Saturday, 21 January 2012

The Northrop Flying Wings

Jack Northrop’s flying wings - or to give them their more corect title, all wing aircraft - were some of the most spectacular, graceful and elegant flying machines ever to grace the skies.
A design as aeronautically pure as a flying wing had huge advantages over conventional aircraft design. This advantage was that drag had been reduced to an absolute minimum. As a result of this minimum drag, the performance of the flying wing became unequaled in speed, range and operating economy.
For many years aeronautical designers realised that by reducing drag - that is the net aerodynamic force acting opposite to the direction of the movement of the solid object caused by the shape or form of an aircraft as it passes through the air - that machine’s performance could be greatly increased. Early steps taken in this direction brought about the changes from biplane to monoplane design; the elimination of external wing struts and flying wires; the incorporation of retractable undercarriages and the general overall ‘smoothing out’ of the shape. However, in spite of all these advancements, the average conventional aircraft of today still has two to four times the drag of a flying wing. So in order to reduce drag to its absolute minimum, a few aircraft designers took the drastic step of eliminating both the fuselage and tail all together and placed the pilot, the engines and the payload completely inside the wing envelope.
These aircraft from Northrop - in particular the incredible eight-engined all-jet YB-49 were the purest form of flying machines - no fuselage, no tail - in fact barely any vertical surfaces at all. They seemed almost a fantasy, something from the realms of science fiction - indeed,  the first time I recall ever seeing one of ‘the wings’ was, as I am sure many others had the same initiation, in  H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds - a 1953 science fiction movie starring Gene Barry and Ann Robinson. It was the first on-screen loose adaptation of the H. G. Wells classic novel of the same name. In a desperate bid to stop the Martian invaders, much emphasis was placed on the use of a United States Air Force YB-49 Flying Wing bomber that was to drop an atomic bomb on three war machines. Unfortunately, the A-Bomb has no effect, due to their protective force fields; the Martians continue their advance and the government orders an immediate evacuation. The movie showed a YB-49 taking off and then lingers on the aircraft cavorting around the sky prior to making it’s attack.
For around forty years the history books recorded all of Northrops all-wing aicraft as little more than an aberration, almost a failure, something that was an interesting dead-end that was investigated and found to be little more than a­­ byway to mainstream conventional aeronautics that suffered a highly publicised fatal crash and became embroiled in American politics.
Then another design surfaced that equally captured the public imagination. It was from Northrop-Grumman, the sucessor company to the original designs and it had exactly the same wingspan - this was the B-2 Spirit.
This then, is the story.

The book should be out late in 2012!


Concorde Conspiracy - the Battle for American Skies 1962-1977 (yes, the title has changed at the last moment with the addition of the years for the American market)