Talking Proud Archives --- Military

Bell Aircraft Corp.: at the center of the gutsiest experiment in aviation history

By Ed Marek, editor

December 3, 2017
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MarekEdmundOriginal copy HenryMarek

First a personal note. On the left is my father, Edmund "Ed" S. Marek, and Uncle Henry "Hank" "Red" Marek, right. Both worked at Bell and both worked on the X-1A. My dad Ed also worked on the X-2. Uncle Red worked a lot on the P-39 Airacobra as well as the X-1. Edmund was also a fixed equipment designer for the XP-59A, America's first jet fighter, while Henry was a control system designer for the same aircraft. Both worker in Aerospace Engineering at Bell. The photo of him shows him admiring the X-2 engine. He loved that stuff. He was inducted in the Niagara Frontier Aviation and Space Hall of Fame in 1994. Both Edmund and Henry, as a result of their work on the P-59A, were named members of the Jet Pioneers of America.

TedBowersjpg GeneLodyga

Two other uncles, Teddy Bowers, left and Gene Lodyga, right both also worked at Bell, Uncle Teddy working as a fabricator, Uncle Gene in the shops. Uncle Teddy, a supervisor, had just received a check from the company for outstanding work. Uncle Gene was kind of a quiet guy, had served in WWII on USS Subchaser #1048 and saw active duty in the South Pacific before coming to Bell.

All four men, along with so many with whom they worked, were All-Americans to me and still are.

As a young boy I grew up with these guys. As it happened, I grew up with Bell Aircraft, the Bell X-1A and much more. They were all Aviation Pioneers.

Larry Bell

Much of that was due to the leadership of the company’s founder, Larry Bell.

Daniel Seligman, an editor and columnist for Fortune Magazine, has written:

“Larry Bell’s (founder of Bell Aircraft) heart will never belong to any venture that is a mere matter of production and profit. His feeling for the aircraft industry is essentially romantic, compounded of an almost wide-eyed enthusiasm for the wonders to come and regretful nostalgia for the early days.”

Stuart Leuthner, a noted author, wrote:

“Bell didn’t build the vast numbers of aircraft men like Douglas, Boeing and Piper did, but his company established a record of innovation that few can match.”

Hugh Neeson, a former Bell employee commented about Larry Bell this way:

“Larry Bell's attitude allowing and supporting innovation rather than worrying about the commercial or business outcome is what led to the great contributions to flight and technology, then and since.”

One Pentagon observer remarked:

"There's still nothing wrong with their productive ability. But largely because of Larry Bell's special personality. Bell has come to be a 'frontier' company. They're most likely to be all steamed up there about something thats ten for fifteen years away, not something they can put right on the assembly line."

DornbergerWalter 1961
Major General Walter Dornberger was a German artillery officer and led Nazi Germany’s V-1 and V-2 rocket programs. Dornberger would later be brought to the US and become the vice president for engineering at Bell Aircraft. Dornberger commented once:

“Human beings tend to be conservative. They like to crawl ahead, a little at a time. Even with many scientists, they are afraid of risking a real leap into the future. Here at Bell we can leap.”

Buffalo's aviation history

There is some little known history about Buffalo which puts Larry Bell’s company into context. The roots of aeronautical interest in Buffalo have been traced as far back as 1879.

Walter Gordon, in 2017 the president of the Buffalo Aero Club, the oldest in the country, and the second oldest in the world, once commented:

“The aviation history of Buffalo is almost unmatched.”

The Aero Club of Buffalo was organized while the Wright Brothers were still experimenting. Some of its members in the 1880s were examining exactly how carrier pigeons managed to fly!

Gordon singles out a fellow named Glenn Curtiss. Gordon says this about Curtiss:

“(Glenn Curtiss) ended up doing as much for aviation as the Wright Brothers. Some people believe Glenn Curtiss was more important than the Wright brothers.”

