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Flying Wing: The (Indirect) Precursor To The B-2 Stealth Bomber

While never fully-achieved, the concept of the Flying Wing led to a modern day aircraft.

The B-2 Stealth Bomber is a modern-day wonder of technology, a military aircraft that is as graceful as it is lethal.

While there is not a direct lineage, the B-2 had a predecessor. The Flying Wing was conceived before World War II and was scrapped after the Axis was defeated. And today, thanks to the dedication of a volunteer restoration project, there’s a Flying Wing that … flies.

Northrop_N-1M_Udvar-HazyIf Jack Northrop’s company and production line had been as big as his imagination and talent, his Flying Wing might have become part of the Air Force’s fleet.

Northrop believed that a flying wing design would minimize drag and maximize lift. His concept first took to the skies when the X216H in 1929. It was a combination of conventional and imagination. In 1940, Northrop’s N-1M, was the first all-wing aircraft that proved such a design could maintain stable and controlled flight. (It is now on display at the National Air and Space Museum.

In October of 1941, the U.S. Government submitted a preliminary order to develop the B-35 Flying Wing bomber. The N-9M, a scaled-down test version, was the first model built with four of the test aircraft being built. (One of those aircraft has been restored and is airworthy.)

While the Flying Wing could fly, developing a reliable aircraft for battle faced enormous difficulties. One of the biggest challenges was a complex propulsion system of pushing, counter-rotating propellers. Another was just simply building the aircraft. Northrop’s factory could only build and house one plane at a time; it was far from an assembly line.

Before the project gained any momentum, WWII ended. However, the Air Force was still intrigued by the concept. With the quickly evolving development of jet engines, the Air Force asked that two B-35s that were under construction be changed from four-engine props to eight-jet planes. They were designated as YB-49s.

While a single-wing bomber was possible, it wasn’t practical. Even with the change to jet engines, the YB-49 lacked the payload and the range of other planes that were in development by Convair and Boeing.

With defense spending being curtailed during peace time, the YB-49 never entered production. Convair’s B-36 and then the venerable and still operational B-52 eventually became the Air Force’s long-range bomber.

The scrapping of the program led Northrop to scrap the N-9 test aircraft that had been built. All but one avoided the boneyard. The N-9MB survived but languishing in mothballs is hardly surviving. The Air Museum Planes of Fame in Chino, Calif., acquired the aircraft in 1982.

Unlike restoration projects of WWII aircraft by groups like the Commemorative Air Force, restoring the N-9MB. Almost no engineering documents existed and the volunteers essentially had to reverse engineer the plane.

Don Lykins, the Air Museum Planes of Fame board chairman, explained the restoration’s challenge: “The men and women who worked on this project deserve enormous credit. This was the most complicated aircraft restoration project ever undertaken by a museum volunteer crew.”

 

Written by Wendell Barnhouse

Wendell Barnhouse is a veteran journalist with over 40 years of experience as a writer and an editor. For the last 30 years, he wrote about college sports but he has had an interest and curiosity about aviation since he was in grade school.