The Pointy End Of Northrop's Flying Wings Then And Now

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The images above provide an interesting comparative study of the nose sections of Northrop’s YB-49 circa the late 1940s and present day’s Northrop Grumman’s B-2A Spirit stealth bomber. Jack Northrop (and Nazi Germany to some extent) was way ahead of his time when it came to envisioning flying wings as the future of air combat. The fact that the USAF didn’t buy into his vision was a frustration he carried with him heavily for the last half of his life.

The story goes that in 1980, during the B-2’s development, a wheelchair bound Jack Northrop, who had long passed on the leadership of the company that bore his name, was brought into a classified viewing room and a model of Northrop’s Advanced Technology Bomber was unveiled to him. Due to various illnesses he could not speak, but he grabbed his pen and wrote: “I know why God has kept me alive for the past 25 years!”

Amazingly, Jack’s YB-49 and the culmination of the Advanced Technology Bomber program, the B-2, would have the identical 172 foot wingspan. Northrop engineers actually used the YB-49’s flight test data and blueprints to help develop their Advanced Technology Bomber’s design.


Jack Northrop died ten months after seeing the vindicating flying wing model, but the success of the flying wing concept has only become more apparent as the years have passed. The invention of modern fly-by-wire technology eliminated many of the issues that Jack Northrop’s flying wings experienced during testing and has allowed the B-2, and more recently the carrier-borne X-47B and even Lockheed’s RQ-170 Sentinel drone to make history.

Along with its efficiency, the flying wing’s unique ability to be configured to evade enemy sensors has kept it at the leading edge of combat aircraft design today. The upcoming Long Range Strike Bomber, which Northrop Grumman is competing to build, and virtually all advanced unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs) in development use a flying wing design of some sort. As such, the flying wing stands to represent just as much of the future today as it did nearly 70 years ago.


It just goes to show you just how amazing the aerospace minds of post World War II era were, coming up with exotic designs to meet incredibly challenging capability requirements using slide rules, protractors and drafting boards.

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