Bell D-188A: The first elevator with wings (and an X-Plane that wasn’t)

by Bob Alvis
special to Aerotech News

The current F-35 Lightning II has a variant — the F-35B — that offers the short takeoff and vertical landing capability requested by our armed services and international partners, to fill special needs they wanted addressed in the aircraft they are purchasing.

But way back in the 1950s, the VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) concept was being looked at by multiple aircraft manufacturers. It wasn’t long before the U.S. Air Force put out a call for an all-weather supersonic fighter bomber and defense interceptor that could transition to flight from a fixed location and not a runway.

Artist’s concept of the Bell Aircraft Company Model 2000, aka the D-188A. (Courtesy photograph)

The Bell Aircraft Company put forth the Model 2000, also known as the D-188A, to fill that Air Force — and Navy — request. The D-188A was a pretty bold VTOL design when it showed up in 1955. Bell was confident in its development prospects and touted the design as “the high water mark in high performance VTOL aircraft development in the United States.”

The Air Force and the Navy were hooked on the idea and provided $17 million in phase one funds for the program, resulting in creation of a full-scale mock-up. Six-hundred-thousand engineering man-hours and 3,500 wind tunnel hours went in to the project.

The design was bold and the proposal called for a high wing aircraft, powered by eight General Electric J-85-GE-5 turbojets. Two engines mounted horizontally in the rear fuselage and were fed by check type air intakes, mounted on the sides of the rear fuselage. Two other engines were mounted behind the cockpit, to provide the lift for horizontal flight. The other four engines were mounted in two pairs, in movable pods at the wing tips. The pods rotated into a vertical position for takeoffs and landings, and rotated horizontally for level flight. Projected performance included a top speed of Mach 2.3 and a maximum altitude of over 60,000 feet, while carrying over 8,000 pounds of armament.

On Dec. 5, 1960, the design mock-up was shown off in its Air Force configuration for the first time — but the hopes for an experimental aircraft designation of what would have likely been called the XF-109/ XF3-L came crashing to an end faster than that proposed Mach 2.3 top speed. The Navy had lost interest and quickly removed itself from the equation. In the spring of 1961, the Air Force cancelled their involvement and, just like that, the project in the United States came to an abrupt end.

The German VJ-101 design that looked very similar to the American Bell 188A. The VJ-101 had many other technologies and actually made it into flight test. (Courtesy photograph)

Strange parallel to the D-188A was that the German company EWP (which was the combination of the Messerschmitt and Heinkel aircraft companies from World War II) had been developing a similar aircraft, designated the VJ-101, over in Europe. They actually produced two working prototypes that performed very well and as a matter of fact, on Sept. 14, 1964, the first-ever V/STOL aircraft flew supersonic for the very first time! Their research and development on the VJ-101 came to an end in 1967, and the design never made it into production.

Of course, many other VTOL aircraft went on to very successful careers, most notably the Hawker/Douglas Harrier jump jet, but for some reason those early designs just never fit into the expanding air service needs of the military of the 1950s and 1960s. Eventually, the necessity of operating from limited field conditions became more pressing and VTOL/ STOVL capability was fully developed to help with deployment challenges faced by the military.

Imagining the D-188A in flight. (
Courtesy photograph)

So, as we have seen at Edwards with the F-35 Lightning II “jump jet,” I guess the powers that be felt it was time for the “elevator with wings” to make a comeback. I can say technology sure has come a long way from its first configuration, which required eight turbo jets to make it fly straight up with wings level!

Sure would have been cool to see Bell’s D-188A in flight test at Edwards but, like many other aircraft concepts, that mock-up was all we ever got and for history’s sake, that’s what fills the pages of books to remind us of how far we have come when it comes to aircraft design. Heck, maybe some hobby-type person will someday replicate the D-188A in the form of an RC jet and thrill us all with a sight we never got to see — but sadly, the roar of eight J-85 turbojets churning away is a sound that will just be left to our imagination!  

Until next time, Bob out …

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