Tag Archives: Northrop Corporation

5 June 1948

A Northrop YB-49 over Muroc Air Force Base, 1948. (U.S. Air Force)

5 June 1948: Flying at 40,000 feet (12,192 meters), north of Muroc Air Force Base, California, the second Northrop YB-49 “flying wing,” serial number 42-102368, was undergoing stall recovery performance testing with a crew of five aboard. The pilot was Major Daniel A. Forbes, Jr., United States Air Force, and the co-pilot was Captain Glen W. Edwards.

The aircraft suffered a catastrophic structural failure with the outer wing panels tearing off. The experimental airplane crashed approximately 10 miles (16 kilometers) east of the small desert town of Mojave. The entire crew, which included 1st Lieutenant Edward L. Swindell, flight engineer, and civilian engineers Charles H. LaFountain and Clare C. Lesser, were killed.

The YB-49 was an experimental jet engine-powered bomber, modified from a propeller-driven Northrop XB-35. It was hoped that the all-wing design would result in a highly efficient airplane because of its very low drag characteristics. However, the design could be unstable under various flight conditions.

A few months after the crash, the first YB-49 was destroyed in a taxiing accident and the project cancelled. It would be 41 years before the concept would be successful with the Northrop B-2 Spirit.

Northrop YB-49 42-102367. (U.S. Air Force)

42-102367 had been converted from the second YB-35 pre-production test aircraft. The original Flying Wing’s four Pratt & Whitney Wasp Major (R-4360-21) radial engines were replaced by eight Allison J35-A-15 turbojet engines and several aerodynamic improvements were made. The change to jet power  increased the airplane’s speed by about 100 miles per hour (161 kilometers per hour) and significantly reduced the vibrations caused by the reciprocating engines, drive shafts and counter-rotating propellers.

The YB-49 was a very unusual configuration for an aircraft of that time. There was no fuselage or tail control surfaces. The crew compartment, engines, fuel, landing gear and armament was contained within the wing. Air intakes for the turbojet engines were placed in the leading edge of the wing. The exhaust nozzles were at the trailing edge. Four small vertical fins for improved yaw stability were also at the trailing edge.

The fins were likely too small. Test pilots complained about the airplane’s instability, which made it difficult to maintain course or altitude. A stability augmentation system was required.

Northrop YB-49 (U. S. Air Force)

The YB-49 had a length of 53 feet, 1 inch (16.180 meters), wingspan of 172 feet, 0 inches (52.426 meters) and overall height of 15 feet, 2 inches (4.623 meters). It weighed 88,442 pounds (40,117 kilograms) empty, and its maximum takeoff weight was 193,938 pounds (87,969 kilograms).

The Wing defined the airplane. It had an aspect ratio of 7.4:1. The wing’s root chord was 37 feet, 6 inches (11.430 meters). The wing was 7 feet, 1.5 inches (2.172 meters) thick at the root. The tip chord was 9 feet, 4 inches (2.844 meters). There was 0° angle of incidence at the root, -4° at the wing tips, and 0° 53′ dihedral. The leading edge was swept aft 26° 57′ 48″, and the trailing edge, 10° 15′ 22″. The wing’s total area was 4,000 square feet (371.6 square meters).

Northrop YB-49

The YB-49 was powered by eight General Electric-designed, Allison Engine Company-built J35-A-15 engines. The J35 was a single-spool, axial-flow turbojet engine with an 11-stage compressor section and single-stage turbine. The J35-A-15 was rated at 3,270 pounds of thrust (14.55 kilonewtons) at 7,400 r.p.m., Normal Power, and a Maximum (Military Power) rating of 3,750 pounds of thrust (16.68 kilonewtons) at 7,700 r.p.m. The engine was 14 feet, 0.0 inches (4.267 meters) long, 3 feet, 4.0 inches (1.016 meters) in diameter and weighed 2,400 pounds (1,089 kilograms).

