Human nature is a strange and contradictory litany of benevolence and outright cruelty! We will go to any lengths to save creatures headed for extinction even if it means cutting off vital resources to human agriculture and housing. We will covet puppies, dogs, cats, and domesticate potentially dangerous wildlife yet we will condone the abortion of human fetuses by the hundreds of thousands! We will brilliantly engineer machines with uncanny capability, yet their purpose is for destruction and killing. Anyone who proclaims that human nature is inherently kind is sadly mistaken. However, let us examine the genius of man’s ability to defend and destroy in the skies of the world!
The odd and the few
There are few legacies in modern day aviation that the United States industry and military have not dominated in or been the chief innovator of. Quite fortunately those attributes have been instrumental in the United States liberating the world in two world wars over the course of the 20th Century as well as interdicting major conflicts in the Middle East. Yet, the difficulty of quelling “Police Actions” such as the Korean conflict and the Vietnam War have presented specific problems that caused loss of valuable aircraft and the pilots that flew them.
Although such aircraft as the venerable F-86 Sabre, the F-100 Super Sabre, the F-101 Voodoo, and the F-4 Phantom manufactured under license by US contractors were the standards of aviation in their time rarely do we see past prototypes or designs that would have been functional today or that should have been perfected and brought into future use as the state of the art produces obsolescence quite rapidly. Yet, there are those rare birds that were overlooked, too far ahead of their time, or simply out competed by rival manufacturers who fit into the vision of the Pentagon better at that time.
Jet age emerges
Below we will discuss some examples of those exceptional aircraft that might have saved lives and defeated the enemy much more handily than the aircraft that were procured at the time in their era of operation and world conflict status. By 1943 the P-80 Shooting star was already under development faster than the German Me262 the first battle ready fighter jet in history, Lockheed’s first jet fighter never saw action against its enemy counterpart. Although it was demonstrated in Italy and Great Britain US generals preferred the piston engine aircraft they were familiar with.
At more than 600 miles per the P-80 was already a world beater, but World War II was winding down and it would not be until the Korean conflict that the P-80 would be unleashed for combat. Unfortunately, by the then the Russian Mig-15 was wreaking havoc over the skies of Korea and even though it was a P-80 that scored the first air to air victory against a MIg-15 the P-80 was soon relegated to a ground attack role unable to climb fast enough and dog fight with the Mikoyan model jet. That task would be taken up by the North American built F-86. In a number of variants like the T-33 the P-80 would live on until the early 1970’s as a trainer for rookie pilots. Another variant was the all-weather interceptor “Scorpion” used by SAC (Strategic Air Command) as an interceptor in the 1950’s and 60’s.
In the early 1940’s as the US struggled with the emergence of World War II and early defeats of the Pacific Fleet at the hands of the Japanese Imperial Fleet as well as the US Merchant Fleet suffering terrible losses at the hands of the German “Wolf Pack” of U-Boats sinking US Navy ships off the Atlantic Coast many new propeller driven fighter aircraft and bombers were being pressed into service, yet new experimental models were under development as well! Such was the case with Jack Northrop and his “Flying Wing”! With Germany far ahead of the Allies in rocketry and jet engine research a race against time and deployment was feverishly underway.
Northrop was developing a revolutionary bomber without the aerodynamic drag of nacelles, cowlings, extended fuselage or tail, the YB-35 could fly higher and faster than conventional propeller driven bombers while using much less material and size. As a result the flying wing stood with less height for servicing on the runway and could be trundled into a much smaller hangar for storage. The YB-35 achieved 25% greater fuel efficiency, could store more payload, travel further, and yet do it with more internal storage as well. Little did the Allies know that the Horton Brothers were developing aircraft along the same lines of evolution as Northrop! However, after problems with the initial push propeller configuration the design team adapted a counter rotating system for more stability in flight.
Not soon enough
The Northrop team could never get beyond the prototype stage before World War II drew to a close and neither could the Horton Brothers as Germany was overrun by US and Russian ground forces in the end. Now as the US government fought with budgets, lending money to Europe for recovery efforts, and scaling back wartime personnel numbers Northrop continued his research and development for a long range strategic bomber now that the Atomic Bomb had been created. With the introduction of the jet age and higher requirements for speed, once again the YB-35 had to be refitted with axial flow jet engines rather than the counter rotating propeller motors that had just been installed.
Now the Pentagon was sending out bids for a new long range bomber competition. Such builders as Boeing with extensive knowledge of large aircraft capable of long distance flight carrying heavy bomb loads but with a conventional aircraft configuration were being allowed to introduce their designs regardless of Northrop’s baby. Generals with ties to other aircraft manufacturers were leaning toward what they were already familiar with and perhaps what might bring jobs and money to their cities.
The flying wing was now tasked with flying faster with jet engines on a 400 mph. frame and being a stable enough platform at high altitude for precision bombing. Conventional aircraft with extended fuselages and tails had already demonstrated their worth as precise bombing platforms even if they weren’t as fast or high flying and took more material and maintenance to operate, yet many generals were still leaning toward aircraft like the B-36 Peacekeeper, a gigantic prop driven strategic nuclear capable bomber! Boeing would soon be introducing the early prototypes of the B-47 and B-52 jet engine bombers. The Pentagon budget was stretched while also needing reliability for the new role of a “Cold War” deployment.
Problems plagued the program and Bob Cardenas, one of two test pilots on the project, was nearly killed when undergoing a stall maneuver that sent the aircraft tumbling in mid-air and did not recover like a typical airplane. Some quick thinking by Cardenas saved the flying wing and his life once he figured out how to master the controls out of the stall with only a thousand feet between him and the ground! However, even after warning Captain Edwards, the other test pilot partner, about that danger in 1948 the YB-49 and a crew of 5 crashed and lost their lives! Muroc Air Base would be renamed Edwards AFB and the program was in a crisis now. Even after a record setting transcontinental speed flight had succeeded from Edwards AFB to Andrews AFB in just over 4 hours and President Truman being so impressed that he was sold on buying several of the YB-49’s the program was finally scrapped and all aircraft on the Northrop airfield were destroyed by Air Force personnel as Boeing was awarded the coveted contracts.
Northrop’s genius appeared to be too far ahead of his time and during the 1950’s 60’s and 70’s he continued on other aviation projects still convinced of the feasibility of the flying wing design. In 1989 Northrop’s dream once again came to fruition as the corporation that had continued after he had gone secretly developed a stealth flying wing strategic bomber. The B-2 was like nothing the world had ever seen, undetectable, ultraprecise, and able to reach any target in the world while still having the same dimensions as the original design. The aging Jack Northrop sat in a wheel chair at the unveiling ceremony, receiving a model of the aircraft while getting to witness its takeoff from the runway. Jack Northrop’s design had at long last been vindicated.
In Part II we will see another example of mercurial aviation design simply too far ahead of its time to be implemented when it was most needed.