The Edwards Diaries
Test pilot Glen Edwards kept book on the Flying Wing. Now we know what he thought of the airplane he died in.
- By Daniel Ford
- Air & Space magazine, July 1997
(Page 3 of 5)
Perhaps more serious, the turbojet lacked the stabilizing effect of the B-35's propellers and prop-shaft fairings. To compensate, the airplane had been equipped with four tall vertical fins, which were carried forward as "fences" to prevent the air from flowing toward the wingtips, a tendency that marred the performance of early swept-wing aircraft. So in some respects, the YB-49 really was a new airplane and could not be counted upon to behave exactly like the XB-35, never mind the relatively docile N-9M.
On April 26, a Northrop crew kept the Two aloft for nine and a half hours, and the flight set a record for jet endurance at altitude, though they had to shut down one engine, and the electrical generator failed. Nobody seemed concerned that the distance was only 3,500 miles--not much better than hundreds of Boeing B-29s had done in the Pacific. Even more astonishing, the old B-29 could carry a larger bomb load, including the large and heavy atomic bomb. Rarely mentioned in the Flying Wing saga is the fact that the YB-49 bomb bays were too small for "Fat Man," the plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki and still the U.S. standard in 1948.
Shortly after this modest success, the Air Force sent Cardenas to the University of Southern California to get an engineering degree. Back at Wright Field, Glen Edwards wrote in his diary: "Then this evening all heck broke loose. Seems like I'm bound for Muroc tomorrow by fastest means possible. Plan to run stability [tests] on the YB-49. . .what fun! Sounds like I'll be there for awhile. Packing like mad tonight."
The Air Force had two series of acceptance tests, one for performance measures like speed, altitude, and rate of climb, the other for stability and control--the qualities that make an airplane either easy, comfortable, and safe to fly or tiring, uncomfortable, and risky. Accordingly, the two YB-49s each had a different set of instruments. The first was meant to test stability and control; this was Glen Edwards' specialty, so the One would be assigned to him.
After a hectic flight to Muroc with an Air Force civilian engineer named Charles LaFountain, Edwards met the One on Thursday, May 20. As his check-out pilot, Cardenas occupied the raised pilot's seat under a bubble canopy that was bolted in place. Edwards was in the copilot's seat, at deck level, looking through plexiglass panels in the leading edge of the wing--a view so restricted that he could neither take off nor land. The next day they changed seats. "I flew the airplane," Edwards noted in his diary, "and must confess it is somewhat of an experience. Stability is poor all around--landing is peculiar. Has a great tendency to float." (That was ground effect, especially pronounced on an all-wing aircraft.)
Cardenas left Muroc that Friday. Though Danny Forbes outranked him, Edwards was the more experienced and better-trained test pilot, so he was given overall command of the YB-49 program. It was slow going.
"Got two flights off today with doubtful success," he wrote on the following Thursday. "Darnedest airplane I ever tried to do anything with. Quite uncontrollable at times. Hope to be more favorably impressed as time goes on."
That day, Northrop formally turned the Two over to the Air Force. This was the YB-49 equipped to measure performance, and it would be commanded by Danny Forbes. The two men flew seven hours that day. When they flew the Two, Forbes was aircraft commander and Edwards his copilot; in the One, they swapped seats and responsibilities.