Cruise speed for the YB-49 was 429 miles per hour (690 kilometers per hour). Its maximum speed 499 miles per hour (802 kilometers per hour) at 18,000 feet (5,486 meters) was restricted by Mach number. The airplane could climb from Sea Level to 30,000 feet (9,144 meters) in 21.0 minutes. It had a service ceiling of 49,700 feet (15,149 meters). The YB-49 had a combat radius of 1,611 miles (2,593 kilometers) at 420 miles per hour (676 kilometers per hour), carrying a 10,000 pound (4,536 kilogram) bomb load.

The YB-49 had no defensive armament. It could carry a maximum bomb load of 16,000 pounds (7,257 kilogram) in its internal bomb bay. (Turbulence resulting from open bomb bays significantly decreased bombing accuracy.)

Only two Northrop YB-49s were built. They were tested by Northrop and the Air Force for nearly two years. Although an additional nine YB-35s were ordered converted, the B-49 was not placed into production.

Northrop YB-49.
Daniel H, Forbes, Jr., 1940

Daniel Hugh Forbes, Jr., was born at Carbondale, Kansas, 20 June 1920. He was the son of Daniel Hugh Forbes, a farmer, and Hattie Rundle Forbes. He attended North High School in Wichita Kansas, and then the Kansas State College at Manhattan, Kansas,

Maj. Daniel Forbes, Jr., USAF

Daniel Forbes enlisted in the United States Army as an aviation cadet at Fort Riley, Kansas, 23 May 1941. On 9 January 1942, he was commissioned a second lieutenant, Air Reserve. Forbes was promoted to the rank of 1st lieutenant, Army of the United States, 25 August 1942, and to captain, A.U.S., 15 August 1944. On 4 October 1945, he was promoted to major, A.U.S.

Major Forbes married Mrs. Edward C. Winkle (née Hazel Marie Moog), 11 March 1948. Her first husband, a 1st lieutenant assigned to the 314th Infantry Regiment, 79th Infantry Division, was killed in action in France, 1 October 1944. Less than three months later, Mrs. Hughes was a widow again.

Major Daniel Hugh Forbes, Jr., Air Corps, United States Army.

Glen Walter Edwards was born at Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada, 5 March 1916, the second son of Claude Gustin Edwards, a real estate salesman, and Mary Elizabeth Briggeman Edwards. The family immigrated to the United States in August 1923 and settled near Lincoln, California. He attended Lincoln High School, where he was a member of the Spanish Club and worked on the school newspaper, “El Eco.” He graduated in 1936.

Lt. Glen W. Edwards

Edwards attended Placer Junior College, Auburn, California, before transferring to the University of California, Berkeley. He graduated in 1941 with a Bachelor of Arts (A.B.) degree, and then enlisted in the United States Army as an aviation cadet, 16 July 1941.

Following pilot training, Edwards was commissioned as a second lieutenant, Air Reserve, 6 February 1942. He was promoted to 1st lieutenant, Army of the United States, 16 September 1942. Lieutenant Edwards flew 50 combat missions in the Douglas A-20 Havoc light bomber with the 86th Bombardment Squadron (Light), 47th Bomb Group, in North Africa and fought at the Battle of the Kasserine Pass, 19–24 February 1943. He was next promoted to captain, 28 April 1943. He also flew during the invasion of Sicily, in late 1943.

Two U.S. Army Air Force Douglas A-20B-DL Havoc light bombers, 41-3014 and 41-3134, in Tunisia, 1943. (U.S. Air Force)

Edwards returned to the United States and was assigned to the Pilot Standardization Board, but was then sent to train as a test pilot at Wright Field. Captain Edwards was assigned as a test pilot in 1944 and tested the Northrop XB-35 and Convair XB-36.After World War II came to an end the U.S. Army and Air Corps were demobilized to 1/16 of their peak levels (from 8,200,000 to 554,000). Edwards was retained but reverted to the rank of 1st lieutenant. He had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters (four awards). He was transferred to the United States Air Force after it was established as a separate service, 18 September 1947.

Glen Edwards was recommended to fly the Bell X-1 rocket plane, but when that assignment went to Chuck Yeager, Edwards was sent to Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey, to study aeronautical engineering. He earned a masters degree in engineering (M.S.E.) in 1947.

