75 years ago, at Muroc Dry Lake, California, Bell chief pilot Bob Stanley made American aviation history with the inaugural flight of the highly secret XP-59A aircraft (pictured above), powered by two GE Type 1-A turbojet engines, launching the U.S. and GE Aviation into the jet age.
Spurred by the pressures of war, this flight took place just one year after the prototype for the first American jet engine began its journey from England to GE’s Lynn, Massachusetts plant. There, a select team of GE engineers worked in secrecy to reproduce and improve the design developed by Royal Air Force officer Frank Whittle.
While initial advances in aircraft gas turbine propulsion were made through separate developments in Germany (Hans von Ohain holds 1st German patent for a turbojet engine design) and Britain, highlighted by the 1st jet flight on Aug. 27, 1939, GE’s experience on the turbosupercharger was a prime reason the U.S. military turned to GE when it became interested in the concept of jet flight in the early 1940s.
Once terms to facilitate an exchange of information with the British were successfully negotiated, the U.S. effort was formally launched. It was decided that 15 engines and three airplanes would be produced immediately, with the contract for the engines, based on the Whittle design, going to GE. [Bell Aircraft Corp. got the nod to design the twin-engine plane.]
The GE effort began with the secret arrival of the Whittle W.1X engine to Lynn. Led by Donald “Truly” Warner, the GE team began testing the engine and making modifications to improve the design. The original GE Type 1-A was run on March 18, 1942. The Type 1-A was a dual, back-to-back, centrifugal, reverse flow turbojet powerplant that delivered about 1,250 pounds of thrust (the GE90-115B is more than 90 times as great at 115,000 pounds).
Stanley’s first flight occurred on Oct. 1, 1942. In all, four flights were made that day, all with the landing gear down, and limited to altitudes of 100 feet. The “official” takeoff in front of military and civilian observers took place the next day.