Jack Northrop excelled as
a designer both of conventional aircraft and of strikingly unusual
concepts. He is associated with many design breakthroughs, ranging from
the famous Lockheed Vega of the 1920s to the giant Northrop flying wings
of the 1940s.
As has been common
throughout aviation history, John Knudsen Northrop became fascinated with
planes as a young man. Born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1895, his family
moved first to Nebraska and then in 1904 to Santa Barbara, California.
They were poor, and Northrop's formal education ended with high school
graduation. He worked as a garage mechanic, then as an architectural
draftsman, where he acquired some of the skills that would turn him into a
skilled and inventive designer.
His first job in aviation
was with the Loughead brothers (later Lockheed), who had come to Santa
Barbara in 1916 to build planes. Northrop designed their F-1, a large
10-seat flying boat, and the S-1, a two-seat sports biplane. It featured
an innovative monocoque body constructed from two moulded plywood
half-shells, looking much like canoes, that were glued together around
wooden hoops, and also an unconventional system for lateral control. But
in 1921, the Loughead brothers shut down, and Northrop went to work for
his father. When his father went broke in 1923, Northrop found his way to
the Douglas Company.
From 1923 to 1926,
Northrop designed parts of the Douglas World Cruiser airplane. In 1926,
when Lockheed was re-established, Northrop returned to the company as
chief engineer. He was largely responsible for the design of the sleek,
single-engine Lockheed Vega that would set a standard for clean design. It
had the moulded monocoque fuselage of his 1918 Lockheed S-1 and the
unbraced wing introduced in the early 1920s by Dutch aeronautical pioneer
Northrop wanted to move
ahead with more innovative designs but Lockheed's investors were happy
with the profitable Vega. So, a little more than a year later, Northrop
left Lockheed and formed the Avion Corporation in partnership with Kenneth
Jay. There he experimented with the design of flying wing aircraft and
developed his unique all-metal multicellular wing construction technique
with its crisscrossing ribs and lengthwise parts forming a framework that
looked like an egg carton. Northrop strongly believed that the flying wing
was the way to higher performance and greater aerodynamic efficiency. He
built his first crude flying wing aircraft, but it was difficult to
Northrop lacked enough
money to continue independent operations, however, and the giant holding
company, the United Aircraft & Transport Corporation (UATC), which also
included Boeing and Stearman Aircraft, absorbed Avion in October 1929. As
part of UATC, Northrop operated as the Northrop Corporation, a division of
It was the Depression and
Northrop shelved his flying-wing ideas and designed the Alpha, which was
sold to TWA and actually made money. The Alpha was a single-engine
all-metal passenger and mail plane with an open cockpit behind its
enclosed cabin and split flaps. It used multicellular aluminium alloy
sheets rather than wood for its wings, fuselage, and tail. It also had the
most modern radio and navigation equipment, and for winter operations, was
the first commercial plane with rubber deicer boots on the wings and tail.
But even with modest sales
of the Alpha (about 20 were sold), Northrop experienced financial
problems. On September 1, 1931, UATC consolidated Northrop with Stearman
Aircraft and planned to move the whole operation to Wichita, Kansas.
Northrop had no desire to return to the Midwest, so he exercised a clause
in his contract and quit UATC rather than relocate.
Northrop tried to form a
new company again. In January 1932, he partnered with Donald Douglas and
formed the Northrop Corporation. Douglas held 51 percent of the stock.
Douglas would use Northrop's multicellular wing structure on his early
passenger airplanes, including the famous DC-3. While with Douglas,
Northrop modified the Alpha and built the Gamma, Beta, and Delta. Only 60
Gammas were sold, but these airplanes fulfilled many missions and were
successful as export planes. Their market was limited, though, when the
Civil Aeronautics Authority forbade the use of single-engine planes on
scheduled passenger flights. Douglas converted the Alpha into the BT-1 and
A-17 for the U.S. Army Air Corps. Ironically, in 1935 and 1936, two
Northrop attack bombers that were closely related to the A-17s were
shipped to Japan for testing by the Japanese Navy. They were then handed
over to Japan's best warplane companies for engineering analysis.
During the 1930s, Douglas
experienced labour problems that affected the Northrop Corporation and
eventually caused Douglas first to buy Northrop's 49 percent of the
business and then, on September 8, 1937, to dissolve Northrop completely.
Almost 1,400 jobs were lost.
Northrop had resigned from
Douglas on January 1, 1938, and left the business a bitter man, declaring
that he was done with the aircraft industry. But, nevertheless, in August
1939, with the money he received when Douglas bought him out, he formed
Northrop Aircraft, Inc.
Northrop hoped to return
to flying-wing development but with war looming and no interest in flying
wings by the military, he turned to military production. He underbid
Douglas on a contract for 200 SBD-3 aircraft. But the Navy reneged when
Douglas protested and Northrop became even more resentful toward Douglas.