Captain Glen Walter Edwards, Air Corps, United States Army.

Following the crash of the YB-49, Topeka Air Force Base in Kansas was renamed Forbes Air Force Base. Muroc Air Force Base was renamed Edwards Air Force Base in honor of Captain Edwards.

Captains Edwards’ remains were buried at the Lincoln Cemetery, Lincoln, California.

Edwards Air Force Base, California, looking northeast, photographed in 2007. (U.S. Air Force)

Edward Lee Swindell was born at Currituck, North Carolina, 22 April 1916. He was the sun of Rudolph Bridgman Swindell, a machinist’s helper at the Portsmouth Navy Yard, and Eula Belle Williams Swindell.

Edward L. Swindell married Miss Edna Irene Hayman, 2 January 1942 at South Mills, North Carolina.

Swindell enlisted in the U.S. Army at Camp Lee, Virginia, 17 March 1942. He was 5 feet, 9 inches (1.75 meters) tall and weighed 156 pounds (70.7 kilograms).

Lieutenant Swindell’s remains were buried at the Forest Lawn Cemetery, Norfolk, Virginia.

Charles H. LaFountain was born 12 June 1925 in New York. He was the son of Leo L. LaFountain and Gladys Ethel Taylor LaFountain. He had served in the United States Navy and was a civilian employee of the Air Force. His remains were buried at the Lake Luzerne Cemetery, Lake Luzerne, New York.

Clare C. Lesser was born 27 June 1925 at Joliet, Illinois. He was the fifth of five children of Henry J. Leser, a worker at a wire mile, and Alvina Leser. Leser served as an ensign in the United States Naval Reserve. Like LaFountain, he was also a civilian employee of the Air Force. His remains were buried at St. John’s Cemetery, Joliet, Illinois.

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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26 May 1942

Northrop Corporation XP-61 Black Widow at Hawthorne.
Northrop Corporation XP-61 prototype 41-19509 at Northrop Field, 1942. (U.S. Air Force)

26 May 1942: The prototype Northrop XP-61-NO Black Widow, 41-19509, made its first flight at Northrop Field, Hawthorne, California, with free-lance test pilot Vance Breese at the controls. (Breese had taken the North American Aviation NA-73X, prototype of the Mustang, for its first flight, 20 October 1940.)

Northrop XP-61 41-19509 taking off from Northrop Field. (U.S. Air Force)

The first American airplane designed specifically as a night fighter, the XP-61 was the same size as a medium bomber: 48 feet, 11.2 inches (14.915 meters) long with a wingspan of 66 feet (20.117 meters) and overall height of 14 feet, 8.2 inches (4.475 meters). The prototype was equipped with a mockup of the top turret. Its empty weight was 22,392 pounds (10,157 kilograms), gross weight of 25,150 pounds (11,408 kilograms) and maximum takeoff weight of 29,673 pounds (13,459 kilograms).

Northrop XP-61 41-19509 retracts its landing gear after takeoff. (U.S. Air Force)

The XP-61 was powered by two air-cooled, supercharged, 2,804.4-cubic-inch-displacement (45.956 liter) Pratt & Whitney Double Wasp SSB2-G (R-2800-10) two-row, 18-cylinder radial engines with a compression ratio of 6.65:1. The R-2800-10 had a Normal Power rating of 1,550 horsepower at 2,550 r.p.m. at 21,500 feet (6,553 meters), and 2,000 horsepower at 2,700 r.p.m. for takeoff, burning 100-octane gasoline. The R-2800-10 had a 2:1 gear reduction and drove four-bladed Curtiss Electric constant-speed propellers which had a 12 foot, 2 inch (3.708 meter) diameter. The R-2800-10 was 4 feet, 4.50 inches (1.334 meters) in diameter, 7 feet, 4.47 inches (2.247 meters) long, and weighed 2,480 pounds (1,125 kilograms), each.

