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 A young Jack Northrop.

A young Jack Northrop.

Northrop A-17A Nose Blower

The "nose blower" cowling was one method of cooling an aircraft engine that was investigated in the 1930s.

Northrop Gamma

Northrop Gamma.

BT-1 trainer

An XBT-1 coming in for a landing mid-1930s. Designed by John Northrop, this aircraft conformed to his practice of using all-metal structures with progressive aerodynamic features. The Navy awarded Northrop a contract to produce this attack plane in November 1934 and designated it BT, the T being Northrop's manufacturer's letter.

Northrop MX324

Northrop's Rocket Wing MX324 was America's first military rocket airplane. Its first flight was made in 1944.

Northrop YB 35

The YB-35 flight test program only lasted a few months in mid-1948.

N-1M with Jack Northrop

Jack Northrop with N-1M "Flying Wing".

Northrop YB-35

Eleven YB-35s in various stages of completion outside the Northrop plant.

 YB-49 flying wing.

YB-49 flying wing.

Jack Northrop with YB-49

Jack Northrop with YB-49.

Jack Northrop and the Northrop Corporation

Jack Northrop excelled as a designer both of conventional aircraft and of strikingly unusual concepts. He is associated with many design breakthroughs, ranging from the famous Lockheed Vega of the 1920s to the giant Northrop flying wings of the 1940s.

As has been common throughout aviation history, John Knudsen Northrop became fascinated with planes as a young man. Born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1895, his family moved first to Nebraska and then in 1904 to Santa Barbara, California. They were poor, and Northrop's formal education ended with high school graduation. He worked as a garage mechanic, then as an architectural draftsman, where he acquired some of the skills that would turn him into a skilled and inventive designer.

His first job in aviation was with the Loughead brothers (later Lockheed), who had come to Santa Barbara in 1916 to build planes. Northrop designed their F-1, a large 10-seat flying boat, and the S-1, a two-seat sports biplane. It featured an innovative monocoque body constructed from two molded plywood half-shells, looking much like canoes, that were glued together around wooden hoops, and also an unconventional system for lateral control. But in 1921, the Loughead brothers shut down, and Northrop went to work for his father. When his father went broke in 1923, Northrop found his way to the Douglas Company.

From 1923 to 1926, Northrop designed parts of the Douglas World Cruiser airplane. In 1926, when Lockheed was reestablished, Northrop returned to the company as chief engineer. He was largely responsible for the design of the sleek, single-engine Lockheed Vega that would set a standard for clean design. It had the molded monocoque fuselage of his 1918 Lockheed S-1 and the unbraced wing introduced in the early 1920s by Dutch aeronautical pioneer Anthony Fokker.

Northrop wanted to move ahead with more innovative designs but Lockheed's investors were happy with the profitable Vega. So, a little more than a year later, Northrop left Lockheed and formed the Avion Corporation in partnership with Kenneth Jay. There he experimented with the design of flying wing aircraft and developed his unique all-metal multicellular wing construction technique with its crisscrossing ribs and lengthwise parts forming a framework that looked like an egg carton. Northrop strongly believed that the flying wing was the way to higher performance and greater aerodynamic efficiency. He built his first crude flying wing aircraft, but it was difficult to control.

Northrop lacked enough money to continue independent operations, however, and the giant holding company, the United Aircraft & Transport Corporation (UATC), which also included Boeing and Stearman Aircraft, absorbed Avion in October 1929. As part of UATC, Northrop operated as the Northrop Corporation, a division of UATC.

It was the Depression and Northrop shelved his flying-wing ideas and designed the Alpha, which was sold to TWA and actually made money. The Alpha was a single-engine all-metal passenger and mail plane with an open cockpit behind its enclosed cabin and split flaps. It used multicellular aluminum alloy sheets rather than wood for its wings, fuselage, and tail. It also had the most modern radio and navigation equipment, and for winter operations, was the first commercial plane with rubber deicer boots on the wings and tail.

But even with modest sales of the Alpha (about 20 were sold), Northrop experienced financial problems. On September 1, 1931, UATC consolidated Northrop with Stearman Aircraft and planned to move the whole operation to Wichita, Kansas. Northrop had no desire to return to the Midwest, so he exercised a clause in his contract and quit UATC rather than relocate.

Northrop tried to form a new company again. In January 1932, he partnered with Donald Douglas and formed the Northrop Corporation. Douglas held 51 percent of the stock. Douglas would use Northrop's multicellular wing structure on his early passenger airplanes, including the famous DC-3. While with Douglas, Northrop modified the Alpha and built the Gamma, Beta, and Delta. Only 60 Gammas were sold, but these airplanes fulfilled many missions and were successful as export planes. Their market was limited, though, when the Civil Aeronautics Authority forbade the use of single-engine planes on scheduled passenger flights. Douglas converted the Alpha into the BT-1 and A-17 for the U.S. Army Air Corps. Ironically, in 1935 and 1936, two Northrop attack bombers that were closely related to the A-17s were shipped to Japan for testing by the Japanese Navy. They were then handed over to Japan's best warplane companies for engineering analysis.

During the 1930s, Douglas experienced labor problems that affected the Northrop Corporation and eventually caused Douglas first to buy Northrop's 49 percent of the business and then, on September 8, 1937, to dissolve Northrop completely. Almost 1,400 jobs were lost.

