Today the Tri-Main Building at 2495 Main Street in Buffalo, designed by the famous industrial architect Albert Kahn, is a model of adaptive reuse, housing dozens of businesses and organizations of all kinds. So it’s hard to imagine that it was once the site of a top secret, military project that would start a new era in American aviation. Built in 1915 for Ford, the Tri-Main plant produced over 600,000 Model Ts. Later, the Tri-Main served as Trico’s Plant #2 for over 40 years before that company’s departure in the 1980s. But 75 years ago this year, in the midst of World War II in 1942, the Tri-Main was a Bell Aircraft factory and home to a “black project” on its top floor which would make history by ushering the United States into the jet age.
At the time, Buffalo was the epicenter of the American aviation industry, employing tens of thousands at companies like Curtis Wright, Consolidated Aircraft and their suppliers. Bell Aircraft Corporation was formed in Buffalo by Larry Bell in 1935 after his former employer, Consolidated, decamped for San Diego. Larry Bell and Bell Aircraft would go on to become legendary aerospace innovators, first to break the sound barrier in 1947 with the Bell X-1 piloted by Chuck Yeager and pioneers in helicopter design and development, ultimately spawning the Bell Helicopter Company. But early in WWII, the young company was best known for its P-39 Airacobra fighter plane manufactured in Bell’s factory in Niagara Falls. Then in 1941, the commander of the U.S. Army Air Forces, Major General Henry “Hap” Arnold, approached Larry Bell and asked if Bell Aircraft would design a plane using a radical new powerplant: the turbo-jet engine. Bell agreed, finalizing the design in January 1942 and beginning the secret construction at the Tri-Main Plant of America’s first jet, the Bell P-59 Airacomet. The first prototype, designated XP-59A, was delivered in September 1942 (complete with a fake propeller to disguise its nature) and made its maiden flight on October 2, 1942.
Unfortunately, the P-59 was more important as a milestone than as an aircraft. It was under-powered and had other problems typical of early jets which led to its obsolescence. Nevertheless, it remains a historic step in America’s progression to aerospace dominance in the jet age. Today, Bell Aircraft is gone, but the Tri-Main Building remains housing companies like PostProcess Technologies, that continue the Tri-Main’s tradition of innovation. In the National Air & Space Museum on the Mall in Washington, D.C., one of the last surviving P-59s hangs from the rafters near an old Curtis Wright JN-4 “Jenny” biplane. Both were important products of Buffalo’s aviation industry and both were proudly “Made in WNY.”