The prototype Black Widow had a top speed of 370 miles per hour (595 kilometers per hour) at 29,900 feet (9,114 meters) and a service ceiling of 33,100 feet (10,089 meters). The maximum range was 1,450 miles (2,334 kilometers).

Prototype Northrop XP-61 Black Widow 41-19509 in camouflage. (U.S. Air Force)

The night fighter was crewed by a pilot, a gunner and a radar operator. A large Bell Laboratories-developed, Western Electric-built SCR-720 air search radar was mounted in the airplane’s nose. The gunner sat above and behind the pilot and the radar operator was in the rear fuselage.

SCR-720 Air Search Radar mounted in nose of a Northrop P-61 Black Widow night fighter. (NOAA)

The Black Widow was armed with four Browning AN-M2 .50-caliber machine guns in a remotely-operated upper turret, and four AN-M2 20 mm aircraft automatic cannons, grouped close together in the lower fuselage and aimed directly ahead. This was a superior arrangement to the convergent aiming required for guns mounted in the wings. The fire control system was similar to that used by the B-29 Superfortress. The guns could be fired by either the gunner or the radar operator.

Northrop P-61A-1-NO Black Widow 42-5507 in olive green camouflage. (U.S. Air Force)
Northrop P-61A-1-NO Black Widow 42-5507 in olive green camouflage. (U.S. Air Force)

The XP-61 was built with a center “gondola” for the crew, radar and weapons, with the engines outboard in a twin-boom configuration, similar the the Lockheed P-38 Lightning. The Black Widow did not use ailerons. Instead, it had spoilers mounted on the upper wing surface outboard of the engines. Roll control was achieved by raising a spoiler, decreasing lift on that wing and causing it to drop. A similar system was employed on the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress ten years later.

The P-61 got its nickname, Black Widow, from the glossy black paint scheme that scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) had determined was the best camouflage for a night fighter. Over 700 P-61s were built, with 36 built as the F-15 photo reconnaissance variant. They served in both the Pacific and European Theaters during World War II, and were also used during the Korean War. After the war, the radar-equipped fighter was used for thunderstorm penetration research.

Northrop P-61C-1-NO Black Widow 43-8353 at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force)
Northrop P-61C-1-NO Black Widow 43-8353 at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force)
Northrop P-61C-1-NO Black Widow 43-8353 at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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10 April 1959

Prototype Northrop YT-38-5-NO Talon 58-1191 takes off for the first time at Edwards AFB, 10 April 1959. (U.S. Air Force)
Prototype Northrop YT-38-5-NO Talon 58-1191 at Edwards AFB, 10 April 1959. (U.S. Air Force)

10 April 1959: Northrop test pilot Lewis A. Nelson made the first takeoff of the prototype YT-38-5-NO Talon, serial number 58-1191, at Edwards Air Force Base, California.

A private venture by Northrop, the Talon was designed by a team led by Edgar Schmued, famous for his work on the North American Aviation P-51 Mustang, F-86 Sabre and the F-100 Super Sabre. The Talon is a twin-engine advanced trainer capable of supersonic speeds. More than 5,500 hours of wind tunnel testing was performed before the airplane’s final configuration was determined.

After testing, the two YT-38s were modified to the YT-38A configuration. The modified aircraft was accepted by the United States Air Force and ordered into production as the T-38A Talon.

The T-38 was the world’s first supersonic flight trainer. The Northrop T-38A Talon is a pressurized, two-place, twin-engine, jet trainer. Its fuselage is very aerodynamically clean and uses the “area-rule” (“coked”) to improve its supersonic capability. It is 46 feet, 4.5 inches (14.135 meters) long with a wingspan of 25 feet, 3 inches (7.696 meters) and overall height of 12 feet, 10.5 inches (3.924 meters). The one-piece wing has an area of 170 square feet (15.79 square meters). The leading edge is swept 32º. The airplane’s empty weight is 7,200 pounds (3,266 kilograms) and maximum takeoff weight is approximately 12,700 pounds (5,761 kilograms).

