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Bell Aircraft
Former type Aircraft manufacturer
Successor Bell Helicopter
Founded 10 July 1935
Defunct 1960
Headquarters Buffalo, New York
Key people Lawrence Bell
Industry Aerospace
Products P-39 Airacobra
P-63 Kingcobra
Bell X-1

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 Mercury Spacecraft and the Bell Rocket Belt. The company was purchased in 1960 by Textron, and lives on today as Bell Helicopter.

Contents

History

Larry Bell had been an early employee and then later, general manager of the Glenn L. Martin Company, followed by a stint as a manager for Consolidated Aircraft in Buffalo, New York. When Consolidated moved to San Diego, California in 1935, Bell stayed behind and formed the Bell Aircraft Corporation on 10 July 1935, headquartered in Buffalo.

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 Aircraft Corporation assembly factory in Wheatfield, New York, during the 1940s. This unit produced the P-39.

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.

As well as manufacturing their own products Bell was a major contributor to the B-29 Superfortress program, with a factory at Marietta, Georgia producing 668 of the big four-engined bombers.

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 1950s, 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 seeing 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.

Textron purchased Bell Aerospace in 1960. Bell Aerospace was composed of three divisions of Bell Aircraft, including its helicopter division, which had become its only aircraft producing division.

Product list

Fixed-wing aircraft, in order of development:

See also

References

  • Pelletier, Alan J. Bell Aircraft Since 1935. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1992.
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