Decals: Five versions ( 4 U.S. Air Force; 1 U.S. Naval Air Training Center)
Comments: Finely engraved panel lines; complex fuselage construction; some parts not to scale
The Bell P-59 Airacomet has a unique place in U.S. aviation history as America’s first jet fighter, although it never saw combat. The P-59 took its maiden flight on October 1, 1942. It was the fruition of a project that initiated when General Henry “Hap” Arnold, the Deputy Chief of Staff for Air, visited Great Britain in April 1941 for a briefing and flight demonstration of the Gloster E.28/29, also known as the Gloster Pioneer, Britain’s first jet aircraft.
Soon afterwards arrangements were made for the General Electric Company to build Whittle engines under license at its plant in upstate New York under the initial designation GE Type 1-A. The P-59 was never deployed to combat squadrons due to three factors: the reliability of its General Electric J-31-E-5 engines was often a problem, hampering both the testing program and the feasibility of keeping the new jet combat-ready with adequate spare parts; flight testing proved the P-59 to be noticeably underpowered and no faster than contemporary fighters; and its poor performance was confirmed in mock air combat trials against two such fighters, Lockheed’s P-38J Lightning and the Republic P-47D Thunderbolt. Lastly, gunnery trials with the YP-59A showed that the Airacomet had poor directional stability at speeds above 290 mph. This tendency to “snake”, common to many early jets, made the P-59 a poor gun platform.
Although designed as a high-altitude interceptor and pursuit plane, the Airacomet suffered from excessive freezing of controls and had a disappointing climb rate and overall maneuverability compared to piston-engined aircraft. The P-59 was deemed unsuitable for combat, and was soon slated for jet trainer and related evaluation/transition duties for pilots moving into jet aircraft. On August 31, 1943, the Army Procurement Division formally notified Bell Aircraft that its contract was terminated – a decision influenced in part by the fact that the Lockheed P-80 had been under development as a secret project from June 1943 on. Of 68 P-59’s built by Bell Aircraft Company, none saw combat. Of the 80 P-59B’s ordered by the Army, 50 were cancelled.
In its defense, the P-59 design represented a conventional airframe married to cutting edge jet propulsion technology, at a time when the means of achieving the necessary power-to-weight ratio for an effective jet fighter may not have been fully understood. In addition, the P-59’s powerplant was borrowed from an aircraft, the Gloster Pioneer, that also never saw combat. While the initial enthusiasm for the design was eventually dampened, the P-59 was ultimately employed in much the same way the British employed the Pioneer, in an extensive testing role that led to more successful jet fighters (in the case of the Pioneer, the Gloster Meteor, and for the P-59, the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star).
Wingspan: 45 ft. 6 in.; Length: 38 ft. 10 in.
Powerplant: 2 General Electric J31-GE-5 of 2000 lbs. thrust each
Armament: 1 x 37mm cannon and 3 x .50 caliber machine guns; provision for rockets or bombs to be carried under the wings
Maximum Take-Off Weight: 12,700 lbs.
Maximum Speed: 413 mph at 30,000 ft.
Range: 240 miles
It’s important to note at the outset that while most aircraft kits have a fuselage consisting of two halves, the fuselage for Amodel’s P-59 consists of nine parts: two forward halves; two rear halves; the belly; two more parts forming the upper halves of the wing roots, which on this aircraft double as the upper half of the jet engine housings; a smaller piece forming part of the upper nose section just forward of the cockpit; and finally the nose cap. All this complexity provides a challenge, but also demands a certain amount of skill in hiding seams, and the P-59 mold is not of such quality that this is a minor task. I made use of Squadron White Putty, Milliput, Zap-a-Gap, sanding sticks and even Micro Mesh in my repeated assaults on the seams.
The forward fuselage is sanded smooth. The rear fuselage has just been joined using Zap-a-Gap and is awaiting sanding.
There is a panel in the upper section of the nose that must be glued into place once the forward fuselage is assembled. Even after extensive sanding to allow the fuselage halves a proper fit, the bulkhead separating the gun bay from the cockpit is simply too large to allow the panel to fit flush against the fuselage. Since the bulkhead would not be visible once the panel was in place, I removed it.
Next, the jet exhaust nozzles, three parts each forming two halves of a cylinder and a turbine head, are cemented into position in the rear belly of the fuselage. The fuselage halves are joined, and finishing parts for the cockpit and jet intake interiors are cemented on. The belly must be cemented on, but will not fit flush against the fuselage until cutting and sanding of the faceplate for the turbines (Part 19), which fits into the fuselage just aft of the cockpit and is seated in the belly, is completed. For this reason, all parts at this stage of construction must be carefully dry fitted.
To my surprise, masking the canopy took patience and a bit of time, about 45 minutes, but was not as difficult as I anticipated. I used Tamiya tape, about 8 or so pieces in small sections, only enough to cover 1-2 panels of the canopy at a time. I cut around the sections that covered the clear portions with a freshly sharpened Xacto blade, leaving only the frame exposed, and completely masked the canopy interior to protect it against overspray. Then I airbrushed it in 3 coats and let it dry. Removing the tape the next morning, there was only minor overspray which I was able to remove with a toothpick.
The P-59 is painted in Gunze Sangyo Orange with Tamiya Semi-Gloss Black anti-glare panels and walkways. These are the colors of “The Reluctant Robot,” a P-59B employed as a radio-controlled drone from 1945-47, but also outfitted with standard manual flight controls that enabled it to be flown conventionally.
There are 4 versions, all but the Reluctant Robot call for natural metal paint schemes. First is for a P-59B operated by the Naval Air Test Center, 1947; Second is “Smokey Stover,” a P-59A (serial number 422610) operated by the Air Force.
422610 has the distinction of being the first jet aircraft flown outside of the United States, for testing under cold weather conditions in
Alaska; Third is another Air Force P-59A (serial number 422614). Finally is the overall orange Reluctant Robot.
The decals are all thin and adhere well to the model with modest applications of decal set. Due to their length, the serial numbers for the tail can be hard to position, and all the decals save for the national insignia have an elastic quality that’s good because it prevents them from breaking, but they also have a tendency to fold in on themselves unless you slide them direct from their paper backing onto the surface of the model, as I learned the hard way. Whatever challenges you have with them, you will be OK if you are patient.
Despite its shortcomings, the P-59 remains a fascinating subject, the embodiment of America’s reach across a technological boundary for its first jet fighter. Amodel’s kit is a challenge best tackled by those with experience at seam-hiding, and has interior components that are frankly too large, but with care will build into an attractive model with its engraved panel lines and admirable attention to exterior detail. Recommended.
Lead weights or ball bearings are strongly recommended as weights for the nose section. Although the Airacomet’s nose is packed with Milliput putty, it was not heavy enough to prevent the weight of the tail section from tipping the nose up. The clear plastic support visible here is the result.
- Air Force Legends No. 208: P-59 Airacomet by Steve Pace;
- Air International, Volume 18, Number 3, March 1980;
- Scale Aviation Modeler International, Volume 11, Issue 10, October 2005;
- Take Off 33, Part 3, 1988.