Northrop YT-38-5-NO 58-1191 in flight over Edwards AFB, 10 April 1959. (U.S. Air Force)
Northrop YT-38-5-NO 58-1191 in flight over Edwards AFB, 10 April 1959. (U.S. Air Force)

The T-38A is powered by two General Electric J85-GE-5 turbojet engines. The J85 is a single-shaft axial-flow turbojet engine with an 8-stage compressor section and 2-stage turbine. The J85-GE-5 is rated at 2,680 pounds of thrust (11.921 kilonewtons), and 3,850 pounds (17.126 kilonewtons) with afterburner. It is 108.1 inches (2.746 meters) long, 22.0 inches (0.559 meters) in diameter and weighs 584 pounds (265 kilograms).

The T-38A has a maximum speed of Mach 1.08 (822 miles per hour/1,323 kilometers per hour) at Sea Level, and Mach 1.3 (882 miles per hour/1,419 kilometers per hour) at 30,000 feet (9,144 meters). It has a rate of climb of 33,600 feet per minute (171 meters per second) and a service ceiling of 55,000 feet (16,764 meters). Its range is 1,140 miles (1,835 kilometers).

Northrop YT-38-5-NO Talon 58-1191. (Northrop)
Northrop YT-38-5-NO Talon 58-1191. (Northrop)

Between 1959 and 1972, 1,187 T-38s were built at Northrop’s Hawthorne, California factory. As of 2014, 546 T-38s remained in the U.S. Air Force active inventory. The U.S. Navy has 10, and NASA operates 15.

Northrop YT-38-5-NO Talon 58-1191. (Northrop)
Northrop YT-38-5-NO Talon 58-1191. (Northrop)
58-1191 and sister ship 58-1192 were converted to YT-38As. (Northrop)
Lewis A. Nelson. (Photograph courtesy of Neil Corbett, Test and Research Pilots, Flight Test Engineers)

Lewis Albert Nelson was born 13 September 1920 at San Diego, California, the second of three children of George Walter Nelson, an electrician, and Edith Clarissa Merrill Nelson. He grew up in Santa Cruz, California.

Nelson first flew in a Piper J-3 Cub as a teenager. While attending a junior college in 1939, he was accepted into the Civilian Pilot Training Program and continued while at San Jose State College, San Jose, California.

Nelson enlisted as an aviation cadet in the U.S. Army Air Corps at Moffett Field, California, 12 January 1942. He was 5 feet, 7 inches (1.702 meters) tall and weighed 154 pounds (69.9 kilograms). He served until 1947. He was twice awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

After leaving the Air Corps, Nelson studied aeronautical engineering at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles, graduating in 1949. He later earned a master’s degree from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

Lew Nelson worked as an aeronautical engineer for the National Advisory Commission on Aeronautics (NACA), and joined the Northrop Corporation as a test pilot in 1950. In 1952 he was promoted to Chief Experimental Test Pilot. Nelson made the first flights of a number of Northrop aircraft, such as the F-89 Scorpion, N-156 and F-5. Nelson retired from Northrop in 1986.

He married Elaine M. Miller, Clark County, Nevada, 28 April 1979.

Lewis Albert Nelson died at Menifee, California, 15 January 2015, at the age of 94 years. His remains were buried at sea.

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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18 February 1962

Major Walter F. Daniel, U.S. Air Force, in the cockpit of Northrop T-38A-40-NO Talon 61-0849 at Edwards AFB after setting four Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) time-to-altitude world records, 18 February 1962. (U.S. Air Force)
Major Walter F. Daniel, U.S. Air Force, in the cockpit of Northrop T-38A-40-NO Talon 61-0849 at Edwards AFB after setting four Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) time-to-altitude world records, 18 February 1962. (U.S. Air Force)

18 February 1962: At Edwards Air Force Base, California, Major Walter Fletcher Daniel set four Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) time-to-altitude records with a Northrop T-38A-40-NO Talon, serial number 61-0849.

The supersonic trainer reached 3,000 meters (9,843 feet) in 35.624 seconds ¹; 6,000 meters (19,685 feet) in 51.429 seconds ²; 9,000 meters (29,528 feet) in 1 minute, 04.758 seconds ³; and 12,000 meters (39,370 feet) in 1 minute, 35.610 seconds ⁴.

