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Jack Northrop

Jack Northrop
Born John Knudsen Northrop
(1895-11-10)November 10, 1895
Newark, New Jersey, U.S.
Died February 18, 1981(1981-02-18) (aged 85)
Occupation Aeronautics Engineer
Industrial Designer

John Knudsen "Jack" Northrop (November 10, 1895 – February 18, 1981) was an American aircraft industrialist and designer, who founded the Northrop Corporation in 1939.

His career began in 1916 as a draftsman for Lockheed Aircraft Manufacturing Company (founded 1912). He joined the Douglas Aircraft Company in 1923, where in time he became a project engineer. In 1927 he rejoined Lockheed, where he was a chief engineer on the Lockheed Vega transport. He left in 1929 to found Avion Corporation, which he sold in 1930. Two years later he founded the Northrop Corporation. This firm became a subsidiary of Douglas Aircraft in 1939, so he co-founded a second company named Northrop.[1]


  • Entering aviation 1
  • Company founding 2
  • Flying wing and other aircraft 3
  • Later years 4
  • Awards and honors 5
  • References 6

Entering aviation

Born in Newark, New Jersey, Northrop grew up in Santa Barbara, California. In 1916 Northrop's first job in aviation was in working as a draftsman for Lockheed Aircraft Manufacturing Company, founded in 1912 by the Loughead brothers (Allan and Malcolm Loughead). In 1923, Northrop joined Douglas Aircraft Company, participating in the design of the Douglas Round-the-World-Cruiser and working up to project engineer. In early 1927, Northrop assisted Jack Ryan of Ryan Aircraft in the larger wing design used on Lindbergh's plane "The Spirit of St Louis" that would later make the New York to Paris flight in May 1927.

In 1927 he rejoined the Loughead brothers and their newly renamed (in 1926) Loughead Aircraft Corporation, working as chief engineer on the Lockheed Vega, the civilian transport monoplane with a cantilever wing that produced unusually high performance for that period, and was widely used by such top pilots as Wiley Post, Amelia Earhart, and Hubert Wilkins. In 1929 he produced an all-metal monoplane with pilot and engine within the wing structure. Although this aircraft had booms to attach the tail group, it was in fact the first step toward the flying wing.[2]

Company founding

In 1929, Northrop struck out on his own, founding the Avion Corporation, which he was forced to sell to United Aircraft and Transport Corporation in 1930. In 1932, Northrop, backed by Donald Douglas of Douglas Aircraft, founded another company, the Northrop Corporation in El Segundo, California. This company built two highly successful monoplanes, the Northrop Gamma and Northrop Delta.[3]

By 1939 the Northrop Corporation had become a subsidiary of Douglas Aircraft, so Northrop founded another completely independent company of the same name in Hawthorne, California, a site located by Moye Stephens, one of the co-founders.[4]

Flying wing and other aircraft

While working at this company, Northrop focused on the flying wing design, which he was convinced was the next major step in aircraft design. His first project, a reduced-scale version tested in 1940, ultimately became the giant Northrop YB-35. The Northrop XP-56 Black Bullet, a welded magnesium fighter[5] was one of the more significant of his World War II designs, along with the Northrop P-61 Black Widow, the first American night interceptor, of which more than 700 were constructed.[6]

His inventions continued into the postwar era of jet aircraft, to produce the Northrop F-89 Scorpion all-weather interceptor, the Northrop YB-49 long-range bomber, the Northrop Snark intercontinental missile, and automatic celestial navigation systems. He produced a number of flying wings, including the Northrop N-1M, Northrop N-9M, and Northrop YB-49. His ideas regarding flying wing technology were years ahead of the computer and electronic advances of "fly-by-wire" stability systems which allow inherently unstable aircraft like the B-2 Spirit flying wing to be flown like a conventional aircraft.

The flying wing and the pursuit of low drag high lift designs were Northrop's passion, and its failure to be selected as the next generation bomber platform after World War II, and the subsequent destruction of all prototypes and incomplete YB-49s ordered by the federal government were a blow from which he never recovered, causing his association with Northrop Aviation to become almost non-existent for the next 30 years. In an interview for the Discovery Channel's documentary The Wing Will Fly, his son John Northrop Jr. recounted his father's devastation and lifelong suspicion that his flying wing project had been sabotaged by political influence and backroom dealing between rival Convair and high-ranking officials in the Air Force.