The war, and especially
the huge export market for American weapons, saved Northrop, like other
struggling companies, from extinction. Northrop built Consolidated PBY
subassemblies, a contract worth $20 million. He developed the N-3 patrol
bomber, which went to Norway. This was followed by a $17-million-contract
to co-produce the "Vengeance" dive bomber, designed by the Vultee company,
for Great Britain. The U.S. Army ordered more than 700 Northrop-designed
P-61 "Black Widow" radar-equipped night fighters. The company finally
appeared to be on firm financial ground with $20.6 million in unfilled
orders from domestic ($1.5 million) and foreign ($19.1 million) military
customers. By the end of the war, the company had completed a total of
Northrop finally had the
financial resources and facilities to enable him to pursue his interest in
research and development and more specifically, in the flying wing. In
1940, he began the N-1M model, the first true flying wing.
As he progressed through
the early design stages of the N-1M, Northrop consulted with the noted
aerodynamicist Dr. Theodore von Kármán at the California Institute of
Technology and von Kármán's assistant, Dr. William R. Sears. Northrop and
his assistant chief of design, Walter J. Cerny, conducted extensive wind
tunnel tests with flying wing models. Their aircraft incorporated the
latest thinking on engine design, new airfoil sections with low drag and
improved stability, and the use of various high-lift devices, spoilers,
and flaps. It proved that an all-wing design could fly successfully.
The N-1M led to the giant
XB-35 flying-wing bomber. In January 1941, the Army's Air War Plans
Division began to consider developing bombers with intercontinental range.
After receiving several proposals, in November 1941 the Army awarded
contracts to both Northrop and Consolidated Aircraft (which merged with
Vultee in 1942). Scale models flew as early as December 1942, but problems
with the full-size XB-35 forced delays and the planes did not fly until
In the meantime, the Army
had ordered 13 more Northrop planes, designated YB-35s. But only one YB-35
was ever completed and flown, and that didn't occur until May 1948. By
then, the jet age had begun. Eleven of the piston-powered YB-35s were
modified with jet engines and redesignated YB-49. But performance was
poor. Also, a crash of a test YB-49 killed the entire crew, including
Captain Glen Edwards, for whom Edwards Air Force Base was later named.
This added to fears that the plane was sometimes uncontrollable.
On January 11, 1949, the
Air Force cancelled the contract that had grown to $88 million, and all
but one airplane, the YRB-49, were actually destroyed. The official reason
was budget constraints. But some say that the YB-49 couldn't compete with
the Consolidated-Vultee's Convair B-36, which used six piston and four jet
engines. Others claim that the program was cancelled in retribution for
Northrop's refusal to merge with Consolidated-Vultee Aircraft. Whatever
the reason, the flying wing bomber concept would remain dormant until the
Northrop B-2 Spirit stealth bomber appeared nearly 40 years later.
Northrop and Northrop
Northrop Aircraft, Inc.,
founded in 1939 by Jack Northrop, a skilled and innovative designer,
focused during its first few years on designing flying wing aircraft and
producing planes that were used during World War II. It received its first
post-war work in 1946 for what would become the SM-62 Snark, the first
operational intercontinental guided missile. The missile had a range of
more than 5,000 miles and carried a 7,000-pound warhead. The first
operational Snark arrived in January 1959, and 51 were delivered over the
next two years.
Northrop also built the
SX-4 research airplane (later the X-4) for the U.S. military and the
National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). The plane flew from
December 15, 1948 until 1953, testing tailless and semi-tailless
configurations at transonic speeds. Project results demonstrated that
tailless aircraft were unsuited for transonic flight.
The first major Northrop
aircraft of the 1950s was the F-89 Scorpion, a heavily armed, all-weather
fighter-interceptor and one of the world's first jet fighters. The F-89
program began in March 1945, and the first plane flew in August 1948.
Deliveries to the Air Force began in July 1950. Its "J" model of 1957 was
the first aircraft to fire an air-to-air nuclear missile. Three hundred
fifty "J" models became the Air Defence Command's first
fighter-interceptors to carry nuclear weapons. Northrop produced a total
of 1,052 F-89s in all versions, securing Northrop a position as a major
combat aircraft supplier for the Cold War era, even though for a time,
they were Northrop's only production aircraft. The F-89 was Jack
Northrop's last aircraft, and he left the company at the end of 1952.
In the mid-1950s, the U.S.
Air Force required a trainer to better prepare student pilots for the
latest aircraft that then were coming into service. It chose Northrop's
T-38A Talon, which became the Air Force's first supersonic trainer. The
prototype first flew on April 10, 1959, and the Air Force ordered more
than 1,100 between 1961 and 1972, when production ended. Upgrades will
allow it to be used until 2020. A similar plane, the F-5 Freedom Fighter,
evolved from the T-38. This lightweight fighter entered service in 1964.
Northrop developed several versions of the plane, which have been used by
militaries in 31 countries as well as by the United States. More than
1,000 were built.
In 1959 Northrop Aircraft
changed its name to Northrop Corporation, reflecting its broader focus.
During the 1960s, Northrop
built the M2-F2, M2-F3, and HL-10 lifting bodies for the National
Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The idea behind these
wingless aircraft was that they could be returned from space and guided to
a specific landing spot. Used purely for research, they demonstrated the
limitations of wingless aircraft and were important for the development of
the future Space Shuttle orbiter. As a result of this research, NASA chose
to develop an orbiter with wings.
