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
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
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.