On October 1, 1942, a Bell XP-59A Airacomet powered by two GE I-A turbojet engines roared down a remote runway at Muroc Dry Lake in California and slowly lifted off the ground.
Bell test pilot Bob Stanley took notes of the maiden flight: “Duration of flight: 30 minutes. Throttle was applied promptly and acceleration during takeoff appeared quite satisfactory. The first flight reached an altitude of approximately 25 feet.”
In total, Stanley made four secret flights that day with the aircraft’s landing gear down the entire time. He rarely exceeded 100 feet. It was a landmark day—though unknown to the general public for almost two years.
From modest beginnings in the California desert, the United States had entered The Jet Age. The U.S. technology race to catch up with wartime European jet propulsion aviation advances was underway and GE was poised to become a global jet engine powerhouse.
Looking back, it’s sobering to think how far the U.S. was behind. In October 1939, Germany’s top-secret Heinkel He 178 experimental aircraft, with Hans von Ohain’s engine, became the first plane to fly with turbojet power. Less than a year later, in August 1940, inventor Secondo Campini’s piston-based “turbojet” powered a Campini Caproni aircraft in Italy. Then in May 1941, a turbojet in Great Britain designed by Frank Whittle—recipient of the world’s first jet engine patent—powered the experimental Gloster E.28/39 aircraft.
Only a month before that, General H.H. “Hap” Arnold, Deputy U.S. Army Chief of Staff for The Air, personally reviewed England’s jet propulsion advances, including the Gloster aircraft and its Whittle turbojet. Once back home, he initiated a U.S. jet propulsion program and soon engaged General Electric to produce America’s first turbojet using Whittle’s design.
His selection of GE was based on the company’s innovative impellers, turbines, turbosuperchargers, and compressors, which were developed mostly in GE’s Lynn and Schenectady operations. He didn’t invite leading U.S. aircraft engine producers Pratt & Whitney and Wright Aeronautical to compete, reasoning that that the U.S. needed them mass producing piston engines for Allied aircraft. Plus, the Whittle turbojet was radically different from a piston engine. Selected over Allis Chalmers and Westinghouse, GE was the logical choice due to its turbosupercharger experience.
In 1941, GE’s Supercharger Department in Lynn received a Whittle W.1X turbojet in crates, as well as drawings for an upgraded version, called the Whittle W.2B. The W.1X was flown from Scotland concealed in the bomb bay of a B-24 Liberator.
“It is interesting to note that exactly one year later, to the day, the jet-powered XP-59A would make its maiden flight,” wrote longtime GE Aviation historian David Carpenter in his book Flame Powered, the definitive word on the GE I-A engine and the Bell aircraft. A handpicked team in Lynn, nicknamed “The Hush-Hush Boys,” rebuilt the Whittle design, designated the GE I-A. Donald “Truly” Warner, a top engineer in Lynn’s turbosupercharger department, led the secret program.
The Hush-Hush Boys reconfigured Whittle’s W.2B design to American production standards with several improvements, including a more robust impeller, an automatic control system, and improved metal alloys for more durable turbine blades. The I-A, a centrifugal flow design with a two-sided impeller, was similar in many ways to a GE turbosupercharger. The team successfully ran the I-A on April 18 in Lynn’s historic “Fort Knox” test cell with its 18-inch walls and a distinctive smokestack.
While testing the engine, GE also worked on the XP-59A jet aircraft in tandem with aircraft designer Larry Bell of Bell Aircraft. In August 1942, GE personnel under armed guard loaded I-A engines, labeled “Type I Superchargers” for security reasons, into a boxcar in Boston for shipment to Bell Aircraft in Buffalo, New York. From there, the engines and aircraft headed to Muroc Dry Lake in southern California (site of Edwards Air Force Base today). To protect the engines’ bearings and shafts during the cross-country train ride, a small gas-driven compressor turned the engine shafts continuously. That September, the aircraft, engines, Bell and GE personnel, and ever-present armed guards arrived in Muroc for flight tests.
On October 1, two I-A engines, each rated at 1,250 pounds of thrust, powered the first low-altitude flights. After Stanley piloted the first flights; the second pilot was Army Colonel Laurence C. Craigie, the first U.S. military pilot to fly a jet-powered airplane. On October 3, Stanley flew the XP-59A to 10,000 feet and the flight program was in full swing.
Despite the wartime seriousness, the test flights had lighthearted moments. When the aircraft was parked, it was fitted with wooden propellers to deceive potential foreign agents, while entertaining those in the know. During his research on the program, Carpenter learned that one Bell test pilot kept a gorilla mask in the cockpit. Army Air Corps pilots observed a plane with no propeller flying past them at incredible speed piloted by a gorilla waving at them.
Though the flight test program was viewed as a success, the XP-59A never became an operational fighter aircraft. Rather, it was a trainer for the forthcoming GE-powered Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, America’s first operational fighter jet. The XP-59A flight program is not revealed to the public until early 1944, when some newspapers called GE’s I-A a “supercharger that has grown up.”
With the world at war, U.S. jet aircraft and engine technology advanced at supersonic speed. GE’s Lynn plant was at the vanguard of jet propulsion technology with a series of new military designs, including the GE J33 turbojet for the P-80 Shooting Star, the J35 turbojet for numerous fighters and bombers, and eventually, in the late 1940s, the development of the axial-flow J47 turbojet, the world’s most produced jet engine.
In that burst of wartime activity and fevered innovation, GE established itself as one of the world’s most significant aviation companies.