The Pointy End Of Northrop's Flying Wings Then And Now

Illustration for article titled The Pointy End Of Northrops Flying Wings Then And Now

The images above provide an interesting comparative study of the nose sections of Northrop’s YB-49 circa the late 1940s and present day’s Northrop Grumman’s B-2A Spirit stealth bomber. Jack Northrop (and Nazi Germany to some extent) was way ahead of his time when it came to envisioning flying wings as the future of air combat. The fact that the USAF didn’t buy into his vision was a frustration he carried with him heavily for the last half of his life.

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The story goes that in 1980, during the B-2’s development, a wheelchair bound Jack Northrop, who had long passed on the leadership of the company that bore his name, was brought into a classified viewing room and a model of Northrop’s Advanced Technology Bomber was unveiled to him. Due to various illnesses he could not speak, but he grabbed his pen and wrote: “I know why God has kept me alive for the past 25 years!”

Amazingly, Jack’s YB-49 and the culmination of the Advanced Technology Bomber program, the B-2, would have the identical 172 foot wingspan. Northrop engineers actually used the YB-49’s flight test data and blueprints to help develop their Advanced Technology Bomber’s design.

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Illustration for article titled The Pointy End Of Northrops Flying Wings Then And Now

Jack Northrop died ten months after seeing the vindicating flying wing model, but the success of the flying wing concept has only become more apparent as the years have passed. The invention of modern fly-by-wire technology eliminated many of the issues that Jack Northrop’s flying wings experienced during testing and has allowed the B-2, and more recently the carrier-borne X-47B and even Lockheed’s RQ-170 Sentinel drone to make history.

Along with its efficiency, the flying wing’s unique ability to be configured to evade enemy sensors has kept it at the leading edge of combat aircraft design today. The upcoming Long Range Strike Bomber, which Northrop Grumman is competing to build, and virtually all advanced unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs) in development use a flying wing design of some sort. As such, the flying wing stands to represent just as much of the future today as it did nearly 70 years ago.

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It just goes to show you just how amazing the aerospace minds of post World War II era were, coming up with exotic designs to meet incredibly challenging capability requirements using slide rules, protractors and drafting boards.


Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.

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DISCUSSION

Alot of people dont know that the B2 and YB49 are based off of the Horton 229. The horton 229 was part of Hitlers Amerika Bomber project, and it was a twin jet powered flying wing designed to bomb D.C. and NYC from Nazi occupied France. It used a special coating to absorb radar and its not a coincidence that the captured prototype was in Northrops posession since the end of WWII. I saw a documentary where someone actually built one and tested it, if the Nazis had been able to build them, the 229 would have been able to bomb New York and DC, and by the time the US would have been able to react to them, they would have already dropped their load and been headed back to Germany. They werent able to produce any until 10 days after Hitler killed himself. If the bomber would have been ready 3 months earlier we might all be speaking German right now.