Flying Wings Over Texas.
By Owen Zupp
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Recently something strange was seen high over Texas. Size and speed unknown, the small delta-shaped craft was pulling a contrail in the blue skies above. Immediately the world was abuzz with speculation of a new advanced aircraft type and the true purpose behind the legendary ‘Area 51’. Was this the next step forward in aircraft design?
Such sightings are nothing new as test flying of revolutionary designs has been going on for decades. The fact that so much flying has taken place beyond prying eyes is probably a more intriguing phenomenon. Remember the clandestine night raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound and the revelation of the stealth Blackhawk helicopter? Had that helicopter not crashed would we know of its existence? Even now, very little is known publicly about its true form and capabilities.
Edwards Air Force Base in California has traditionally been the home to the men and machines pushing the edge of the envelope. It was here that Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947 and saw the numerous X-Planes that flew ever higher and faster. It was home to the ‘best of the best’ from which the first astronauts were mustered. The aircraft took on all forms from the bullet-like Bell X-1 to the striking, but ill-fated, XB-70 Valkyrie.
In such a world, tragedy was no stranger. There were not the computer ‘models’ of aircraft performance that can be digitally generated in the modern age. The limits could only be found by flying the test aircraft ever-closer to the edge until it bent, broke or hopefully survived. The street names at Edwards are silent testimony to those that lost their lives in pursuit of the sky’s unknown boundaries.
The base itself is named after Captain Glen Edwards. A veteran of World War Two, he became a test pilot only to lose his life away from the battle-front in post-war America. He was testing the Northrop YB-49 ‘Flying Wing’ when it broke up in flight, killing all on board. Developed from a piston-engined counterpart, the YB-49 was pushed along by 8 jet engines. Still, the concept of the tailless aircraft had been around for a good many years and a good many nations.
One forerunner to the YB-49 had been a one-third scale, 60-foot span flying wing. Designated the N-9M, it was also from Jack Northrop’s, although this smaller, single-seat version was powered by two piston engines. An example of the type still flies at Chino, California and its canary yellow form in flight is something to behold.
Northrop N-9M. Image: Planes of Fame.
And while the YB-49 faded into history with only a handful ever being built, the concept was far from forgotten. The flying wing’s tailless low profile form lent itself to the new world of stealth technology that was emerging in the 1980s. The ability to successfully strike a target was no longer simply a function of speed and/or altitude in a world of increasingly sophisticated weapons and defence systems. Evading detection became the new priority to reintroduce the element of surprise in a world of radar and to protect the valuable ‘asset’ and its crew.
The new age also brought new control systems that could counter some of the concerns relating to the YB-49 and the ‘Flying Wing’ grew into the aircraft we now know as the B-2 ‘Spirit’ stealth bomber. Developed over a decade, secrecy had once again been a key element in the B-2 program. The B-2 employed a number of new technologies beyond its low radar profile, ranging from suppressed engine exhausts to a range of lightweight, stealthy materials.
Contrails Over Texas. Image: Steve Douglass
Now we have the ‘mystery’ aircraft sighted over Texas. Suspicions are that the aircraft is manned and that it was in company with two other aircraft. Other than that, nothing is really known of the type. Given the extensive security measures that surrounded the B-2 development in the 1980s, there is nothing to suggest that this new aircraft hasn’t also stayed beneath the public ‘radar’. What it does demonstrate clearly is that the pursuit of new technologies marches on.
Certainly the computer aided development of new designs has increased in great measures, but still there is the need for the ‘real thing’ to be flown. Consequently, when the slide rules are laid down, someone still needs to strap into the secretive cockpits and take these aircraft into the skies. It is the only way to truly ratify the projected performance and discover the quirks that were not anticipated in the computer model. When this happens, a pilot is still needed to observe and counter the variation away from the forecast flight profile.
A good deal more is now known about both aircraft design and the environment that aircraft operate in. The ‘sound barrier’ is no longer a wall in the air where good aeroplanes go to die; crushed by mysterious forces. Better informed, the battle is now to be smarter and stealthier and generally within the predefined limits that were discovered with the blood and sweat of test pilots from the 1940s onwards. Still, whenever there is an unknown, there is a risk and test flying will never be a ‘simple’ process.
I suspect in time we will learn of the aircraft over Amarillo, Texas. It will grow from secrecy, to ‘Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft’ and ultimately appear on the air show circuit, though not any time soon. And even when that occurs it will still hold a good number of secrets close to its chest. For the moment, the triangular speck and its contrail will remain a mystery, although it is a tangible reminder that progress never ceases. In aviation, there will always be some entity looking for a new edge and taking the limits just that bit further. The spirit of Captain Glen Edwards and his comrades lives on.