I Flew 'The Wing'

by Max Stanley
Engineering test pilot, Northrop Aircraft, Inc

The Giant XB-35 Gets An "Okay" From Its Test Pilot
Max Stanley learned to fly in order to 'cover' offices of his west coast finance company, found he liked flying best, sold the business and became a test pilot. The first man to fly The Wing, this is his description of that flight.

We raced down the runway, my copilot calling our air speeds: "70…80…90…100…110…120 mph…." I eased back on the control column, felt the nose wheel leave the runway. A second later we were airborne — on the maiden flight of Northrop's tailless XB-35, the giant Flying Wing.

It was funny, but I didn't feel jittery or tight in the midriff. I had put The Wing through enough taxi runs to know that it was going to fly. I did feel a tremendous responsibility — not only for my crew but for the millions of dollars invested in The Wing, the thousands of man-hours, the hopes of its builders. It occurred to me that I must be a little crazy — crazy about flying. I became interested in aviation back in 1935, got a private pilot's license and bought a Fairchild 24 to fly to the various offices of my company. That was the beginning.

Before long I had disposed of my business just to get in more flying time. I was doing test flight and military work before the war broke. And I served with Lockheed, Pan American and United Air Lines in overseas ferrying flights before I went to Northrop Aircraft in October, 1943.

You can't be around Northrop long without becoming interested in flying wings. I soon was making familiarization tests in N-9-Ms, the small, twin-engined planes of the same basic design as the four-engined XB-35. I found that they fly like any other plane, Their aerodynamic principle is exactly the same except that, without tail and fuselage, they have considerably less drag than has a conventional plane. From the pilot's standpoint the conventional and wing-type planes are just about the same. Both have the customary wheel control and rudder pedals. The fact that they operate on unconventional surface controls does not call for any special pilot technique.

In doing away with the tail, designers of the XB-35 placed rudders toward the outer tip of each wing, faired in as part of the trailing edge. In appearance they're like conventional ailerons, except they are in two sections, one on top of the other. They open both upward and downward.

Manual control of the XB-35 is the same as with a standard plane, except that it has "split" rudders, or rudder controls which work independently of each other. The pedals are operated in the normal manner for executing a coordinated turn.

When a right turn is desired, for example, pressure is put on the right rudder pedal causing the right rudder to bellow, or open both up and down. This induces drag, slowing the right wing and allowing the left to come around faster. Left turns are made similarly. Both rudders can be opened at the same time for effective deceleration during landing approach, although the "35" is equipped with conventional flaps.

"Elevons," a Northrop creation, serve as both elevators and ailerons. These are located inboard of the rudders and have the appearance of conventional ailerons. To climb, one pulls back on the control column and both elevons deflect upward, depressing the trailing edge and raising the nose. Descent is the reverse. To make a right bank in a climb — remember the elevons are up — one simply turns the control wheel to the right. This lowers the left elevon while the right one remains in climbing position. The left elevon then acts as an aileron, banking the wing to the right. For banking in level flight, the elevons automatically work as ailerons, one going up and one down.

Every Northrop pilot had been watching progress on the Flying Wing. We had talked to engineers about each phase of its design. All of us were speculating as to whom the flying assignment would be given. Secretly, I hoped it would be me and I ran up all the hours I could on the N-9-Ms.

When the company hired Fred Charles Bretcher specifically for the XB-35 project, my hopes faded. He is an extremely competent man, with plenty of time on four-engined equipment as an Air Forces major. But a few days after his arrival the two of us were called into the office of Curt Bates, supervisor of flight tests. He told us it had been decided that I should be first pilot because of my seniority at Northrop and my time in N-9-Ms. Fred was to be co-pilot during the first 10 hours of flight; then he and I would alternate as first pilot. I felt like a kid at Christmas time.

Then our work began in earnest. Fred and I were fortunate in having O H Douglas assigned to us as our flight engineer. Doug knew the "35" from on end of its 172-foot wing span to the other and from the fore-tip of the "nose" back through the 53 feet to its tailless trailing edges.

