flying wings 1870 to 1920
flying wings in Europe
tailless aircraft in the USA
German flying wings
British flying wings
Japanese flying wings
American flying wings in WW2
the first Northrop flying wing
Northrop flying wings in WW2
Northrop: towards the bombers
Northrop flying wing bombers
flying wings 1950s and beyond
secret Soviet flying wings

flying wings into the 1950s and beyond
by E.T. Wooldridge

The Ryan X-13 was a tail-sitting Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL) research aircraft that was controlled by varying jet thrust and deflecting the jet exhaust during takeoff, landing, and hovering flight. The first complete of vertical takeoff, transition to horizontal cruising flight, and returning to a vertical landing was accomplished on April 11, 1957.

The scrapping of the Northrop B-35B-49 bombers marked the end of a decade of unprecedented flying wing development. For the next 30 rears, there was little if any public evidence of interest in applying the concept of the pure flying wing to military or commercial requirements. For all intents and purposes, the idea had died. The concept of the tailless aircraft remained alive, however, and even enjoyed a resurgence in the military and general aviation market. Eventually a tailless aircraft even became the first reusable spacecraft.

The most popular application of the tailless concept was the delta-winged configuration pioneered by Dr. Alexander Lippisch in Germany in the 1930s. The delta gave better low-speed handling than the swept wing designed for high speed operations, and was also efficient at supersonic speeds.

The United States, England, France, Sweden, and the Soviet Union adapted the delta to a wide variety of military requirements in the 1950s and 1960s. Although most of the aircraft were remarkably similar in appearance, they differed significantly in aerodynamics, propulsion, structure, and equipment. In the United States, Convair, with an assist from Dr. Lippisch, produced the first delta design to fly. This was followed by several operational supersonic fighters, a supersonic bomber, and the world's first supersonic seaplane.

The ConvairXF-92A was the first delta-winged aircraft to fly, on September 18, 1948. Powered by an Allison J33-A-29 turbojet with afterburner, the experimental aircraft was capable of-high subsonic airspeeds.

Another Convair tailless design of the 1950s, the B-58A Hustler was the first supersonic bomber put into production for the U.S. Air Force. An external pod was used to carry fuel and for nuclear weapon storage.

A derivative of the XF-92A, the Convair F-102A Delta Dagger entered U.S. Air Force service in 1955 as the first operational delta-winged fighter. Although preproduction versions lacked the expected supersonic performance, pinching the waist to provide a "coke bottle" effect resulted in Mach 1.25 capability.

The Convair XF2Y-1 Sea Dart was the world's first delta winged seaplane, and a more powerful version, the YF2Y-1, became the first seaplane to exceed the speed of sound. Single and double retractable hydro-skis here evaluated during the flight tests conducted in the mid-1950s.

Douglas Aircraft's Ed Heinemann, never an advocate of tailless aircraft, designed a tailless aircraft with a sweptback wing of extremely low aspect ratio in the early 1950s. The F4D-1 Skyray was the first supersonic shipboard fighter.

The Douglas F4D-1 Skyray was a tailless aircraft with a sweptback wing of extremely low aspect ratio. Designed as an all weather interceptor for the US navy, the Sky ray was the first shipboard supersonic fighter

Another unusual carrier-based fighter of the 1950s was the Chance Vought F7U Cutlass, a strange-looking craft featuring sweptback wing, two vertical fins and rudders, and elevons. Resembling a praying mantis, the Cutlass proved to be somewhat less than spectacular.

Clearly one of the most amazing aircraft of the jet age is Lockheed's SR-71A Blackbird. This tailless design of the famous Clarence L. "Kelly" Johnson once flew from New York to London in less than two hours.

The Lockheed SR-71A Blackbird aircraft evolved from the A-11 and YF-12A aircraft of the 1960s. Used for high-speed, high-altitude reconnaissance, the SR-71A once flew from New York to London in less than two hours at an average speed of almost three tines the speed of sound.

British fascination with the tailless airplane continued into the jet ac. The Armstrong Whitworth A.W. 52 and de Havilland D.H. 108 of the immediate post-war years were followed by a number of delta designs. The Short Brothers' SC.1 was an attempt to investigate the VTOL/delta wing combination. while one decidedly different approach to the tailless concept was the Short S.B.4 Sherpa. The Sherpa featured a so-called "aero-isoclinic" a relatively flexible structure with movable wing tips. Although the rotating tips, were supposed to prove superior to conventional controls at transonic and would improve manoeuvrability at high altitudes, the idea apparently found no practical application.

