United States Army, on 19 June 1947, with date of rank retroactive to 15 October 1946. The U.S. Air Force became a separate military service in 1947, and Lieutenant Murray became an officer in the new service.

Colonel Arthur Warren (“Kit”) Murray, U.S. Air Force.

Later, 1958–1960, Major Murray was the U.S. Air Force project officer for the North American Aviation X-15 hypersonic research rocketplane at Wright Field.

Colonel Murray retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1961. He next worked for Boeing in Seattle, Washington, from 1961 to 1969, and then Bell Helicopter in Texas.

On 4 April 1975, Kit Murray married his second wife, Ms. Ann Tackitt Humphreys, an interior decorator, in Tarrant County, Texas.

Colonel Arthur Warren Murray, United States Air Force (Retired), died at West, Texas, 25 July 2011, at the age of 92 years.

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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1 October 1942

Bell XP-59A Airacomet 42-108784, first flight at Muroc Dry Lake, 1 October 1942. (U.S. Air Force)

1 October 1942: At Muroc Dry Lake, in the high desert north of Los Angeles, California, Bell Aircraft Corporation’s Chief Test Pilot, Robert Morris Stanley, made the first flight of the top secret prototype turbojet-powered fighter, the Bell XP-59A Airacomet, serial number 42-108784. Weather was “C.A.V.U.” (Ceiling and Visibility Unrestricted) and wind was from the west at 20 miles per hour (9 meters per second).

Bell Aircraft Corporation Chief Test Pilot Robert M. Stanley in the cockpit of an XP-59A Airacomet. (National Museum of the United States Air Force)

In his report, Stanley wrote:

“4.     All take-offs were made using 15,000 r.p.m. on both engines with flaps fully up and with the airplane pulled off the ground at about 80 to 90 m.p.h. Throttle was applied promptly and acceleration during take-off appeared quite satisfactory. The run was estimated to be in the vicinity of 2,000 feet, possibly more. The first flight reached an altitude of approximately 25 feet, and landing was made using partial power without flaps. This take-off had the wind approximately 60° on the right bow and must be considered a cross-wind take-off.

“5.     Aileron and elevator action appear satisfactory, although the rudder force appears undesirably light causing the airplane to yaw somewhat for very light pedal pressures. Left rudder was needed for take-off due to cross wind.”

—Bell Aircraft Corp. Pilot’s Report 27-923-001, at Page 1-12, by Robert M. Stanley, 1 October 1942

Bell XP-59A Airacomet 42-108784 disguised with a false propeller. (U.S. Air Force)
One of the three Bell XP-59A prototypes, circa 1942. (U.S. Air Force)
Bell Aircraft Corporation XP-59A Airacomet 42-108784. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Bell Aircraft Corporation P-59 Airacomet with updated national insignia, after August 1943. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Bell Aircraft Corporation XP-59A Airacomet 42-108784. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Stanley made three more flights that day, as high as 100 feet (30.5 meters). The following day, Army Air Corps test pilot Colonel Laurence C. Craigie conducted the “official” first flight, reaching an altitude of 10,000 feet (3,048 meters).

A Bell XP-59A Airacomet prototype in flight near Muroc Army Airfield, 1942. (U.S. Air Force)

Three XP-59A prototypes were built. The number one ship, 42-108784, was affectionately nicknamed Miss Fire, because of the initial difficulty in getting the engines to start.

The Bell XP-59A was conventional single-place airplane with retractable tricycle landing gear. It was primarily of metal construction, though the control surfaces were fabric-covered. The prototype was 38 feet, 10 inches (11.836 meters) long with a wingspan of 49 feet, 0 inches (14.935 meters) and overall height of 12 feet, 3¾ inches (3.753 meters), at rest. The leading edge of the wings were swept aft  7°. The angle of incidence was +2° with -2° twist and 2½° dihedral. The horizontal stabilizer had a span of 16 feet, 8 inches (5.080 meters). Its angle of incidence was +1½° with no dihedral. The vertical fin had 0° offset. The empty weight of the XP-59A was 7,319 pounds (3,320 kilograms) and its maximum gross weight was 10,089 pounds (4,576 kilograms).

