Flying Wings: Northrop’s Great Dream

Northrop YB-49

Northrop YB-49


Few stage plays have had as dramatic a third act as that of the Northrop Flying Wing. Act One started slow, with the visionary Jack Northrop experimenting first with tissue-covered balsa models (which, incidentally, pretty well nailed down the shape of his later bombers) and proceeding with his tentative efforts with his 1929 Avion Experimental No. 1. It was called a flying wing by the press, but was actually a twin-boom cantilever wing monoplane, using his patented multi-cellular wing construction that would be seen later in many Northrop aircraft and the Douglas DC-1, 2 & 3 series.

Act Two was really a thriller, building up from genuine flying wing test vehicles such as the N-1M, through the XP-56 Black Bullet, the MX-324 and 334 test beds, the XP-79B Flying Ram fighter and the N-9M to Northrop’s realized dream, the XB-35 flying wing bomber. The second act saw the XB-35 fly successfully and transmogrify over time into the ERB-35, the RB-35, the YB-49 and the YRB-49A. Success seemed within Northrop’s grasp, only to have it, according to some, be dropped by the United States Air Force because it was not a good platform, and because its role as a reconnaissance aircraft could be performed almost as well and much more economically by other aircraft. Others hold strongly to the view that Northrop’s just reward of a contract for a substantial number of RB-49As was snatched away by the reprehensible conduct of government officials (read W Stuart Symington) in concert with Floyd Odlum and his Convair aircraft. This was the birth of the on-going controversy, one we’ll deal at greater length with below. In any event, the second act ended on a downer, with the existing Flying Wings scrapped and Northrop Aircraft embarking with new management on new aircraft.

But the third act is the killer, for roaring out of the West on its first flight on July 17, 1989 came—the Northrop Flying Wing. This time it was in the guise of the Northrop B-2A Spirit bomber, but it was a Northrop and it was a flying wing, and it not only went into production, it entered with great success into combat operations. The most expensive combat plane in history (estimates vary depending upon how you factor the costs, but a good ball-park is $2 billion per copy), the B-2A had a 172 foot wingspan—exactly the same as the XB-35. This was mere coincidence, but it makes a neat connection.

The Arguments.

While the Flying Wing three-act play had a satisfactory ending, there was a sub-plot that still causes controversy. Those people who believe that Northrop was treated unjustly do not like to have their arguments referred to as a “conspiracy theory.” Yet, if they are correct, a conspiracy was at the center of the Air Force actions that many people believe broke Jack Northrop’s heart, if not his spirit. For purposes of this piece, lets just call the people who argue that Northrop was shortchanged the “Pro-Wing ” group. Those who feel the Air Force treated the situation objectively can be the “Not-so Pro-Wing” group.

The Pro-Wing group might tell their side of the story as follows. After years of testing, Jack Northrop had created an aircraft which was essentially proven, and in many respects decades ahead of its time. Two XB-35s had been ordered, along with thirteen YB-35s; a contract for 200 of the production version was awarded, but, because the Northrop company did not have the capacity, the contract was given to the Martin company to build. Development problems delayed the first flight of the XB-35 to June 25, 1946. Then additional difficulties resulted in the cancellation of this contract, but the basic design survived a very difficult transition from piston-engines to jet engines, resulting in the YB-49, which flew for the first time on October 21, 1947. The YB-49 test program was not entirely successful, and received a major set-back on June 5, 1948, when the second model crashed, killing Captain Glen W. Edwards and four others.

Despite this, a contract was awarded in September, 1948, for the production of thirty RB-49A reconnaissance aircraft. A little life was breathed into the program on February 9, 1949, when a YB-49 flew non-stop from its Muroc test field to Andrews Air Force Base, Washington, at an average ground speed of 511 mph. President Harry S Truman inspected the aircraft and said “This looks like one hell of an airplane. We ought to have some.” Unfortunately, the contract for the YB-49s was cancelled in April, 1949. The entire program was finally dropped in November, 1949, with the exception of a single converted XB-35, which flew on May 4, 1950 as the YRB-49A.

However, Pro Wing group would maintain that the reason the program was halted was because government forces were at work against Northrop’s interest. The new United States Air Force, headed by Secretary of the Air Force, W. Stuart Symington knew that budgets were tight and that there were fewer contracts to be awarded. It was his belief that the industry had to consolidate, and he wanted Northrop to merge with the Convair. (Formerly Reuben Fleet’s Consolidated Aircraft, but since March, 1943, a unit of AVCO, a holding company, which had linked it with Vultee, which had already acquired Stinson. In the general post-war sell-off, Convair was acquired by Floyd B. Odlum’s Atlas Corporation. ) Why, you may ask the Pro-Wing Group, would Symington want Northrop to merge with Convair? The answer is (allegedly of course) that Symington was going to be rewarded with a position at the head of the new company after he left government service.

