I have trouble shaking the feeling that our distant posterity will look back at the America of 1945-1968 as the apex of human existence. It was an era of nearly full employment, remarkable public morality, and tremendous creativity across pretty much every industry or discipline one could imagine, from jazz to jet planes. Which is not to say that everything was hunky-dory, of course. Invisible Man was published in 1952; Last Exit To Brooklyn in 1964. Still, it was an era of exceptional safety and certitude for the vast majority of Americans. It was also a world where something like COVID-19 would have been swiftly handled, assuming that it somehow managed to make it across the Pacific Ocean in the first place. Most people behaved like grownups back then. It was expected of them. If Eisenhower had gone on television and asked people to wear a mask, then the masks would have been worn. If he’d asked people to stop burning down Rolex stores, the media would have reported this as a singular and outstanding idea rather than as incipient fascism on the hoof, and perhaps the store-burning would have stopped. Who knows? We had not yet acquired enough stupidity, as a nation, to create our current conditions.
It was the kind of era in which flying wings could happen, and did. As with so much else of our postwar tech Renaissance, the science behind the flying wing had been proven by Germans — in this case, a few Germans who managed to get a 55-foot-span jet-powered flying wing built more or less underground, with ersatz materials, during 1944.
Things were moving so fast in Germany during the prolonged suicide of the Reich that the 607-mph flying wing got prototyped, built, tested, and crashed without much agreement on what it was meant to be called. There were so many brilliant scientists working in German aviation at the time that the Hortens, who created the plane known as the Ho 229, the Go 229, and the Ho IX V2, weren’t even considered to be professionals. They made a variety of rookie mistakes designing and building the weapon, one of which eventually led to its destruction during testing. Given a couple of years, however, they’d have made it work pretty well. It’s a good thing the Allies managed to complete their murderous daylight bombing campaigns, including the scourging of Dresden which killed tens of thousands of civilians for no particular reason other than to intimidate the general populace, by 1945 — because by late 1947 the Horten wings might have been swatting the B-29s or B-36es out of the sky with little effective opposition from the relatively feckless Lockheed P-80s that would have been sent to escort them.
The Allies knew this, of course, which is why they launched Operation Paperclip to kidnap and/or cajole the German scientists who would eventually put America on the moon and help create much of the Cold War’s iconic weaponry. From Alexander Lippisch and his infamous M3 163 “Komet”, as an example, we got the mighty B-58 Hustler. The Hortens were made available to Jack Northrop, who was in the process of building a “flying wing” bomber. He scorned their help, considering them to be little more than shade-tree mechanics. Was he right? Who knows — but in any event, Northrop didn’t need German help to make the XB-35 flying wing bomber a reality.
The XB-35 worked just fine, which is fairly amazing given how radical it was by the standards of that (or any other) era. Yet it had one fatal flaw: it was propeller-driven, which wouldn’t cut the mustard for the Fifties. So Northrop reworked it as the jet-powered XB-49, and that worked just fine too. There were a few bugs to work out, but in general this was a functional and useful aircraft. And then the government got involved. The Wikipedia page on the subject is pretty well-supported and it tells a horrifying tale:
During early 1950, the remaining YB-35Bs airframes, which were being converted to YRB-49As, were ordered scrapped. Flight testing of the sole remaining YB-49 prototype ended 14 March 1950. On 15 March 1950, that program was canceled. Coincidentally, the sole remaining YB-49 prototype suffered a high-speed taxiing accident and, as previously noted, was totally destroyed in the ensuing fire.
Only two months later, all Flying Wing contracts were canceled abruptly without explanation by order of Stuart Symington, Secretary of the Air Force. Shortly thereafter, also without explanation, Symington turned down a request from the Smithsonian for the Air Force to donate one of these big wings to its collection of pioneering Northrop aircraft.