A cutaway display of a General Electric I-A turbojet engine. The compressor and turbine are on a single shaft (center). One of the combustion chambers is sectioned at the upper left. (National Museum of the United States Air Force)
A cutaway display of a General Electric I-A turbojet engine. The single-stage centrifugal compressor and single-stage axial-flow turbine are on a single shaft (center). One of the annular combustion chambers is sectioned at the upper left. (National Museum of the United States Air Force)

The experimental fighter was initially powered by two General Electric Type I-A centrifugal reverse-flow turbojet engines, serial numbers 170121 (left) and 170131 (right), each producing 1,250 pounds of thrust (5.561 kilonewtons) at 15,000 r.p.m. These were copies of the British Whittle W.2B engines. They were heavy, underpowered and unreliable.

Performance of the XP-59A was disappointing with a maximum speed of 350 miles per hour (563 kilometers per hour) at Sea Level and 389 miles per hour (626 kilometers per hour) at 35,160 feet (10,717 meters), significantly slower than many piston-engined fighters.

Three XP-59A prototypes and thirteen YP-59A preproduction airplanes were built. The P-59 was ordered into production and Bell Aircraft Corporation built thirty P-59A and twenty P-59B fighters. These were armed with one M4 37mm autocannon with 44 rounds of ammunition and three Browning AN-M2 .50-caliber machine guns with 200 rounds per gun.

Although a YP-59A had set an unofficial altitude record of 47,600 feet (14,508 meters), the Airacomet was so outclassed by standard production fighters that no more were ordered.

Lawrence D. ("Larry") Bell with his XP-59A Airacomet at Muroc Dry Lake. (Robert F. Dorr Collection)
Lawrence D. Bell with his XP-59A Airacomet at Muroc Dry Lake. (Robert F. Dorr Collection)

The race for a jet engine-powered fighter had been ongoing for several years, and the United States’ XP-59A was trailing behind. The first jet airplane, the Heinkel He 178, had made its first flight in Germany three years earlier, on 27 August 1939, though it was a proof-of-concept article, not an operational military aircraft. In the United Kingdom, the Gloster E/28.39, also a proof-of-concept aircraft, though more advanced than the Heinkel, made its first flight, 15 May 1941. The world’s first operational jet fighter, the Messerschmitt Me 262, made its first flight on 18 July 1942. It was nearly two years before production Me 262s entered combat, but they were devastating against bomber formations. The Gloster Meteor, the Allies’ first jet fighter, first flew 5 March 1943, and deliveries to fighter squadrons began in July 1944. The de Havilland DH.100 Vampire made its first flight 20 September 1943, but it did not become operational until after the end of World War II.

The XP-59A flew nearly five months before its British cousin, but would not be assigned to an operational squadron, the 445th Fighter Squadron, 412th Fighter Group, until June 1945.

The first American military jet aircraft, Bell XP-59A Airacomet 42-108784, was preserved by the Army at Muroc, and the engines at Wright Field, Ohio. In 1978, these were given to the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum where the prototype was later restored and placed on display.g9

The first American jet-powered aircraft, Bell XP-59A Airacomet 42-108784 on display at the National Air and Space Museum. (NASM)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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27 September 1956

Captain Milburn G. Apt, U.S. Air Force, with a Bell X-2. (U.S. Air Force)
Captain Milburn Grant Apt, United States Air Force, with a Bell X-2. (U. S. Air Force)

27 September 1956: Captain Milburn G. (“Mel”) Apt, United States Air Force, was an experimental test pilot assigned to the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base, California. After Frank Everest and Iven Kincheloe had made twelve powered flights in the Bell X-2 supersonic research aircraft, Mel Apt was the next test pilot to fly it.

The X-2 was a joint project of the U.S. Air Force and NACA (the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, the predecessor of NASA). The rocketplane was designed and built by Bell Aircraft Corporation of Buffalo, New York, to explore supersonic flight at speeds beyond the capabilities of the earlier Bell X-1 and Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket.

In addition to the aerodynamic effects of speeds in the Mach 2.0–Mach 3.0 range, engineers knew that the high temperatures created by aerodynamic friction would be a problem, so the aircraft was built from stainless steel and K-Monel, a copper-nickel alloy.

