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Bell Aircraft

Posted on Friday, August 22nd, 2008.

Don’t waste, buy defense stamps in haste and, “Keep ‘Em Flying”
- A.T. Hapke, Advertising Manager, Bell Aircraft Corporation

For years the engines of industry in Buffalo were known by names like Bethlehem Steel, Trico and Bell Aircraft. The third and last name in this trio of giants, the Bell Aircraft Corporation, employed thousands of Buffalonians throughout the 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s. The company was founded by Lawrence Bell, who was a general manager of the Glenn L. Martin Company, then a manager of the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation. When Consolidated moved to San Diego in 1935, Bell stayed in Buffalo to start his own company.

Virginia Stephan and her daughter Katie Mattison

StoryCorps participant, Virginia Stephan was 18-years-old when she started working at Bell Aircraft. Having started business school in 1936, Virginia quickly realized that she wanted a different path. “I didn’t like shorthand, so I didn’t want to be a secretary,” says Virginia. “So I went to Bell Aircraft and got a job making 65 cents an hour.” A real life Rosie the Riveter, Virginia helped build Bell Aircraft’s single engine P-39 Airacobra fighter. Called a “Cannon on Wings,” the P-39 placed the engine in the center of the aircraft, with the propeller driven by a long shaft through which a 37 mm, anti-tank cannon was mounted. The Airacobra fired armor piercing and explosive shells directly out of the propeller’s spinner. Virginia worked at Bell Aircraft’s Main Street location helping to build these so-called sky tanks before enlisting in the Navy and joining the WAVES during World War II.

Bell would go on to produce a line of experimental aircraft throughout the 1950’s, helping the Air Force explore the boundaries of aircraft design, and paving the way for the space race. Bell Aircraft is also responsible for the creation of the first American jet dubbed the XP-59. Another StoryCorps participant, Arthur Nesbit worked for Bell Air for 22 years in a variety of jobs including an office management position in the Maintenance Department. He recalled the secrecy around the creation of the XP-59. “That plane was completed and they were sending it out to the west where they had a special airport for it. They put a propeller on the nose in case of any spies!”

The impact that Bell Aircraft made in the fields of aeronautics and aerospace engineering cannot be overstated, but the company’s impact on the personal lives of the men and women of Buffalo who worked for the Bell Aircraft was just as great. The company published a newsletter in which one could find features on the Soviet Union’s successful use of the Airacobra in their fight against Germans right next to the names and bios of the Ms. Bell Air contest being held back in 1942! The company asked a lot of its employees but also offered financial aid to any employees who were in school and maintaining a certain grade point average. It was through this program that Arthur Nesbit was able to go to college in his forties and graduate Summa Cum Laude from the University at Buffalo with degree in Political Science.

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4 Responses to “Bell Aircraft”

To preserve the StoryCorps mission and experience for our readers and participants, comments are subject to the StoryCorps Terms of Service. Comments may be held for moderation or removed if deemed offensive or off-topic. Please do not resubmit your comment if you don't see it right away, it will be approved as soon as possible. Thank you.

  • My father’s first job out of college in 1953 was with Bell Aircraft. He graduated from Carnegie Tech (Pittsburgh) with a Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering. Worked for Bell Aircraft in Wheatfield during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Transferred to Bell Helicopter in 1967. Worked there until 1971 during the height of the Vietnam war.

    Comment from Eric Martin on March 8, 2009 at 8:31 pm - Reply to this Comment
  • Hey RJ! Yeah, those pix are beautiful! I could not resist scanning them for this blog, and was so fortunate to have had help from the wonderful staff of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library in finding them.

    Your website looks great! Can’t wait to find out more about IBIS Canard.


    Comment from Jeremy on September 16, 2008 at 10:11 am - Reply to this Comment
  • Thanks a lot for reproducing these nice WWII posters. I’ve always thought that the Airacobra was one of the most elegant airplanes of that area!

    Thanks again

    Comment from RJ.03 IBIS homebuilt canard on September 16, 2008 at 2:35 am - Reply to this Comment
  • Nice seeing this post right above above Gloria’s story! It’s exciting that the interviews collected combine to tell a more and more complete story of this country.

    Comment from Mike on August 22, 2008 at 12:46 pm - Reply to this Comment

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