The United States’ most important developer and manufacturer of helicopters, aircraft, and rocket engines, with twenty aviation development firsts to the company’s credit from World War II to the present
Lawrence Dale Bell’s interest in flight was first sparked by his older brother, Grover, when the two were teenagers in Santa Monica, California, in 1910. After Grover’s death in a plane crash in 1913, Larry Bell renounced his interest in aircraft, but was persuaded to join the fledgling Martin Company, quickly rising to vice president and general manager. He left Martin in 1928 to work for Consolidated Aircraft in Buffalo, New York, and when that company relocated to California in 1935, Bell decided to form his own company. Bell Aircraft had a slow start, but has been a leader in rotorcraft, or helicopter, design, and development since 1941, when Bell opened a research facility in Gardenville, New York, headed by Arthur Young and his assistant Bartram Kelly.
Bell Aircraft developed the Airacuda, the first World War II twin-engine, multiplace escort fighter, with 37-millimeter cannon and flexible gun turrets. Bell also developed the XP-77, the first all-wood modern fighter aircraft, and the P-59, the United States’ first jet-propelled fighter aircraft. On October 14, 1947, Bell’s X-1 piloted by Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier at 662 miles per hour, an accomplishment followed by development of the X-1A, which in 1953 set a world speed record of 1,650 miles per hour. In 1957, Bell developed the Agena rocket engine, known as the “workhorse of the space age,” with a 99.7 percent reliability record. The Agena was used on the Thor, Atlas, and Titan booster rockets in the Discover, Ranger, Mariner, and Gemini space programs.
Bell Aircraft started the U.S. commercial helicopter industry when the Bell Model 47 was granted the first commercial license issued by the Civil Aeronautics Administration on March 8, 1946, and awarded the first Helicopter Type Certificate on May 8, 1946, shortly after Bell delivered its first production-line helicopter to the military. The Bell Model 47 became the foundation of the helicopter industry in the United States and is used for police work and in the medical, mining, and farming industries. The Model 47 was used for medical evacuation during the Korean War and in the United States. Five thousand Model 47’s in twenty different configurations were built before Bell stopped production in 1973.
Bell Helicopter has remained the leader in medical evacuation helicopters, with the Model 206 widely used by police, fire departments, and medical ambulance services. Having built more then thirty-four thousand helicopters since 1946, Bell is the world’s most prolific manufacturer of rotorcraft.
In 1951, the Bell Aircraft Corporation created a separate helicopter company which was headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas. This corporation was bought by the global conglomerate Textron in 1960 and became its subsidiary. Bell Helicopter Textron has eight thousand employees scattered among ten plants, including the state-of-the-art Bell Helicopter Textron Canada facility at Mirabile, Quebec, with 1,800 employees.
The company’s newest helicopters are the Model 427 and 407 LongRanger. In 2001, Bell Helicopter Textron’s current military production was the AH-1W Super Cobra, for the U.S. Marine Corps, and the OH-Kiowa Warrior. The company completed a 137-aircraft order for the TH-67 Creek trainers for the U.S. Army. Other contracts included one hundred CH-146 Griffons, which are highly modified 412-EP’s, for the Canadian Forces utility tactical helicopter program.
With Boeing Vertol, Bell also produces the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft for the U.S. Marine Corps and Special Operations Command. The V-22, another Bell first, can take off, hover, and land like a helicopter and can fly forward with the speed and range of a high-speed turboprop fixed-wing aircraft.
Matthews, Birch. Cobra! The Bell Aircraft Corporation, 1934-1946. Atglen, Pa.: Schiffer, 1996. A meticulously researched account of the planes produced by Bell during the Great Depression and World War II. Norton, Donald J. Larry: A Biography of Lawrence D. Bell. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1981. A biography of the founder of Bell Aircraft. Rotundo, Louis C. Into the Unknown: The X-1 Story. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994. An in-depth, behind-the scenes look at the development of Bell’s X-1 supersonic airplane.
Vertical takeoff and landing