The Bell Aircraft Corporation X-2 was 37 feet, 10 inches (11.532 meters) long with a wingspan of 32 feet, 3 inches (9.830 meters) and height of 11 feet, 10 inches (3.607 meters). Its empty weight was 12,375 pounds (5,613 kilograms) and loaded weight was 24,910 pounds (11,299 kilograms).

Bell X-2 46-675 on its transportation dolly at Edwards Air Force Base, California, 1952. (NASA)
The second of two Bell X-2 supersonic research rocketplanes, 46-675, on its transportation dolly at Edwards Air Force Base, California, 1952. On 12 May 1953 this X-2 exploded during a captive test flight, killing Bell’s test pilot Jean L. “Skip” Ziegler. (NASA)

The X-2 was powered by a throttleable two-chamber Curtiss-Wright XLR25-CW-1 rocket engine that produced 2,500–15,000 pounds of thrust (11.12–66.72 kilonewtons)

Rather than use its limited fuel capacity to take off and climb to altitude, the X-2 was dropped from a modified heavy bomber as had been the earlier rocketplanes. A four-engine Boeing B-50D-95-BO Superfortress bomber, serial number 48-096, was modified as the drop ship and redesignated EB-50D.

The launch altitude was 30,000 feet (9,144 meters). After the fuel was exhausted, the X-2 glided to a touchdown on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base.

Bell X-2 46-674 after drop from Boeing EB-50D Superfortress 48-096. (U.S. Air Force)
Bell X-2 46-674 after drop from Boeing EB-50D Superfortress 48-096. (U.S. Air Force)

With Mel Apt in the cockpit on his first rocketplane flight, the B-50 carried the X-2 to 31,800 feet (9,693 meters). After it was dropped from the bomber, Apt ignited the rocket engine and began to accelerate. He passed Mach 1 at 44,000 feet (13,411 meters) and continued to climb. Apt flew an “extraordinarily precise profile” to reach 72,200 feet (22,007 meters) where he put the X-2 into a dive. The rocket engine burned 12.5 seconds longer than planned, and at 65,589 feet (19,992 meters) the X-2 reached Mach 3.196 (2,094 miles per hour, 3,377 kilometers per hour).

Milburn Apt was the first pilot to exceed Mach 3. He was The Fastest Man Alive.

Bell X-2 46-674 in flight over Southern California, 1955–56. Note the supersonic diamond-shaped shock waves in the rocket engine's exhaust. (Bell aircraft Corporation)
Bell X-2 46-674 in flight over Southern California, 1955–56. Note the supersonic diamond-shaped shock waves in the rocket engine’s exhaust. (Bell Aircraft Corporation)

It was known that the X-2 could be unstable in high speed maneuvers. The flight plan called for Apt to slow to Mach 2.4 before beginning a gradual turn back toward Rogers Dry Lake where he was to land, but he began the turn while still at Mach 3. Twenty seconds after engine burn out, the X-2 began to oscillate in all axes and departed controlled flight. His last radio transmission was, “There she goes.” ¹

Mel Apt was subjected to acceleration forces of ± 6 Gs. It is believed that he was momentarily unconscious. Out of control, the X-2 fell through 40,000 feet (12,192 meters) in an inverted spin. Apt initiated the escape capsule separation, in which the entire nose of the X-2 was released from the airframe. It pitched down violently and Mel Apt was knocked unconscious again. He regained consciousness a second time and tried to parachute from the escape capsule, but was still inside when it hit the desert floor at several hundred miles per hour. Mel Apt was killed instantly.

Since 1950, Milburn G. Apt was the thirteenth test pilot killed at Edwards Air Force Base.

Wreckage of the Bell X-2, 46-674. (U.S. Air Force)
Wreckage of the Bell X-2, 46-674, in the Kramer Hills, east of Edwards Air Force Base. (U.S. Air Force)
Wreckage of the Bell X-2, 46-674. (NASM 9A08208)

Milburn Grant Apt was born at Buffalo, Kansas, 8 April 1924. He was the third child of Oley Glen Apt, a farmer, and Ada Willoughby Apt.

