Media houses are prone to making prophecy-sounding statements when referring to new products or ideas. The New York Times made one in November 1941 when it wrote, “Perhaps the day is not far distant when flying-wing types will dominate the entire field of military, commercial, and private flying.” That phrase has found itself immortalized in the pages of aviation literature.
The big question is, if this was and remains an important vision for the industry, why don’t we see or hear of Flying Wings anymore? What was it? What happened to it? Why did it fail?
This article highlights the different factors that led to the death of this novel idea. But first, the basics. Let’s go into it!
What was Flying Wings?
It began with the English Physicist Sir George Cayley who, long before the invention of the airplane, argued that the most efficient flying machines would be those built with wings. In conventional aircraft, the tail and the fuselage provide control and stability, but they also increase drag, reducing the airplane’s aerodynamic efficiency. Consequently, the idea proposed by Sir Cayley became the holy grail of the aviation industry.
Many companies and individuals worked on designing airplanes with wings, but only one person made significant progress, Jack Northrop. He named them Flying Wings, and his journey and apparent failure are our focus today. Before and during his time, different countries attempted to develop flying machines with less success.
In 1908, John W. Dunne, a British Army officer, built a V-shaped bi-plane dubbed the D.4. Even though Dunne described his aircraft as “more of a hopper than a flyer,” he had laid the foundational stone for more attempts by the British. About a decade later, the British Army launched the A.W.52G and later upgraded it to the A.W.52, which, unfortunately, did not make it beyond its first flight.
In Germany, the Horten brothers, Walter and Reimar, pioneered the first manned all-wing airplane in 1930. They then designed an all-winged crewed glider, HO-1, before developing a twin-engine flying machine, the HO-5.
With the help of the designs of the HO-5, Nazi Germany designed the first military aircraft based on the flying wing concept. The most famous one was the twin-engine Horten Ho 229 fighter. There were V2 and V3 prototypes. Unfortunately, the former crashed, and the latter was captured by the US Army, effectively ending all work by the Germans on flying wings.
Northrop and the U.S. Army
At the time when Dunne and the Horten brothers were working in Europe, John Knudsen Northrop Jack was doing the same in the U.S. He was one of the most innovative and talented aircraft design geniuses in his day.
Even though Northrop had no college education, he flew his first flying wing in 1929. With time, he improved his designs which saw his first all-wing aircraft, the N-1M, become a reality in 1940.
The successful flight of the N-1M earned Northrop a listening ear with the U.S. Air Force because, at the time, the dynamics of WWII made a faster and lightweight aircraft a necessity. This began his journey into what would become one of the most reviewed design efforts in the aviation classroom and one of the most emotive procurement conspiracy theories in the U.S. Air Force.
Flying Wings became popular soon after the end of WWII but lost its relevance in the 1950s, then resurfaced in the ’80s but only in the legendary B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber.
But then, what happened to Northrop’s Flying Wings?
Why Flying Wings Failed
Let’s explore all of the possible reasons.
Northrop’s Lack of Capacity
Lack of capacity to design and build an all-wing aircraft hammered the first nail in Flying Wing’s proverbial coffin. After the success of N-1M, the U.S. Army Corps awarded Northrop the contract to design a flying wing bomber dubbed the XB-35. It was to have a top speed of 450 miles per hour, a maximum altitude of 45,000 feet, and a range of 6,000 miles. Due to the pressure of the war, they were required to do so within 24 months.
Unfortunately, Northrop did not have sufficient plant space to assemble even one XB-35; apparently, outdoor production lines were not an option. Despite his efforts to outsource personnel from other companies, the project still fell behind schedule, causing frustration in the U.S. Army Corps.
In fact, at some point, the tender was given to Glenn Martin Company as it had the necessary production capacity. Even then, the XB-35’s first flight was 3 years late and had taken up four times the initial budget.
This lack of production capacity would later haunt Flying Wings a second time in 1948 when it got the contract to produce a reconnaissance variant of the YB-48, the RB-49. It was a large plane, and the U.S. Air Force wanted three of them each month for the next 10 months.
Northrop struggled to make even one. This time, a merger was suggested, and Northrop had to work with Convair. The merger proved to be a sinkhole for Flying Wings as Convair was working on improving a competing bomber, the B-36. If only Northrop had capacity from the onset!
A Plethora of Technical Issues
The technical issues that plagued Flying Wings were numerous and significant, given that the airplanes were to be combat-grade. The propeller was a big problem as it often failed to feather, unfeather, and provide proper control. Additionally, the shaft vibrations sometimes became uncontrollable, and the gearbox overheated.