In the 1970s, Northrop was
implicated in bribery scandals much like those that had rocked the
aircraft giant Lockheed. Investigations indicated that Northrop had
aggressively offered payments in the amount of $30 million to foreign
countries in exchange for aircraft orders and had not merely responded to
solicitations or extortion. The company was also convicted in May 1974 of
making illegal contributions totalling $476,000 to the Nixon presidential
campaign. Although the company's chief executive, Thomas V. Jones, was
forced out after these and other improprieties, he returned to the company
several times before he finally retired in September 1990.
improving the design of the F-5 and rolled out the F-5E Tiger II in 1972.
The first delivery to the Air Force took place in April 1973, and 112
Tiger IIs were purchased. The top training schools in the Navy and Air
Force used the Tiger II as "enemy" aircraft in combat training. Export
orders were also strong.
While working on the F-5,
Northrop began designing a higher-performance successor. By 1970, this
design had evolved into the P-530 Cobra, recognizable by its two vertical
tails that slanted outward. Northrop submitted an adaptation of this plane
to the Air Force for its Lightweight Fighter competition. From the four
competitors, the Air Force selected the aircraft company General Dynamics
and Northrop each to build two prototypes under the designations YF-16A
(General Dynamics) and YF-17A (Northrop). The General Dynamics design was
selected for production as the F-16, with an initial order of 650 planes
and another 348 for export.
Meanwhile, the Navy had
been directed by Congress to adapt an existing design to replace the
McDonnell F-4 Phantom II fighter and the Vought A-7 Corsair II attack
plane. The successor Naval Air Combat Fighter (NACF) led to adaptations of
both General Dynamics' YF-16 and Northrop's YF-17. McDonnell Douglas
teamed with Northrop and became the prime contractor on the NACF. Northrop
agreed to the arrangement because the larger McDonnell Douglas had more
experience with carrier-based aircraft. In 1976 McDonnell Douglas-Northrop
won over the General Dynamics team. The new plane was produced as the F-18
fighter and the A-18 attack plane. The two were soon combined and went
into production as the F/A-18 Hornet. So although Northrop had originally
developed the design for the F/A-18 when it was still the YF-17, it became
the major subcontractor on the project, producing the centre and aft
fuselage, twin vertical tails, and associated subsystems.
In 1979 Northrop developed
an advanced version of the F-5 and named it the F-20 Tigershark. This
plane could be airborne within 60 seconds after an alert, the fastest
scramble time of any fighter in the world. However, two of the first three
planes crashed, and the program was terminated in 1986. Northrop lost $1.2
billion on the project.
Jack Northrop's dream of a
flying wing resurfaced in the late 1970s when Northrop began work on a
proposal for a new plane with stealth technology. In 1980, when company
designers had drawn the new plane, the Air Force brought the ailing Jack
Northrop, confined to a wheelchair, to see the drawings of the secret
"stealth" bomber, which strongly resembled his B-35 flying wing of the
early 1940s, perhaps vindicating his vision. In October 1981, Northrop
received the contract for the Advanced Technology Bomber, a long-range
heavy bomber with low-observable technology, beating out a design
submitted by Lockheed. For the next seven years, the project remained
shrouded in secrecy while work continued amid cost overruns and delays.
Not until April 20, 1988 did the U.S. Air Force release a painting of the
B-2 bomber. A few months later, on November 22, 1988, the first B-2 was
rolled out at Palmdale, California. Its first flight occurred in 1989.
In 1994, Northrop
Corporation acquired the aerospace firm Grumman Corporation, forming
Northrop Grumman Corporation. The new company set out to transform itself
from primarily a producer of military aircraft, of prime importance in the
Cold War era, to a defence electronics and systems integration company
better suited for the environment of the 1990s and 21st
century, while still retaining its capabilities in military aircraft
A series of acquisitions
followed the merger. In 1994, Northrop Grumman added the remaining 51
percent of Vought Aircraft Company, an aerostructure producer, to the 49
percent that Northrop had acquired in 1992, increasing its capabilities as
a builder of aircraft structures. It held Vought until 2000 when it was
sold back to Carlysle Group, the previous owners of Vought.
In 1996, Northrop Grumman
acquired the defense electronics and systems business of Westinghouse
Electric Corporation. In August 1997, Northrop Grumman and Logicon Inc.,
an information technology company, merged. In 1999, the company acquired
Ryan Aeronautical, focusing on uncrewed aerial vehicles.
In April 2001, Northrop
Grumman acquired Litton Industries, a major information technology
supplier to the federal government. The acquisition also added
shipbuilding to Northrop Grumman's array of capabilities. In October 2001,
it purchased Aerojet, a major aerospace/defence contractor specializing in
missile and space propulsion, and defence and armaments. In November 2001,
it acquired Newport News Shipbuilding Inc., creating the world's largest
At the end of 2001,
Northrop Grumman has become the Nation's third largest defence
contractor—an $18-billion global aerospace, shipbuilding, and defence
company with almost 100,000 employees.