“Mel” Apt enlisted as a private in the Air Corps Enlisted Reserve, United States Army, 9 November 1942. On 23 June 1943, Private Apt was appointed an Aviation Cadet. After completing flight training, Cadet Apt was commissioned a Second Lieutenant, Army of the United States (A.U.S.). He was promoted to First Lieutenant, A.U.S., 4 September 1945. Apt was released from active duty on 11 August 1946. On 10 October 1947, he was reclassified as a Second Lieutenant, Air Corps, United States Army, with date of rank 8 April 1945.

In February 1950, Lieutenant Apt, then stationed at Williams Air Force Base, Arizona, married Miss Faye Lorrie Baker of Phoenix. They would have two children.

Mel Apt earned a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, in 1951, and a second bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. He then attended the U.S. Air Force Experimental Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, California, graduating in September 1954. Apt was assigned to the Fighter Operations Branch, Air Force Flight Test Center, as a test pilot.

On 22 December 1954, Captain Apt was flying a chase plane during a test at Edwards. The test aircraft crash-landed on the dry lake and caught fire with its pilot trapped inside. Mel Apt, with his bare hands, rescued the other test pilot, saving his life. For this courageous act, he was awarded the Soldier’s Medal.

Captain Apt was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his flight in the X-2. The medal was presented to his widow in a ceremony at Edwards in March 1957.

Captain Milburn Grant Apt, United States Air Force, was 32 years old at the time of his death. His remains were buried at the Buffalo Cemetery, Buffalo, Kansas.

Captain Iven Carl Kincheloe and Captain Milburn Grant Apt (seated in cockpit) with the Bell X-2 at Edwards Air Force Base, 1956. (Jet Pilot Overseas)

¹ Recommended: Coupling Dynamics in Aircraft: A Historical Perspective, by Richard E. Day, Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards AFB, California NASA Special Publications 532, 1997.

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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7 September 1956

Captain Iven Carl Kincheloe, Jr., United States Air Force
Captain Iven Carl Kincheloe, Jr., United States Air Force

7 September 1956: At Edwards Air Force Base, California, test pilot Captain Iven Carl Kincheloe, Jr., U.S. Air Force, flew the Bell X-2 rocketplane, serial number 46-674, to a speed of Mach 1.7 and an altitude of 126,200 feet (38,465 meters). He was the first pilot to fly above 100,000 feet (30,480 meters) and was called “The First of the Spacemen.”

The X-2 was a joint project of the U.S. Air Force and NACA (the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the predecessor of NASA). The rocketplane was designed and built by Bell Aircraft Corporation of Buffalo, New York, to explore supersonic flight at speeds beyond the capabilities of the earlier Bell X-1 and Douglas D-558-2 Skyrocket. In addition to the aerodynamic effects of speeds in the Mach 2.0–Mach 3.0 range, engineers knew that the high temperatures created by aerodynamic friction would be a problem, so the aircraft was built from Stainless Steel and K-Monel, a copper-nickel alloy.

The Bell Aircraft Corporation X-2 was 37 feet, 10 inches (11.532 meters) long with a wingspan of 32 feet, 3 inches (9.830 meters) and height of 11 feet, 10 inches (3.607 meters). Its empty weight was 12,375 pounds (5,613 kilograms) and loaded weight was 24,910 pounds (11,299 kilograms).

The X-2 was powered by a throttleable Curtiss-Wright XLR25-CW-1 rocket engine that produced 2,500–15,000 pounds of thrust (11.12–66.72 kilonewtons) burning alcohol and liquid oxygen. The engine used two rocket chambers and had pneumatic, electrical and mechanical controls. The smaller chamber could produce a maximum 5,000 pounds of thrust, and the larger, 10,000 pounds (22.24 and 44.48 kilonewtons, respectively).

Professor Robert H. Goddard, “The Father of Modern Rocketry,” authorized Curtiss-Wright to use his patents, and his rocketry team went to work for the Curtiss-Wright Rocket Department. Royalties for use of the patents were paid to the Guggenheim Foundation and Clark University. Professor Goddard died before he could also make the move to Curtiss-Wright.