Northrop had resigned from Douglas on January 1, 1938, and left the business a bitter man, declaring that he was done with the aircraft industry. But, nevertheless, in August 1939, with the money he received when Douglas bought him out, he formed Northrop Aircraft, Inc.

Northrop hoped to return to flying-wing development but with war looming and no interest in flying wings by the military, he turned to military production. He underbid Douglas on a contract for 200 SBD-3 aircraft. But the Navy reneged when Douglas protested and Northrop became even more resentful toward Douglas.

The war, and especially the huge export market for American weapons, saved Northrop, like other struggling companies, from extinction. Northrop built Consolidated PBY subassemblies, a contract worth $20 million. He developed the N-3 patrol bomber, which went to Norway. This was followed by a $17-million-contract to co-produce the "Vengeance" dive bomber, designed by the Vultee company, for Great Britain. The U.S. Army ordered more than 700 Northrop-designed P-61 "Black Widow" radar-equipped night fighters. The company finally appeared to be on firm financial ground with $20.6 million in unfilled orders from domestic ($1.5 million) and foreign ($19.1 million) military customers. By the end of the war, the company had completed a total of 1,088 aircraft.

Northrop finally had the financial resources and facilities to enable him to pursue his interest in research and development and more specifically, in the flying wing. In 1940, he began the N-1M model, the first true flying wing.

As he progressed through the early design stages of the N-1M, Northrop consulted with the noted aerodynamicist Dr. Theodore von Kármán at the California Institute of Technology and von Kármán's assistant, Dr. William R. Sears. Northrop and his assistant chief of design, Walter J. Cerny, conducted extensive wind tunnel tests with flying wing models. Their aircraft incorporated the latest thinking on engine design, new airfoil sections with low drag and improved stability, and the use of various high-lift devices, spoilers, and flaps. It proved that an all-wing design could fly successfully.

The N-1M led to the giant XB-35 flying-wing bomber. In January 1941, the Army's Air War Plans Division began to consider developing bombers with intercontinental range. After receiving several proposals, in November 1941 the Army awarded contracts to both Northrop and Consolidated Aircraft (which merged with Vultee in 1942). Scale models flew as early as December 1942, but problems with the full-size XB-35 forced delays and the planes did not fly until 1946.

In the meantime, the Army had ordered 13 more Northrop planes, designated YB-35s. But only one YB-35 was ever completed and flown, and that didn't occur until May 1948. By then, the jet age had begun. Eleven of the piston-powered YB-35s were modified with jet engines and redesignated YB-49. But performance was poor. Also, a crash of a test YB-49 killed the entire crew, including Captain Glen Edwards, for whom Edwards Air Force Base was later named. This added to fears that the plane was sometimes uncontrollable.

On January 11, 1949, the Air Force canceled the contract that had grown to $88 million, and all but one airplane, the YRB-49, were actually destroyed. The official reason was budget constraints. But some say that the YB-49 couldn't compete with the Consolidated-Vultee's Convair B-36, which used six piston and four jet engines. Others claim that the program was cancelled in retribution for Northrop's refusal to merge with Consolidated-Vultee Aircraft. Whatever the reason, the flying wing bomber concept would remain dormant until the Northrop B-2 Spirit stealth bomber appeared nearly 40 years later.

—Judy Rumerman


Biddle, Wayne. Barons of the Sky. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991.

Donald, David. The Complete Encyclopedia of World Aircraft. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1999.

Heppenheimer, T.A. Turbulent Skies The History of Commercial Aviation. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1995.

Francillion, Rene. McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Since 1920. London: Putnam, 1979.

Hallion, Richard P. Designers and Test Pilots. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1983.

Pattillo, Donald. Pushing the Envelope. Ann Arbor, Mich.: The University of Michigan Press, 1998.

Wooldridge, E.T. Winged Wonders The Story of the Flying Wings. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983.

On-Line References:

"Northrop B-35." http://home.att.net/~jbaugher2/b35.html.

"Northrop YB-35." U.S. Air Force Museum. http://www.wpafb.af.mil/museum/research/bombers/b3-67.htm.

"Northrop YB-49." U.S. Air Force Museum. http://www.wpafb.af.mil/museum/research/bombers/b4/b4-37.htm

"Northrop YB-49/YRB-49A." http://home.att.net/~jbaugher2/b49.html

"Conspiracy." http://home.att.net/~jbaugher2/b49_3.html.

"The Nurflugel Page." http://www.nurflugel.com/Nurflugel/nurflugel.html

Additional References:

Allen, Richard Sanders. The Northrop Story: 1929-1939. New York: Orion, 1990.

Anderson, Fred. Northrop: An Aeronautical History. Los Angeles: Northrop, 1976.

Coleman, Ted. Jack Northrop and the Flying Wing. New York: Paragon House, 1988.

Pape, Gary R., et. al. The Flying Wings of Jack Northrop. Atglen, Penn.: Schiffer, 1994.

_________ and Campbell, John M. Northrop's Flying Wings: A History of Jack Northrop's Visionary Aircraft, Atglen, Penn.: Schiffer, 1995.

Educational Organization

Standard Designation (where applicable)

Content of Standard

International Technology Education Association

Standard 6

Students will develop an understanding of the role of society in the development and use of technology.

International Technology Education Association

Standard 8

Students will develop an understanding of the attributes of design.

International Technology Education Association

Standard 10

Students will develop an understanding of the role of experimentation and research and development in problem solving.