We began preliminary conferences with engineers and an overall inspection of The Wing. On May 16 we hauled the "35" out of the hangar, towed it to the 5,100-foot runway and put it through its first taxi run.

It was not really a run — it was a creep Without waiting for the four 3,000-hp engines to get thoroughly warmed, we started down the runway. Our highest speed was 30 mph. On making a 180° turn at the end of the field, the steerable nose wheel failed. I had to steer back to the hangar with engine and brakes. But we were impressed by the fact that The Wing handled much the same as an other tricycle-geared plane. The fact that The Wing has pusher-type engines, each turning two, four-bladed counter-rotating props, didn't detract from its ground handling characteristics.

After this initial test our crew went back to Wright Field for a brief familiarization course on heavy planes. We flew Boeing Superforts for more than eight hours, returning to the Northrop plant on June 3.

Then we really began an indoctrination course on the "35." For more than a week we met in long sessions with department heads and engineers. We studied the plane's hydraulic system, the landing gear, the fuel system, and learned all we could about performance of the Wasp Majors. We studied the Hamilton Standard superhydromatic propellers, learning more about the use of reverse pitch for brakeage.

But a person can't possibly learn all about such an intricate piece of machinery in a week's time. What we did learn were "dos and don'ts" regarding every system, and what to do if there were malfunction in flight.

In the meantime, the "35" was being readied for high-speed taxiing. The nose wheel was repaired and other adjustments made. Finally the plane was "bought" by inspection, and on June 1 we ran our first high-speed taxi.

We were prepared for actual flight. Many first flights have been inadvertent and I had to be ready to fly in the event we couldn't stop or that The Wing bounced into the air and we had to keep flying.

On the first run our air speed indicator failed. An auto trailing us was doing 60 mph and we were pulling away from him slightly, making our speed around 70 mph. We traveled about 1,800 feet at this speed. I applied reverse propeller thrust and we slowed down immediately On all our runs brakes were not applied until we were down to around 30 or 40 mph.

We conducted some 30-odd taxi runs Our highest speed was 115 mph — registered on a theodolite. We used up about half the runway in gaining this speed and had ample space in which to stop. I handled all controls during acceleration and Bretcher took over the throttles when the props were thrown into reverse pitch.

My main job was to keep The Wing down the center of the runway and to judge when we reached the highest possible speed at which we still would be able to stop on the remaining runway. Control was the important thing. Our runway was only 100 feet wide and the plane's tread is 42 feet. That didn't leave much margin to spare. Also, I had to hold the nose wheel on the ground as The Wing has a natural tendency to raise the nose when using reverse thrust, making it impossible to use the nose wheel for steering. Bretcher and I occasionally changed places to acquaint ourselves with each others work. Doug was particularly concerned with pressures, temperatures and all the other maze of instruments on his panel.

Finally, on Friday, June 21, we knew The Wing was about ready to fly. Our only doubts were that No 3 engine was running too lean and that the plane hadn't been weighed. This was extremely important because we wanted the center of gravity in the most favorable position.

We wanted to fly Monday, but ran one more taxi test instead to check No 3 engine and shake down the craft further. The forecast for Tuesday was for clear weather. I was anxious to get into the air. Like the amateur diver on the high board — the longer I contemplated the initial plunge the farther away the water appeared to be.

At 10 AM on Tuesday Fred, Doug and I climbed aboard for the maiden flight to the Muroc Army base. We were towed into position and began running up our engines and making a thorough check of all instruments and control functions.

We were ready to go in about 25 minutes. The field was hemmed in by spectators. That was disconcerting to a little friend of all Northrop pilots, a jackrabbit known as "Harvey." Usually when we start engines, Harvey races for the weeds by the fence. But there were too many people there and Harvey made a bee-line down the runway.

"Fred, when we start you watch Harvey," I cracked. "If he passes us, throttle back!"

This was it. Throttles were advanced to 35 inches of manifold pressure with brakes set. We cleared with the tower. Brakes were released, the throttles were moved rapidly up to produce 46 inches of pressure at 2,200 rpm — and we were on our way. At 120 mph, I slowly applied elevator.