Rather than use its limited fuel capacity to take off and climb to altitude, the X-2 was dropped from a modified heavy bomber as had been the earlier rocketplanes. A four-engine Boeing B-50A Superfortress bomber, serial number 46-011, was modified as the ”mothership.” A second Superfortress, B-50D-95-BO 48-096, was also modified to carry the X-2, and was redesignated EB-50D

The launch altitude was 30,000 feet (9,144 meters). After the fuel was exhausted, the X-2 glided to a touchdown on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base.

The Bell X-2 carried by Boeing EB-50D Superfortress 48-096. (U.S. Air Force)
A Bell X-2 carried by Boeing EB-50D Superfortress 48-096. (U.S. Air Force)

Iven Kincheloe was awarded the Mackay Trophy for this flight. His altitude record remained unbeaten until the X-15 Project.

Iven Kincheloe stands in front of the Bell X-2 and the entire support team at Edwards Air Force Base. The "mothership" is a highly-modified Boeing EB-50D Superfortress. Chase aircraft are a North American F-86 Sabre, Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star, North American F-100 Super Sabre. The rescue helicopter is a Sikorsky H-19.
Iven Kincheloe stands in front of the Bell X-2 and the entire support team at Edwards Air Force Base. The “mothership” is a highly-modified Boeing EB-50D Superfortress. Chase aircraft are a North American F-86 Sabre, Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star, North American F-100 Super Sabre. The rescue helicopter is a Sikorsky H-19. (NASA)

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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1 September 1946

Alvin M. “Tex” Johnston with the Thompson Trophy and the Allegheny-Ludlum Trophy, 1946 National Air Races. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives)

1 September 1946: Just one year after World War II came to an end, the National Air Races returned to Cleveland, Ohio. Grandstands were set up at the site of the Fisher Body Aircraft Plant No. 2, where assemblies for B-25 and B-29 bombers had been produced.

The Thompson Trophy Race was one of the most popular events because it was in view of the crowds. Sponsored by Thompson Products Company (the predecessor of TRW), it was a ten-lap pylon race flown at low altitude around a 30-mile (48.3 kilometers) course. There were two divisions. The R Division was for airplanes with reciprocating engines, and the J Division was for turbojet powered airplanes.

The National Air Races 4-pylon course, flown in 1947, 1947 and 1948. (airrace.com)

The race course was laid out as a parallelogram, with two 10-mile (16.1 kilometer) sides, and two 5-mile (8.0 kilometer) sides. There were two 75° turns and two 105° turns.

In addition to the Thompson Trophy, the race winner would receive $20,000 in prize money (about $342,400 in 2018 U.S. dollars). There were additional $2,000 prizes for the leader of each lap. A pilot who set a speed record during the race would win the Allegheny-Ludlum Trophy and $2,000.

Entrants for the 1946 race included many well-known air racers, test pilots and combat pilots. They included Cook Cleland, a U.S. Navy dive bomber pilot and test pilot; Woodrow W. (“Woody”) Edmondson, an aerobatic pilot; Howard Clifton (“Tick”) Lilly, a test pilot for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, predecessor of NASA); Alvin Melvin (“Tex”) Johnston, an experimental test pilot with the Bell Aircraft Corporation; Anthony W. (“Tony”) LeVier, Chief Engineering Test Pilot for the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, and an experienced pylon racer; Earl Hill Ortman, test pilot for Douglas Aircraft Company, and also an experienced racer; Howard L. Pemberton; Bruce Raymond; Robert Swanson; Charles (“Chuck”) Tucker, who had flown P-40s with the “Flying Tigers” in China, and an Army Air Corps test pilot; George Schwarz Welch, the Army Air Corps hero of Pearl Harbor, and test pilot for North American Aviation, Inc.; and Sylvester Joseph (“Steve”) Wittman, an aircraft designer and air racer.

Before the war, the races used specially-constructed racing aircraft and production civil aircraft. Following the war, the expense of developing a purpose-built, competitive air racer was no longer feasible, so surplus military fighters were used.

