Key point: During World War II, each combatant was rushing to develop new technologies, including jet fighters.
The planning was done behind closed doors. The work was done at secret facilities.
The result? America’s first jet plane—a fighter that might have seen combat in World War II, had things gone differently.
Army Air Forces (AAF) commander Maj. Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold chose the Bell Aircraft Corporation of Buffalo, New York, to undertake a secret project known as MX 397. Only a handful of people around company president Larry Bell knew that the term referred to the first American fighter jet, which was soon renamed the XP-59A. Germany, Italy, and Britain were ahead of the United States in developing jet aircraft, but Americans were making faster progress than they are usually given credit for; they possessed considerable scientific know-how and they were good at keeping secrets.
Almost everything about the project was given labels that were designed to disguise the project’s real purpose and to fool German or Japanese agents. General Electric routinely referred to the engine it was developing with help from British engineer Frank Whittle as “our spare part.” The P-59 designation in the Army’s “pursuit” series of warplanes had previously been assigned to an aircraft that was never built; the number was reused to discourage attention.
Why Bell Labs?
Much of the technical work was done in a building belonging to General Electric in Lynn, chosen because it looked bland and plain and was marked with a sign on the door reading “MISCELLANEOUS.” General Electric later boasted that its engine, largely copied with permission from Whittle’s work, had but two moving parts, a pair of impellers, and that its compact shape, dictated by the centrifugal flow of air passing through the engine, made it practical for many applications on aircraft.