Major Walter F. Daniel flew this Northrop T-38A-40-NO Talon, 61-0849, to four Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) time-to-altitude world records at Edwards AFB, 18 February 1962. (U.S. Air Force)
Major Walter F. Daniel flew this Northrop T-38A-40-NO Talon, 61-0849, to four Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) time-to-altitude world records at Edwards AFB, 18 February 1962. (U.S. Air Force)

The Northrop T-38A Talon is a two-place, twin-engine jet trainer capable of supersonic speed. It is 46 feet, 4 inches (14.122 meters) long with a wingspan of 25 feet, 3 inches (7.696 meters) and overall height of 12 feet, 10 inches (3.912 meters). The trainer’s empty weight is 7,200 pounds (3,266 kilograms) and the maximum takeoff weight is 12,093 pounds (5,485 kilograms).

The T-38A is powered by two General Electric J85-GE-5 turbojet engines. The J85 is a single-shaft axial-flow turbojet engine with an 8-stage compressor section and 2-stage turbine. The J85-GE-5 is rated at 2,680 pounds of thrust (11.921 kilonewtons), and 3,850 pounds (17.126 kilonewtons) with afterburner. It is 108.1 inches (2.746 meters) long, 22.0 inches (0.559 meters) in diameter and weighs 584 pounds (265 kilograms).

It has a maximum speed of Mach 1.08 (822 miles per hour, 1,323 kilometers per hour) at Sea Level. The Talon’s service ceiling of 55,000 feet (16,764 meters) and it has a maximum range of 1,093 miles (1,759 kilometers).

In production from 1961 to 1972, Northrop has produced nearly 1,200 T-38s. As of January 2014, the U.S. Air Force had 546 T-38A Talons in the active inventory. It also remains in service with the U.S. Navy, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Northrop T-38A-40-NO Talon 61-0849 at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, 1993. (Photograph courtesy of Gary Chambers)
Northrop T-38A-40-NO Talon 61-0849 at Dannelly Field, Montgomery, Alabama, 1993. (Photograph courtesy of Gary Chambers)

The record-setting T-38, 61-0849, was retired to The Boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Tucson, Arizona, in 1993. It was later removed from storage and assigned to the 415th Flight Test Flight, Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, where it remained until March 2007. It is now on display at the Air Force Flight Test Museum, Edwards Air Force Base, California.

Northrop T-38A-40-NO Talon 61-0849 being towed to display site at the Air Force Flight Test Museum. (Rebecca Amber/U.S. Air Force)
Northrop T-38A-40-NO Talon 61-0849 being towed from the restoration hangar to display site at the Air Force Flight Test Museum. (Rebecca Amber/U.S. Air Force)

Walter Fletcher Daniel was born in 1925. He entered the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1943 and was trained as a fighter pilot. He was assigned to fly North American P-51 Mustangs and Republic P-47 Thunderbolts in post-war Germany. During the Korean War he served as a reconnaissance pilot of RF-51s and RF-80 Shooting Stars.

Walter Daniel graduated from the U.S. Air Force Experimental Test Pilot School in 1954 and was assigned to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and later Edwards Air Force Base, where he was involved in flight testing all of the Century-series fighters. (F-100–F-106) It was while at Edwards that he flew the T-38A to set the time-to-altitude records.

By 1965, Colonel Daniel was the Chief of Flight Test Operations for the Lockheed YF-12A and SR-71A Blackbird Mach 3 aircraft. He set five world speed records and an altitude record and was awarded the Mackay Trophy.

After attending the Air War College, Daniel entered combat crew training in the McDonnell F-4 and RF-4 Phantom II, and was appointed Deputy Commander for Operations of the 432d Tactical Reconnaissance Wing at Udorn RTAFB. He flew 70 combat missions over North Vietnam.

In 1971 Colonel Daniel assumed command of the 75th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing (soon redesignated 67th TRW). He was promoted to brigadier general in 1972 and served as Inspector General, Air Force Systems Command.