Of the twelve airplanes competing in the 1946 Thompson Race, there was one Bell Aircraft Corporation P-39Q Airacobra; four Bell P-63 Kingcobras; one Goodyear Aircraft Corporation FG-1D Corsair (a licensed variant of the Vought-Sikorsky F4U Corsair); a Lockheed Aircraft Corporation P-38L Lightning; and five North American Aviation, Inc., P-51D Mustangs.

Jack Woolams, Chief Test Pilot for Bell Aircraft Corporation, Experimental Test Pilot Tex Johnston, and Bell’s Chief Engineer, Robert Morris Stanley, had determined that a properly prepared Bell P-39 Airacobra could outrun and outfly a North American Aviation P-51 Mustang in the Thompson race.

A Bell Aircraft mechanic was sent to inspect surplus P-39s in storage at Ponca City, Oklahoma. He selected two nearly-new P-39Q Airacobras, each with less than 50 hours flight time. Woolams and Johnston paid $3,000 for the two fighters and they were flown back to the Bell plant at Buffalo, New York.

Jack Woolams’ Cobra I was a P-39Q-10-BE, U.S. Army Air Corps serial number 42-20733. Tex Johnston’s Cobra II was also a P-39Q-10-BE, 42-20869 (Bell serial number 26E-324).

The Bell P-39 Airacobra was a single-engine, single-place low-wing monoplane with retractable tricycle landing gear. An Allison V-1710 V-12 engine was mounted behind the cockpit in an unusual mid-engine configuration, with a drive shaft passing under the cockpit floor and turning the propeller through a remotely-mounted 1.8:1 gear reduction unit. This allowed the fighter to be armed with a large 37 mm autocannon which fired through the propeller hub.

Bell P-39Q-20-BE Airacobra 44-3887 at the National Museum of the United States Air Force)

The P-39Q was the final production version of the Airacobra. It was 30 feet, 2 inches (9.195 meters) long with a wingspan of 34 feet, 0 inches (10.363 meters) overall height of 12 feet, 5 inches (3.785 meters). The wings’ angle of incidence was +2° and there was 4° 0′ dihedral. The total wing area was 213 square feet (19.78 square meters). The horizontal stabilizer had +2° 15′ incidence and no dihedral.   The P-39Q had an empty weight of 5,692 pounds (2,704 kilograms), and maximum gross weight of 8,350 pounds (3,787 kilograms).

The production P-39Q was powered by a liquid-cooled, supercharged, 1,710.597-cubic-inch-displacement (28.032 liter) Allison Engineering Company V-1710-E19 (V-1710-85) single overhead camshaft (SOHC) 60° V-12 engine with four valves per cylinder and a compression ratio of 6.65:1. The V-1710-85 had a continuous power rating of 810 horsepower at 2,600 r.p.m. at Sea Level, and 1,000 horsepower at 2,600 r.p.m. at 14,000 feet (4,267 meters). The engine’s takeoff power rating was 1,200 horsepower at 3,000 r.p.m., and its military power rating was 1,125 horsepower at 3,000 r.p.m., at 14,600 feet (4,450 meters). 100/130 octane aviation gasoline was required. The Allison drove a three-bladed Aeroproducts Division A632S-C1 hydraulically-operated constant-speed propeller with a diameter of 11 feet, 7 inches (3.531 meters) through a 2.23:1 gear reduction. The V-1710-85 was 16 feet, 2.00 inches (4.928 meters) long, 3 feet, 1.56 inches (0.954 meters) high, and 2 feet, 5.28 inches (0.744 meters) wide. It weighed 1,435 pounds (651 kilograms).

Cutaway illustration showing the unusual mid-engine arrangement of the Bell P-39 Airacobra. (Allison Division of General Motors)

The Bell P39Q-10-BE had a maximum speed of 385.0 mph (619.6 kilometers per hour) at 11,000 feet (3,353 meters). Its service ceiling was 34,300 feet (10,455 meters), absolute ceiling, 35,700 feet (10,881 meters), and its range was 1,075 miles (1,730 kilometers).

The P-39Q was armed with one Browning M4 37 mm autocannon with 30 rounds of explosive ammunition, and four Browning AN-M2 .50-caliber machine guns, with two in the nose with 200 rounds per gun, and one mounted under each wing in pods with 300 rounds per gun. The M4 cannon fired a 1.34 pound (608 grams) high-explosive shell at 2,000 feet per second (610 meters per second). The gun had a rate of fire of 150 rounds per minute.