The views of the Pro-Wing advocates were reinforced by a December 8, 1980 story by Ken Gepfert in the Los Angeles Times. Gepfert’s article noted that for thirty years, Jack Northrop had refused to discuss the cancellation of his beloved flying wing aircraft. But fourteen months before, in an October, 1979 taped interview broadcast with Clete Roberts of the public television station KCET, the 85 year old Northop stated unequivocally that the flying wing had been cancelled because he had refused to merge his company with a “more competitive” firm. When he refused, the Air Force “summarily awarded the bomber contract to a competing firm.”

According to the interview, Northrop and the company chairman, Richard W. Millar, were summoned to meet Symington shortly after the June 1948 contract award. (Author’s note: there is a date discrepancy here; a contract for RB-49s was awarded in September, 1948.) Symington purportedly launched into a “diatribe” that ended in a demand that the Northrop Corporation merge with Convair.
In the television interview, Northrop and Millar stated that they visited Floyd Odlum (Jackie Cochran’s husband) to discuss a possible merger, but refused because “Odlum’s demands were grossly unfair to Northrop.”

Again, according to the tape, Symington called Northrop a few days later and told him that he was “canceling all of your Flying Wing aircraft.” That was the end of the conversation. According to Northrop, he was unable to reach Symington for further discussion later.

When the official cancellation instructions came, Northrop was ordered to destroy all of the Flying Wings, a heart breaking task for the factory work force that had created them.

Gepfert’s article goes on to say that in 1949, a House Armed Services Committee held hearings on the use of coercion by the Air Force in its aircraft procurement practices. John K. Northrop testified that there was no unjustifiable or unreasonable pressure in the cancellation of the B-49 contract. When asked on the taped television interview about this, Northrop said that he had “committed one of the finest jobs of perjury that I’ve ever heard.” The implication, of course, is that he perjured himself to avoid further injury to the Northrop company.
Northrop, while quiet and self effacing, was always an immensely likable man, popular in the industry. The story of the Pro-Wing opinion is much better told in other sources than I’ve done it here, and I can refer you to Ted Coleman and Robert Wenkam’s Jack Northrop and the Flying Wing for further Pro-Wing material.

The “Not-so Pro Wing Group” feels differently about the matter. Unimpeachable sources such as then Majors Robert Cardenas and Russ Schleeh had reservations about the suitability of the XB-35 and the YB-49 as either bombers or reconnaissance planes. Cardenas said in an interview that he had started the Military Phase II test program on January 13, 1948. After one stall, he recommended that the aircraft should be placarded against intentional stalls—it was too dangerous. He also commented that the cockpit layout was bad from the point of view of bailing out. Further he wrote in his report that the airplane had demonstrated in flight marginal stability about all three axes, which resulted in a phugoid oscillation on recovery from maneuvers. That meant that when a bomber turned in on a bomb-run, you would get a little phugoid, which was not good for the bombardier squinting through a bomb sight. By implication, it was not good for a photographic run, either. This statement was later misinterpreted by some writers, who quoted Cardenas as saying that the flying wing was unstable. Cardenas has remarked on many occasions that he never said that “that the damned thing was unstable.” He noted, in passing that B-49 (like any developmental aircraft) had problems with its landing gear, engines, and fuel cells, among others.

There are other arguments to be made for the “Not-so Pro Wing” faction. The YB-49 was still a 1941 piston engine design that had been re-engined with jets. The airfoil and the aircraft systems were clearly of an earlier vintage, and the conversion to jet engine severely reduced the aircraft’s range. Then there was the matter of competition. The Boeing XB-47 medium bomber was demonstrating really sensational performance that the YB-49 could not ever have matched. As a reconnaissance aircraft, the RB-49 performance was not markedly better than that of the Consolidated RB-36, which was already in production, or for that matter, that of the Boeing RB-50.

In short, there seems to be a good argument that cancellation was in fact a reasonable and justifiable act on the part of the Air Force, and not part of a plot. Cardenas recommends Gary Pape’s The Northrop Flying Wings as an objective source for the “Not-so Pro Wing” story.

