It was sort of a fighter pilot’s dream on an intercept [mission]. That capability has not been matched, and won’t be. We don’t have it anymore.”
Early Attempts at Swing Wings
All variable geometry wing aircraft are descendants of two experimental airplanes built on opposite sides of the Atlantic in the 1940s and 1950s.
The first is the Messerschmitt P 1101 a prototype airplane built by the Nazis that ranks as the first variable geometry jet fighter in history. It was found in May 1945 when a company of U.S. infantry seized a secret research laboratory in Oberammergau, a German town in the shadow of the Bavarian Alps. The design allowed its wings to be set at three angles on the ground to evaluate the reduction in drag and increase in speed in wind tunnels and, the Germans hoped, in flight tests. The wings could not morph in the air, however. It never flew.
It still made an impression. Robert J. Woods, the leader of a military intelligence unit called a Combined Advanced Field Team, evaluated the find, and later became co-founder and chief designer at Bell Aircraft Corp. He collected the identities of the experts who created the airplane and sent them, and the prototype, to America.
Woods convinced fellow management at Bell that the design had merit, and his efforts culminated in the 1951 first flight of the X-5, an experimental craft used by the U.S. military. Parts from the German airplane were cannibalized to create two X-5s. The X-5s were used to test wing angles, not as a prototype of a finished, operational variable wing aircraft. Unlike the 1945 model, they changed their wings while in flight, the first airplane able to do so. The research was later used to create the F-14.
Legendary British aircraft designer Sir Barnes Neville Wallis made a stab at swing-wing history and missed. Immediately after World War II he took the swing-wing concept and tried to make the idea functional. Working in the late 1940s, he experimented with a host of swept wing concepts he dubbed the Wild Goose. These included hand-launched designs and radio controlled aircraft capable of 100 mph speeds. Each had swept tail fins at the end of slender, laminar bodies. He tried the swing-wing concept for a civilian market with the Swallow, to be incorporated into a long distance airliner. The Swallow had a flattened fuselage that increased the lift of the wings. Models of the design flew in the mid-fifties and a 6-foot supersonic model broke Mach 2.5. The U.K. killed the program and Wallis tried to pitch the idea to America. According to the Barnes Memorial Trust, operated out of the Yorkshire Air Museum in Britain, Wallis commented that he “convinced the Americans too sincerely that this was a great idea, and so they decided to take it up for themselves instead of paying us a grant to do it in England.” None of his swept wing designs survived to production.