P-59 Airacomet: An Unheralded Pioneer in American Jet Technology

The Bell P-59 Airacomet, a historically significant yet often overlooked aircraft, marks a critical juncture in the development of American aviation.

As the United States’ first operational jet-powered fighter, the P-59 paved the way for a revolution in aviation technology.

While its operational performance did not quite live up to expectations, the lessons learned during its development were invaluable for future American jet aircraft.



The genesis of the P-59 Airacomet was born out of the urgent need for advancements in aviation technology during the Second World War.

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While the war raged in Europe, the United Kingdom made strides in jet engine technology.

Under the cloak of utmost secrecy, they shared the fruits of their research – the design for the turbojet engine – with their American allies.

This was thanks to the Gloster E.28/39, also known as the “Gloster Pioneer,” which is a significant aircraft in aviation history.

The Gloster E.28/39.
The Gloster E.28/39.

It was the first British jet-engined aircraft and the second jet plane to fly anywhere in the world.

Designed and built by Gloster Aircraft Company, the E.28/39 was powered by Sir Frank Whittle’s groundbreaking turbojet engine, the Power Jets W.1. The “E.28/39” designation was derived from the Air Ministry specification it was designed to fulfil.

Its first flight took place on May 15, 1941, a critical milestone in the development of jet propulsion.

The E.28/39 demonstrated that a jet aircraft could be controlled just like piston-engined aircraft and that jet propulsion was a viable technology for faster, more efficient flight.

Despite being a small, experimental aircraft, the E.28/39 paved the way for the Gloster Meteor, Britain’s first operational jet fighter.

Consequently, Bell Aircraft Corporation was contracted to develop a jet fighter around the new powerplant, marking the beginning of the P-59 project.

The P-59 was designed around the new engine technology.
The P-59 was designed around the new engine technology.

P-59 Airacomet

The introduction of jet power in the P-59 represented a paradigm shift in propulsion technology.

The absence of a propeller and the remarkable concept of thrust generated by expelling a high-speed jet of gases astounded many.

The Airacomet was powered initially by a single General Electric I-A engine, an American-built version of the British Power Jets W.1.

The GE I-A engine was a centrifugal-flow turbojet, a design where incoming air is diffused and slowed down before being compressed and sped up by a rotating impeller.

The early engine that powered the Airacomet was not powerful enough to give the aircraft advantage over piston-powered counterparts.
The early engine that powered the Airacomet was not powerful enough to give the aircraft advantage over piston-powered counterparts.

This contrasts with more modern turbojets and turbofans, which typically use axial-flow designs where the air is compressed by a series of rotating and stationary blades.

GE’s work on the I-A engine resulted in an engine capable of producing 1,250 pounds of thrust.

However, its performance was considered somewhat underwhelming, and it was quickly superseded by improved models, such as the I-16 (J31), which offered better thrust and efficiency.

However, due to insufficient power, this was replaced by two General Electric J31 turbojets in production aircraft.

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The J31 produced around 1,600 to 2,000 pounds of thrust, which, while modest by later standards, was a substantial improvement over the earlier I-A model.

This engine powered several early jet aircraft.

The later models installed with a pair of GE J31s gave a substantial increase in performance. Photo credit - Greg Goebel CC BY-SA 2.0.
The later models installed with a pair of GE J31s gave a substantial increase in performance. Photo credit – Greg Goebel CC BY-SA 2.0.

Despite its groundbreaking nature, the J31 had a relatively short operational life due to its lower efficiency and power compared to newer jet engine designs, such as the axial-flow engines that would soon dominate jet propulsion.

However, it played a crucial role in gaining essential early experience in jet engine operation and maintenance, paving the way for more advanced and successful designs in the years to follow.

These groundbreaking new engines gave the P-59 a maximum speed of around 413 mph.

The P-59, with a wingspan of 45.5 feet and length of 38.9 feet, had a conventional design, apart from the engine’s placement in the fuselage.

Armed with one M4 37mm cannon and three .50 cal machine guns, and capable of carrying up to 2,000 lbs of bombs, the P-59 was designed to be versatile and deadly.

A close up of the deadly armament housed in the P-59's nose.
A close-up of the deadly armament housed in the P-59’s nose.

The M4 autocannon is a 37mm (1.46 in) automatic cannon developed and produced by the United States during the Second World War. It was primarily used in aircraft as a large-calibre anti-armour and anti-aircraft weapon.

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Manufactured by Colt, the M4 was a gas-operated, belt-fed, air-cooled weapon with a rate of fire of around 150 rounds per minute.

This rate of fire was relatively low for an autocannon, particularly when compared to the faster-firing 20mm and 30mm cannons used in many fighter aircraft of the era.

The M4 autocannon saw its primary use on the Bell P-39 Airacobra and P-63 Kingcobra fighters, where it was mounted to fire through the propeller hub.