The Bell Aircraft Corporation built 9,558 P-39s. 4,905 of these were P-39Qs. 705 were the P-39Q-10-BE variant.

Jack Woolams (left) and Tex Johnston pose with their air racers, Cobra I and Cobra II, at the Bell Aircraft Corporation plant, August 1946. (airrace,com)

Bell Aircraft provided hangar space for the two Airacobras, and assigned an engineer and five mechanics to the project. Cobra I was painted red with black accents. It was issued Civil Aeronautics Administration experimental registration NX92847. Its race number, 75, was painted on the wings and fuselage. Cobra II was painted yellow with black trim, and registered NX92848. Its race number was 84.

Both airplanes were stripped of armament, armor and self-sealing fuel tanks. The landing gear was modified to reduce its retraction time from 22 seconds to just 4 seconds. The standard fabric-covered ailerons, rudder and elevators were covered with sheet aluminum. Adjustable trim tabs were deleted. Gyroscopic instruments were removed. The pitot tube was moved from the left wing tip and placed on a long boom projecting through the propeller hub. Thin, light-weight Goodyear fuel bladders were installed, not only reducing weight, but increasing the Airacobras’ fuel capacity by 10%. The roll-down side windows of the P-39 were replaced by fixed Plexiglas panels.

Bell P-39Q-10-BE NX92848, Cobra II, Tex Johnston’s Thompson Trophy Race winner. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives)

Engineers at Allison recommended that a modified Allison XV-1710-135 (E31) engine be used for the two racers. The modified engines used an increased-diameter supercharger impeller and undersized pistons to reduce cylinder wall friction. Using 140-octane Mobil aviation gasoline, they produced 2,000 horsepower at 3,200 r.p.m. with 86 inches (291 kilopascals) of manifold pressure. The high power output required that the engine be provided with a continuous injection of a precisely-measured water and ethyl/methyl alcohol solution when operating above 57 inches (193 kilopascals) of manifold pressure. An 85 gallon (322 liter) tank for the injection mixture was placed in the nose.

Tex Johnston’s Thompson Trophy-winning Bell P39Q Airacobra, “Cobra II.” (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives)

The increased power of the modified XV-1710-135 required that the P-39’s standard three-bladed propeller be replaced by a four-bladed unit from the P-63 Kingcobra. This was an Aeroproducts A624S constant-speed propeller with hollow steel blades. Its diameter was 11 feet, 0 inches (3.531 meters). The propeller gear reduction ratio remained the same, at 2.23:1, as did the remote gear box, at 1.8:1.

Allison V-1710-E19 (V-1710-85) with extension drive shaft and remote propeller drive gear unit. (Allison Division of General Motors)

The V-1710-E31 was longer and heavier than the -E19 because of an outboard reduction gear box. It was 17 feet, 4.00 inches (5.283 meters) long, 3 feet, 0.75 inches (0.933 meters) high, with the same 2 foot, 5.28 inch (0.744 meters) width. It weighed 1,500 pounds (680 kilograms).

Jack Woolams’ P-39 Cobra I leads a P-51D Mustang around a pylon turn during qualifying, August 1946. (LIFE Magazine via Jet Pilot Overseas)

When race qualifications were held, Tex Johnston was placed first with his yellow Cobra II. His average speed was 409.091 mph (658.368 kilometers per hour). George Welch was second with his P-51D, number 37. Jack Woolams and Cobra I were third.

Jack Valentine Woolams, Chief Experimental Test Pilot, Bell Aircraft Corporation. (John Trudell/Ancestry)

Jack Valentine Woolams was killed on 30 August, two days before the race, when his Cobra I crashed into Lake Ontario while returning to the Bell plant for an engine change. The Airacobra’s windshield may have collapsed at over 400 miles per hour (644 kilometers per hour).