Curtiss was born in Hammondsport, New York at the end of Lake Keuka, one of the Finger Lakes in the state. He then moved to Rochester, about 60 miles east of Buffalo, on Lake Ontario. Curtiss admired the “need for speed.” He started building bicycles and motorcycles, one of which had a V-8 engine that could ramp its speed up to 136 mph. He became known as “the fastest man on earth.”

Curtiss "June Bug" in flight, 1908

He tried to sell his engines to the Wright Brothers, but got nowhere. So he started building his own airplanes. I cannot go into them here, but they included the “White Wing,” the “June Bug,” the “Loon,” and the “Silver Dart.” The Wright Brothers and Curtiss became competitors. Curtiss, however, was more enamored with innovation than they.


Curtiss would build the JN-4 “Jenny” for the Army and the N-9 seaplane for the Navy.

He developed 15 versions of the aircraft and manufactured more aircraft than any other American company during WWI. Interestingly he became known as the “Father of Naval Aviation.”

In 1916, he founded and built the Curtiss Airplane and Motor Co. Given WWI, his challenge now was to build a lot of Jenneys and do so quickly. Nearby Buffalo offered great access to transportation, manpower, manufacturing expertise and capital. So Curtiss headquartered his company there.

America became infatuated with the airplane. Out on the West Coast, a fellow named Glenn L. Martin became fascinated with flight. In 1912 he built an airplane factory in Los Angeles. Soon he too began building aircraft for the military. He merged it with the Wright Company and started a second Glen Martin Co. in 1917. He set up this second company in Cleveland, Ohio.

For his part, Larry Bell dropped out of high school. He saw his first airplane in 1910, age 16. At 18, he entered the aviation business in 1912 as a mechanic for two exhibition pilots. He would go to work for Glen Martin. He helped develop the first combat bomber for Pancho Villa. He helped convert a Martin exhibition plane and filled gas pipes with dynamite to use as bombs.

He rose quickly through the ranks from stockroom clerk to shop superintendent, head salesman, purchasing agent, contracts writer etc. In 1920 he became the vice president and general manager of Martin’s company.

Let me now introduce you to Reuben H. Fleet. He joined the Army in 1917, expecting the US to get involved in WWI. He became a military aviator. His commanding officer was Colonel Henry “Hap” Arnold, who would eventually become a five star General of the Air Force. General Arnold played a major role in Bell Aircraft’s growth, especially while he was the commander of the Army Air Force (AAF). He admired its ability to innovate.

Following the war Fleet resigned and founded Consolidated Aircraft through a bunch of mergers. He too decided to go to Buffalo in 1923-1924 where he had access to new facilities and all the advantages offered by Buffalo mentioned previously.

For the moment, among others, we have Curtiss Airplane and Motor Co. building aircraft in Buffalo and now Consolidated doing the same.

Let’s return to Larry Bell. He felt he could go no higher at the Martin Co. in Cleveland so he quit. Daniel Seligman, writing "Barrier-Breaking Bell Aircraft" published by
Fortune magazine, said "(Larry Bell) is fond of recalling that when he started in the aircraft industry it was not considered a serious business. When he first went to work for Glenn L. Martin before World War I, he found the company listed in the telephone book under 'Amusements.'" Seligman said one of his directors commented:

"Larry is something of a dreamer. But even if he's wrong occasionally, he'll still always be way ahead of the pack."

In 1925 Bell went to work for Consolidated Aircraft in Buffalo. He obtained a guarantee of an interest in Consolidated. The company opened a subsidiary in Fort Erie, Ontario, Canada, across the Niagara River from Buffalo. Bell became the president.


However, in 1935 Consolidated moved to San Diego. This was Larry Bell’s golden opportunity. He knew there was capital in Buffalo. He also knew Consolidated was leaving its production facility empty. So Bell formed Bell Aircraft in 1935 in Buffalo and became president and general manager.

He would later regret pinning his name to the company because he found that doing so added all kinds of responsibilities he did not particularly enjoy. He wanted to call it the Niagara Aircraft, but his investors commented that Bell must not be very sure of what he is doing if he won't put his name to it.