At take-off The Wing has a high angle of attack. You get the feeling your climb is too sharp and that you may stall. It takes a lot of will power, until you get used to it, to keep from putting the nose back down.

I knew this when we took off with The Wing, so I held steady. Our main gear lifted from the runway in 3,100 feet. Each engine was developing 2,400 hp, well below our 3,000-hp maximum. It was a comforting thought to know there was plenty of excess power instantly available to lift our 111,320 pounds. This weight was far below the designed gross overload weight of 209,000 pounds. We were carrying 1,900 gallons of fuel, enough for four hours of minimum cruising flight, plus takeoff and climb to 10,000 feet.

I didn't try to gain altitude until we were indicating 160 mph with gear extended. At 2,500 feet everything was going swell, so I reduced power and continued to climb to 5,000 feet, where we raised gear.

With the gear coming up we expected a decided change in trim, since the nose wheel retracts sideways and the well doors are off the plane's center. But there was no noticeable effect. A Black Widow accompanying us was fitted with a special test frequency assigned by the FCC to receive and record the transmission of our interphone conversations. The Black Widow pilot intercepted our talk about the gear and reported that it was coming up. Almost immediately we felt the uplocks latch.

After climbing from 4,000 to 8,000 feet at an indicated 165 mph and a rate of climb of 750 feet per minute, I leveled off. Then, cautiously, I began exploring longitudinal, lateral and directional controls. I executed gentle turns (approximately 18° bank) in both directions and noted that all flight controls were operating effectively.

Yaw is greater in The Wing than in conventional plane because, without vertical stabilizer, it is more difficult to notice. However, experience accustoms the pilot to this and it becomes a simple matter to watch and correct. Our control groups had estimated that we could get into as high as 10° of yaw movement before it began to show effect on engine performance. But we had no difficult with the big wing.

All flight controls on the "35" are hydraulically operated through a booster system. The higher your speed and the greater the deflection of control surfaces the more force must be exerted by the pilot, just as in any plane.

Our first flight was, in reality, a ferry flight. We did not try to evaluate all of The Wing's flight characteristics. Our main concern, after we were in the air was to get to Muroc as quickly as possible without encountering any unnecessary hazard, and to learn at the same time what we could about how the plane would behave during approach and landing. Our highest speed was 200 mph. We tested controls with the gear both up and down several times. Fred took over for a while to gain the feel of the various controls.

Upon clearing the mountains we let gear down again while at 8,000 feet. As we approached Muroc, dropping down at approximately 800 feet per minute, the air speed was gradually reduced to 115 mph, which was still comfortably above stalling speed. Control was good and decided to come in "over the fence" a 115-120 mph.

Bretcher radioed Muroc tower and go us the landing right-of-way. The 20 mph west wind was almost perfect. We were on a heading nearly parallel with the runway. A slight correction put us in the middle.

From what I'd found out in the air, felt reassured about making a landing. There was every assurance that the 35 was a completely "honest" plane. By prearrangement, we didn't drop flaps because it seemed the most cautious procedure. I expected the plane to float, but it came in nicely. When the wheels touched I was using only a small amount of power, just advanced of idle, and our speed was 112 mph.

We'd been too busy in flight to talk much but we made up for it when we cut the switches. We agreed that the engineering and flight work with N-9-Ms had paid off and that this first flight was an outstanding success. The big plane behaved almost exactly like its smaller prototype.

No one can make a true appraisal of an airplane after having flown it for only 44 minutes. But I know that I'm eager to take The Wing into the air again and as far as I'm concerned, there is no reason to believe that it will not come up to the complete expectations of its designers.

(Max Stanley flew the XB-35 again, on July 3, for 1 hr, 57 min, and reported only one minor malfunction — a faulty governor on one propeller.— ED)

This article was originally published in the September, 1946, issue of Flying magazine, vol 39, no 3, pp 34-35, 66, 68.
The original article includes 4 photos.
Photos are not credited but are certainly from Northrop.

Note: This article reflects the first flight, so the plane has the problematic contra-rotating propellers.

Photo captions: