Dieselpunk + Steampunk Culture


This account comes from a friend of my father who influenced my early life and is fondly remembered today. John K. (Jack) Northrop was a true pioneer and futurist.  He invited my family to the maiden voyage of the YB-49 Flying Wing Bomber (1949) which is the first time I ever saw a jet airplane. He introduced me to the hobby of plastic modeling, and guided me to getting a BS in Aeronautical-Astronautical Engineering at Northrop Institute of Technology. I later told him, “I now know how an airplane is able to fly, but I find it hard to believe it possible.” He agreed.

The following narration is repeated here as it was told to me by this most forward thinking aviation pioneer. It was in 1960 at a meeting of The International Plastic Modelers Society at TRW Space Park in Redondo Beach, Ca.

In the 1930s, Jack Northrop designed the Northrop Gamma which later was redesigned and sold to the US Army in 1935 as the A-17 Attack Bomber.

The A-17 entered service in February 1936, and proved a reliable and popular aircraft. However, in 1938, the Air Corps decided that attack aircraft should be multi-engined, rendering the A-17 surplus to requirements. As a result, Northrop had an entire airplane factory full of engineers, technicians, and workers that were idle. There was a new design for a bomber on the boards and he quickly went into retooling for the N-3PB Nomad.

(a complete rundown on this forgotten airplane is featured in an excellent article, photos and video by S.A.M.#14, Norwegian Beauty.) The N-3PB Nomad patrol bomber was sleek, fast(257mph), had a payload of 2,000 pounds, and a crew of three.Northrop thought the US army would embrace it because it could land on water or land,... and it had a range of 1,500 miles.

The Army didn't buy it. America was at peace although there was a war brewing in Europe. The main criticism and question was,"Single engined bombers are no as safe as multi-engined ones,"and""Why would we ever need an aircraft with a range of 1500 miles?"

Northrop was devastated. It was 1939 and every cent he had was tied up in this aircraft. He had built the worlds fastest seaplane and had no customers. The country of Norway bought 24 of the amphibians for coastal patrol, but that contract wasn't nearly enough to keep the newly formed Northrop Aircraft afloat.

In 1940 the contract ran out and Northrop reluctantly laid off his assembly line workers. He always claimed that his company's greatest assets were his engineers, technicians, and workers(aircrafters). In order to stay in business he picked up a contract to build refrigerators for a company in Mexico. It wasn't enough. Late in 1941 the only way to meet payroll was to cut up all the tooling for the N-3PB into one cubic yard pieces and sell it for scrap. The last piece went into the melting oven on December 1, 1941

On Sunday, December seventh of 1941 we entered into World War II with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. On Monday, December eighth, Jack Northrop got a call from the Army with an initial order for 3,500 N-3PB Nomads.

With deep regret Northrop informed the caller it would take longer to retool for production of the Nomad, than to completely design a new aircraft to fit their needs. In meetings with the army they decided that the new fighter be twin engined, very fast, long range, and carry a payload of at least 1,600 miles in addition to the added weight of airborne RADAR. They needed the airplane in six months. It was delivered in June of 1944.

Jack Northrop's first proposal for "the Black Widow," was a long fuselage gondola between two engine nacelles and tail booms. Engines were Pratt & Whitney R-2800-10 Double Wasp 18-cylinder radials, producing 2,000 hp (1,491 kW) each. The fuselage housed the three-man crew, the radar, and two four-gun turrets. The .50 in (12.7 mm) M2 Browning machine guns were fitted with 36 in (91 cm) long "aircraft" barrels with perforated sleeves. The turrets were located in the nose and rear of the fuselage. It stood on tricycle landing gear and featured full-span retractable flaps, or "Zap flaps" (named after Northrop engineer Edward Zap) in the wings.

The aircraft was huge, as Northrop had anticipated. While far heavier and larger multi-engine bombers existed, its 45.5 ft (14 m) length, 66 ft (20 m) wingspan and projected 22,600 lb (10,251 kg) full-load weight were unheard of for a fighter, making the P-61 hard for many to accept as a feasible fighter aircraft.

