The Bell Aircraft Corporation was an aircraft manufacturer of the United States, a builder of several types of fighter aircraft for World War II but most famous for the Bell X-1, the first supersonic aircraft, and for the development and production of many important civilian and military helicopters. Bell also developed the Reaction Control System for the Mercury Spacecraft and the Bell Rocket Belt. The company was purchased in 1960 by Textron, and lives on today as Bell Helicopters.
The Bell Aircraft Corporation was founded in 1935 by Lawrence Bell, a one-time shop employee and general manager for the Glenn L. Martin and Consolidated Aircraft companies when they were located in the Buffalo, New York area. After Martin shifted their operations to San Diego and Consolidated moved into Buffalo proper, Bell founded Bell aircraft at this location at Niagara Falls Airport.
Finding only limited success with his early designs, in 1939 Bell designed and sold a single engine interceptor aircraft to the US Army Air Corps, named the P-39 Airacobra. Though the aircraft failed to live up to its high-performance interceptor billing, it proved to be a lethal close air support aircraft and low altitude dogfighter, seeing combat in every theatre of World War Two. Used heavily by American and Russian forces, the P-39 also served with the air forces of England, Australia, the Free French and Allied Italy. Finding its greatest success in the Soviet theatre, the P-39 was attributed to scoring highest number of individual kills of any U.S. fighter type supplied to the Soviets during the war, with some 4,719 aircraft sent to the Soviet Air Force. In total, 9,558 P-39's were built at this location between 1941 and 1944 when production ceased in favor of the upgraded P-63 Kingcobra, which saw 3,303 of its type built here for the Soviet Air Force before war's end in September 1945.
Prior to the end of hostilities, Bell had already begun work on a highly classified aircraft design at the Niagara Falls factory; the P-59 Airacomet. Utilizing existing design and data from Bell's previous aircraft, the P-59 would become the United States' first jet-powered aircraft, taking its first flight in October 1942 at the present-day Edwards Air Force Base. Though the design was eventually passed over due to performance problems with the early turbojets, Bell had begun a major change in US aircraft design and performance philosophy as the days of piston engine, propeller driven fighter aircraft were numbered.
Continuing to operate on the very tip of the rapidly advancing technological race through the 1940's and 1950's, Bell secured its place in aviation history once again on October 14th, 1947 when their bullet-shaped X-1 rocket craft broke the Sound Barrier over the Southern California desert. The follow-up X-2 design tested the limits of swept-wing aircraft design, being the first aircraft to exceed both Mach 3.0 and climb over 100,000ft in altitude. Bell's X-5 aircraft was the first plane to ever change the sweep of its wings in flight during tests in the early 1950's, advancements which would later lead to the development of the F-14 Tomcat, B-1 Bomber and F-111 Aardvark.
Bell Aircraft changed names to Bell Aerospace in the 1950's to match its role in America's fledgling space program, and though its experimental jet designs were pushing the limits of powered flight, the company continued to work with piston powered aircraft, designing and building 668 B-29 Superfortress' at its Marietta, GA plant. Through the 1940's and 50's Bell continued to produce new fighter designs in the hopes of securing long-term Government contracts, however Bell found less and less success in this field. Staking a large amount of capital into the US Space program, Bell was selected to design the Reaction Control System for the Project Mercury Spacecraft, again playing its part in a first for the United States when the Mercury-6 mission put John Glenn in orbit in 1962. However, by this point Bell Aircraft had undergone massive organizational changes; with Lawrence Bell's death in 1957 and the lack of large government contracts to check the financial investment into Project Mercury, the company found itself in dire financial straits by the end of the 1950's.
Bell's successor chose to retool the company to produce another airframe type it had been working on since 1941, but with limited success to date; the helicopter. While the company was in the process of redirecting its efforts, it was purchased by Textron Industries in 1960 which provided funding and stability for the helicopter program. Again renamed Bell Helicopter, the company continued to produce a variety of cutting edge helicopter designs at their Buffalo location, most notably the H-13 Sioux and early UH-1 Huey models.
Despite the stability the Textron merger brought to Bell as a whole, the new owners elected to utilize more modernized facilities in more economically and atmospherically favorable areas, namely the South. With all helicopter design, evaluation and building being transferred to Fort Worth, TX in 1976, Bell's operations at Niagara Falls airport ceased after 41 years. Today, a portion of the plant remains active and in use by Lockheed, however the majority of the old plant is idle.