Jack Northrop’s Aviation Legacy

Jack Northrop (born John Knudsen Northrop) was fascinated with airplanes from a young age. After his high school graduation Jack Northrop worked as a garage mechanic and later as an architectural draftsman. The skills he learned at these two jobs proved to be most beneficial to him as he carved a memorable career as a skilled and inventive designer.

The Loughead brothers (later Lockheed) gave Jack Northrop his first job in aviation and he designed their F-1, a large 10-seater aircraft, as well as a two-seater sports bi-plane. The single-engine Lockheed Vega was largely designed by Northrop and proved to be very profitable for the company. The working relationship between Lockheed and Northrop came to an end when he wanted to move ahead with innovative designs, but they were content with manufacturing the Vega.

Northtrop went into partnership with Kenneth Jay and formed the Avion Corporation. He moved ahead with the development of a flying wing aircraft in which the wings virtually form the entire airplane, sweeping back from the centre of the aircraft. The fuselage was a very narrow centre section joining the wings without any seams. The principles of this revolutionary design continue to be used in present military stealth aircraft. Unfortunately, the first flying wing aircraft that Northrop built proved to be difficult to control, however he remained convinced that flying wing was the way to go for higher performance through aerodynamic efficiency.

Through the years of the Great Depression, Avion Corporation was absorbed by a larger corporation and Northrop worked for different aviation companies until he partnered with Donald Douglas in 1932 and formed the Northrop Corporation. Northrop’s multi-cellular wing structure design was used on many of the early passenger airplanes, notably the famous DC-3. For various reasons the business partnership with Donald Douglas went sour and Douglas bought Northrop’s share of Northrop Corporation which he later dissolved.

Jack Northrop went on to found Northrop Aircraft Inc. which manufactured numerous aircraft during the World War II, giving Northrop the finances he needed to pursue his passion for aircraft research and development. Together with Dr. Theodore von Karman, Dr. William R. Sears and Walter J. Cerny, Northrop conducted extensive wind tunnel tests on flying wing models which proved that an all-wing design was capable of flying successfully. This led to the development of the N-1M which then led to the giant flying wing bomber, the XB-35.

The military placed orders for Northrop’s airplanes, but due to problems encountered in production and test-flights, the planes did not take to the air until 1946. More aircraft ordered by the military were only delivered in May 1948, but by then the jet age had begun, leaving other aircraft behind. The military contracts were cancelled and Northrop’s revolutionary flying wing bomber concept was shelved until nearly 40 years later when the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit stealth flying wing bomber appeared.

Jack Northrop died on 18 February 1981 having made an indelible impression on the world of military aviation.