Northrop, John Knudsen
Inventor/IndustrialistEnshrined 1974 1895-1981
During World War II, Northrop arranged for wounded veterans to perform small assembly jobs for his night fighter while at their beds or in small hospital shops. They received the same wages as regular plant workers. After the war Northrop established a prosthetics department at the company to design and produce lightweight, precision artificial limbs.
- In 1916, while working for the Loughead Aircraft Company (later Lockheed), he co-invented a process for making monoplane fuselages and helped design the F-1 flying boat.
- Became chief engineer at Lockheed in 1927 and built the Vega monoplane.
- In 1928 he owned the Avion Company which he later sold and renamed the Northrop Aircraft Corporation.
- Designed the first flying wing and the Alpha and Beta monoplanes.
- Formed his own corporation again in 1932 as a subsidiary of Douglas and built the Gamma, Delta transport, and the Dauntless dive-bomber.
- Formed Northrop Aircraft, Inc. in 1939 and built the first successful N-1M flying wing and the XP-56 flying wing fighter. Created the first US rocket-powered aircraft, the JB-10 flying bomb, the P-61 Black Widow night fighter and the XP-79 flying wing fighter.
- After the war, he founded the Northrop Institute of Technology and completed the XB-35 flying wing bomber. He later built the jet-propelled XB-49 flying wing bomber, the X-4 research plane, and the Snark, America’s first inertial-guided intercontinental ballistic missile.
Young John Knudsen Northrop helped the Lockheed brothers to design a flying boat in 1916. After World War I, he helped them develop the S-1, “the poor man’s airplane,” and co-invented the revolutionary monocoque fuselage-forming process. But when no one showed interest in the little plane, the Lockheeds closed their doors.
Jack Northrop joined the Douglas Aircraft Company in 1923, and helped design the famous “World Cruisers.” He also moonlighted by helping T. Claude Ryan design the wing of his M-1, from which the famous Spirit of St. Louis evolved.
By 1926, the Lockheed Aircraft Company was formed to build Northrop’s racy new Vega monoplane. After test pilot Eddie Bellande took the first flight, aviation greats such as Wiley Post and Amelia Earhart used Vegas to set hundreds of records. After designing the Explorer and Air Express, Jack resigned in 1928 and formed the Northrop Aircraft Corporation. He soon built a revolutionary “Flying Wing,” the first of several concepts that would go on to show his ingenuity. From Northrop’s genius sprung the low-wing Alpha, the first stressed metal skin commercial plane. Next came his 200 mile per hour Beta, followed by his Gamma, used by Frank Hawks to pioneer “over the weather” airmail, by Bernt Balchen in Antarctica, and by Jackie Cochran in the 1935 Bendix Race.
At this point, Northrop now formed the Northrop Corporation in 1932, a subsidiary of Douglas. As its chief engineer, he designed the A-17 attack plane for the Air Corps and the BT-1 bomber for the Navy. He went on to introduce the smooth, stressed metal skin “Delta” to commercial airlines and in one giant step increased the useful life of airplanes ten-fold. When World War II began, Jack formed his own Northrop Aircraft, Inc. After producing patrol bombers for the Free Norwegians, he returned to his dream and built the N-1-M, the world’s first all-wing aircraft. Then he began development of the XB-35 Flying Wing bomber for the Air Force. But first he designed smaller models and made his own first Flying Wing flight in one. Meanwhile, he created the radical XP-56 Flying Wing fighter, the first all-magnesium, all-welded aircraft.
One of Northrop’s greatest contributions to the war was his P-61 Black Widow night fighter. Equipped with radar-controlled armament, it is credited with ending most enemy night bombing raids. The Northrop-developed M-324 became the first U.S. rocket-powered aircraft and led to the JB-10 unmanned, pulse jet powered flying bomb. Northrop also created the XP-74 Flying Wing fighter, in which the pilot lay prone between its two jet engines.
After the war, Northrop’s beautiful, 172 foot wingspan, four engine-powered XB-35 Flying Wing bomber, like poetry in motion, made its maiden flight. After Northrop introduced his Pioneer light transport and his F-15 Reporter, he watched his XB-49 Flying Wing jet bomber take to the air. Its eight jets and low drag quickly enabled it to set many new flight records.
Northrop developed the F-89 Scorpion all-weather interceptor, the first U.S. nuclear-armed fighter, in 1948. Then he built the X-4 research plane that NASA and the Air Force’s famed Chuck Yeager used to investigate near-sonic flight. Later Northrop developed the SNARK, America’s first intercontinental ballistic missile with an inertial guidance system.
Though Northrop retired in 1952, he continued to engage in consulting work and was on hand to see the T-38 Talon jet trainer, the F-5 Tiger, and the F-5E Tiger II fighters roll out, all fitting testimony to the creative design genius that brought John Knudsen Northrop respect and honor as one of aviation’s truly outstanding pioneers.
John Northrop died on February 18th, 1981.
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