The final result was a new kind of tactical warbird. It was a night fighter that could fly at 20,000 feet, had a top speed of 366mph, had a front and rear facing RADAR, and was fully aerobatic. The aircraft were painted flat black and had special shrouds over the exhaust stacks to hide the exhaust flames and glowing metal. At night they were invisible.

One of my instructors at Northrop Institute was stationed in New Guinea when the first Black Widows were delivered to the Pacific Theater. The first night after the new planes landed there ware three airmen admitted to the base hospital with cuts and bruises from running into the P-61s in the dark. They were really non-reflective black and had no insignia.

Pilots and crew were impressed with the armament.


    • 4 × 20 mm (.79 in) Hispano M2 cannon in ventral fuselage, 200 rounds per gun(rpg) (Yes, I said cannons and 800 rounds)
    • 4 × .50 in (12.7 mm) M2 Browning machine guns in remotely operated, full-traverse upper turret, 560 rpg
  • Bombs: for ground attack, four bombs of up to 1,600 lb (726 kg) each or six 5 in (127 mm) HVAR unguided rockets could be carried under the wings. Some aircraft could also carry one 1,000 lb (454 kg) bomb under the fuselage. It could have carried the atomic bomb.

The first time the guns were fired at a target in front of the plane, they lost 20knots of airspeed. The first time they test fired the guns on the ground it rocked the big fighter/bomber over on its tail.

It's use against the Japanese was top-secret. At night a lone Black Widow would fly to where enemy patrols were sighted by island spotters. The vigilant crew would spot Japanese aircraft by the glow of their exhaust stacks. The Black widow was undetectable in the air. The pilot would accelerate and pursue the same course until he was ten miles ahead of the patrol. He would then make a 180 degree turn and approach the enemy head-on using his RADAR. Then, at the right moment he would fire all eight guns and one or two of the approaching planes would be obliterated. He would then repeat the operation.

For three months the Japanese had no idea of what the Black Widow was doing to them, All they knew was that a squadron of planes was sent out on patrol and a number of them never returned.

Jack claimed anything a P-51 or P-38 could do, a Black Widow could do better, and that included aerobatics. When I was five years old Jack gave my father a flat black rubber model of the Black Widow for me to have as a toy. It was an official war department recognition model for coastal air spotters. It was my favorite toy and endeared me to this WW-II war-fighting machine.

Today I think of the P-61 as our first fighter-bomber. It is an awesome virulent design and far more dangerous than its namesake is in the world of spiders. Like Jack Northrop, I believe that because of its late delivery, the army was prejudiced against the YB-47 Flying Wing as a contender for the "Super Bomber" contract in 1949 and awarded it to Convair to build the B-36 "Peacemaker." (Northrop did build the wing for this pachyderm of a bomber.)

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Comment by Cap'n Tony on October 17, 2011 at 10:00am

Great article! Love the insider info.

Sounds pretty typical on the post-war acquisition fun with Convair.

Comment by Larry on October 13, 2011 at 7:57pm

Wow! The first Stealth fighter. Fascinating article.

Comment by John L. Sands on October 13, 2011 at 4:23pm

Afterthought: The B-36 was adopted in 1949 and was truly a super-bomber. We all know the huge size of the B-29 Superfortress that bombed Japan. Well, Take a look below.

It had six 4,360 cubic inch piston engines and four jets.a 230 foot wingspan, a minimum turn radius of 16 miles and only nine runways in the world would accommodate it. At Northrop Institute one of the instructors said,"If the US Army Air Force were to construct a runway that went across the circumference of the earth, Convair would turn around and build a bomber that couldn't get off it!"

In 1949 Jack Northrop was at a dinner for aircraft manufacturers in Washington, D.C.. Stuart Symington, Secretary of the Air Force stood up and announced,"If Mr. Northrop wants to successfully bid on the Super-bomber contract, he will merge his company with Convair. Or else!"

"Or else what?" queried Jack.

"You'll see, you'll see," retorted Symington.

Northrop lost the contract but did build the wing for the Peacemaker. A funny thing happened after the contract was awarded. All the plans for the YB-49 Flying Wing, all documentation, pictures, movie film, and desk models were confiscated from the Northrop plant and promptly lost by the Air Force. Retribution?

When you see the B-2 Bomber, you can see all was forgiven.

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