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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.