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Northrop and Convair: Blood Feud

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Jack Northrop founded what is now the Northrop-Grumman Corporation, after several false starts, in August 1939. Northrop was the preeminent aerodynamicist of his time, and the greatest intuitive aerodynamicist that ever lived. He had designed the wings for such aircraft as the Lockheed Vega and Douglas DC-3. His main intent in starting his own company was to put into production the ultimate, aerodynamically most efficient aircraft of all - the flying wing. This work culminated in the B-35 flying wing of 1945, and its jet-powered conversion, the B-49.

The B-35 was in a competition with the B-36 to provide the Air Force with an intercontinental-range bomber. From a technical point of view, there was no comparison between the two aircraft. The B-35 was three times more aerodynamically efficient. For the same mission (a 10,000 pound atomic bomb to a 10,000 mile range) the B-35 was 2/3 the size. But Northrop was a tiny company, with its only production experience being wartime production of the P-61 Black Widow. This was a night fighter, based on the Lockheed P-38 twin-boom layout, but with Northrop aerodynamics. It was produced in very limited numbers. Stuart Symington, the powerful head of the Senate Armed Services committee, called Northrop into his office. The B-35 would go into production, he said, but only if Northrop would license the design to Consolidated Vultee for production. Convair had a mile-long government-owned plant in Dallas, Texas, that needed to be filled with work now that the war was over and B-24 production terminated.

Northrop said he couldn't do that to his staff. He returned to California, and ordered the B-35 drawings destroyed and tooling spiked. He retired, believing his flyng wing dream to be over, in 1952.

The B-49 proved that the flying wing design could be equipped with jet engines and be even more aerodynamically successful. If the B-35/B-49 had gone ahead, the US government would still be flying them today, and entire generations of B-36, B-47, B-52, and B-1 bomber aircraft would have been unnecessary.

Instead, in 1980, after a forty-year meander, the US government once again returned to the ultimate aircraft. For stealth reasons the design had to be fitted with a jagged trailing edge. But to make sure the point was not lost, Northrop engineers made sure the B-2 had the same wingspan, to the inch, as the B-35. Permission was obtained to show Jack Northrop the then highly secret B-2 just before he died.

Meanwhile, under the direction of an ex-Rand Corporation whiz kid, T V Jones, Northrop carved a modest place for itself in the military aircraft market. It developed the F-5 lightweight fighter for a US Army close air support requirement. The Army's 'Jeep Carrier' concept never went ahead, but the US Air Force bought over a thousand of the T-38 trainer version. Seemingly indestructible, they are expected to continue into service into the mid-21st Century. The F-5A and F-5E fighter versions of the aircraft went into production for the export and military aid market. This kept Northrop afloat in the 1960's and made export fighter aircraft its main business area.

Northrop Corporation again faced off against its nemesis, now part of General Dynamics, in the early 1970's. Northrop had spent years identifying the optimum lightweight export fighter, taking into account the requirements of users in the Benelux countries, Spain, Australia, and Canada. The Northrop P-530 would have two engines, like the F-5A and F-5E, but greater range and weapons capability.

Then the Air Force, smarting from having to fly oversized F-4E fighter bombers against cheap lightweight MiG-21's over Viet Nam, announced a requirement for a lightweight fighter. Northrop modified its P-530 design and was selected, together with General Dynamics, to build a prototype of the design for a fly-off. The Northrop YF-17 was superior to the General Dynamics YF-16 in almost every way, but that same mile-long plant in Dallas needed to be fed. After the B-36, the Texas Congressional delegation had kept the plant filled with a succession of disastrous medium bomber designs - the B-58, then the F-111. After that experience, the Air Force turned to North American for its B-1 bomber. General Dynamics had no experience with combat fighters, having last built delta-winged F-106 interceptors in the 1950's. Nevertheless they won the Lightweight Fighter competition - the deal of the century, it was called - and with it, the NATO orders for the Benelux countries.

As part of the Deal of the Century, General Dynamics was to have received orders for a carrier-launched version of the fighter for the US Navy. But the Navy had other ideas. Instead it ordered the Lightweight Fighter competitors to team with traditional naval fighter vendors and propose navalized versions of the F-16 and F-17. General Dynamics teamed with Texas-based Vought, and Northrop was forced into bed with McDonnell-Douglas (McAir). Northrop management would not make the same mistake that Jack Northrop made, resulting in the B-35 never going into production. They swallowed their pride and let McAir take over lead production and design responsibility for the Northrop design. A fateful agreement was drawn up. If the McAir/Northrop team won the contract, McAir would build 60% of the airframe (by cost) and Northrop 40%. However, for any sales of the 'land based version' of the aircraft, the percentages would be reversed. Northrop would make 60%, and McAir 40%.

In the end, the Texas delegation and Pentagon supporters of commonality could not get the US Navy to accept the F-16 design. The McAir/Northrop design had the dual engines, which the Navy liked for safer overwater operations, and was superior aerodynamically. The F-16, designed for landing on long Air Force concrete runways, could simply not be slowed down enough to meet the Navy's carrier landing speed requirement. The F-17, derived from the Northrop short-field export design, easily met the low landing speed and precise controllability requirements of the Navy. So McAir got the contract, and the F-18 was born.

But problems developed in Northrop's sales for the land-based version. This was actually going to be a substantially different aircraft form the Navy's F-18. It would have a different airframe, lightened by removing the provisions for landing on carriers. The landing gear would be different and lighter for the same reason. A whole different range of avionics, suitable for export, would be fitted. Northrop had a launch customer for the aircraft - the Shah of Iran. He was willing to pay the billion-dollar nonrecurring cost to develop the design. The way would then be clear for sales to Spain, Australia, and Canada. These were the countries for which the P-530 had been designed in the first place, big countries needing a fighter with dual engines and long range.

But the Shah of Iran was overthrown in the 1979, killing off the F-18L's chance of being developed. In the end, the basic Navy F-18 version was sold to the P-530's main target customers - Canada, Spain, and Australia.

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