Northrop Corporation

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 Anthony Fokker.

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 control.

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 UATC.

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 1,088 aircraft.

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 1946.

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 Grumman

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.

Northrop continued 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 systems.

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 naval shipbuilder.

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.