Jack Northrop: A Visionary’s Bittersweet Legacy

Jack Northrop: A Visionary’s Bittersweet Legacy
John “Jack” Knudsen Northrop John “Jack” K. NorthropGrey Separation Bar

As visionaries frequently are, Jack Northrop was an enigma. Mercurial, impetuous, he burned a brilliant flame during aviation’s nascent years. But, like the flame that burns twice as bright, Northrop’s burned, in many ways, half as long. The world would catch up to his vision, but not soon enough to fairly reward his faith in it.

Born in Newark, New Jersey (but raised in Santa Barbara, California), John “Jack” Knudsen Northrop entered the world in 1895, when aeronautical knowledge had barely moved beyond the whimsies of Da Vinci. The course for his life was set in 1911 upon watching a visiting pilot fly a pusher biplane over Santa Barbara. Nevertheless, his high school graduation represented the completion of the only formal education he would ever receive. For his lack of engineering degrees, Northrop would compensate with a ferocious work ethic, tremendous drive, and restless ambition.

In 1916, Northrop joined Loughead Aircraft (soon to be phonetically rebranded as “Lockheed”) as a mechanical draftsman and engineer. He spent WW I engineering flying boats and designing wings. But it was after the war when Northrop’s design approach first revealed itself with clarity. His S-1 single-place biplane was introduced in 1919 and intended for the civilian market place.  Sporting a monocoque fuselage and folding wings, the aircraft was innovative, ingenious, and years ahead of its time. It was also unmoored to the business environment in which it had to succeed. With a price tag of $2,500, it could never compete with the $400 military surplus airplanes then flooding the market. The S-1 was an engineering triumph and a business failure and Lockheed collapsed in 1920.

Jack Northrop Jack Northrop
Grey Separation Bar

Three years later, Northrop was working on the famous “Round-the-World” cruisers for Douglas Aircraft and, in his off-time, formulating a concept for a high-efficiency, all-wing aircraft. But that would have to wait, for in 1927, he, along with Allan Lockheed and several others, raised Lockheed Aircraft from the dead and began work in Hollywood, California.

The first fruit borne by the revived company was Northrop’s design of one of the most advanced aircraft of its day, the remarkable Lockheed Vega. The Vega placed in the shade all other aircraft of its class. In the hands of every great pilot from Amelia Earhart to Wiley Post, the Vega shattered records from pole to pole and around the world.

The next ten years would see a confluence of Northrop’s brilliance, ambitions and restlessness. Between 1928 and 1938, he would leave, start, or join five companies. He would design such successful and sublimely beautiful aircraft as the Alpha, Gamma and Beta; He continued design work on the Flying Wing; and he developed “stressed skin” construction that would eventually become the industry standard. He would also act on a driving ambition: to head a company focused on research and development, rather than production.

That ambition was realized in 1938 when he once again left one company to form another. This time he formed Northrop Aircraft in Hawthorne – the “Northrop Grumman” we know today. The most fertile and productive years of Jack Northrop’s career were at hand. But, though he sought to build an R&D company, events would conspire against him.

With war clouds gathering, the immediate need was for production and the fledgling company soon found itself producing components of other companies’ aircraft. The new company built tail sections for Consolidated, engine nacelles for Boeing, and dive-bombers under license from Vultee. Yet Northrop engineers still managed to design and build a handful of patrol seaplanes for Norway (the fastest military seaplanes of their day), work on a new engine, the gas turbine “Turbodyne,” and design such ground-breakers as the P-61 Black Widow. Purposely designed around its on-board radar, the P-61 was an aviation first – the first design-built “system-of-systems” aircraft.

XB-35 Flying Wing XB-35 Flying Wing
Grey Separation Bar

But it was the Flying Wing that held Northrop’s imagination and with war’s end, he poured himself into the project.

Small scale models of the Flying Wing, which successfully proved the concept in wartime experiments, were now scaled up, their propellers replaced with jets, and designated the XB-35. So promising was the design that Northrop took to calling it the “airplane of the future” and constructed a large facility for its expected production. It was not to be. Despite advantages over conventionally configured aircraft in virtually every performance category, the program was cancelled due to budgetary and other considerations. It was a blow to Jack Northrop and the highly successful twin jet, all-weather interceptor, the F-89 Scorpion, would be the final design he would personally oversee. He retired in 1952 at the comparatively young age of 57.

By 1981, Jack Northrop’s health and personal finances were failing. Confined to a wheel chair and unable to speak, the Air Force briefed him on their new, highly classified, Northrop-built B-2 Spirit bomber. Built in a flying wing configuration and incorporating many of Jack Northrop’s design innovations, the B-2 has evolved into the most capable bomber in aviation history. Upon seeing the drawings and a scale model of the aircraft, Northrop reportedly wrote on a sheet of paper in a shaky, feeble hand, "Now I know why God has kept me alive for 25 years." Ten months later he was dead.

Every design lifted from Jack Northrop’s drafting table was an encyclical to his faith in the future of aviation, a future perhaps foreseen by others, but pursued by no one with more devotion, vision, and passion than he. Bittersweet is the legacy of many a visionary, and none so bittersweet as Jack Northrop’s.