The Author’s Contact and Analysis

The exact date escapes me, but I believe it was sometime in 1981 when I was pleased and surprised to get a call asking if W.Stuart Symington could visit me in my office. I was Director of the National Air & Space Museum at the time. Symington, who had been Missouri’s senator for more than twenty-three years and a candidate for nomination for president, was a bit of a hero to me. As the first Secretary of the Air Force, he had wielded immense power and influence, far more than any subsequent Secretary, thanks to changes in Department of Defense organization. More than that, he had had the guts to resign when the Air Force budget was cut below the level he considered necessary.

He arrived on time at the office, with Eugene Zuckert, who had been Symington’s undersecretary and then became Secretary himself in 1961. Although they were smiling, I knew at once that this was not a friendly visit.

Symington came straight to the point. He had learned that Tim Wooldridge, a curator, was writing a book on flying wings, and he wanted to be sure that it was not filled with any nonsense about Northrop being coerced into merging with Convair. He went on at some length, quite heated, but still pleasant enough. Zuckert was silent for the most part nodding, but occasionally breaking in with a comment.

I didn’t say anything while Symington continued, describing all the agony he had been put through by being accused falsely of abusing Northrop. I was aware of both Northrop’s television tape and Gepfert’s article in the New York Times and realized that they might be behind Symington’s anger. Staying quiet was the best policy, for over time, Symington’s anger peaked, and he began to look uncomfortable as if he had said too much. In reality, he had not, but the implication was clear: he wanted me to read Wooldrige’s text and make sure it was sanitized of anything that might malign Symington. After a bit, he wound down, nodded to Zuckert who nodded back and asked me what I thought. I answered

“Senator Symington, I think you are asking me to censor one of my curator’s books.”

It was an accidental choice of words but it turned out to be exactly the right tone. Both Symington and Zuckert became flustered and immediately denied that they wanted me to censor the book. In the end, they just asked that the book be fair, and, with handshakes all around, they left.

At this late date, I cannot honestly say whether I had read what Wooldridge was writing by the time of Symington’s visit. I probably had, but in any event, while Wooldridge was clearly an admirer of Jack Northrop, I knew that he would not have said anything adverse about Symington. Checking the book today, I find that there is no reference at all to Symington or to any coercion.

What’s the real story? I believe that Symington honestly wanted Northrop to merge, with Convair if possible. But I don’t believe he had any personal interest in that matter. He was too big a man for that, already wealthy and with political ambitions. The way the Northrop Flying Wings were disposed of was unfortunate, but they were by 1948, already obsolete. In flight tests they had demonstrated qualities undesirable for their mission, and their basic 1941 design did not provide for growth in speed or range. Had modern autopilots been available, follow-on Flying Wings could have been developed, and they might have been successful as early as 1956 or 1957. However, the way things played out, it would not be until the B-2A arrived that Northrop’s goal was finally fulfilled. As a last grace note, before Northrop’s death, he was given a special briefing by the firm that he had once owned on still super-secret B-2 bomber. He was, needless to say, extremely gratified.

4 responses to “Flying Wings: Northrop’s Great Dream

  1. As someone who spent a large part of their working life in Aviation [NAPIER,WESTLAND and FAIREYS] it is always sad to see years of dedicated development work cut up for scrap but that is life. Our Brtish TSR2 went the same way. I have the video “The Wing will fly” so I knew about Mr. Northrop’s preview of the B2. This article seems a very fair assessment of the situation and I found it very interesting.

    • Thanks for your comment Bob, I guess bureaucracy causes the same problem everywhere. Since you worked at Westland you may have known an old friend of mine, the test=pilot/author Harald Penrose. He was a terrfic person, and I recall with pleasure sharing a bottle of wine with him at this pictureesque house.

  2. Patrick Gleaton

    It’s a shame that many of these developmental aircraft were destroyed. I would be nice if at least some of them were still around. I still feel that the cancelling and destruction of his flying wings caused the breaking of Mr. Northrop’s will. It does seem that the Northrop Corp. has gotten a sort of raw deal over the years ( with the exception of the F-5/T-38). Anyhow, This was a really good article, Col. Boyne, and I really enjoyed reading it! Keep up the great work!

    • Thank you Pat, you are quite right. There is no question that Mr. Northrop, despite his denials, felt that the government had betrayed him. The Northrop Company was sensitive enough to show him what the then super-secret B-2A would look like before his death, and he was much mollified. Ironically the B-2A and the B-35 had exactly the same wingspans–152 feet (as I recall it.)
      Take care,


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