The Short Sherpa was built in 1953 to investigate the potential of the "aeroisoclinic" wing. Rotating wing tips took the place of ailerons and elevator, and were supposed to make the aircraft more manoeuvrable at high altitudes.

The British carried out extensive research into the characteristics of delta wing aircraft with models such as the Boulton Paul P.111/120 and the Ax ru Type 707. From this latter series came an aircraft that had the most striking appearance of any produced in the 1950s, the Hawker Siddeley Vulcan. Designed originally as a strategic bomber, the adaptable Vulcan served 111to the 1980s in many missions and configurations.

Designed to investigate the delta wing at transonic airspeeds, the Boulton Paul P.111 made its first flight in October 1950. The wing tips were detachable to permit tests with blunt or pointed tips; the pointed vertical fin was also detachable. The fairing at the base of the vertical fin on the left hand side of the airplane housed a parachute to reduce landing roll.

Two Avro Vulcan bombers are shown with four of the five Avro Type 707 research deltas, one-third scale models of the Vulcan. The Type 707 series were used for low- and high-speed delta wing research in the early 1950s. The Vulcan bomber followed, entered service with the Royal Air Force in 1957, and was still in active service 25 Years later.

Test pilot Peter Twiss became the first to set a world speed record over 1000 mph when he flew a Fairey Delta 2 research delta at an average speed of 1132 mph in 1956. The drooping nose of the Delta 2 reappeared 20 years later on the world's first supersonic airliner to enter regular passenger service, the Aerospatiale/British Aerospace Concorde.

Peter Twiss flew this Fairey Delta 2 research airplane to new world's speed record of 1132 mph. The entire nose section, including cockpit, pivoted downward to improve the pilot's view during takeoff and landing, a feature later used in the Concorde supersonic transport.

Twenty years in development as a joint project by France and Great Britain, the Aerospatiale/British Aerospace Concorde was the world's first supersonic airliner to enter regular commercial service. The graceful tailless delta halved the flying time on many international routes.

The French demonstrated an early interest in post-war application of the delta wing concept. From early research efforts emerged the Mirage III, IV, and 5, delta wing members of the Dassault Breguet family of fighters and bombers. The Mirage brought considerable trade and prestige to France, with over 1200 of the Mirage Ills sold by 1977 to countries around the world.

This Mirage IIIs of the Swiss Air Force is one of many variations of the French Dassault Breguet Mirage III series of tactical aircraft. In the 25 years after the maiden flight of-the Mirage III prototype in November 1956, over 1300 of the Mirage III, and its variations, the Mirage 5 and 50, had been delivered to 21 countries

Sweden carried the delta principle one step further. Beginning with the tiny Saab 210 Draken in 1951 the Swedes developed the distinctive "double delta" wing configuration, a wing of extremely low aspect ratio with a planform made up of two triangles. From the Saab 210 evolved the famous Saab 35 Draken, a Mach 2, multi-role aircraft with good short takeoff and landing capabilities. Another double-delta variant, the Saab 37 Viggen, appeared in 1967, and was distinguished from its tailless predecessors by the presence of canard foreplane with trailing edge flaps.

The Saab 35 Draken, similar in concept to the Saab 210, was a single seat, all weather supersonic fighter. Like other Swedish-built tactical aircraft, the Saab 35F shown in this photograph had exceptional short field operating characteristics.

Despite considerable development work with tailless aircraft and flying wings in the 1930s by such early Soviet designers as B.I. Cheranovskiv and Kalinin, there is little evidence of sustained, widespread interest in the U.S.S.R. in post-war years. The Soviet Air Force used the delta wing in some Sukhoi and Mikoyan/Gurevich tactical aircraft, but removed them from the tailless category with the addition of horizontal stabilizers. In the commercial field, however, the Soviet Union assured itself of a unique niche in aviation history with the world's first supersonic transport, the delta-winged Tupolev Tu-144. After its maiden flight on December 31, 1968, the Tu-144 underwent a prolonged development program, and finally entered scheduled passenger service in November 1977.

The Soviet Tupolev Tu-144 occupies a secure niche in aviation history as the first supersonic transport to fly, on December 31, 1968. The Tu-144 in this photograph is in the landing configuration, with drooped nose to give the pilot better visibility, and extended noseplanes for better control at low speeds.

