Monday, December 19, 2011

The Bell L-39 Swept-Wing Demonstrator

The Bell L-39 making a simulated carrier approach.
Following the end of the Second World War, captured German aerodynamic research had indicated the high-speed benefits of swept wings and many designs under development in the mid to late 1940s were revised to incorporate swept wings- two such examples being the North American F-86 Sabre and the Boeing B-47 Stratojet. While the USAF might have been enthusiastic about the benefits of swept wings, the US Navy still had its reservations- the Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer), the Navy organization tasked with the development and support of naval aircraft, had concerns about the low-speed handling characteristics of swept wings as it was this particular flight regime that was critical in flight operations aboard aircraft carriers. While there was no questioning the high-speed benefits, the Navy didn't have the luxury of long runways to land at high speeds. To determine the scope of the problem, BuAer solicited bids from industry for a swept-wing flying demonstrator to explore the low-speed handling qualities of swept wings. Grumman tendered two proposals, one based on a modified F4F Wildcat as well as an all new aircraft that would have allowed wings of differing sweep to attached to the fuselage. Bell submitted a modification of its P-63 Kingcobra which won the contract as it offered lower development costs using two P-63 aircraft. The aircraft would be designated L-39. In those days, the Navy designated its research aircraft with a letter denoting the manufacturer followed by the manufacturer's model number- as exemplified by the more well-known D-558 Skystreak and later Skyrocket- "D" for Douglas, Model 558. In the case of the L-39, "L" was Bell Aircraft's letter designation and the swept wing demonstrator had the company designation Model 39. The design had really only a tangential relationship to the P-39 Airacobra (more on this in a bit). 

The wings were basically P-63 Kingcobra outer wing panels that were modified to be swept to 35 degrees and attached to an unswept center stub section. This was done for aerodynamic balance purposes. The wings were further modified with slats which could be positioned before flight either open or closed. Because of the wing modifications, the landing gear was non-retractable, but since BuAer was more interested in low speed landing, this was of no consequence. Two L-39s were built, differing only in the size of the slats.

The swept outer panels attached to an unswept center section.
The first L-39 was ready to fly only 10 weeks after the go-ahead from the Navy and made its first flight on 23 April 1946. The initial set of flight tests showed some handling issues that were easily resolved with further modification to the first aircraft- namely a fuselage extension aft of the wing to increase the moment arm of the tailplane to provide more pitch authority, a ventral fin for stability, and to shift the center of gravity rearward more, the original four-bladed P-63 propeller was replaced with a lighter three-bladed unit from a P-39 Airacobra (and thus the only real link between the P-39 and the L-39). The second L-39 demonstrator was completed with the additional modifications and joined the flight test program.

It was quickly determined that the swept wing with the slats closed possessed entirely unacceptable stall characteristics- namely it was abrupt and caused the aircraft to roll to one side. However, if the wing were slatted, then the stall characteristics become acceptable. Simulated carrier approaches and landings were made by both BuAer test pilots and even Corky Meyer, Grumman's chief test pilot (as Grumman was in the process of designing swept wing aircraft for the Navy). Handling and stall characteristics in the low speed regime around the carrier were quickly determined to not be an issue as long as the swept wing were slatted and the L-39 flight test program concluded in August 1946.

Close up of the L-39's wing slats.
One issue that did come up during the L-39 test program was that swept wings needed a responsive power source in the carrier landing pattern. On aircraft there is a relationship between power required for flight and airspeed. As the airspeed decreases, the power needed also decreases, but it then reaches a point due to drag that the power needed starts to go up even as the airspeed decreases. This is called the "back side" of the curve. In carrier aircraft, they are flown on this backside because the approach to the deck must be at as low as a speed is possible. On a propeller-driven aircraft, power can be immediately applied to halt the aircraft from settling in the approach and striking the ramp. But swept wings had a steeper "back side" and early jet engines took time to spool up. And it would be jet engine development that would later dog the Navy's aircraft programs in the 1950s. But more on that in a later post!

Source: U.S. Naval Air Superiority- Development of Shipborne Jet Fighters 1943-1962 by Tommy H. Thompson. Specialty Press, 2008, p69-73.


  1. JP, thanks for this post -- never saw that one before!

    Hard to believe that the need to move the horizontal stab aft came as a surprise, as the swept wing obviously shifts the center of lift aft. Got to balance that somehow. Could've enlarged the tailplane, I suppose, but -- more drag.



  2. The swept wing F4F Wildcat that is mentioned in the text would have been interesting, do any drawings of this aircraft still exist?

    And why the wildcat rather than something with a bit more power like the Hellcat?