Ray Whitman, Consolidated’s assistant general manager, joined up with Bell as a founder and became first vice president. Bell had hired Robert J. “Bob” Woods to work as a designer at Consolidated. Woods and Bell’s secretary, Irene Bernhardt, also joined with Bell. Woods became chief design engineer. Bell began his company with about 56 workers. By 1936, one year later, Bell had 167 workers and 80,000 sq. ft, of space, all in Buffalo. By the end of 1936 Bell had 642 workers and a $2 million backlog. The net result was Bell could now concentrate on his own projects.

Whitman commented on the first days of Bell:

"If we had known then what we would have to go through, we'd never have tried it. I forget which one of us suggested it first. It seems now to have come to us almost simultaneously. Both of us had the same idea, which was not to go out to California with Consolidated … Larry Bell and I jumped off the deep end."

Whitman recalled that Bell had to pay its first year's rent with Bell stock. He said, "They (American-Standard) held on to the stock long enough so that it turned out to be a very profitable deal for American Standard."

Whitman said this of Larry Bell:

"Larry was a demon salesman. He could sell anything. I was the brake, I was the one who sometimes had to say 'no.'"


Bell rented a portion of the former Consolidated plant on Elmwood Ave. in Buffalo. The building was owned by American-Standard.

Larry Bell and 44 other industrialists went to Germany on a government sponsored tour in 1938. They toured several factories including Messerschmitt (fighters), Heinkel (fighters bombers), and Focke-wulf (fighters).


Among other things, Bell was mesmerized by the layout of the German Heinkel aircraft factory. This is the Heinkel factory for He-111 bombers.


So Bell used the concept for his plant in Wheatfield, New York. This is the Bell plant producing fighters. Bell was amazed by the German aircraft mass production assembly lines, writing:

“Production methods here (in Germany) are far superior to anything in America or any other country, because they’re doing this on a large scale that lends itself to progressive production methods. You get the feeling they can do anything.”

Consolidated PBY Catalina

Consolidated A-11 attack bomber (P-60)

Best of all, Consolidated gave him some business to build wing panels for the Consolidated PBY Catalina. Then the US Army Air Corps (USAAC) contracted Bell to fit an Allison V-1710 engine into a Consolidated A-11A attack bomber, also known as the P-30.


Incredibly with such a young company sorely in need of production contracts, Bell set up a experimental shop within the company. Among the first products was the Airacuda, shown here, the first all-Bell aircraft. Then came the P-39 Airacobra for WWII. By 1944 Bell had 55,000 workers at five plants located in Buffalo, Niagara Falls, Burlington, Vermont, and Marietta, Georgia. During much of the war Bell was focused interning out fighter aircraft, the P-39 Airacobra, the P-63 Kingcobra, the P-59 Airacoment, and the RP-63, a armored aircraft used as a target for aerial gunners. And then came the Bell X-1 and later the X-2.

I'll introduce you to these aircraft and others in succeeding sub-sections. The main article already addressed the X-1 in some detail and briefly the X-2.

Bell was a WWII mass producer of fighters and bombers. It then migrated to research endeavors, designing, building and testing an array of technologies that were experimental, laying the groundwork for the future. It became a company that looked 10-15 years ahead into the frontier of aviation.


The Bell Aircraft plant during early X-1 days was located at Wheatfield, New York, close to Niagara Falls, and fairly close to Buffalo, often referred to as the Niagara Frontier. The Bell X-1A was designed and built at this Wheatfield factory. Bell had purchased the site on Niagara Falls Blvd. in Wheatfield in 1940 as the result of a need to expand. By the end of 1944 the Wheatfield plant had produced 10,000 planes like the P-39 Airacobra and its plan in Marietta, Georgia was one of several plants manufacturing the B-29 Superfortress bomber.

bell - gardenville ny helicopter development facility bw

Stepping back a bit, in 1941 Bell started developing a helicopter in Gardenville, New York, a suburb of Buffalo. The operation left the Wheatfield plant because that place was humming with WWII business. In Gardenville, it built the Bell 30 prototype that became a testbed for the Bell 47. The Bell 47 became the first helicopter in the world rated by the civil aviation authority. This was part of an effort to become more diversified for the future and turned out to be a high and fast growth business.