Military and commercial development of the delta wing concept resulted in a class of aircraft capable of spectacular, high speed performance that eventually became routine. At the other end of the performance spectrum, however, where flying for fun was more important than supersonic speeds, the delta and other tailless aircraft had a profound effect. In general aviation, preconceived notions about the flying qualities of tailless designs, flying wings, or canards had vanished from the scene by the late 1970s. Homebuilts, gliders, hang gliders, and "ultralights" existed in different tailless configurations that reflected the infinite variety of tastes and performance goals of their designers. Early pioneers such as Weiss, Etrich, Dunne, and the Hortens would have recognized many of their ideas and concepts in those personal aircraft of the jet age.

Charles Fauvel, the noted French designer of tailless gliders and powered aircraft, continued to demonstrate his excellence in the field. His AV.3 sailplane of 1951, and the improved AV.361, were sold to well over 100 soaring enthusiasts in almost 20 countries. Plans for the AV.361, and the later AV.45 and AV.222 powered gliders, became available for amateur construction. An AV.45 was even configured with a 150-pound thrust turbojet and successfully flight tested in 1967.

The urge to build and fly your own aircraft was not restricted to a small section of the aeronautical community; by 1981 there were some 9000 ultralights flying in 15 or more countries worldwide, 6000 in the United States alone. In 1966, the prestigious aeronautical annual Jur2e's All the World's Aircraft t even added a separate section for homebuilt aircraft to facilitate reference and selection of a particular design by potential builders and pilots. In the 1980s, tailless ultralights carried such nicknames as Minibat, Super Wing, and Easy Riser; they flew alongside a name from the past, the Pterodactyl.

Constructed of wood and foam from plans or a complete kit, the Mitchell U-2 featured a bubble canopy, retractable tricycle landing gear, and outer wing panels that folded for transportation and storage. Designed to accept engines in the range of 10 to 22 hp, the U-2 carried 7 quarts of fuel, good for a two hour flight at a cruising speed of '75 mph.

Among the more widely accepted designs of the times were the Mitchell B-10 and U-2 ultralight flying wings. Don Mitchell's designs featured unique "handling stabilators" which provided both lateral and pitch control. Shaped like upside-down airfoils, the control surfaces were attached below the trailing edge of the wing. There they acted as separate aerodynamic surfaces, rather than as hinged portions of the wing itself, providing exceptional stability and control.

The ultimate in tailless aircraft, the Space Shuttle Orbiter "Columbia" makes a successful touchdown after its second space mission. The wing is a double-delta plan form, with 81 degree sweepback on the inner wing, and 45 degrees on the outer. Control in pitch and roll is provided by two-segment elevons on each trailing edge.

Northrop-Grumman B-2 Spirit "stealth bomber."

The most famous flying wing was the only successful one, the Northrop-Grumman B-2 Spirit "stealth bomber." It was first started by the Northrop Corporation in the late 1970s (the contract was awarded in 1981; its first flight took place in 1989) but did not become fully operational until a decade and a half later due to its complexity and numerous initial problems.

The B-2 is a multi-role advanced technology bomber with stealth characteristics. The B-2's low observable, or stealth, characteristics give it the ability to penetrate an enemy's most sophisticated defences. This low observability allows it to fly more flexible routes at higher altitudes, thus increasing its range and providing a better field of view for the crew and the aircraft's sensors. The low observability traits of the B-2 include greatly reduced infrared, acoustic, electromagnetic, visual and radar signatures. These signatures make it extremely difficult for even the most sophisticated defensive systems to detect, track and engage the bomber. Many aspects of the stealth feature remain classified. However, the B-2's composite materials, special coatings and flying wing design all contribute to its stealth. The first B-2 rolled out of its hangar at Air Force Plant 42, Palmdale, Calif., in November 1988. Its first flight was July 17, 1989.

The B-2 was an example of modern technology finally catching up with an earlier idea. By the 1970s, aircraft designers were deliberately developing airplanes like the F-16 that were unstable in flight, and therefore inherently manoeuvrable, controlling them in flight by sophisticated modern computer control systems. Computer control systems now also made it possible to control the unstable flying wing design.

The flying wing still offered excellent performance and fuel efficiency advantages. But Northrop's designers also chose a flying wing configuration because it offered advantages for stealth; a vertical tail such as found in a conventional aircraft reflects radar energy. Eliminating it increased the aircraft's stealthiness, particularly from the side. The B-2 is capable of carrying as many bombs inside it as the larger B-52 and flying just as far. Although only 21 of these planes are in service, they played a major role in the 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia, which had a sophisticated air defence system, and are generally regarded as an amazing technological achievement, albeit a very expensive one.