Larry Bell founded Bell Aircraft Corporation in 1935. To gain experience in -for that time- modern aircraft constructions Bell started with contract work for Consolidated Aircraft Corporation. The work consisted of the manufacture of wing parts for the Catalina flying boat.
In 1936 Bell started under supervision of chief-engineer Robert J. Woods with the design of their first airplane: the Model 1 FM-1 Airacuda. The FM-1 (FM stood for Fighter Multiplace) was a twin-engined heavy fighter totally designed according to the philosophy of the air-cruiser. It was to be a well armed aircraft with a crew of five and great endurance. Its mission was to create havoc for enemy bomber formations with heavy directed fire from multiple battle stations. The crew of five consisted of a pilot, a board mechanic/radio operator and three gunners.
The main armament of the FM-1, later named the Airacuda, consisted of two 1.46 in (37 mm) Madsen T-9 cannons with 110 rounds each placed in manned gun positions in the front of the two engine nacelles, which necessitated using pusher propellers. The gunners in the engine nacelles could escape to the fuselage through a crawl way in the inner wing section in case they had to bail out. Additional two 0.5 in (12.7 mm) and two 0.3 in (7.62 mm) machine guns were placed in various other locations in the fuselage as a defense against fighters escorting the enemy bombers. Also a load of twenty 30 lb (30.61 kg) bombs could be carried in the fuselage.
The first flight of the prototype XFM-1, with the USAAC s/n 36-351, was made on September 1, 1937 from the company airfield near Buffalo, New York. Basically, the test flights of the Airacuda were without too many problems. For operational evaluation the USAAC ordered 10 pre-production Model 7 YFM-1's (s/ns 38-486 to 38-495) and 3 pre-production Model 8 YFM-1A's (s/ns 38-496 to 38-498).
These machines were quite different when compared with the prototype. One of the changes was the replacement of the curved windscreen of the cockpit canopy by an optical flat screen and hatches replaced the gun blisters on each side of the fuselage. An extra gun-post was mounted top of the fuselage and the fuselage was fitted with a small bay for on a possible bomb load. Also the inlet and exhaust system of the both engines was modified. The total dimensions also changed somewhat. Span, length and height became respectively 70 ft (21.34 m), 45 ft 11.375 in (14.00 m) and 12 ft 5 in (3.78 m). Also the empty weight increased.
In October 1940 the YFM-1A was introduced by fitting the last three pre-production machines with a nose wheel landing gear. A further two YFM-1's (38-489 and 38-490) were converted with slightly less powerful (1,090 hp) Allison V-1710-41 engines under the type designation Model 7B YFM-1B.
Eventually the flight performances of the completely operationally equipped Airacudas were found to be somewhat disappointing. In particular the maximum speed of less than 280 mph (450 kmh) was totally inadequate. Also the light bomber version the plane was not found to be a success because of its instability. No further production orders were placed and the pre-production machines were never used in operational service.
The two Madsen cannons were never mounted; the cannons shown on pictures of the Airacuda were wooden dummies. All thirteen produced machines were assigned to training schools to serve as instructional airframes for aircraft technicians. Because of their size and complexity, they undoubtedly have been very successful in this role.
Long-range bomber destroyer
Two 1,150 hp Allison V-1710-13 12-cilinder liquid cooled in-line engines
69 ft 9.8 in (21.28 m)
44 ft 9.75 in (13.66 m)
13 ft 7 in (4.14 m)
684 sq.ft (63.54 sq.m)
13,375 lb (6,067 kg)
17,333 lb (7,862 kg)
270 mph (434.5 km/h) at 20,000 ft (6,096 m)
30,500 ft (9,296 m)
1,670 mls (2,640 km)