John Canady, of Festus, Missouri, asks us: "Does there exist anywhere any pieces or artifacts of the Northrop flying wings YB-49 or XB-35?"
Unfortunately, the short answer is “no.” The U.S. Air Force reports that all of the XB-35s and the YB-49s were scrapped by 1953; Northrop’s beautiful flying wings today exist only in reports and photographs. So we headed over to the National Air and Space Museum’s archive to take a look at the technical files on the XB-35 (Northrop’s original, piston engine version) and the YB-49 (the turbojet version). The files contain a plethora of information, including wartime reports of spin-tunnel tests of scale models, case histories, various contemporary newspaper accounts, test pilot interviews, an accident investigation report, and analysis of long-range test flights.
One of my favorite items in the files is this press release about the YB-49, from Northrop, dated February 9, 1947: "Designed to knife through the air before the push of eight giant engines, developing a total of 32,000 horsepower under best conditions, the monster new 'bat bombers' are the latest refinement of a new 'family' of aircraft in which Northrop Aircraft, Inc., is noted for world pioneering."
The XB-35’s “Brief Narrative History” notes, “The maiden flight of the first XB-35 was made on 25 June 1946, covering the distance from Northrop field at Hawthorne to Muroc Lake. Cost of the one aircraft had been about $14,300,000 to this time. After 11 September, the aircraft was grounded because of the difficulties involving the gear box and propeller control; the aircraft had by then completed three tests for three hours and four minutes of flight testing.” (In our 1997 article about the flying wing, “The Edwards Diaries,” author Daniel Ford writes that the -35s “would manage to fly for a total of 36 hours, for an amortized cost of $1.8 million per hour.”)
The YB-49 wasn’t easy to handle. A case history summary put together by the U.S. Air Force reveals that “flight test personnel stated that the B-49 was ‘extremely unstable and very difficult to fly on a bombing mission,’ that the pilot had to be constantly on the controls, and that ‘even then it was impossible to hold a steady course or a constant air speed and altitude.’… [I]t was generally agreed that, in its current configuration, the plane was unsuitable for either bomber or reconnaissance work.”
“By June 1948 the usefulness of the flying wing as a bomber appeared to have been thoroughly disproven,” the narrative history continues, “and the Air Force and Northrop entered into a letter contract looking toward the construction of a reconnaissance version of the YB-49. It was under this contract, the formal version of which was approved on 16 September 1948, that the flying wing program with Northrop finally ended….”
By 1949 there was a series of complex agreements: the two XB-35s were to be scrapped; the first two YB-35s were also to be scrapped; the one remaining YB-49 was to continue in flight test; four YB-35s and three YB-35As were to be equipped with six J35-A-19 engines each, and converted to YB-35Bs for flight test; one YB-35A was to be converted into a prototype of the RB-49A and designated the YRB-49A; and one YB-35A was to be equipped with six jet engines and fitted to act as a T-37 "turbodyne" test bed. The case history concludes, "[By 1950,] the only full-scale flying wing aircraft [then] remaining in existence was the YB-35A which was being modified to the jet reconnaissance configuration and designated the YRB-49A. This aircraft was tested under contract ac-2172 until it was authorized for reclamation in November 1953."
The Museum’s technical files also include an oral history of Brigadier General Robert L. Cardenas, who was a test pilot on the YB-49. We'll leave you with this tidbit from his undated (but post-1973) oral history:
“[Dan] Forbes and I were the military test pilots on the YB-49 along with Max Stanley of Northrop. There were two aircraft, one instrumented for performance, the other for stability and control. Danny Forbes flew left seat on some performance flights (every third flight). We didn’t wear parachutes because the canopy could not be jettisoned and there was no seat ejection. To bail out, you had to rotate the seat, jack it down four feet, walk back to the hatch, put on the parachute there, and drop out.”