Bell Wheatfield plant in 1960

At some point in time after Larry Bell's death in 1956, Bell discontinued producing fixed wing aircraft.

Bell Aircraft Museum published this about Bell's evolution:

"The Bell Aircraft Corporation was one of the foremost aircraft firms of the United States. Although a builder of several types of fighter aircraft during World War II, the corporation was most famous for the Bell X-1, the first supersonic aircraft, and for the development and production of many civilian and military helicopters. In addition, Bell also developed reaction controls for the Mercury Spacecraft, the North American X-15A, Minuteman and Centaur rockets. Some later research and development included VTOL/STOL technology, including the XV-3 convertiplane, the X-22A, the rocket belt, and Lunar landing training vehicles (LLTV). It was 1960 that Textron Inc. purchased the defense activities of Bell Aircraft Corp properties including the helicopter operation. Textron organized a wholly-owned subsidiary Bell Aerospace Corp focusing on space related activities and the Bell Helicopter Company in Hurst, TX which continued to develop and produce rotary-wing aircraft."

One source has said Textron renamed the company Bell Aerospace Corp. in 1960. It said Textron changed Bell Aircraft's name to Bell Aerospace Corp. and organized it as a wholly-owned subsidiary focusing on space related activities. Another source has said Larry Bell and Bell Aircraft themselves changed the name to Bell Aerospace in the 1950s because of growing involvement in space programs.

Bell Aerospace had three divisions:

  • Bell Aerosystems Company, Buffalo, NY
  • Bell Helicopter Company in Ft. Worth, TX. Moved to Texas in the 1950s.
  • Hydraulic Research and Manufacturing Company, Burbank, CA.

Bell Aerosystems in Buffalo produced reaction controls for the Mercury Spacecraft, the North American X-15A, Minuteman and Centaur rockets and delivery of Lunar Landing Research Vehicles, three of which were built in the early 1960s to train the Apollo astronauts to land on the moon. Bell also designed the rocket engine used in the Apollo LEM Ascent Propulsion System, which was responsible for getting NASA's astronauts off the moon. Some later research and development included Vertical Takeoff and Landing/Short Takeoff and Landing (VTOL/STOL) technology, including the XV-3 convertiplane, X-22A, the rocket belt, and Lunar landing training vehicles (LLTV).

Bell Aerospace Textron played a significant role in NASA's mission to land men on the moon in the 1960s. Bell designed and built the Reaction Control system for Project Mercury's Redstone command module and a similar system was incorporated into the North American X-15 space plane.


NASA selected Bell to develop and build the LLRV Lunar Landing Research Vehicle, three of which were built in the early 1960s to train the Apollo astronauts to land on the moon. Bell did most of the design work, and the LLRVs were flight tested at Edwards AFB, CA., one test of which is shown in the photo. Bell also designed the rocket engine used in the Apollo Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) Ascent Propulsion System, which was responsible for getting NASA's astronauts off the moon.

In 1976 Bell's operations at Wheatfield ceased to exist. Other companies such as Lockheed leased some facilities but in general the plant became idle.


Bell Aerospace Textron took a leading position in developing air cushioned vehicles and landing craft and built up an operation in New Orleans that included the Bell Halter shipyard in New Orleans. I recall my dad being mightily involved in this effort. Bell Halter is a company owned by Bell Aerospace Textron and Halter Marine, Inc. In the early 1980s the Navy awarded it a $27 million contract to design and construct the first Minesweeper Hunter for the Navy. The design and production work was done in New Orleans.

In October 1985 Textron sold the last Wheatfield-based product line of Bell Aerospace Textron to Loral. There were only some 30 workers on this project. At the time they were producing technology for the Navy's Trident strategic weapons systems.