John K. Northrop and Glen Edwards never met, but their paths nearly crossed in February 1946, at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio. Captain Edwards, a 50-mission veteran of World War II, had earned a coveted slot as an Army Air Forces test pilot. But this was the peacetime Army, with low pay, slow promotion, and, for test pilots, a death rate rivalling that in wartime. When Northrop visited Wright Field to discuss his B-35 Flying Wing bomber, Edwards got wind of it: "Mr. Northrop is here today," he wrote in his diary on February 20. "Hope to talk to him tomorrow concerning employment. . .. If such is possible, [I] do believe I'd leave the Army." But before Edwards could finagle an interview Northrop was gone. "Blast the luck," Edwards wrote the next day.
The Army would also need pilots for the XB-35 acceptance tests, and in March, the Bomber Test Branch sent Edwards to California's Muroc Army Air Base, a place of scorching loneliness. He was one of several test pilots--Robert Cardenas and Daniel Forbes were others--to qualify in the N-9M, a pint-size version of the big bomber. "The first takeoff is an experience not soon to be forgotten," he reported to the Air Technical Service Command. "The plane comes off the ground of its own accord between 70 and 75 mph and immediately assumes a steep nose-high attitude." Its directional stability was poor, and when turbulence disturbed it, the little Wing would take four or five oscillations before Edwards could return to the compass heading. He stalled the Wing once ("with great caution") and it recovered normally. "The plane flew surprisingly well," he concluded, ". . .far better than most would expect."
But in his diary he expressed more skepticism. "Boy, that was quite an experience," he wrote that evening. "Quite different from flying anything else. It would take a good bit of practice to get really good at flying the little beauty."
Most of Jack Northrop's airplanes were beauties. He believed that "if something is efficient and beautiful, it is right." During stints at Douglas and Lockheed, he was always dreaming of aircraft sleeker and more efficient than the conventional craft the manufacturers had to build in order to survive. Early on, he met a Czech-born barnstormer and shop foreman named Anthony Stadlman, who told him about tail-less, swept-wing aircraft that had been flown in Europe. From about 1919 until 1927 the two men worked together at Lockheed (when it was spelled "Loughead"), then Douglas, then Lockheed again, and in their spare time they actually built an all-wing glider. Sometime toward the end of this period a rift developed between them, and Stadlman would later claim that a model flying wing he had built and shown to Northrop was the basis for Northrop's subsequent designs. Their parting was bitter.
Northrop produced his first attempt at a powered flying wing in 1928. His Experimental No. 1, which does look suspiciously like the one Stadlman is holding in an old photograph, flew in 1929. Northrop financed the project with profits from the Vega, a sleek, high-wing, conventional airplane he had designed during his second stint with Lockheed.
In September 1939, just as Germany invaded Poland, Northrop opened his own plant. It was superlative timing, and he soon had orders from Norway and Britain as well as Boeing and Consolidated. His vision, though, was still bent on the perfect airplane, the Flying Wing. He retained Theodor von Karman, who taught aerodynamics at the California Institute of Technology and who recruited one of his brightest students, William Sears. They worked like this: Northrop sketched a Flying Wing, von Karman wrote long equations on the blackboard, and Sears inked their thoughts on paper.
The airplane Sears drew became the N-1M, for Northrop First Mockup. It was a true Flying Wing, with all its control surfaces--including rudders--in the trailing edge. It was underpowered, though, and on its maiden flight in July 1940, it couldn't climb out of "ground effect" and simply flew along at low altitude, gaining lift from the cushion of air between its wing and the ground. "It looks like we have an airplane with a 20-foot ceiling," Northrop said, watching the pretty craft skim the Muroc lake bed.
With an improved airfoil and bigger engines, the N-1M finally got up to a respectable altitude. Its best feature was that its wingtips were adjustable, and both the droop and the sweep of the wing could be modified between flights. The winning configuration proved to be a straight wing, one without any droop at the tips and with the sweep set back as far as it would go. Sweep, it seemed, was the key to tail-less flight: Positioned behind the geometric center of the wing's lift, the wingtips became tails. (The restored N-1M Wing can be seen at the National Air and Space Museum's Garber Facility in Suitland, Maryland, although without the inserts that increased the wing's sweep, which was the N-1M's most significant contribution.)
By 1941 German troops occupied most of Europe's capitals and appeared ready to capture London and Moscow next. Fearing it might have to fight a transatlantic war, the U.S. Army wanted a super-bomber that could carry 10,000 pounds of bombs to Germany from North America. Northrop built the B-35, a Flying Wing, while Consolidated Aircraft developed the B-36, conventional in every respect but its size (see "B-36: Bomber at the Crossroads," Apr./May 1996).
Even the Wing was huge by the standards of the day: It spanned 172 feet, weighed 100 tons, and developed 12,000 horsepower from four huge engines. It was such a giant leap from the N-1M that the Army also agreed to fund an intermediate version. One-third the size of the big bomber, the N-9M was supposed to be aerodynamically identical. So it was a bad omen when the first one was delivered late, cost more than budgeted, rattled and shook, failed to deliver the promised range, and then crashed, killing its pilot.