Walter Fletcher Daniel was a member of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots. A command pilot, he had flown over 6,000 hours in more than 75 different aircraft types. General Daniel died 13 September 1974 at the age of 49 years. He is buried at the Arlington National Cemetery.

A team of volunteers place Northrop T-38A Talon 61-0849 in position at teh outdorr dsiplay area of the Air Force Flight Test Museum, Edwards Air force Base, California. (Rebecca Amber/U.S. Air Force)
A team of volunteers place Northrop T-38A Talon 61-0849 in position at the outdoor display area of the Air Force Flight Test Museum, Edwards Air Force Base, California. (Rebecca Amber/U.S. Air Force)

¹ FAI Record File Number 8718

² FAI Record File Number 8604

³ FAI Record File Number 8599

⁴ FAI Record File Number 8719

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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14 January 1936

Hoard Hughes with his record-setting Northrop Gamma. (Unattributed)
Howard Hughes with the record-setting Northrop Gamma. (UNLV Special Collections)

14 January 1936: Flying a Northrop Gamma 2G, serial number 11, which he had leased from Jackie Cochran, Howard Robard Hughes, Jr., set a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Record for Speed Over a Recognized Course (Los Angeles, California, to New York) in 9 hours, 26 minutes, 10 seconds, at an average speed of 417.0 kilometers per hour (259.1 miles per hour).¹ Most of the flight was made at altitudes of  15,000–18,000 feet (4,572–5,486 meters), and Hughes used supplemental breathing oxygen.

Howard Hughes climbs out of the Northrop Gamma at Newark, New Jersey. (UNLV Digital Collection)
Howard Hughes climbs out of the Northrop Gamma at Newark, New Jersey. (UNLV Digital Collection)

Jack Northrop had designed and built the Gamma as a long-range cargo and mail plane for Transcontinental and Western Air, Inc. The contract was cancelled, though, and several airplanes became available to other customers. Jackie Cochran purchased s/n 11, which had been completed 15 August 1934, and had it modified by Northrop as a two-place long-distance racer for the 1934 MacRobertson London-to-Australia air race, which she planned to fly with her friend Ted Marshall.

The Gamma’s original engine was replaced with a liquid-cooled, supercharged, 1,570.381-cubic-inch-displacement (25.734 liters) Wright Aeronautical Division Conqueror SGV1570F4 (also known as the Curtiss Conqueror), a DOHC 60° V-12 engine rated at 745 horsepower at Sea Level. The engine drove a two-bladed propeller. The Gamma had 7 fuel tanks: 3 in each wing and 1 in the fuselage. Total capacity was 486 gallons (1,840 liters) of gasoline and 29 gallons (110 liters)of lubricating oil. A second fuselage tank was later added, bring the total fuel capacity to 586 gallons (2,218 liters). The Gamma 2G had an empty weight of 4,727 pounds (2,144 kilograms) and a maximum gross weight of 8,037 pounds (3,646 kilograms). The modified airplane was inspected and a temporary commercial registration, NC13671, was approved 29 September 1934.

The Northrop Corporation Gamma 2G, NC13761, after modification for the MacRobertson Race, 29 September 1934. (The Northrop Corporation)

While being ferried to New York by Jackie and her new copilot, Royal Leonard, problems with the engine’s supercharger forced them to land in Arizona. Cochran continued east by airliner while Leonard and a Curtiss-Wright mechanic continued east in the Gamma. Flying on the night of 1 October 1934, a continuing problem with the supercharger forced them to make an off-field landing near Tucumcari, New Mexico, using light from dropped flares. The Gamma was seriously damaged and had to be returned to Northrop for repair.

The airplane’s temporary registration was suspended. A section of the wing and the forward lower half of the fuselage were replaced, provisions for installing a Pratt & Whitney radial engine were made, and the rear cockpit was removed. (Cochran’s plans for the MacRobertson Race had to be revised,² so she had the airplane modified for the Bendix Trophy Race.) The repairs and modifications were completed 30 November 1934.

