Tag Archives: Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum

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 Company Chief Test Pilot Robert M. 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. 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 Aircraft Coproration test pilot Robert M. Stanley in the cockpit of an XP-59A Airacomet. (NASM)
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)

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).

Bell XP-59A Airacomet in flight, 1942. (U.S. Air Force)
Bell XP-59A Airacomet 42-108785  in flight, 1942. Test pilot Bob Stanley is in the cockpit. (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 7°. The horizontal stabilizer had a span of 16 feet, 8 inches (5.080 meters). Its empty weight was 7,319 pounds (3,320 kilograms) and 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.

Robert M. Stanley and Laurence C. Craigie with the Bell XP-59A Airacomet at Muroc Dry Lake. (U.S. Air Force)
Colonel Laurence C. Craigie (left) and Chief Test Pilot Robert M. Stanley with a Bell XP-59A Airacomet prototype at Muroc Dry Lake. (U.S. Air Force)

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 .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.

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

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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12 July 1957

President Eisenhower fastens his seat belt aboard H-13J-BF Sioux 57-2729, on the White House lawn, 12 July 1957. (U.S. Air Force)
Dwight David Eisenhower, President of the United States
Dwight David Eisenhower, President of the United States

12 July 1957: President Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first United States president to fly in a helicopter when a U.S. Air Force H-13J-BF Sioux, serial number 57-2729 (c/n 1576), flown by Major Joseph E. Barrett, USAF, departed the White House lawn enroute Camp David. Also on board was a U.S. Secret Service special agent. A second H-13J, 57-2728 (c/n 1575), followed, carrying President Eisenhower’s personal physician and a second Secret Service agent.

The helicopter was intended to rapidly move the president from the White House to Andrews Air Force Base where his Lockheed VC-121E Constellation, Columbine III, would be standing by, or to other secure facilities in case of an emergency.

Major Barrett had been selected because of his extensive experience as a combat pilot. During World War II, he had flown the B-17 Flying Fortress four-engine heavy bomber. During the Korean War, Barrett had carried out a helicopter rescue 70 miles (113 kilometers) behind enemy lines, for which he was awarded the Silver Star.

Bell H-13J 57-2729, flown by Major Barret, with President eisenhower and a Secret Service agent, departs the White House for teh first time, 2:08 p.m., 12 July 1957. (The White House)
Bell H-13J 57-2729, flown by Major Joseph E. Barrett, with President Eisenhower and a Secret Service agent, departs the White House, 2:08 p.m., 12 July 1957. (The White House)

The two helicopters were manufactured by the Bell Helicopter Company at Fort Worth, Texas, and delivered to the Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base on 29 March 1957. The presidential H-13Js were nearly identical to the commercial Bell Model 47J Ranger.

Capable of carrying a pilot and up to three passengers, the Ranger was constructed with an enclosed cabin built on a tubular steel framework with all-metal semi-monocoque tail boom. The main rotor diameter was 37 feet, 2.00 inches (11.328 meters) and tail rotor diameter was 5 feet, 10.13 inches (1.781 meters), which gave the helicopter an overall length of 43 feet, 3¾ inches (13.185 meters) with rotors turning. The height (to the top of the centrifugal flapping restraints) was 9 feet, 8 inches (2.946 meters). The H-13J differed from the civil Model 47J by the substitution of main rotor blades of all-metal construction in place of the standard laminated wood blades. The helicopter had a maximum gross weight of 2,800 pounds (1,270 kilograms).

The main rotor, in common to all American-designed helicopters, rotates counter-clockwise as seen from above. (The advancing blade is on the helicopter’s right.) The anti-torque (tail) rotor is mounted to the right side of an angled tail boom extension, in a tractor configuration, and rotates counter-clockwise as seen from the helicopter’s left. (The advancing blade is above the axis of rotation.)

The main rotor is a two-bladed, under-slung, semi-rigid assembly that would be a characteristic of helicopters built by Bell for decades. The main rotor system incorporates a stabilizer bar, positioned below and at right angles to the main rotor blades. Teardrop-shaped weights are placed at each end of the bar, on 100-inch (2.540 meters) centers. The outside diameter of the stabilizer bar is 8 feet, 6.781 inches (2.611 meters). (A similar system is used on the larger Bell 204/205/212 helicopters.)

The H-13J was powered by an air-cooled, normally-aspirated 433.972-cubic-inch-displacement (7.112 liter) AVCO Lycoming VO-435-A1B (O-435-21) vertically-opposed 6-cylinder direct-drive engine. The VO-435 had a compression ration of 7.3:1. It was rated at 220 horsepower at 3,200 r.p.m., maximum continuous power, and 260 horsepower at 3,200 r.p.m. for takeoff. The VO-435-A1B weighed 393.00 pounds (178.262 kilograms).

Engine torque is sent through a centrifugal clutch to a 9:1 gear-reduction transmission, which drives the main rotor through a two-stage planetary gear system. The transmission also drives the tail rotor drive shaft, and through a vee-belt/pulley system, a large fan to provide cooling air for the engine.

Bell H-13J hovering over the White House lawn. (U.S. Air Force)
One of the two presidential Bell H-13J Sioux helicopters hovers over the White House lawn. (U.S. Air Force)

Fuel was carried in two gravity-feed tanks, mounted above and on each side of the engine. The total fuel capacity was 34.0 gallons (128.7 liters)

Cruise speed for the H-13J was 87–98 miles per hour (140–158 kilometers per hour), depending on gross weight, and its maximum speed was 105 miles per hour (169 kilometers per hour). The helicopter had a hover ceiling in ground effect (HIGE) of 8,100 feet (2,469 meters). The service ceiling was 15,000 feet (4,572 meters).

