A Bell That Didn't Ring
Turns out that jets are like waffles: The U.S. Army Air Forces was tempted to throw its first one away.
- By William E. Burrows
- Air & Space magazine, September 2005
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“This is the Wright brothers airplane of the Jet Age,” Maloney says, “and the universities that got the other ones were turning them in for scrap.” Only six Airacomets survived.
The Airacomet was parked outside at Claremont, the original location of the museum, for 36 years. In early 1991 it was put into the Fighter Rebuilders shop at Chino, owned by Steve Hinton, a renowned flier of vintage military aircraft. Fighter Rebuilders worked on the derelict fighter until late 1992, when the company was redirected to another project.
The following year, a small group of volunteers began turning out on Saturdays to restore the Airacomet. That deeply pleased its savior, who has also saved the world’s only flyable Mitsubishi A6M5 Zero and Northrop N9MB Flying Wing, a Lockheed P-38J Lightning, and hundreds of other Planes of Fame treasures. “I’d like to be remembered for preserving these planes for future generations,” says Maloney.
“When we got to it, a lot of parts were missing,” says John A. Benjamin, an executive headhunter who works on the restoration in his free time. “We were missing the landing gear motor, the flap motor,” and much else, including the canopy, Benjamin says. Worse, the I-16 engines were gone. Benjamin eventually found three I-16s in crates at a parts depot in Texas, where they had been sent to be installed in piston/jet engine Ryan FR-1 Fireballs. Other items were donated by aerospace companies, manufactured on the premises, or scrounged.
The Saturday morning irregulars have no blueprints for the P-59A because those were destroyed in a fire at the Bell plant in the 1960s. But they do have an Airacomet manual, which was used to put the airplanes together out of their crates. A lot of it, Benjamin says, is “just common sense.”
And patience. “We’re in our 11th year now,” he continues. On nearby scaffolding lie the wings, stripped down to epoxy primer. “You put the engines in and it’s downhill from there.” Steve Hinton will fly the Airacomet next year and then take it on the airshow circuit. “It will be the oldest flying jet in the world,” Benjamin adds with a trace of wonder. “Think about that.”