To solve some of these problems, Northrop tried to replace the propellers with eight jet engines in the YB-48. He added four vertical fins at the back and four shallow air dams at the front to maintain stability. While this improved speed and appearance, the engines made it heavier, limiting its range and bomb load significantly. In fact, it could only deliver 3,700 miles out of the required 6,000 miles.
The other challenge that hastened the demise of Flying Wings is the speed limitations of the concept. By design, they are subsonic flying machines. That is, they cannot go beyond the speed of sound of 749 miles per hour. It is, therefore, understandable they were replaced by supersonic options.
Yaw and pitch problems were also common, making accurate bombing impossible. Even with experienced bombardiers, bomb runs took 4 times longer; the average misses were twice that of bombers not built on the flying wings design.
The End of World War II
The New York Times had mentioned military, commercial, and private flying as the niches that the Flying Wings would dominate. However, Northrop limited his interests to the military world, probably because only they had the budget to fund his vision. However, the military needs and dynamics were changing faster than his designs could adjust.
For example, when he received the offer to build the X-35, the war had just begun; he delivered in 1943, and by the time he was making up for the changes, it was 1948; the war had ended two years earlier. Needs and interests had shifted!
In fact, the YB-49’s bomb bays, which were very effective at the beginning of the war, were obsolete in 1950 when Northrop launched the bomber. With the introduction of the atomic bomb, there was a need for a bomber that could carry bombs weighing more than 10,000 pounds. Again, Flying Wings lost.
The Three Final Strikes of 1948
A combination of three factors occurred in 1948, which dealt a death blow to the survival of Flying Wings. The first was the improvement of the B-36, a competition to Northrop’s XB-35 and YB-49. It delivered a range of 8,000 miles, an altitude of 46,000 feet, and a payload of 84,000 pounds.
It simply exceeded performance expectations in the three areas where Flying Wings had failed tremendously; range, payload, and altitude. There was no way the military would continue investing in Northrop’s project, cutting off its lifeline.
The second strike was the taking over of General Curtis E LeMay as the SAC commander. Unlike his predecessor, he acted in favor of the B-36. He would not let the faltering Flying Wings continue under his watch. Soon after he took over, review boards were assembled, Flying Wings YRB-49 was missing from the recommendations, and B-36 was the first choice.
Many witnesses have denied LeMay’s manipulation of the process to rig out Flying Wings. But could he have directed the review of SAC’s needs? Nevertheless, at the time, it was clear Flying Wings would not make the cut.
The final strike was the result of Flying Wings’ technical issues.
On June 5, 1948, the Flying Wings YB-48 disintegrated over the Mojave Desert during a flight test. All five crew members on board died, including Major Daniel Forbes and Captain Glen Edwards. About two years later, the YRB-49 crashed during a high-speed taxi test, nearly killing the pilot, Major Russ Schleeh.
Northrop’s Flying Wings had run out of luck; from here, it was a downward spiral. It is not surprising that when President Truman cut the defense budget for the 1950 fiscal year, Flying Wings’ contracts were among the first ones the Air Force revoked.
Did the Flying Wings Idea Fail?
Northrop’s Flying Wings may not have been as successful as he had envisioned, but it is not true that the idea failed. According to aviation experts, it was an idea that came years before the technology that perfected it was available.
For example, the technologies for improving flight stability were non-existent when Northrop was working on his Flying Wings. NASA and the Air Force developed them about two decades after the government had destroyed all of Northrop’s airframes.
Also, in the 1940s, Flying Wings’ design offered minimal radar detection, but that was not a concern then. With the advancement in technology, radar evasion is now of primary importance in military strategy. It has made flying wings a plausible design for military weapons.
“Fly-by-wire” technology and computer-based aircraft control are some of the technologies that would have made Flying Wings a success in his time. According to Robert L. Cardenas, one of the test pilots of YB-49, the flying wings needed to wait for technology to catch up with them.
Leaving a Legacy
Sometimes, great ideas face massive failures when implemented before the supporting technologies are available. The dotcom crash and the apparent fall of Flying Wings are examples of such a category.
Fortunately, technology eventually catches up, and in the case of Flying Wings, Northrop lived long enough to see, albeit behind closed doors, B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber in action. It proved that the flying wing concept could work, and it has for over three decades.
In recent years, flying wings have dominated the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) niche both in the civilian and military fields. Also, there have been ideas to build a blended-wing body commercial airliner. It seems that the prophecy by the New York Times is coming to pass after all!