All remaining Flying Wing bomber airframes, except for the sole YRB-49A reconnaissance version, were ordered chopped up by Symington, the materials smelted down using portable smelters brought to Northrop’s facility, in plain sight of its employees. Jack Northrop retired from both the company he founded and aviation shortly after he saw his dream of a pure, all-wing aircraft destroyed. His son, John Northrop Jr., later recounted during an interview his father’s devastation and lifelong suspicion that his Flying Wing project had been sabotaged by political influence and back room wheeling-and-dealing between Convair and the Air Force.
The sole prototype reconnaissance platform, the YRB-49A, first flew on 4 May 1950. After only 13 flights, testing ended abruptly on 26 April 1951. It was then flown back to Northrop’s headquarters from Edwards Air Force Base (formally Muroc) on what would be its last flight. There, this remaining flying wing sat abandoned at the edge of Northrop’s Ontario airport for more than two years. It was finally ordered scrapped on 1 December 1953.
In a 1979 videotaped news interview, Jack Northrop broke his long silence and said publicly that all Flying Wing contracts had been canceled because Northrop Aircraft Corporation refused to merge with competitor Convair at Air Force Secretary Stuart Symington’s strong suggestion, because, according to Jack Northrop, Convair’s merger demands were “grossly unfair to Northrop.” Shortly thereafter, Symington became president of Convair upon leaving his post as Secretary of the Air Force. Allegations of political influences in the cancellation of the Flying Wing were investigated by the House Armed Services Committee, where Symington publicly denied exerting pressure on Northrop to merge.
Here’s the video:
Ah, but there’s a happy postscript to this:
Thirty years later, in April 1980, Jack Northrop, then quite elderly and using a wheelchair, was taken back to the company he founded. There, he was ushered into a classified area and shown a scale model of the Air Force’s forthcoming, but still highly classified Advanced Technology Bomber, which would eventually become known as the B-2; it was a sleek, all-wing design. Looking over its familiar lines, Northrop, unable to speak due to various illnesses, was reported to have written on a pad: “I know why God has kept me alive for the past 25 years.” Jack Northrop died ten months later, in February 1981, eight years before the first B-2 entered Air Force service.
This comes from a book on the B-2, by the way. The B-2, which apparently has the same radar signature as a large insect — perhaps the “murder hornets” of which so much has been written — is the same size as an XB-49 and uses the same landing-gear arrangement. In the metal (there’s one in the Dayton museum) the B-2 is quite reasonably-sized. The B-36 in the same hangar dwarfs it. Given our Fifties-era national enthusiasm for size, maybe that’s why the “Peacemaker” got the nod. It’s worth nothing that the B-2 is not significantly faster than a 1944 Horten flying wing.
The B-2 has been been in service now for thirty-one years and is still considered to be state-of-the-art. Surely Jack Northrop would have laughed at the idea of the XB-49 still flying in, say, 1980, let alone still occupying pride of place among the world’s heavy bombers. So what happened? What caused the world to put the brakes on so many forms of technological progress? Was it our collective decision to disappear into our own navels via the Internet? I have a theory, and it is this: Today’s society just doesn’t work in any significant sense. We are like wastrel children who inherited a mansion built by our grandparents and used it to hold Ecstasy-fueled raves until the windows were all broken, the toilets were overflowing, and the marble floors were slick with vomit.
We won’t be building any more flying wings. We can’t even build more copies of our best fighter plane, which is decades old itself. The entire United States of America, in all of its polyglot and self-aware glory, can’t do what a couple of German amateurs did in a cave that was literally being bombed day and night. With the exception of Elon Musk, there’s nobody left in the country who thinks we can accomplish anything of any genuine significance — and the mob is working overtime to destroy him for sins against The Current Year. There is a new supersonic passenger jet coming — but, predictably, it’s for one-percenter consumption. And it’s only going to be able to do Mach 1.4 anyway. About forty percent faster than the Horten brothers managed in 1944. That’s progress for you. William Gibson foresaw this when he wrote The Gernsback Continuum. He called it “the architecture of broken dreams”. Alternately, you could just call it a reminder that 1955 was a long time ago, in more ways than one.
For Hagerty, I wrote about the autonomous grift.