Later years

Northrop dabbled in real estate and lost much of his personal fortune. In 1976, with his health failing, he felt compelled to communicate to NASA his belief in the low drag high lift concept inherent in the flying wing. NASA replied that the idea had technological merit comforting Northrop that his flying wing concepts hadn't been completely abandoned. By the late 1970s a variety of illnesses had left him unable to walk or speak. Shortly before his death in 1981, he was given clearance to see designs and hold a scale model of the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit which shared many of the design features of his YB-35 and YB-49 designs.[7] Northrop reportedly wrote on a sheet of paper "Now I know why God has kept me alive for 25 years". In the Wing Will Fly documentary, B-2 project designer John Cashen says: "As he held this model in his shaking hands, it was as if you could see his entire history with the flying wing passing through his mind." Jack Northrop died 10 months later, on February 18, 1981.

Awards and honors

In 1947 he received the Spirit of St. Louis Medal from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers for "meritorious service in the advancement of aeronautics."[8] Investiture in the International Aerospace Hall of Fame came in 1972, and in the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1974.[9] He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2003.[10] The B-2 Spirit stealth bomber has the same wingspan as Jack Northrop's jet-powered flying wing, the YB-49.[11]

Northrop's passion for tailless flight was honored by the naming of a giant tailless pterosaur Quetzalcoatlus northropi.[12]

Hawthorne Municipal Airport is also known as Jack Northrop Field in his honor.


  1. ^ Parker, Dana T. Building Victory: Aircraft Manufacturing in the Los Angeles Area in World War II, pp. 93-106, Cypress, CA, 2013; ISBN 978-0-9897906-0-4.
  2. ^ "John K. Northrop",; retrieved 13 September 2011.
  3. ^ "Jack Northrop (1895-1981)." Retrieved: May 2, 2007.
  4. ^ Parker, Dana T. Building Victory: Aircraft Manufacturing in the Los Angeles Area in World War II, pp. 93-106, Cypress, CA, 2013. ISBN 978-0-9897906-0-4.
  5. ^ "XP-56 Black Bullet/42-38353",; retrieved September 13, 2011.
  6. ^ Parker, Dana T. Building Victory: Aircraft Manufacturing in the Los Angeles Area in World War II, pp. 94-97, Cypress, CA, 2013. ISBN 978-0-9897906-0-4.
  7. ^ Withington and Davey 2006, p. 12.
  8. ^ "ASME: Spirit of St. Louis Medal." Retrieved: March 5, 2008.
  9. ^ "John Northrop." National Aviation Hall of Fame. Retrieved: April 2, 2011.
  10. ^ "Jack Northrop." National Inventors Hall of Fame. Retrieved: September 13, 2011.
  11. ^ Jack Northrop." Retrieved: May 2, 2007.
  12. ^ Lawson, Douglas A. "Could Pterosaurs Fly?" Science, 188: 1975, pp. 676-678.
  • Coleman, Ted. Jack Northrop and the Flying Wing: The Real Story Behind the Stealth Bomber. New York: Paragon House, 1988; ISBN 1-55778-079-X.
  • Donald, David, editor. "Northrop Flying Wings". Encyclopedia of World Aircraft. Etobicoke, Ontario: Prospero Books, 1997; ISBN 1-85605-375-X.
  • Maloney, Edward T. Northrop Flying Wings. Corona del Mar, California: World War II Publications, 1988. ISBN 0-915464-00-4.
  • Pape, Garry and John Campbell. Northrop Flying Wings: A History of Jack Northrop's Visionary Aircraft. Atglen, Pennsylvania: Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., 1995; ISBN 0-88740-689-0.
  • Pattillo, Donald M. "Pushing the Envelope: The American Aircraft Industry". Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2001; ISBN 0-472-08671-5.
  • Winchester, Jim. "Northrop XB-35/YB-49" Concept Aircraft: Prototypes, X-Planes and Experimental Aircraft. Kent, UK: Grange Books plc., 2005; ISBN 978-1-84013-809-2.
  • Wooldridge, E. T. Winged Wonders: The Story of the Flying Wings. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983; ISBN 0-87474-966-2.
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