The Thompson Trophy Race was held on Sunday, 1 September 1946. Tex Johnston, leading the field, took off and retracted his landing gear, climbing to 300 feet (91 meters). As he approached the first turn, he rolled Cobra II into a 4G turn (75.5° angle of bank) and dove to 60 feet (18 meters). As he made the turn, he was already pulling far ahead of the other racers.

George Welch dropped out when his Merlin engine began overheating. Tony LeVier’s P-38 Lightning, race number 3, held on to second place. By the ninth lap, Tex Johnston was passing the airplanes at the back of the field.

On the final turn, Johnston rolled into a 90° bank, and at only 50 feet (15 meters) above the ground, passed inside a Bell P-63 Kingcobra at 430 miles per hour (692 kilometers per hour) to win the race. His average speed for the ten laps was 373.908 mph (601.746 kilometers per hour).

After winning the 1946 Thompson Trophy Race, test pilot Tex Johnston kisses his wife, DeLores. (LIFE Magazine via Jet Pilot Overseas.)
Tex Johnston with the Thompson Trophy, 1946 National Air Races, Cleveland, Ohio. (LIFE Magazine)

Tony LeVier and his Lightning were in second place at 370.193 mph (595.768 kilometers per hour). Finishers 3, 4 and 5 were P-51D Mustangs. Number 6 was the lone FG-1D Corsair, followed by another P-51D. Proving that Woolams, Johnston and Stanley knew their airplane, the final three finishers were the three remaining P-63 Kingcobras.

An oil-streaked, race-winning Bell P-39Q Airacobra, NX92848, Tex Johnston’s Cobra II. The modified Allison engine’s undersized pistons allowed excessive blow-by. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives)

Cobra II competed in the 1947 Thompson Trophy Race. Flown by Bell Aircraft Corp. test pilot Gerald A. (“Jay”) Demming, and carrying the race number 11, it finished in third place behind two Goodyear F2G-1 Super Corsairs. Demming’s average speed was 367.625 miles per hour (591.635 kilometers per hour).

In the 1948 Thompson race, Cobra II, still carrying the number 11, was flown by Charles Brown. For this year, the race was twenty laps of a shorter, 15 mile (24.1 kilometer) course. Cobra II had qualified in first place with an average speed of 418.300 miles per hour (673.189 kilometers per hour). Brown led the race for 18 laps. His highest speed for a single lap was 413.907 miles per hour (666.119 kilometers per hour). He had to land, though, when the modified Allison engine began losing power. The race was won by a P-51D Mustang.

Bell P-39Q-10-BE Airacobra NX92849
Cobra II at the 1947 National Air Races, with race number 11. It was flown in the Thompson Trophy race by Bell test pilot Jay Demming, who placed third. (SDASM)

The history of Cobra II is elusive until it was purchased by Ed Maloney in 1960. It was sold to Michael D. Carroll in 1967. Carroll was the owner of Signal Trucking Co., and lived in Palos Verdes, California. The Airacobra was now registered N9824. Carroll had the airplane’s wings shortened by 4 feet per side (1.2 meters), and renamed it Cobra III.

On 10 August 1968, Carroll and Cobra III took of from Long Beach Airport (LGB), enroute to Orange County Airport (SNA), at nearby Santa Ana, California. At 11:15 a.m., the racer crashed at the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station. Carroll bailed out, but his parachute did not open and he was killed. His body was located 125 feet (38 meters) from the wreckage. There was no post-crash fire. Lieutenant Commander Jack Kellicott, U.S. Navy, said that the airplane had run out of fuel.

Tex Johnston left Bell Aircraft Corporation and moved on to Boeing in Seattle, initially testing the swept-wing XB-47 Stratojet. He made the first flights of the YB-52 and XB-52 Stratofortress; the Model 367-80 (the “Dash 80”), which he notoriously rolled over Lake Washington, 6 August 1955; the KC-135A Stratotanker; and the Model 707 airliner. As Boeing’s Chief of Flight Test, Tex Johnston set the standard by which modern flight testing is carried out.

Alvin Melvin (“Tex”) Johnston, Chief of Flight Test. (The Boeing Company)

Highly recommended: Tex Johnston, Jet-Age Test Pilot, by A.M. “Tex” Johnston with Charles Barton, Smithsonian Books, Washington, D.C., 1991

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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