Will flying wings carry us into the future of aviation?
Flying wings are not a new concept. If so far, they have only been applied to the military sector, their many advantages have led manufacturers and even airlines to relentlessly attempt to bring this disruptive design into the commercial sector.
The idea of a flying wing dates back to the first days of aviation. Humanity tried to conquer the skies by biomimicry, as they saw the wings of birds and bats as the natural way to go. One could argue that as early as 1485, the Ornithopter of Leonardo da Vinci presented the characteristics of a flying wing: no fuselage and no tail, using the whole airframe as a lift-generating surface.
In 1876, two French engineers, Alphonse Pénaud and Paul Gauchot, filed an ambitious patent for a seaplane with a flying wing structure that also featured one of the first retractable landing gears. However, the project failed to find sufficient funding and overwhelmed by his financial failure, Alphonse Pénaud eventually killed himself. A few more concepts emerged in the following decade from engineers such as René Arnoux or John William Dunne. But it was not until the end of the First World War, with the development of civil aviation, that for the first time the idea made its way into the commercial market.
In 1929, the Junkers G 38, designed by the famous German engineer Hugo Junkers, took off for the first time: the civilian aircraft could carry 34 passengers, some of them sitting in the wings. Lufthansa would use the prototype for charter and scheduled flights under the designation D-2000. But while the fuselage was reduced to a minimum, it still possessed a tail.
The Treaty of Versailles, signed by a defeated Germany in the First World War, had a major influence over German engineering. The country was forbidden to rearm, and thus aeronautical engineers switched their focus towards gliders. It was in this context that two brothers, Walter and Reimar Horten, began developing their flying wings.
When the Second World War broke out, the Horten brothers already developed a few successful flying wings . Their Ho II and Ho III gliders were considered by the Luftwaffe as an efficient way to deliver ammunition during a hypothetical invasion of the United Kingdom. That invasion was never meant to be.
For several years, the Horten brothers continued improving their wing glider until 1944, when they were contracted by the Luftwaffe to integrate two turbojets to their design. Thus was born the Ho IX (also known as the Ho 229 or Go 229). The aircraft was one of the few concepts that fit the “3×1000” doctrine of Hermann Göring, Supreme Commander of the Luftwaffe, meaning that it could transport 1000 kilograms of bombs for 1000 kilometers at a speed of 1,000 kilometers per hour. The two engineers even imagined a specific coating that would have improved the stealth ability of their bomber.
The Horten IX V1 before a test flight (Credit: U.S. Government)
The Ho IX never entered service and in April 1945, the U.S. Army seized the prototypes in the factory. The brothers continued to design flying wings until their death.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the obsession for flying wings was shared by another famous name in aviation history: Jack Northrop. After two unsuccessful attempts (the X-216H and the Northrop Type 9), Northrop became aware of the Horten’s research on tailless flying gliders. In 1939, he came up with a new aircraft, the Northrop N-1M, a long-range bomber destined to cross the Atlantic to operate in Europe. In July 1941, a scale model prototype took to the skies for the first time, becoming the first operational powered flying wing. While the concept was not developed, it raised the interest of the newly created United States Air Force for the unconventional design.