A P-39Q Airacobra with its M4 cannon on display. Photo credit - Kogo GFDL.
A P-39Q Airacobra with its M4 cannon on display. Photo credit – Kogo GFDL.

In the Airacobra, the M4’s relatively large shell and substantial hitting power were intended to make it an effective weapon against lightly armoured ground targets and aircraft alike.

In practical use, the M4 received mixed reviews. While it had a strong punch, its low rate of fire and limited ammunition capacity of just 30 rounds in the P-39 made it less effective in air-to-air combat than machine guns or faster-firing cannons.

In theory, equipping this weapon to the newest jet aircraft would ensure it could take on ground targets and heavy air targets too.

The three M2 .50 calibre machine guns were a standard weapon for many of the USAAF’s aircraft at the time.

Operational History

Despite the initial excitement surrounding the P-59, its operational history was somewhat lacklustre.

The first flight took place on October 1, 1942, and while the Airacomet proved the concept of jet-powered flight, its performance was subpar compared to propeller-driven fighters of the time.

The XP-59 and YP-59s were woefully slow and could easily be left for dust by piston powered aircraft such as the P-63.
The XP-59 and YP-59s were woefully slow and could easily be left for dust by piston-powered aircraft such as the P-63.

The aircraft was slower, had a shorter range, and climbed more sluggishly than expected.

The P-59s saw no combat during World War II.

Only around 66 P-59s were ever built in several variants, most of which were used for testing and training purposes, providing valuable data and experience in handling jet-powered aircraft.

The XP-59A was the first experimental version of the P-59.

Its maiden flight in 1942 marked the beginning of the jet era in American aviation.

The XP-59A was initially fitted with a single General Electric I-A engine, making the aircraft slow and underwhelming.

The YP-59A in flight.
The YP-59A in flight.

The YP-59A was a pre-production model used for service testing.

Thirteen were built and were virtually identical to the later production models.

Notably, the YP-59A was the version flown by several members of the British RAF and Fleet Air Arm during testing at Muroc in 1943, one of the first exposures of the Allied pilots to jet aircraft.

The P-59A and P-59B were the primary production variants of the Airacomet.

The P-59A was the first of these, equipped with more powerful General Electric J31-GE-5 engines.

Additionally, the P-59A featured several design changes, including larger fuel tanks for extended range, revised landing gear, and different armament configurations.

The later P-59B.
The later P-59B.

The P-59B, on the other hand, incorporated further minor improvements, including increased fuel capacity for longer range.

However, the performance enhancements in the P-59A and P-59B were not as substantial as hoped, with top speeds remaining lower than propeller-driven fighters of the era.

The underwhelming performance of the P-59 prompted the search for more effective jet fighter designs.

It was soon overshadowed by the more advanced and successful P-80 Shooting Star, which corrected many of the P-59’s shortcomings and became America’s first successful operational jet fighter.

The P-80 ended up being far more successful.
The P-80 ended up being far more successful.

The last P-59s were retired from active service by 1950, just a few years after their introduction.


While the P-59 Airacomet may not have had a long or distinguished service career, its importance in the annals of aviation history is undeniable.

It was America’s initial foray into the realm of jet power, a stepping stone to the more capable and effective jet aircraft that would soon dominate the skies.

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The Airacomet, in all its pioneering spirit, embodies an era of innovation and experimentation. It stands as a testament to the remarkable technological leaps taken during the Second World War, highlighting the importance of sometimes stumbling forward in the quest for progress.

Without the P-59, American jet fighters like the P-80 Shooting Star and the F-86 Sabre might have been delayed, altering the course of aviation history.

Thus, the P-59 Airacomet deserves its place in the history books as an unheralded pioneer in American jet technology.

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  • Crew: 1
  • Length: 38 ft 10 in (11.84 m)
  • Wingspan: 45 ft 6 in (13.87 m)
  • Height: 12 ft 4 in (3.76 m)
  • Empty weight: 8,165 lb (3,704 kg)
  • Gross weight: 11,040 lb (5,008 kg)
  • Max takeoff weight: 13,700 lb (6,214 kg)
  • Fuel capacity: 356 US gallons (1,350 L; 296 imp gal)
  • Powerplant: 2 × General Electric J31-GE-5 centrifugal-flow turbojet engines, 2,000 lbf (8.9 kN) thrust each
  • Maximum speed: 413 mph (665 km/h, 359 kn) at 30,000 ft (9,144 m)
  • Cruise speed: 375 mph (604 km/h, 326 kn)
  • Range: 375 mi (604 km, 326 nmi)
  • Ferry range: 950 mi (1,530 km, 830 nmi)
  • Service ceiling: 46,200 ft (14,100 m)
  • Time to altitude: 30,000 ft (9,144 m) in 15 minutes 30 seconds