Both H-13J Sioux served as presidential aircraft until 1962. They were redesignated UH-13J and continued in use for VIP transportation until 1967.

Bell UH-13J-BF Sioux 57-2729 is in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution National Museum National Air and Space Museum, Steven V. Udvar-Hazy Center, while its sister ship, 57-2728, is at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, along with Columbine III.

The first presidential helicopter, USAF H-13J-BF Sioux 57-2729, on display at the Steven V. Udvar-Hazy Center, Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum. (NASM)

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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10 June 1969

 North American Aviation Inc. X-15A 56-6670 hypersonic research rocketplane on display at the National Air and Space Museum. (Photo by Eric Long, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution)
North American Aviation, Inc., X-15A-1 56-6670 hypersonic research rocketplane on display at the National Air and Space Museum. (Photo by Eric Long, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution)

10 June 1969: The U.S. Air Force gave the first North American Aviation X-15, serial number 56-6670, to the Smithsonian Institution for display at the National Air and Space Museum.

The North American Aviation, Inc., X-15A-1, 56-6670, being brought into the Arts and Industries building, June 1969. (Smithsonian Institution Archives SI-A-4145-23-A)
The North American Aviation, Inc., X-15A-1, 56-6670, being brought into the Arts and Industries building, June 1969. The wings and sections of the dorsal and ventral fins have been removed. (Smithsonian Institution Archives SI-A-4145-23-A)

The first of three X-15A hypersonic research rocketplanes built by North American for the Air Force and NASA, 56-6670 made the first glide flight and the first and last powered flights of the X-15 Program. It made a total of 82 of the 199 X-15 flights.

Scott Crossfield, North American’s Chief Engineering Test Pilot, made the first unpowered flight 8 June 1959 and the first powered flight, 17 September 1959. NASA Research Test Pilot William H. “Bill” Dana made the last flight on 24 October 1968.

North American Aviation, Inc., X-15A-1 56-6670 at the National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C. (D. Ramey Logan via Wikipedia)
The first North American Aviation, Inc., X-15A, 56-6670, at the National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C. Above and behind the X-15 is the Douglas D558-II Skyrocket that Scott Crossfield flew to Mach 2.005, 20 November 1953. (D. Ramey Logan via Wikipedia)

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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19 March–17 April 1964

Geraldine Freditz Mock with her Cesnna 180, N1538C.
Geraldine Fredritz Mock with her Cessna 180, N1538C, at Columbus, Ohio, 19 March 1964. (National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution)

19 March–17 April 1964: Geraldine Fredritz (“Jerrie”) Mock landed her 1953 Cessna 180, Spirit of Columbus, N1538C, at Columbus, Ohio, completing a circumnavigation of the Earth she had begun at 9:31 a.m., 19 March 1964. Mock was the first woman to complete a circumnavigation by air. Her journey covered 23,103 miles (36,964 kilometers). The total elapsed time was 29 days, 11 hours, 59 minutes. The flight set a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Record for Speed Around the World, Eastbound, of 52.75 kilometers per hour (32.78 miles per hour).¹

Jerrie Mock held twenty-two FAI world records, set between 1964 and 1969.

Cessna 180 serial number 30238 was built by the Cessna Aircraft Company, Inc., Wichita, Kansas, in 1953, and registered N1538C, the first year of production for the model. It was the 238th of 640 Model 180s that were built during the first year of production. 6,193 were built by the time production came to an end in 1986. N1538C was purchased for Jerrie Mock in 1963, with a total of 990 hours on the engine and airframe. The passenger seats were removed and replaced with additional fuel tanks. Additional radios and instruments were installed.

Jerrie Mock in the cockpit of her Cessna 180.
Jerrie Mock in the cockpit of her Cessna 180. (Robert W. Klein/Associated Press)

The Cessna Model 180 is an all-metal, four-place, single-engine, high-wing monoplane with fixed landing gear. It is 26 feet, 2 inches (7.976 meters) long with a wingspan of 36 feet (10.973 meters) and height of 7 feet, 9 inches (2.362 meters). N1538C has an empty weight of 1,480 pounds (671.3 kilograms) and gross weight of 2,550 pounds (1,156.6 kilograms).

Spirit of Columbus is powered by an air-cooled, normally-aspirated 471.239-cubic-inch-displacement (7.722 liter) Continental O-470-A horizontally-opposed six-cylinder overhead valve (OHV) direct-drive engine with a compression ratio of 7:1. This engine is rated at 225 horsepower at 2,600 r.p.m., burning 80/87 aviation gasoline, and turns a two-bladed constant speed propeller.

The airplane has a maximum cruising speed of 160 miles per hour (257 kilometers per hour). Its service ceiling is 21,200 feet (6,462 meters).

After her around the world flight, Jerrie Mock never flew Spirit of Columbus again. Cessna exchanged it for a new six-place P206 Super Skylane, N155JM. For many years N1538C was hanging over a production line at the Cessna factory. Today, Mock’s Cessna 180 is on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum.

Jerrie Mock with her Cessna P206, N155JM. (FAI)
Jerrie Mock with her Cessna P206, N155JM. (FAI)

On 4 May 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson presented Jerrie Mock with the Federal Aviation Agency Gold Medal for Distinguished Service, and the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale awarded her its Louis Blériot Silver Medal.

Geraldine Fredritz Mock died Monday, 30 September 2014, at the age of 88 years.

1953 Cessna 180, N1538C, Spirit of Columbus, on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. (National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution)
1953 Cessna 180, N1538C, Spirit of Columbus, on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. (National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution)

¹ FAI Record File Number 3526

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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