Conspiracy?

Last revised January 19, 2000


As previously recounted, the YB-49 had gotten itself into competition with the Convair B-36 for consideration as the next long-range strategic bomber for the USAF. The Air Force decided to order the B-36D (with six piston engines and four jets) to meet the requirement for a long-range strategic bomber, and the contract for 30 new RB-49A aircraft was canceled in April of 1949. In November of 1949, the conversion of the existing YB-35 airframes to jet-powered configuration was also cancelled. The surviving airframes were ordered destroyed. In 1952, Jack Northrop abruptly retired from the company he had founded and divested himself of all interests. He was personally devastated by the cancellation and destruction of his pet project.

The reasons for the abrupt cancellation of the B-49 project remain uncertain even today, and many of the details are still classified. The chronic stability problems, plus the series of accidents that seem to dog the project at every step along the way certainly must have played a role. In addition, the YB-49 carried its bomb load in a series of bomb bay cells, each of which was too small to accommodate the Mk III and Mk 4 atomic bombs of the day, which were 5 feet in diameter, 10 feet long, and weighed 10,000 pounds. In contrast, the weapons bay in the B-36 was cavernous and could carry almost anything.

In 1980, Jack Northrop finally told his side of the story to the press. He claimed that the YB-49 program had been cancelled by the Air Force not because of any insoluble technical problems but because he refused to obey an order to merge Northrop with Convair. He said that he had kept quiet all these years because he feared that the Pentagon would boycott his company if he disclosed the story to the public. He claimed that Air Force Secretary Stuart Symington had issued the merger order slightly after Northrop had won the RB-49 contract in June of 1948. Symington claimed at that time that the Air Force could not afford to support any new aircraft companies on its declining post-war budget, and that unless Northrop agreed to the merger, the flying wing bomber would not be built at all. Jack Northrop did meet with Floyd Odlum, head of Atlas Corporation, a Wall Street holding company for Convair, to discuss a possible merger, but the talks went nowhere. Jack Northrop said later that he had built up his company over the years and owed a debt of loyalty to his employees and was not about to have his flying wing built by anyone other than his people working at the Northrop factory in Hawthorne, California. Shortly thereafter, Secretary Symington abruptly ordered that the flying wing program be cancelled. As part of the cancellation order, the Air Force ordered that seven of the Flying Wings then under conversion be destroyed.

The YB-49 cancellation story became part of a congressional investigation that took place in June of 1949 in the wake of the awarding of the strategic bomber contract to the B-36, with charges of undue influence and favoritism toward Convair being aired. At that time, the Secretary of Defense was Louis A. Johnson, who had replaced James Forrestal on March 28, 1949. On April 23, 1949 Secretary Johnson abruptly cancelled the large aircraft carrier, the *United States*, which had been ordered by his predecessor to provide the Navy with strategic bombing capability, and went ahead with plans for a fleet of B-36D long-range strategic bombers. The Navy was enraged at the cancellation of its supercarrier, but the Air Force insisted that strategic bombing was strictly an Air Force responsibility. At that time, both President Harry Truman and Defense Secretary Johnson were under severe budgetary constraints, and felt that the government could not afford both new strategic bombers and a new carrier force. However, there were doubts expressed that the B-36 could defend itself against Soviet jet fighters, and there were concerns that the Air Force had spent a fortune on what would turn out to be a sitting duck.

There had been rumors in the press that Secretary Symington had been tapped to be the head of the new firm that would have been created from the merger of Convair and Northrop. Jack Northrop had been a witness at the B-36 hearings, and at that time he denied that there had been anything suspicious about the cancellation of the YB-49. Many years later, Northrop admitted that he had lied under oath at the hearings, fearful that Symington might completely obliterate his company in reprisal. Symington later went on to serve in the US Senate for 24 years, and he unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960. He retired from the Senate in 1977. Symington has always denied that there is any truth to Jack Northrop's claim. It is interesting, though, to note that the production of the F-89 Scorpion interceptor commenced during this same time period, indicating that Jack Northrop's problems with his flying wing project did not prevent his company from being given other major defense contracts. The true story of what really happened with the YB-49 may never be known.

Sources:


  1. Northrop's Big Wing--The B-2, David Baker, Air International, June 1993.

  2. Truman, David McCollough, Simon and Schuster, 1992.

  3. Northrop Flying Wings, Edward T. Maloney, World War II Publications, 1988.

  4. B-2 Intrigue, Graham Stallard, Air International, August 1993, p117.

  5. American Combat Planes, Third Enlarged Edition, Ray Wagner, Doubleday, 1982.

  6. Big Bomb, Small Bay, Chuck Hansen, Air International, November 1993, p 285.