GORILLA – THE FIRST JET-POWERED PRIMATE
by William B.Scott
At the dawn of the jet age, a small group of test pilots, engineers, technicians and maintenance troops secretly evaluated the Bell XP-59A, America’s first military jet, at the remote Materiel Center Test Site in southern California. This windswept, dusty camp on the edge of what is now Rogers Dry Lake eventually would become the secretive North Base section of Edwards Air Force Base, home of today’s U.S. Air Force Flight Test Center (AFFTC).
The Army Air Corps and Bell Aircraft went to great lengths to keep their jet-engined fighter prototype secret. When it was towed from the hangar to a runup area, a fake propeller was attached to the XP-59A’s nose, just in case somebody saw it. Still, pilot trainees flying over the barren wastes of the Mojave Desert started reporting a strange no-propeller airplane that trailed smoke and screamed like a banshee.
The late Royal Frey, a former director of the Air Force Museum, was one of several young lieutenants flying P-38s from Muroc Airfield (later Edwards AFB) at that time. Years later, he maintained that he had spotted the XP-59A, but, like many others, couldn’t make sense of what he was seeing–a sleek airframe with no propeller.
During a daylight XP-59A mission in the fall of 1943–shortly after the program had been downgraded from “Top Secret” status–Bell chief test pilot Jack Woolams noticed a P-38 from the nearby training unit maneuvering in the same general area. Woolams, who later flew initial unpowered flights of the Bell X-1 rocket plane–which eventually broke the “sound barrier” was known as a consummate prankster. He probably didn’t care about the XP-59’s cover being blown, but, instead, saw an opportunity for having a little fun at the expense of an unwary fighter pilot.
Woolams removed his flight helmet, slipped a furry mask over his head and donned a round-topped, short-brimmed hat before easing the XP-59A into a line-abreast position beside the P-38. The Lightning’s pilot–let’s call him S.H. Piloto, since nobody seems to recall his name–glanced at this unexpected wingman and almost lost control of the powerful twin-boomed fighter. A quick check of the P-38’s oxygen system confirmed he was not suffering from oxygen-starvation or hypoxia, but Piloto still couldn’t believe his eagle-sharp, fighter-pilot eyeballs.
There, not 20 feet off the P-38’s wingtip, was a sleek straight-winged airplane with no propeller, flown by a…a…gorilla wearing a derby! And the ape was waving a cigar! Staring open-mouthed, Piloto watched the gorilla casually tip his derby in a mock salute. Then the no-prop aircraft dipped a wing, dove towards the ground…and was gone.
The shaken Piloto was still stammering as he recounted his eye-popping story at the bar that night, swearing he was no-kiddin’ sober and not suffering from hypoxia during his bizarre encounter. “I’m telling you! This weird fighter, with no propeller, pulled up beside me–and the pilot was a gorilla wavin’ a cigar and wearin’ a derby! He tipped his hat, then just up and left! No way could I catch him–even if I’d wanted to!”
Of course, nobody believed poor Piloto, and his mental stability was probably the subject of many a squadron discussion. Thereafter, no Muroc-based P-38 pilot dared report a propless fighter screaming over the desert, preserving the XP-59A’s secret, until its public debut in January 1944. Several pilots spotted the XP-59A, but none wanted to admit seeing the same “illusion” that Piloto had reported.
Dr. James O. Young, the Air Force Flight Test Center’s knowledgeable former historian, said Jack Woolams had previously picked up a dozen or so derby hats and fake mustaches during a trip to Hollywood. The props were distributed among the base’s Bell Aircraft Corp. personnel, which immediately were dubbed the fraternal order of “Bell Bowlers”–or as they informally called themselves, the “Bell Buggers.”
Young said Woolams pulled the same cigar-waving-gorilla stunt on several other P-38 trainees–a rather disturbing introduction to jet-powered aircraft. “Reportedly, the base psychiatrists succeeded in convincing many of these guys that their eyes had deceived them. After all, so the argument went, ‘Everyone knows an airplane can’t fly without a propeller!’ Nevertheless, tales of bent throttle handles filtered back to the Bell side of the base, and there were vows of total abstinence taken at [the Muroc training base] during the fall of 1943,” Young said.