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.

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If Forbes was reluctant, he had reason. In addition to repeated stalls as copilot to Edwards, he'd had a terrifying experience in February with Major Cardenas. That particular flight, Cardenas recalls, "resulted in a gyration that was abnormal. And I wouldn't stall the airplane again. Forbes knew that." In Test Flying at Old Wright Field, Cardenas gave more details: After stalling the One, he found himself at the controls of an airplane that was pointing almost straight up; refusing to respond to the controls, it was falling tail-first at 5,000 feet per minute. "The aircraft then tumbled over backwards," he wrote. After landing, he urged that no one perform intentional stalls in the YB-49. Forbes, he added, "heartily agreed" with that recommendation.

Wind tunnel tests had predicted just such a possibility, but Jack Northrop had dismissed it. "A vertical tail slide is hardly a maneuver to be courted [in] a 100-ton bomber," he'd told the Royal Aeronautical Society in 1947.

True enough, but a test pilot does what a test pilot must do. Forbes probably experienced his second and last tail slide on June 5, after which the YB-49 went over backwards or sideways into a high-speed, perhaps supersonic spin. Its outer wings tore off, probably when Forbes tried to level out and regain control. At some point the airplane exceeded its structural limit, later calculated to be 4.8 times the force of gravity. At 7:30 a.m., Major Russell Schleeh happened to be driving along the highway north of Muroc Dry Lake. A flash caught his eye--sunlight on aluminum--and he saw the Wing tumbling in at least two pieces. They crashed into the desert northwest of Muroc, the outer panels three miles from the crew compartment, which was consumed by fire.

The crash killed the Wing, as surely as it killed the men on board. After a company pilot showed that the One could indeed be stalled safely--at high altitudes--the Air Force took it back for bombing trials that did not help its cause. The airplane was not a steady platform and needed about four minutes to stabilize into straight-and-level flight. And with the bomb bay doors open, air turbulence tossed the bombs around as they were released. The airplane's supporters pointed out that its faults were easy to remedy.

In January 1949 Cardenas took the YB-49 on a high-speed exhibition run to Washington, D.C. It was also used in a secret project that may have involved its stealth capabilities, which Max Stanley had noticed while flying over an air defense radar station near San Francisco. The radar operators couldn't see the YB-49 until they stepped outside and looked with their own eyes.

Whatever it was about, the project never went anywhere, and the Air Force just wasn't interested in stealth--not then. The gargantuan B-36 carried a bigger load over twice the distance and flew so high that enemy fighters couldn't touch it. The Wing was a medium bomber, in some respects inferior to the B-29 of World War II and no match at all for Boeing's swept-wing B-47 Stratofortress. On the day the Air Force sent its new jets to Washington to impress the politicians there, Russ Schleeh crossed the continent at 603 mph in an XB-47, compared with the 511 mph Cardenas achieved flying the YB-49.

Nor could the gap ever be closed. "Northrop had insisted that the crew, fuel, and everything else had to go into the Wing," explained Theodor von Karman in The Wind and Beyond, his 1967 autobiography. "This load made the Wing thick," with the result that at high speeds the airflow separated and "the plane began to shake and lose stability." Boeing's jet bomber could fly faster, higher, and almost as far--and it could carry Fat Man. "The B-49 had gear problems," Cardenas says. "It had engine problems, it had fuel cell problems, it had all kinds of problems. . .. It was not an operational bird. The cockpit layout was miserable. The crew could not escape if anything happened."

The Air Force had begun to name its bases after Air Force heroes, favoring native sons where possible. The name of Glen Edwards--reared in Lincoln, California--was attached to the lonely facility in the Mojave Desert, which in time became the home of the Air Force's Flight Test Center. Muroc is now known to all the world as "Edwards," an icon so familiar that one word is enough to identify it.

In 1952, broken by the failure of his beloved Wing, Jack Northrop turned his company over to new management under Oliver Echols, a retired Air Force general. The firm prospered during the cold war, and in time it produced the ultimate cold war weapon: the B-2 stealth bomber, of which only 20 are to be built. Because the B-2 has no tail, comes from Northrop, and spans 172 feet, it's sometimes described as a modern B-49--and Jack Northrop's vindication. But even Northrop engineers have said that its shape evolved from stealth research--they started with a clean sheet of paper (see "The Invisible Men," Apr./May 1997).

The B-2 is flown by computers, not by its crew. Jack Northrop built his Flying Wing a generation before there was a proper means to control it, and the design was pushed beyond its capabilities. It couldn't carry an atomic bomb, nor could it reach targets in the Soviet Union--and if it had, it probably would have missed.

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