How Flying Wings Will Work

Blended-Wing Background

Anyone who has seen the B-2 stealth bomber knows that the flying wing isn't new to military aircraft. In fact, the flying-wing design dates back to the first half of the 20th century. Beginning in the late 1920s, Jack Northrop, founder of Northrop Aircraft Co. (known today as Northrop Grumman), led the design of several military planes based on the flying-wing design. Later, Northrop's company was one of those contracted by the U.S. Army Air Corps to build a longer-range bomber during World War II. Northrop delivered the YB-49.

Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force
Northrop Aircraft Co. pioneered the flying-wing design and developed the YB-49, which first flew in 1947.

The YB-49 was the culmination of years of development, which began with the Northrop Model 1 (N-1M), a twin-engine flying model, in 1939. Northrop began improving on the N-1M and developed the XB-35 and YB-35, both of which were propeller-powered flying wings. In 1946, the XB-35 took its first test flight. Jet propulsion was then added to the YB-35 model, creating the YB-49. A year later, the YB-49 took its maiden flight in California.

Despite its early success, the YB-49 project was cancelled in 1948 following an accident that killed two test pilots and three engineers. With World War II over, the U.S. military suspended any further development of a flying-wing bomber. The flying-wing design would be resurrected in the 1980s with the development of the B-2 stealth bomber, which was also built by Northrop Grumman. Development of the B-2 began in 1981 to replace an aging fleet of B-52 bombers.

Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force
The B-2 bomber is a descendent of the YB-49 bomber.

Flying Wings Go Global
Although there was no collaboration between designers, development on flying wings began at about the same time in America, the Soviet Union and Germany: the 1920s. One prominent Soviet designer, Boris Ivanovich Chernanovski, worked on flying wings from 1921 to 1940. The Horten brothers of Germany also created several working wings.
Although the influence of the YB-49 is obvious in the B-2 bomber, there is one key difference -- the B-2 uses stealth technology to make it nearly invisible to radar. The B-2 made its public debut in 1988, but technical problems delayed its use in combat for more than a decade. In 1999, the B-2 bombers were initiated into combat when they dropped satellite-guided bombs on Yugoslavia.

With proof that the flying wing works in combat, the next logical step is to develop a commercial jet with a flying-wing design.