In October 1943, after flying 125 combat missions in 18 months, I was sent home to teach new fighter pilots the finer points of P- 38 combat flying while defending California. I was the last 80th Fighter Squadron pilot left in the group from the original cadre that landed on
New Guinea in 1942. I began my combat flying in Bell P-39s,
and I guess I never got over playing with Bell-built tricycle-geared airplanes when I became one of first five pilots
selected to fly the P- 59, the first jet that the Army Air Force
accepted. Our test group consisted of one pilot from each
of the theaters of combat operation, and to supplement our
pilots and planes, we had 48 enlisted men, all technical or
master sergeants with nine to 20 years of service. It was a
handpicked crack outfit.
In April 1945, our first order was to pick up the brand-new
P-59s at the Bell plant in Buffalo, New York, and fly them back
to our base, which was secret at the time, near Oildale, just
outside of Fresno, California. Once we got them to base, we
were to determine if the new jets were, in fact, combat ready.
But getting them to Oildale turned out to be a herculean task.
When you fly a brand-new airplane, things don’t always work
America’s First: The Bell P- 59
as planned. To begin with, it took us 12 separate flights to get
the jets from New York to California. The other problem was
we had to land at specific bases because, at the time, they
were the only ones supplied with JP-1 jet fuel. Our checkout at
the factory was less than comprehensive. We were shown how
to start the jet engines and then we were given a tech manual
to study. With no two-seaters, we were on our own. But we
were all experienced fighter pilots, so it was just another day
at the office.
To say that the P- 59 Airacomet gulped fuel is an under-
statement. In less than 44 minutes, we practically ran
our tanks dry, burning more than 900 gallons of fuel, an
outrageous consumption rate. At sea level, we burned more
than 14 gallons per minute, but at 40,000 feet, it was down to
4 gallons per minute. The problem was that it took a lot of fuel
to climb to that altitude. But as far as flying the new jet, it was
actually a very easy airplane to operate. I always told other
pilots that if you could fly a Piper J- 3 Cub, then you would have
no problem in this jet; it was that easy to fly. There was no
torque; it was highly maneuverable; and with its signature Bell
tricycle landing-gear configuration, it was easy to land as well.
Unfortunately, the P- 59 was far from a combat airplane.
Although it carried a huge punch in the nose—one 37mm
cannon and three .50-caliber machine guns—the P- 59 wasn’t
very fast, actually about as fast as a P- 38. The other problem
was that you literally felt as if you were sitting inside an
oven while strapped in the cockpit. We were always soaking
wet after each short flight, riding just above two very hot
engines. Bell only built 66 P-59s, and although none became
operational, it still ushered in the jet age for the United States.
Boy, what we could have done with them back in early 1942!
After our evaluations of the P- 59 were complete, the five of us
were turned over to begin flying the Lockheed P-80 Shooting
Star, when we began transitioning returning propeller-driven
fighter pilots into the jet age. Now, that was a fighter!—Maj.
Norbert C. Ruff, USAF, Retired, as told to Jim Busha
The Navy arranged for the
delivery of two YP-59As
to the flight test center at
Patuxent River, Maryland, in
December 1943. The Navy
found the design lacking
in any usefulness for naval
operations, but several
examples were acquired in
anticipation of receiving the
first North American FJ-1s in
early 1947. (Photo courtesy
of Stan Piet)