The “re-modified” Gamma 2G was now powered by an air-cooled, supercharged, 1,534.943-cubic-inch-displacement (25.153 liters) Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp Jr. SA1-G 14-cylinder radial engine with a three-bladed Hamilton Standard controllable-pitch propeller. The SA1-G was rated at 700 horsepower at 2,500 r.p.m. at 6,500 feet (1,981 meters). It could be ordered with a 3:2 or 4:3 gear reduction ratio.

The official ownership history of the Gamma is murky. The original application for a Department of Commerce Aeronautics Branch license specified the owner as The Northrop Corporation. On 4 January 1935, Northrop’s registration was cancelled by the Department of Commerce because, “Aircraft not inspected for relicensing.”

Jackie Cochran flew the Gamma in the 1935 Bendix Trophy Race, but did not finish.

When Jackie Cochran requested registration in her name, she failed to submit a Bill of Sale with her application. After repeated written requests by the Bureau of Air Commerce to submit a bill of sale went unanswered, her application for a restricted registration for the airplane was cancelled, 9 January 1936. J Carroll Cone, Assistant Director of Air Commerce (Air Regulation) informed her in writing: “The status of this aircraft is unlicensed and unidentified, according to our records. Any operation thereof would be in violation of the Air Commerce Regulations and subject the offender to the civil penalty provided therefor.”

Finally, a Bill of Sale from The Northrop Corporation, dated 30 November 1935, was provided to the Aeronautics Bureau. It said that Northrop had sold the airplane to Cochran, “for and in consideration of ten dollars ($10.00)”.

Meanwhile, Howard Hughes had seen the Gamma and wanted to buy it. Jackie Cochran tells how Howard Hughes acquired the airplane:

One night about 11:30 I was exhausted in my hotel room and the telephone rang. . .

“Jackie,” the voice says, “this is Howard.”

“Howard who?” I say, still sleepy and getting frustrated.

“Howard Hughes,” the man says.

“Howard who?” I ask again.

“Howard Hughes,” he repeats.

. . . We argued about who he was a bit more. Finally, he says, “I want to buy your airplane.”

I’m thinking that this is an incredible conversation. “It’s not for sale, Howard,” I reply. “I’m going to fly it in the Bendix.”

“I don’t want to fly it in the Bendix,” he answers. “I want to fly it cross-continental.”

“So do I,” I say.

Howard Hughes and I negotiated over the Northrop Gamma for about four weeks. . . Howard wanted my Northrop so badly, but it would break my heart to consider handing over my rights to it. . . when he offered to rent it, with an option to buy, I caved in. . . .

Jackie Cochran: An Autobiography, by Jacqueline Cochran and Maryann Bucknum Brinley, Bantam Books, New York, 1987, at 152–153.

When Hughes took possession of the Gamma 2G, he had the Pratt & Whitney engine replaced with a 1,823.129 cubic-inch (29.785 liter) Wright Cyclone SGR-1820-G5 nine-cylinder radial engine, and a three bladed-Hamilton Standard constant-speed propeller with a diameter of 11 feet, 3 inches (3.429 meters). The engine had a Normal Power rating of 830 horsepower at 2,100 r.p.m to 4,300 feet (1,311 meters), and 930 horsepower for Takeoff. This engine did not yet have government certification. Three additional fuselage tanks were installed, increasing the Gamma’s fuel capacity to 690 gallons. Hughes did not submit the Gamma for Department of Commerce inspection and licensing. It was not approved in the new configuration.

Jackie Cochran took the Gamma back from Hughes and had the Twin Wasp Jr. reinstalled, and submitted a new application for registration 31 March 1936. This was approved 28 April 1936, and the Gamma received a restricted registration, NR13761. It was damaged beyond repair after an emergency landing, 10 July 1936.

The Northrop Gamma 2G at Newark, New Jersey, 14 January 1936. (UNLV Libraries Digital Collection)

¹ FAI Record File Number 13237

² With Northrop unable to repair the airplane in time for the MacRobertson Race, at the last minute Jackie Cochran entered with a different airplane (a Granville Brothers Gee Bee R-6H).

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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